The three graces are symbolic figures from classical mythology represented in verses, sculptures, mosaics and vases in ancient Greece and Rome. Their names and shapes shift through history, and I thought it might be interesting to take a look at how artists portray these three over the past few centuries.
This is Boticelli’s Primavera, painted in Florence c.1482 to commemorate a wedding in the ruling Medici family. The painting itself is enormous, larger than life at about 6.5 feet tall and over 10 feet wide (202 cm × 314 cm)! (I used a large image file, click to zoom for details.)
We’re most interested in The Graces, but first let me set the stage for those graceful dancers:
At the far right, we see the god of the west wind as he abducts Chloris. He makes her his bride Flora, goddess of springtime and flowers. In Ovid she describes her married life this way:
Flora’s transformation bothers me (those ancient gods were so aggressive…!), but if she’s happy, I’m happy for her. Besides, goddess of flowers is a pretty sweet gig. She looks rather like a hippie, doesn’t she?
Venus, the goddess of love, quietly dominates the painting from the background. She’s framed with trees, Cupid, and flowing robes, suggestive of Madonna. Venus represents the Italian Renaissance ideal: red-haired, pale-skinned, curvaceous.
Beyond Venus, her handmaidens dance, entwined. Botticelli’s three are active, their bodies veiled but not fully concealed by their diaphanous gowns. At first glance, their dresses look more like mist than clothes, but they’re actually cleverly seamed, with puffy sleeves and careful lines of gathering and rich embellishment.
I found a brief but rich interpretation of this painting as the average 15th century viewer would see this work, quoted above. Voluptas faces in opposition to Beauty and Chastity, looking on as the god of the west wind kidnaps Chloris. This lust is viewed as the “lower” form of love. Beauty and Chastity outnumber Voluptas, and face away from the lust of the wind god.
Instead, Beauty and Chastity gaze on the figure of Mercury, who is busy arranging the clouds with a wand. Between the wand, mastery of the elements, the rad toe-less boots and that sword, who can blame Chastity and Beauty for staring longingly at Mercury?
Cupid’s bow aims at Chastity, who gazes on a young god who in turn gazes up to heaven. From right to left, it’s a 15th century allegory for the nature of love and its transformative effects.
What do you see in this painting? Isn’t it interesting that Chastity has no necklace, but bares her shoulder? What does that mean? I suppose Beauty and Voluptas “earned” their necklaces, but in the end Charity will get Mercury.
If you could use two words to sum the physical appearances of the women figures in Primavera, what would they be?
I’d say “bellies” and “golden.”
Edited to add: I like to watch/listen to documentaries when I sew, I just found this one from the BBC about Primavera. Should be interesting…!