Being naked is second nature to humans as they are born naked, bathe naked, and fervently pursue bodily pleasures. Thus, it becomes perfectly natural to have the naked body prevalent in art on all its forms.
Nudity was first introduced in art in Ancient Greece where the virtues of the human body, particularly the male form, was celebrated. Athletic competitions were held in the nude and those athletes were thought to be the embodiment of the perfect human form. It is in this that athletic-looking nudes were used to represent Greek gods and goddesses.
While the male nude represents athleticism, the female nude was made to embody creation. The first recorded naked female figures were that of fertility idols. Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love, is also seen in this image – seductive, life-giving, and proud. Originally, it was preferred that Aphrodite was clothed in all her representations, until the Aphrodite of Knidos came to be – where the goddess is portrayed standing from a bath with her hand covering her privates. The positioning of her hands was debated to either mean modesty or to prevent human viewers from seeing her full godliness.
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From then on, interest in the naked female form further inflamed. Artists represented Venus in various scenarios but primarily maintains the themes of earthiness and sensuality. Here are some of the best-known artworks with the goddess of love in its center:
Birth of Venus, Botticelli, 1943
Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is perhaps one of the most treasured and somewhat controversial artwork of the Renaissance.
In it Venus was depicted as emerging naked on a shell pushed to shore with the help of Zephyr, god of the West Wind. As she was about to step onto the shore, one of the Horae, goddesses of seasons, reaches out to cover her with a cloak. Botticelli’s Venus modestly stands atop the shell with her hand over her private parts – a pose derived from the classic theme of Venus Pudica.
Birth of Venus is one of the first pieces to depict a naked Venus and was considered controversial for Christianity was the main theme of Renaissance art in that period.
Sleeping Venus, Giorgione, 1510
Also called Dresden Venus, Giorgione’s painting depicts the image of a reclined, sleeping nude woman with nature in her backdrop. The lines of her body mirror the beauty of the hills that surround her.
The Sleeping Venus represents the Venus who sleeps and dreams of love. Although the concept was eroticized by some due to her raised arm and the placement of her left hand, the Sleeping Venus symbolizes the recollection of love and not the act of it.
Giorgione’s Venus ignited the beginning of the trend of reclining nudes in the Renaissance.
Venus Urbino, Titian, 1538
Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus was Titian’s basis for Venus Urbino, a painting commissioned by Guidobaldo II Della Rovere, the Duke of Urbino as a present to his young wife. The painting, with the various images in it, represent the many facets of marriage – sensuality and fidelity in matrimony and also motherhood.
Sensuality is clearly portrayed by the image of a reclining Venus seductively staring at her viewer at the center of the painting. This serves as a reminder of the young wife’s marital obligations to her husband.
The dog near the woman’s feet represents loyalty and the woman talking to a child while she rummages her things represent motherhood. It was intended to be an educational model for the Duke’s expectations to his extremely young wife.
Rokeby Venus, Diego Velasquez, 1651
Named after Rokeby Park, home of its 19th century owner John Morritt, the Rokeby Venus is a masterpiece by Diego Velasquez, the leading figure in Spanish Baroque art. Since Spain is predominantly Catholic and determined to combat the spread of Protestantism, most of the artwork are religious in natures and nudes are strictly discouraged. Female nudes are only allowed when commissioned by royalty or other influential nobles.
Velasquez’ Venus depicts the goddess of love reclined in bed while looking into a mirror held by cupid. It follows two of the trending themes of reclining Venus or Venus and Cupid which are predominant at that time.
Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time, Agnolo Bronzino, 1568
The painting was commissioned by Cosime de Medici, duke of Florence and gifted to King Francis I of France. In the painting, both Venus and Cupid, easily recognizable by their virtues, are naked and locked in a serpent-like embrace. Cupid is seen as fondling his mother’s breasts and kissing her lips. They’re surrounded by other figures that are thought to represent the different sides of love. On the one hand, pleasure and play and in another jealousy, fraud and other passions of love. It is probably one of the most scholarly debated artworks and continues to be so.
Man’s fascination with the female nude will continue. Artists, with their insatiable need for express will depict modern day Venuses reflecting this age’s emerging technologies. The artistic platforms may differ but the attraction remains.