Botticelli’s Three Graces in Primavera: Golden Bellies

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.

Botticelli-primavera

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:

Chloris

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

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.

Three Graces

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.

Mercury

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

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.

Three Graces Clothes

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…!


31 comments

  1. Voluptuous and curvy. You brought me back to those art history courses in college! I still marvel at the symbolism used in telling this story. On the practical side, the time it must have taken to execute this piece.

    • Yes! To me, the detail/symbolism and the time required to complete such a massive painting are tied together- he had PLENTY of time to think about the layers of meaning…. :)

  2. “Pale” and “fecund” occur to me, but that’s probably Ovid’s influence. [Incidentally, Chloris gets abducted, rather than seduced or courted, because the Greeks transitioned early from herding to agriculture, and thus identified with the idea that pretty, productive gardens (by human standards) are something you have to manipulate into being. Nothing like a little gardening advice in your classical lit.] I must admit, i am a bit disturbed by Lust’s right flank. Not to say Botticelli got his draperies wrong, but the way her dress bunches at the top of the outer thigh looks for all the world like she’s got one of those jointed doll legs…

    • Oh how interesting! “Fecund” was one of the words I was going to choose! And that Ovid, very interesting. Dreamlike, I find him easy to read but hard to follow…

      And the gardening advice… I hadn’t heard that before, but it makes sense. You mean that to them, the gardens needed to be managed by the hand of a goddess?

      I see the drapery, too… It kinda accentuates her curves, but on a practical level I think it would just look weird for the dress to be ruched in that area…

  3. Interesting. Botticelli is an odd one. I would assume that the figures represent idealized versions of the myths, and possibly earlier greek/roman art. I just wonder what the reception of those diaphanous gowns was at the time! I can only think that the painting started out as a private commission of some kind. I’m not quite sure of his place in art history, considering that art was totallly focused on religion at that time – specifically christianity. Perhaps someone with more knowledge knows why he was painting greek myths during the renaissance period. I found Botticelli’s work to be a little disappointing in person. The paintings are quite flat and surprisingly, some is actually not painted so well. More like a mural than a painting. But then, anything will pale in comparison to a da Vinci in the same room. In my view, Botticelli was more of a graphic artist than a great painter, and interestingly, his work reproduces quite well in print and online! Better than the originals, I tend to think.
    Really, I’m not quite sure what to make of the female figures. As consistent with that time, they are not particularly anatomically accurate. The skin/hair tones in combination with the colors used in the paintings are rather aesthically pleasing. Birth of Venus looks like it is happening in the venetian lagoon, I think. Sorry I think I’m rambling now…
    ~Jen

    • Is this painting hung in the same room for which it was painted? Often, proportions in paintings that are hung above eye level are distorted when seen full on, because the artist has to compensate for perspective so that the figures look “normal” when viewed from below.

      • That makes sense, Lin… Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is criticized for having a disproportionately long neck and torso, it wouldn’t surprise me if the same thing were going on here. And that’s interesting about the angle, the painting was originally intended to hang over a couch in the grand bedchamber or something like that… Now it’s in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. I’m not sure how it’s hung, I’d need to go and check… :)

        • I think it would be even odder when viewed from below – the heads are disproportionately small – at least as it is seen from the perspective of today! You can see a similarities in the figure of Venus as compared to some madonnas of the period, long neck, downcast or averted eyes. One thing I can say about the Uffizi (for any future travelers here) make ticket reservations! The ticket line can painfully long during the usual visiting months, hours long.

          • Hmmm, I think you’re right. Weird!

            Thanks for the tip for Uffizi. Florence is near the top of my places to visit, and I’d definitely go to Uffizi… :)

    • Well… Florentines at the time were kinda known for being lovers of art and beauty and pleasure, and they would have been familiar with classical themes so I doubt this would raise an eyebrow. You’re right, this painting was a private commission from the Medici family, the wealthy and powerful family in Florence at the time. (Italy was basically a collection of semi-autonomous city-states, the Medicis usually controlled Florence and also several Popes were Medici.)

      Art is created for money, and money is power… In the “Dark Ages,” in general the Church held the power over the people, often a stronger power than monarchs etc. I think this has something to do with the dominance of religious themes in Medieval Art (I couldn’t find any references to Medieval Three Graces, for example). But in the Renaissance, a few things happened that adjusted the balance of power… One is the emergence of a merchant middle class, people who could afford things like art. The second is the Reformation, led by Martin Luther. He nailed his 95 theses to the church door in 1518, a few decades after this was painted.. That’s not to mention the scientific discoveries going on at the time, the discovery of the New World, and the invention of the printing press (which at the time had a similar impact as our Digital Revolution…).

      I’ve heard that about Botticelli’s work, but you’re definitely right that it’s spectacular looking in digital form. How interesting… I can see why you’d say that about graphic artist..

      Birth of Venus is a really great counterpoint to this painting, I *almost* added it and also a little rabbit trail to the “real” Venus of Florence, Simonetta Vespucci but decided to save them for another post, another day… :)

  4. I’m with you on the bellies! Before I read your post I thought it was a painting representing fertility or something. My two words would be Tall and Graceful.
    The closeup of the graces faces looks sad. They all look like they have a story to tell if they could. Gorgeous painting, thanks for sharing.

    • Yes, fertility (specifically, female fertility) is absolutely one of the major themes of this painting, from Flora’s abundance of flowers to the Venus “baby bump or not?”…

      Their faces definitely aren’t merry… Maybe they know Flora’s tale, maybe they know their grace is being harnessed to idealize Patriarchal ideals that have imprisoned women for centuries… Maybe they’ve been trying some of the same hippie herbs that Flora has, they all seem to have this kinda glazed-over expression in their eyes… Very interesting…

  5. Beautiful, oddly-proportioned, solemn. But hey, who wouldn’t be grave if in love with a twit who has nothing better to do than wander out of the frame while playing with his “wand”?

    • Hahahahahhah! I love it… Mercury is pretty dishy though, even if possibly twitty… I’m not sure his shoes are very well-advised, but he’s the messenger of the gods and all so I guess he knows his footwear?

      And that sword… Curves to the left, it would seem.. ;)

  6. I don’t think the proportions are at all odd! There are lots and lots of us in the world who have long torsos and low, full bellies and butts. My dear friend C. and I thought this painting’s diaphanous gowns would be an excellent option for bridesmaid dresses for my own wedding, but the wedding was in November, and she is cold-natured, so we decided not to even try to push that thought forward. Our next (almost serious) choice was for a cowboy-themed wedding, with the bridesmaids dressed as saloon strumpets, and the groomsmen in denim tuxedos. We’d have roasted a steer on a spit in the church parking lot, I’d have pulled up to the sanctuary in a Conestoga wagon, etc. etc. This was nixed by my mother, who was — and still is — for the most part a sensible person.

    • Yes, definitely! I agree… That’s part of the reason I want to trace the Graces, there’s a really wide wide variety of body types used to portray them over the years…

      Hahahahah! Love that! (Are you really getting married, or is that part of the jest? Congratulations!) The cowboy theme sounds like great fun, too! hehehe. Got to love sensible mothers.. Mine is, too, though occasionally to my delight she aids and abets my whimsical ideas… :)

      No, really, you’re getting married?

      • Well, I did get married … in 1982! It was pretty tame by comparison to the fantasy weddings. Still have the same husband, still have the same mother, still have the dear friend C. Her wedding was more recent, about eight years ago. It was on a beach on Prince Edward Island (she married a Canadian) and she looked as much like one of the Graces as not, in a this-is-Canada-so-you-can’t-flaunt-your-naughty-bits way. She’s even a natural Titian redhead … Now she spends her days in partnership with said husband, running a company that sells species-specific biogenic insecticides. She’s either in a cow barn or pig pen somewhere in Europe, photographing black fly infestations; or in their home office digitally enhancing photos of beetle maggots to make them look even more disgusting for sales literature. She still manages to always look fashionable, even in a denim coverall and mucky waders.

  7. LOVE, LOVE,LOVE the The Three Graces!!!! In fact, when we redid our kitchen I painted them on one of the cupboard doors. (the others have a mermaid, then Poseidon riding a Sea Monster/horse).Of course the Graces were all svelte so I clipped the picture to Word and shortened it so they are not as tall and have gloriously round booties!!
    I have been a silent fan until now. LOVE your blog, your creativity and style. Thank you for sharing!!
    LauraB

    • Oh yay! I love them, too.. :) Your kitchen sounds so bright and interesting!

      And thanks, it’s always nice to “meet” someone new who is a reader. Feel free to jump in any old time!

  8. Before I even read all the way through the post, I kept thinking “bellies!’ These ladies look pregnant to me, in a lovely way. Makes sense that fertility is one of the themes. And is Cupid always blindfolded? And what could that mean – love is blind? I wonder how the women portrayed in this painting compare to the “average” woman of that time period? I would assume there might be a great disparity in the appearance of women who were rich vs. women who were poor in Renaissance times. That might be an interesting comparison through the ages perhaps….

    • Yes they do! I loved being pregnant, felt so beautiful.

      I don’t think Cupid is always blindfolded, I looked it up and found this: “The cupid figure is blindfolded, signifying that mortal love is blind to love’s true purpose, which is ultimately to draw the soul back to God.” http://www.jameskettlewell.com/botticelli.html

      Yes, there would be a big difference between rich and poor, to be sure, but at the time the mythical beauty of Florence was Simonetta Vespucci, she was held up as the epitome of female beauty and Botticelli painted her several times as Venus, she’s believed to be the model for the Venus here. So… However much richer women complied with this standard is beyond me, but these graces and Venus are the image of the 15th century Florentine “It Girl.” :)

  9. Apart from the fact that they all look vaguely pregnant, what strikes me most is how ‘normal’ they all look, and that its amazing how society’s preferences have changed. While they’re curvy, a lot of that curve is in the pregnancy-suggestive belly – they don’t have particularly broad hips, and none of them have a big bust; they don’t fit the current hourglass ideal at all. They just look like normal women. They’re still idealised, obviously, because they’re all the same, but its not what they’d likely look like if it was painted now. (They’re also not orange enough for it to have been painted now. Oh, I’m snarky in the mornings!!)

    Its also interesting that in the entire painting, with so much see-through clothing on the ladies, and bare male chests, theres only one visible nipple.

    • Yes, in their way these graces are rather ordinary, aren’t they? That’s kinda what I like about them, they’re really accessible, bodies that might remind us of what we see in the mirror.. Maybe! :) And their hair… I love the detail in their braided hair, it’s just lovely.

      What an interesting observation about nipples! I hadn’t noticed that. :)

  10. My education in the classic is sadly lacking, so I’m thoroughly enjoying this series of posts.
    I love the juxtaposition of innocence and sensuality of these graces. And the spectacularly camp Mercury! But most of all I love the celebration of woman who don’t appear to be oppressed by their bodies. Would that that was the norm in these days of surgical and digital enhancements.

    • I think I just over exposed myself to mythology as a kid/teenager…

      Camp! That’s a great way to describe our friend Mercury, can we say he’s both camp and dishy? He’s definitely worth Chastity’s gaze, I think… ;)

      I wonder what 15th century Florentine women would think if we brought them to now and taught them about botox and airbrushing…Hmmm..

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