While the planet Venus is turning heads towards the stars with its celestial transit, the Roman goddess after which it was named has shaped culture as early as 1600 BCE. As the goddess of love, beauty, and female sexuality, she has influenced our representations of women.
On the day of the Transit of Venus, here are 9 cultural representations of Venus in society.
1) The Birth of Venus (1486) by Sandro Botticelli is the most famous artistic depiction of the goddess. In the Renaissance portrait, she has just emerged from the sea as a fully grown woman. Her body, her pose, and the depiction of nature in the painting are both impossible in real life, making this a fantasy. Indeed, the scene is overwhelmingly beautiful -- the touchable draperies, the dainty roses, and the Italian Renaissance ideal woman as blonde, fair-skinned, and voluptuous.
A Neoplatonist interpretation has been most widely accepted; Plato said that Venus represents both the earthly goddess, arousing physical love, and the intellectual goddess, stimulating intellectual love. As physical love is a pathway to intellectual love of the Creator, he argued, contemplating Venus allows viewers to achieve a divine love.
Venus is the trinity of divinity, intellectualism, and physicality all at once.
2) Venus of Urbino (1538) by Italian master Titian is also a famous painting of the goddess. She is lying naked on a couch in a Renaissance house. Unlike Botticelli, Titian has domesticated her by moving her indoors and has made her more sexual. According to one interpretation, the straight lines of the house’s architecture juxtaposed to her curvaceous figure show a contrast between these subjects.
Venus is sexualized but domesticated, perhaps questioning the woman’s role in society.
3) The last painting inspired Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863), which features a more confrontational, defensive, an obviously prostitute-like Venus. The wealthy atmosphere, the bow tied around her neck, she lounges decadently. She ignores the flowers delivered to her. Her hand protects herself.
Venus is sexualized but seems independent or empowered, perhaps saying that her sexuality is empowering rather than limiting.
4) In the Near East tradition, Venus (called Ishtar-Astate) is responsible for the Earth’s fertility and human sexuality. She was also an armed war goddess. When East-West trade brought her to the Greeks in the Mediterranean, Ishtar-Astate became Aphrodite, “born of the foam.” A famous Greek myth recounts how the primal sky god Ouranos had his genitals severed, which then fell into the sea and caused a foam from which Aphrodite was born. Since the Greeks already had a goddess of war, Aphrodite came to represent mainly love and beauty. Her forces influenced the Trojan War as told by Homer’s Iliad.
Greek pottery of Aphrodite
Finally, the Romans adopted her as Venus, meaning “charm,” or persuasion and seduction. The Romans loved her as a grandmother of their people, as her descendant, Aeneas, founded Rome as told by Virgil’s Aeneid. While the Greeks saw her as lewd, Romans saw her as more noble. Julius Caesar, as a descendant of Venus, dedicated a public cult to the goddess to remind his people of his divine blood. She represented not only love and beauty, but also motherhood, marriage, and domestic life. She was a major goddess of the Roman Empire until the advent of Christianity, which was scandalized by her sexuality.
5) Tannhäuser (1837), one of Richard Wagner’s most famous operas, tells the story of a pleasure-loving man named Tannhäuser. As the opera opens with a orgiastic ballet, we see that Tannhauser has been a willing captive of the goddess Venus in her cavern. But when he returns to the real world, he struggles between his bodily desires and his need to repent for his sins. His past love -- the pure, virtuous Elisabeth -- defends and urges him to make a pilgrimage to the Pope. When the Pope denies him absolution, he tries to retreat to Venus. But he is saved by Elisabeth, who sacrifices herself for his forgiveness. Whereas Venus represented his lust, Elisabeth, symbolizes the virtuous woman.
Here’s the Vienna Philharmonic’s recording of the overture. The religious hymn of the pilgrims is interrupted by the seductive whimsy and wild rhythms of Venus.
Venus represents the evils of seduction and retreating from God.
6) On the other hand, “Venus, the Bringer of Peace,” the second movement of Holst’s Planets Suite (1914-16), portrays her more divinely. In one interpretation, she is the “sublime” planet. It’s possible that, since he wrote the piece during WWI, Venus is the composer’s answer to the war represented by the first movement, “Mars, the Bringer of War.”
Venus is peaceful and melodic.
7) The circle and cross figure that represents the female sex also represents the planet Venus.
Venus is the symbol of the female sex.
8) Venus Williams. Former #1 in women’s singles tennis and first black woman to reign at the top. Ridiculously powerful thighs.
Venus represents athleticism, strength, and perseverance.
9) Gilette’s Venus. Saving smooth legs everywhere.
Venus represents beach parties.
She’s the reason why we say women are from Venus. Our culture has honored the goddess by having her symbolize our conception of femininity. Whether her image is repressing or liberating is a question for another piece, but there’s no doubt that she has been influential.