“Birth of Venus”: Celestial and Earthly Elements

Botticelli, "Birth of Venus," ca. 1484-86.  Tempera on canvas. 172.5 cm × 278.9 cm (67.9 in × 109.6 in). Uffizi, Florence (image via Wikipedia)

Botticelli, “Birth of Venus,” ca. 1484-86. Tempera on canvas. 172.5 cm × 278.9 cm (67.9 in × 109.6 in). Uffizi, Florence (image via Wikipedia)

When I teach introductory classes with Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, we typically explore how Botticelli is interested in stylistic features like naturalism and idealism. To explore these two styles, I usually highlight the figure of Venus. Then we talk about why Botticelli is categorized as an Early Renaissance artist, despite that he worked in the late 15th century and was a contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci. To help explain the difference between “Early” and ‘High” art, I usually point out things in Birth of Venus that are less naturalistic, like the repetitive V-shaped waves in the background.

Botticelli, "Birth of Venus" detail of waves, ca. 1484-86

Botticelli, Detail of “Birth of Venus,” ca. 1484-86. Tempera on canvas, 172.5 cm s 278.9 cm (67.9 in x 109.6 in). Uffizi, Florence

This quarter, though, I am teaching an upper-level course on Renaissance art, and we have been able to move beyond a mere discussion of style and discuss more of the philosophies behind Renaissance artistic production. I really like how Mary Garrard analyzes this painting in relation to celestial elements and earthly elements. She discusses how the female goddess figure an encapsulation of cosmic or celestial nature, and as a result Venus is rendered more detailed and empirically accurate. In contrast, the earthly elements were considered on a philosophical level to be of a lower status, and therefore they are represented in a less naturalistic manner. She explains, “Botticelli, accordingly, presents nature’s material elements in a highly abstracted form, radically suppressing empirical realities in favor of more transcendent ones. The solid surfaces of water or grass are presented schematically, rendered as inert. Vitality is exclusively to be found in the contour lines, the most abstract and least material of art’s elements.”1

I like thinking about how Botticelli made a conscious decision to render his art with two opposing styles. Even though he typically is categorized as an Early Renaissance artist (and that categorization can imply a stigma of not meeting the “High” standards of the Renaissance), Garrard’s explanation encourages the viewer to not be dismissive of these incongruences as a limitation on part of the artist.

1 Mary Garrard, “Leonardo da Vinci: Female Portraits, Female Nature,” in The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and Art History by Norma Broude and Mary Garrard, eds. (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1992), 72.

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Frederick Sandys’ Plants in “Medea”

These past few months I have been busy researching and writing, in order to present a paper at MLA this past January. I had many ideas that I wasn’t able to explore in my presentation due to time constraints, so I thought I’d share some some of those here.

One painting that I’ve been thinking about a lot is Frederick Sandy’s Medea ( 1868, shown below). I became very familiar with this work of art last summer, as it was one of the highlights of the Victorian Radicals exhibition that came to the Seattle Art Museum. It really is such a nice painting! There are a lot of fascinating details in this painting (including the copulating toads in the foreground – eek!), but lately I’ve been drawn to the background of the right hand side, as well as the balustrade-like railing behind Medea.

Frederick Sandys, Medea, 1868. Oil on composite wood with gold leaf, 24.5 x 18.25 in. (Birmingham Museum of Art)

Frederick Sandys, “Medea,” 1868. Oil on composite wood with gold leaf, 24.5 x 18.25 in. (Birmingham Museum of Art)

Frederick Sandys, detail of Medea, 1868. Oil on composite wood with gold leaf, 24.5 x 18.25 in. (Birmingham Museum of Art)

Frederick Sandys, detail of Medea, 1868. Oil on composite wood with gold leaf, 24.5 x 18.25 in. (Birmingham Museum of Art)

Behind Medea is a depiction of the Golden Fleece. This is the sacred fleece that inspires the Greek hero Jason to embark on a quest, since he is told that he can reclaim his right to a throne if he obtains the fleece. Medea is the daughter of King Aietes, the owner of the fleece, and she uses her magic to help Jason complete his tasks and get the fleece in his possession. Later, Jason spurns Medea for another woman named Glauce. In this painting by Frederick Sandys, Medea is depicted as a dangerous femme fatale, as she is in the process of concocting a poisonous garment that will consume her rival Glauce by fire.

As is typical in Frederick Sandys’ work, this painting includes several plants that are depicted with botanical precision. This imagery has heretofore escaped notice, but I think that that specific plants were used in order to references several literary sources. For example, Sandys clearly intended the Golden Fleece hang from an oak tree, and a few acorns are nestled among the oak leaves to emphasize this point.I think the oak tree might give evidence that Sandys was inspired by a specific version of the story of Jason and the Argonauts, the Orphic Argonautica from the 4th century CE. This version explains that the Golden Fleece was hung on an oak tree in the grove of Ares.

The Orphic Argonautica continues and describes many “noxious plants” that appear in the garden, surrounding the Golden Fleece. A long list of plants are named, including aconite (also known as aconitum, “wolf’s bane” or “monkshood”) and belladonna. These are two plants that Medea was said to have used to create poison, and Sandys paints them with detail so that they can be recognized. In fact, the foreground of the painting also includes belladonna leaves and berries, so there is a clear connection between this plant and the poisonous concoction Medea is creating.

Belladonna from Frederick Sandy's "Medea"

Belladonna from Frederick Sandy’s “Medea”

Monk's Hood from Frederick Sandy's "Medea"

Aconite (“Monk’s Hood”) from Frederick Sandy’s “Medea”

A British audience may have connected the inclusion of wolf’s bane (shown above) to a John Keats poem Ode on Melancholy (1819), mentions wolf’s bane as being a “poisonous wine.” This mention in the poem might be a possible reference to Medea. I’m also struck by how owls and beetles appear in Sandys’ railing and the first stanza of Keats’s poem, which may further solidify that Sandys was looking to this poem for inspiration.

I have had some difficulty identifying the plant farthest on the left (shown below), but I have two ideas. I think it looks like some kind of thistle. The Orphic Argonautica discusses how, in order to open the wall of the sacred grove, Medea helped to place magical herbs as part of a sacrifice laid on “black thorns.” Sandys might have used the thorny thistle as a way to reference these black thorns in the story.

Thistle? from Frederick Sandy's "Medea"

Artichoke thistle? from Frederick Sandy’s “Medea”

My other idea is that the plant might be a cardoon (artichoke thistle). This isn’t a common plant to associate with Medea, and it doesn’t appear in the Orphic Argonautica. However, a publication of the Horticultural Society in London in 1827 discusses how Medea must have created a concoction to restore youth and vitality with a cardoon, and I wonder if Sandys was familiar with this publication. In this mythological story, Jason is celebrating his return with the Golden Fleece, but notices that his aged father Aeson has become infirm and cannot celebrate. Medea withdrew blood from the veins of Aeson, inflused the blood with certain herbs (possibly a cardoon, according to these Victorian horiculturalists), and then returned the infused blood back into Aeson’s body, which revitalized and reinvigorated him.

Detail of plants and railing in Sandys' "Medea"

Detail of plants and railing in Sandys’ “Medea”

Each of these plants is aligned with writhing cobras that appear as a repeating decoration of the railing behind Medea. It almost is as if the cobras serve as exposed roots for the plants! In this context, the writhing cobras – depicted in the style of the Egyptian uraeus – seem to serve as symbols of exotic and mystical witchcraft. The specific alignment of the repeating cobras just underneath the stalks of the plants creates a visual effect that suggest that these mystical and powerful plants are rooted in Medea’s withcraft.

Any other ideas what this plant on the left might be, if it isn’t a thistle? I haven’t found too much discussion of this specific painting from 19th-century sources, but if anyone knows of some, please share!


Etruscan Forgeries: Inscriptions and the Penelli Sarcophagus

A few weeks ago I attended the Ridgway Lecture in archaeology at the University of Puget Sound. Dr. Richard Daniel De Puma spoke on Etruscan forgeries, which included a discussion of two authentic Etruscan sarcophagi and one fake sarcophagus.1 I really appreciated learning about this art from an archaeologist’s perspective, and also how archaeological finds and fakes prompted the interest in forgeries.

Annio da Viterbo, fragmentary inscription in alabaster, late 15th century (Museo Civico, Viterbo)

Annio da Viterbo, fragmentary inscription in alabaster, late 15th century (Museo Civico, Viterbo)

To start off, De Puma discussed one of the earliest documented Etruscan forgeries, which was made by Annio da Viterbo in the Renaissance. Annio da Viterbo was a Dominican friar and in 1493 he invited Pope Alexander VI to watch him excavate a site. Beforehand, da Viterbo planted an “Etruscan” tomb with five broken inscriptions, and he conveniently was able to “find” these inscriptions in front of the pope and deceptively suggest they were authentic. Da Viterbo began to “translate” such inscriptions, claiming that the text spoke of his hometown of Viterbo. If anyone had looked closely, though, they would have seen that the inscriptions were a jumble of Etruscan, Greek, Latin and hieroglyphs all mixed together.

According to Annio da Viterbo, the text included information about how the city of Viterbo was the center of the universe, how Noah’s ark actually had landed in Viterbo and not Mount Ararat, and how Noah was the first pope (not Peter!). Regardless of how ridiculous these claims seem today, da Viterbo’s findings were celebrated and he found himself promoted within the papal court. He also started to give public lectures and had immense influence on the thinking of educated Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries.It took over one hundred years before his forgeries were proven as fakes.

Edgar Degas, "Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Etruscan Gallery," 1879-80. Soft-ground etching, drypoint, aquatint, and etching (Metropolitan Museum of Art). Image in public domain.

Edgar Degas, “Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Etruscan Gallery,” 1879-80. Soft-ground etching, drypoint, aquatint, and etching (Metropolitan Museum of Art). Image in public domain.

Another forgery in the Etruscan style is a sculpture, not just an inscription, and it was made in the 19th century. But the story begins with an authentic work of art: the Sarcophagus of the Spouses at Ceveteri, was excavated in the winter of 1845-46 and immediately drew attention. The sarcophagus, which was found in fragments, entered the Louvre collection in 1861 and was restored by Enrico Penelli. This sarcophagus was a prized addition to the Louvre collection, and Degas even included a depiction of Mary Cassatt looking at the sculpture in one of his prints (see above).

If this Louvre restorer, Enrico Penelli, had been an honest man, the story might have ended there. But Enrico, along with his brother Piero Penelli, decided to make a forged “Etruscan” sarcophagus that they claimed was excavated in Caere. This sarcophagus entered the collection of the British Museum in 1873.

Penelli Sarcophagus, c. 1873 (forgery made to appear in the style of 550-525 BCE). British Museum.

Penelli Sarcophagus, c. 1873 (forgery made to appear in the style of 550-525 BCE). British Museum. Image courtesy of British Museum via Creative Commons license

In their desire to have a sarcophagus that was somewhat similar in size  and decoration to the one in the Louvre, the British seemed all too eager to accept this sarcophagus as authentic. However, a few decades later another authentic Etruscan sarcophagus (also called “Sarcophagus of the Spouses,”) was discovered at Ceveteri in 1898. This second find, which is now in the Etruscan National Museum in Rome, is very similar in composition and style to the Louvre sarcophagus. These striking similarities made it seemed more certain that the British Museum sarcophagus was a fake. However, it took more than sixty years for the British Museum to take it off of display, despite that the Enrico Penelli had confessed his misdeed to the archaeologist Solomon Reinach.

There are several things that suggest the Penelli Sarcophagus is not authentic: the man’s hair is cropped very short, which is different from the braided hair typically shown; the woman is wearing clothing that looks like nineteenth-century undergarments; the man is nude; the poses (including the propped up knee) are unlike Etruscan examples. There even is an inscription included that was directly copied off of a gold pin from the Louvre, so the dedicatory inscription about a fibula doesn’t make sense in the context of a sarcophagus.3 Even the sphinx-like sirens at the feet are unusual for an Etruscan sarcophagus, and the frieze underneath reminds me more of Greek imagery on vases and relief carvings.

The British Museum has now accepted the “fake” status of this sarcophagus, and even brought it back out on display. Dr. De Puma said that he remembered that the British Museum put the sarcophagus on display in a show dedicated to fakes from all kinds of periods, and I believe he was referring to the 1961 exhibition “Forgeries and Deceptive Copies.” Do you wish that this sculpture was back on display? It is pretty terrible aesthetically, I think, but its history is interesting!

1 Dr. Richard Daniel De Puma, “Etruscan Forgeries.” Lecture, The Ridgeway Lecture 2019-2020 from University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, WA, September 28, 2019.

2 Walter Stevens, “When Pope Noah Ruled the Etruscans: Annius of Viterbo and His Forged “Antiquities,” MLN 119, no. 1 (2004): S201-223. http://www.jstor.org.proxy.seattleu.edu/stable/3251832.

3 The inscription says “I am the fibula of Arathia Velasvna and Tursikina gave me [to Arathia].” 


Sutton Hoo Burial Ship Anniversary

One of the best blog posts that I read this past summer was on the British Museum blog site. It was written by curator Sue Brunning on the Sutton Hoo ship burial. The post was not only informative, but it was also engaging and written in a way that channeled excitement in me. I was reminded of the reason why I started blogging in the first place.

Brunning’s post was written to commemorate the discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burial, which took place eighty years ago in 1939. This discovery was monumental and was unprecedented in many ways, since it is one of the most intact burials that has been found in Europe. This ship – which was almost 90 feet long (27 meters), served as the burial place for some extremely important individual (possibly the King of Anglia) in the 7th century. There is some old film footage of the excavation that shows helps to showcase the scale of this find. Probably the closest find in terms of historical weight and scope, I think, was the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in Egypt seventeen years earlier, in 1922.

The Sutton Hoo is sometimes called “Britain’s Tutankhamun,” and an even more recent discovery of a different tomb of a 6th century Anglo Saxon prince has been hailed in the media as “UK’s answer to Tutankhamun.” However, I think that it will take a lot of work to have these British examples overshadow King Tut. It was a King Tut exhibition in the 1970s which created the sensation of the “blockbuster exhibition” in museum culture, and I think this event further helped to solidify the boy king’s status in modern culture today.

In terms of scholarship and archaeological trends, King Tut’s tomb might have gotten more attention because the Egyptian mummy was still intact in its sarcophagus, whereas the remains in the Sutton Hoo ship had decomposed. Without tangible, display-able human remains, there may have been less of a motivation to create an impressive display for the Sutton Hoo items (although in more recent years, a new display of the treasures has been well received). That being said, I think it’s interesting how both burials have some objects that have visual similarities: the Sutton Hoo helmet gives off a ghostly humanoid presence which is akin to King Tut’s sarcophagi and famous funerary mask.

Sutton Hoo helmet (right) with reconstruction (left). Early 7th century, iron and tinned copper alloy helmet, consisting of many pieces of iron, now built into a reconstruction, 31.8 x 21.5 cm (as restored)

Sutton Hoo helmet (right) with reconstruction (left). Early 7th century, iron and tinned copper alloy helmet, consisting of many pieces of iron, now built into a reconstruction, 31.8 x 21.5 cm (as restored)

Another reason why I think that Sutton Hoo might not get as much attention is that many of the objects found in the burial are either small in scale, such as a purse clasp (shown below), shoulder clasp, and belt. These objects include a lot of minute detail and interlace lines that needs to be seen closely to be observed. I don’t think that these formal elements diminish the historical or aesthetic value of these objects, but I think that the smaller scale might cause the objects to require a more intimate, up-close connection with the viewer. Although there were small-scale objects also found in King Tut’s tomb, larger objects are also found therein and would have been more visually able to reach the masses in a blockbuster exhibition. These large scale objects continue to draw visitors to see King Tut – currently the website for the ongoing exhibition King Tut: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh 2019-2021  displays a large gilt chariot as one of the highlights of the show.

Sutton Hoo Purse Clasp, early 7th century. Gold, garnet and millefiori, 8.3 x 19 cm (The British Museum). Image courtesy Steven Zucker and Smarthistory via Flickr

Sutton Hoo Purse Clasp, early 7th century. Gold, garnet and millefiori, 8.3 x 19 cm (The British Museum). Image courtesy Steven Zucker and Smarthistory via Flickr

Nonetheless, despite that the Sutton Hoo burial is not as much of a household name as “King Tut,” the findings at this excavation are extremely impressive and significant! I’m glad that the British Museum has given these objects a display (and a £4 million revamp at the Sutton Hoo site) that emphasizes their significance. Will these objects ever get to travel around the world in the same way that King Tut’s mummy and tomb objects have? Some Sutton Hoo objects did travel around Suffolk and north Essex while the National Trust display at Sutton Hoo was under renovation, but I’m not aware of any other time that any objects from this excavation have traveled. Does anyone know otherwise?


A Recent Addition to “The World Stage: Brazil”

Kehinde Wiley, "Indio Cuauhtemoc: The World Stage, Brazil," 2017. Oil on canvas.

Kehinde Wiley, “Indio Cuauhtemoc: The World Stage, Brazil,” 2017. Oil on canvas. Photo taken by the author

Last month I visited the Portland Art Museum and saw a painting by Kehinde Wiley that I hadn’t seen before. This painting is currently on display as a loan from the collection of Arlene and Harold Schnitzer, major philanthropists in the area (Harold passed away in 2011). I already was familiar with Wiley’s series called The World Stage that feature people from countries around the world, but I wasn’t familiar with this one that comes from the Brazil installment of The World Stage. And as I’ve studied this work, I realized that this painting was made fairly recently, in 2017, almost ten years after the initial series was begun and exhibited. The painting isn’t listed as part of Wiley’s Brazil series, and I wonder why Wiley decided to create this painting so much later. Did he have all of the source material and photos of the model from before, but simply ran out of time to start this painting until almost a decade later?

Wiley began this project through a residency in Rio de Janeiro in March 2008 and exhibited the installation in 2009. At the time, a short book was published with two essays and images of the exhibition painting, and similar books were produced for other installments of The World Stage. The exhibition aimed to draw attention to issues of Afro-Brazilian identity and the complex and problematic social issues created due to the history of slavery and colonialism in Brazil. As a result, Wiley’s Afro-Brazilian figures are positioned in compositions that are reminiscent of famous paintings and monuments in Brazilian culture. Here are a few examples:

  • Wiley’s painting “Omen Negro (Black Man)” refers to a watercolor by the German artist Zacharias Wagener (who was in Brazil when the Dutch were there). Ironically, Wagener’s watercolor is actually a copy of another painting titled “African Man” by Albert Eckhout, so there are multiply layers of copying and appropriation that are taking place. Furthermore, the title of this work seems have layers of appropriation and inadvertent spelling corruption: Wiley’s phrase “Omen Negro” is a corruption of Wagener’s title “Omem Negro,” which itself is a corruption of the accurate Portuguese phrase “homem negro” (“black man”).
  • Wiley’s painting “Marechal Floriano Peixoto” copies the composition of a monument in Cindelândia’s public square in Rio de Janiero. The monument honors the second president of the Republic, Floriano Peixoto, but these two particular figures represent the indigenous people of Brazil. The inclusion of these active, strong figures and their composition alludes to the colonial presence in Brazil and the subjugation of the native presence by the Portuguese. Other allegorical figures in the monument recognize the African, Portuguese, and Catholic aspects of Brazilian history.
  • Wiley’s “Alegoria a Lei do Ventre Livre” is inspired by a gesso sculpture by A. D. Bressae of the same title. Kimberly Cleveland explains that this allegorical figure is an reference to the 1871 law which declared that the children who were born to slave parents would be free. She writes, “The irony of this law is suggested in the less-than-enthusiastic expression of Wiley’s model,” but absent from the original, nineteenth-century sculpture” of a smiling boy.1
  • Wiley has multiple paintings (see one, two and three) dedicated to Alberto Santos Dumont, an innovator in aviation. The compositions for these paintings come from a monument honoring Dumont, located outside of the Dumont airport in Rio.

The influence of Brazilian monuments on the composition brings me back to the new Kehinde Wiley addition to this series: this 2017 painting is inspired by a monument of Cuauhtemoc that is located in the Parque do Flamengo in Rio de Janeiro.

Left: Kehinde Wiley, "Indio Cuauhtemoc: The World Stage, Brazil," 2017. Right: Monument to the Indio Cuauhtemoc in Rio de Janeiro. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Left: Kehinde Wiley, “Indio Cuauhtemoc: The World Stage, Brazil,” 2017 (photo taken by the author). Right: Monument to the Indio Cuauhtemoc in Rio de Janeiro. Image courtesy Wikipedia

The monument itself is a bizarre connection to Brazil, because is quite oblique. The statue is in Brazil because it was a gift from Mexico in 1922, to recognize the 100th anniversary of the Brazilians’ independence from Portugal in 1822. The statue depicts Cuauhtemoc, the last Aztec emperor, who ruled between 1520-1521 and then was executed by the Spanish. Perhaps there is a loose parallel between the end of an indigenous empire and the end of a colonial period, but it is a little bit of a stretch. Nonetheless, the sculpture is seen as a symbol of friendship between Mexico and Brazil.

By assuming the same composition as the Cuauhtemoc sculpture in Brazil, which is itself a copy of an original 1887 sculpture by Miguel Noreña in Mexico City, Wiley’s painting continues to add layers of appropriation and meaning. One theme is of connections and friendships between countries, since Wiley, as an American painter, took temporary residence in Brazil and painted Brazilian subjects. By depicting an Afro-Brazilian model, Wiley also touches on colonial history and those who were conquered and subjugated by Europeans, Africans and Aztecs alike.

Kehinde Wiley, detail of "Indio Cuauhtemoc: The World Stage, Brazil," 2017. Oil on canvas

Kehinde Wiley, detail of “Indio Cuauhtemoc: The World Stage, Brazil,” 2017. Oil on canvas. Photo taken by the author

Kehinde Wiley, detail of "Indio Cuauhtemoc-The World Stage, Brazil," 2017. Oil on canvas

Kehinde Wiley, detail of “Indio Cuauhtemoc: The World Stage, Brazil,” 2017. Oil on canvas. Photo taken by the author

The casual clothing of Wiley’s subject allude to commodifications by referencing popular (American) fashion and culture. In addition, the bright colors and thriving flowers also connect to Western commodification, suggesting how “the exotic” is a Western construct that has been fetishized and desired. The inspiration for at least one backgrounds in the series came from textiles found at the Sahara market in Rio, and perhaps this design may have been found in a similar place.2 I noticed that Wiley used this same floral background in a study for a painting called “Sidney da Rodra, Jr.” (2008), but it doesn’t appear in the final version, and a detailed image of this same floral background appears as an unlabeled plate at the beginning of the World Series: Brazil book.So Wiley was thinking about this background during this project and studying it, even though this painting wasn’t made (or perhaps finished?) until 2017.

The layered appearance of human figures and decorative patterns in Wiley’s paintings are an appropriate visual reminder of the layers of meaning and appropriation. Typically, Wiley’s paintings have a few elements from the background which extend out of their pattern to partially cover the clothing of the subject. This can be seen best on the t-shirt and the shorts of the “Indio Cuauhtemoc” figure by Wiley, which are partially covered with flowers. Such layers remind us that, despite the real life issues that Wiley addresses, he has presented them to us in a fictive environment to remind us that all the world is a stage and his “streetcast” models are actors.

1 Kimberly Cleveland, “Kehinde Wiley’s Brazil: The Past Against the Future” in Kehinde Wiley: The World Stage: Brazil by Kehinde Wiley (Roberts & Tilton, 2009), 26.

2 Kehinde Wiley, Kehinde Wiley: The World Stage: Brazil (Roberts & Tilton, 2009), 12.

3 Ibid., 4, 45.


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.