Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Goddess As Love

The image of the love goddess-Astarte's primary role - has in fact occupied a powerful place in the human psyche whatever religion happened to hold sway. The Hellenistic terracotta statuette of her illustrated here illustrated here comes from well to the east- it is babylonian- but it shows the impact made on the art of the region by the conquests of Alexander the Great. He and his successor kings disseminated Greek culture throughout their realms, which stretched as far as India. One of the ancestors of this comparatively humble work is Praxiteles 'Aphrodite of Cnidus,which in the mid-fourth century BC displaced the male nude from its central position in Greek art. Other ancestors are primitive representations of Asherah such as the one illustrated.
The statuette of Astarte has both Greek and near Eastern characteristics. It seems likely that the missing object she held in her extended right hand was a pomegranate-frequently used by the Greeks as Aphrodite's symbol because the way in which the fruit splits when it is ripe resembles the female sex. On the other hand, the crescent in the figure's hair recalls Astarte's role as a moon goddess. The broad hips indicate that she continues to be regarded as a goddess not only of love but also of fecundity.
       When the Renaissance began the process of secularizing European culture, it was natural that this image should reappear, as it does in resplendent form in Botticelli's celebrated Birth of Venus, painted c.1485 for the villa of Lorenzo de'Medici at Castello. Painted for a member of the family that, de facto, ruled supposedly Republican Florence, the picture represents not merely a deliberate return to antiquity but also a defiance of Church prohibitions against the representation of nudity. Venus appears resplendent, but she is purely an object for the male gaze, and the picture would probably have been kept in a room , such as Lorenzo's private study, that women did not frequent.
       The gesture of the figure, one hand covering her breasts, the other concealing her sex, is derived from classical statues of the Venus Pudica- the Venus who has suddenly become aware that she is being watched. However, the figure is much less solid and fleshy than classical prototypes, and one can see the artist's searching for ways to make her look ethereal and visionary- aphantom rather than something rooted in reality. The psychological strain involved for the artist can be gauged from his sudden subsequent conversion to the doctrines of the fiercely puritan Savonarola, who denounced paintings of this type as sinful 'vanities' and commanded that they should be burnt. So we are perhaps fortunate that this particular painting by Botticelli has survived, even if the subject and treatment are hardly satisfactory in a feminist context.

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