James Kettlewell

Rethinking Classic Themes in Art History

Sacred and Profane United:
Botticelli's Primavera and Birth of Venus

Love, an emotion purely divine that originates in heaven, is drawn down to earth by base sexual desire. Transformed by marriage, the soul is wakened to an awareness of divine love, leading it heavenward. How all this works is presented, in allegory, in Botticelli’s wonderful painting, Primavera, in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

The Primavera          

The Primavera was probably completed in 1482. In the Italian language the word “Primavera” means “springtime, the season of the year in which the action takes place. Executed in egg tempera on wooden panel, the painting is quite large -- 6'8" x 10'4." The evidence points to the fact that the it was commissioned by (or for) Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’Medici, (second cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent), to commemorate his wedding, to take place in May, 1482. The painting was to be hung above a couch outside the wedding chamber in Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco’s residence.1

Like most great art, (and like Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks on the present website), the Primavera may be fully enjoyed for its visual characteristics. And this, I believe, should be its most important aspect. This is a gorgeous painting that anyone could love. However, for generations of scholars, the interpretation of the subject matter has served as a fascinating intellectual puzzle, supposedly requiring a certain degree of erudition. However, I do not believe it is not necessary to understand much about what is going on in the Primavera to enjoy it, and most people do not try. It has always been recognized as the most popular work of art in the Uffizi Gallery. The beautiful figures and setting created by Botticelli for the Primavera would be truly charming in anyone’s judgment. The movements and costumes were obviously designed to form an aesthetic arrangement, both rhythmic and harmonious. The art of painting was never more like ballet. Still, I believe knowing the painting’s intended purpose and meaning should open up a fuller perceptual experience of the forms themselves. Form and content always reinforce each other in great works of art.

To understand that the Primavera was painted to commemorate a marriage planned for the month of May, that the scene is set in springtime, and that it expounds a doctrine demonstrating how carnal sex leads to divine love, should enrich greatly the experience of an observer, already enthralled by his or her visual experience of these charming figures in their springtime garden.

I believe that the artist and his patron intended the essential meaning of the Primavera to have been accessible to any moderately educated Florentine of the time. Even a modern observer, who looks closely at what the figures are doing, their poses, their location vis-a-vis each other in the composition, as one might experience a ballet or a modern dance performance, should be able to grasp the essentials of the painting. I had a basic understanding of the Primavera before I read very much about it, simply knowing it was to commemorate a marriage, and that the action occurs in a garden in the spring.

Much of what has been written about the Primavera assumes its meaning would have been available only to an audience sophisticated in classical literature, and in the Platonic and Neoplatonic philosophies which were popular among the intellectuals in the Medici circle. The patron of the painting, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, whose marriage the painting was to commemorate, was himself devoted to these philosophies, and was close to the leading Medici Platonist, Marsilio Ficino. How mortal love leads to divine love was the major theme in Plato’s Symposium. The work does lend itself to these more profound interpretations, meanings which would have been valued by Lorenzo, but I think Lorenzo would have conceived of them as lying beneath a surface subject matter which was much more simple and direct. (Reading online some of the many articles about the Primavera would introduce the reader to this tradition of more difficult interpretations.)

My own feeling is that a full aesthetic experience of the Primavera would require no more than the simple explanation I am presenting below, which I also believe would be in close accord with how the average Florentine would have understood the painting in its own time. 2

I think it is quite apparent that the figures were arranged neatly, in a composition intended to be like a poem, but a poem to be read from the picture’s left end (our right), in the opposite direction of a page of text. In fact, the subject matter is in the spirit of the poems written by Lorenzo de’Medici, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco’s famous cousin. The arrangement of figures is quite artificially patterned in what could be described as two verses, each with four figures. Three of the figures are intimately bound together; a fourth, single figure, slightly separated from the others, provides the final line of the verse. The arms and hand gestures, as in a dance performance, tie together the separate figures in a coordinated design. Any Florentine would have understood that the painting’s left side, where the action begins, would have had negative connotations, its right, where it ends, positive ones. This was a generally followed way of arranging the subject matter in paintings at the time, the good lying to an observer’s left, the painting’s own right, the bad to the right, the paintings own left. However, the center itself was the place of highest honor.


On the inferior left the action begins. Love, a divine emotion in its origins, is drawn to earth by sexual passion, in the person of the wind god Zephyr, when he sees the almost naked forest nymph Chloris, and sweeps down and grabs her. In the story as told by the Roman poet Ovid, in a moment Chloris will be raped. But it would not require a Renaissance scholar to recognize the sexual connotations of the action.

Flowers pour from Chloris’s mouth, an important thing to note. This detail prepares us to recognize that she is being transformed into the third figure in the verse, the goddess Flora who, in Roman mythology, is as much a goddess of fertility as she is of flowers.

In the story as told by Ovid in his Fasti, Zephyr, after raping Chloris, marries her and transforms her into Flora, goddess of flowers. 3 The splendid figure of Flora is to be read as a symbol of marriage, and of the love and fertility that is marriage’s divinely ordained purpose. 4

 In the center Venus, the goddess of love, presides over this garden of love. We recognize her by her attribute, the cupid figure above her. This Venus is fully clothed, veiled as it were. This is to indicate that she stands for a less perfect, a less true earthly love. A naked, Venus would represent divine love, (as in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus) and would be associated with the naked female figure who, in art, always stands for Truth – i.e., naked Truth. 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. 5 This Venus looks a little sad to me, regretting the lesser nature of the mortal love she presides over, and perhaps is pregnant. While others might disagree about her pregnancy, this would be entirely in accord with the meaning of the painting. 

Moving to the next verse in this painted poem, most Florentines of the period would have recognized the figures of the Three Graces, entwined, as they always appear, in art. What they stand for in the context of this painting would have been clear enough to most people, in a painting commemorating a wedding. They represent those love-generating qualities in the bride that inspired the groom’s love. While the Three Graces can stand for various qualities, they always represent wonderful emotions or ideas. For example, Joy, Bloom, and Brilliance, when they first appear in Hesiod’s Theogony.

I follow here the interpretation of Edgar Wind.6 Reading from our right to left there is, first, Beauty (Pulchritudo), the most adorned of the women; then Chastity (Castitas) in the center, more austerely dressed. Finally, opposing them and facing in the opposite direction, is Voluptas who represents the carnal delectations of sex. These would have been the three most important qualities a woman would have required at this time, to attract the love of a man. (These qualities would all have been present in the single figure of Chloris at the beginning of the poem.)

 That a woman’s beauty, chastity, and the promise of the pleasures of sex are the three primary stimulants of love would have been self-evident to a 15th century observer. (And probably to a few twenty-first century observer’s as well.) It had been a popular theme in literature going back to the chivalric tradition of the Middle Ages. In Botticelli’s carefully contrived choreography for the Three Graces, we see Voluptas, representing sexual pleasure, pressing in opposition against her two companions facing the picture’s left end, where love began as sexual desire. Her opponents, Beauty and Chastity/purity, would be understood as divine attributes, characteristics of a god, and they face towards the picture’s superior right end. Outnumbering and defeating Voluptas in this pas de trois, they would inspire in the lover an awareness of the beauty and purity of divine matters, and ultimately would lead his soul back to God. In Plato’s language through his mouthpiece Socrates, in mortal love “the wings of the soul begin to grow.”7


It is the central Grace, Chastity/purity who is the target of Cupid’s arrow. Her gaze leads us beyond the group to the last line of this painted poem. She is to fall in love with Mercury, and love is lead back to its divine origins. Mercury, the messenger of the gods, is of course the connecting link between heaven and earth. He leads the final thrust of the painting upward, while in actual fact he is manipulating the clouds with his caduceus. So the Primavera begins at its inferior left with love descending, pulled down by sex; and ends at its superior right, with love ascending again through beauty and purity, to the divine realm where all true love originates.


The setting, a beautiful garden, would have been recognized by everyone at the time as a staging platform for love. Love Garden scenes in art had become a popular theme in 15th century art in Italy and Europe, with images of couples dallying in gardens rich with flowers. Of course there is the natural Christian association with the Garden of Eden, where sex and love first occurred on earth. Prominent in the garden are trees bearing oranges. This is important to note. The orange would have been a symbol all Florentines would have recognized as referring to love, and to the month of May, when the wedding this picture commemorates was to occur. Every May in Florence a kind of fertility celebration would take place, the “Calendimaggio,” where young men would throw oranges at women they desired, and women would throw flowers at the men.8 The garden with flowers and orange trees, in Primavera’s scenery, would have immediately signaled to any Florentine observer the general meaning and purpose of this work. Scholarship in platonic matters and the poetry of Ovid would not have been required.


The Birth of Venus

Our fifteenth century Florentine would have little difficulty in understanding Botticelli’s famous Birth of Venus, particularly if he or she were acquainted with the earlier Primavera. They would have been seen together in Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco’s villa at Castelli. Both paintings are now exhibited together in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Until recently it has been thought that the Birth of Venus was commissioned to be a companion piece to the Primavera. We know that, some years later, both paintings were at Castelli, where Giorgio Vasari saw them in the middle of the sixteenth century. It seems probable that Pierfrancesco commissioned the Birth of Venus, but not originally as a companion piece. The Birth of Venus is smaller – 5'9"x 9'2"– and is painted, surprisingly, on canvas, which was rarely, if ever, used by Florentine artists at this time.

Scholarship generally gives the Birth of Venus a later date – 1484-86. However, in my interpretation, the meanings of the two paintings are so closely related that Botticelli must have based the later painting on the earlier. Both have to do with the origins of love on earth, and the cast of characters in the Birth of Venus was derived from the Primavera. (I should point out that my understanding of the Birth of Venus, as being closely associated with that of the Primavera, differs, in a number of ways, from the interpretations of others.)

In the center we again encounter Venus, but now she is both spectacularly beautiful and spectacularly naked. Uncovered, Venus is presented in her purest form, standing for the purest love, which is divine. After being born from the sea from the semen of the castrated Uranus, she is compelled to earth on a scallop shell, blown by the springtime winds of Zephyr. Passionately wrapped around Zephyr is the nymph Chloris, now in love. This is a subtle point, implied in the original story. We see the two together, after Chloris was raped, now bound together by erotic love, before Zephyr transformed Chloris into Flora. Erotic love is what compels divine love to descend to Earth.

On that Earth, a shore on the picture’s less sacred left, stands a woman with the attributes of Flora in the Primavera. The association of this woman with the Flora figure in the Primavera becomes obvious when their costumes are compared. She holds up the red cloak that is to cover Venus, to conceal her divine origins while she presides over the imperfect love of mortals. 

Curiously, to those who would have been familiar with the art of the time, aspects of the composition could suggest the traditional arrangement of paintings of the baptism of Christ. Christ’s ministry on earth began with his baptism, when, through his preaching, he brought God’s love to humanity. Examples would be the famous baptisms painted by Giotto and Piero della Francesca. 9 In the Medici circle of artists and intellectuals, this blending of classical mythology with Christian themes often occurred. In the Primavera, the figure of Venus could also be a reference to the Virgin Mary, whose divine love presides over mortals. See my website article about Donatello’s David.




[1] Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco’s home was next door to his cousin’s Palazzo Medici on the Via Largo, now the Via Cavour. Ronald Lightbown, Sandro Botticelli, Life and Work, University of California Press, 1978 pp. 70ff.


[2] The primary source for my interpretation of the Primavera is Edgar Wind’s, Pagan Mysteries of the Renaissance, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1958, pp.100-110. His analysis is quite wonderful in its thoroughness, and is essentially my own, and I strongly recommend it for a complete understanding of this marvelous painting.


[3] For Ovid’s complete Fasti on line see tonykline.col.uk [etc.] Poetry in Translation. Translated by A. S. Kline, 2004. Ovid’s Fasti are a series of poems commemorating the months of the year, with a separate poem for each day. The story of Zephyr, Chloris and Flora is in Book V, May 2.


[4] In the past, when marriages were commonly arranged for financial or political reasons, there was a general belief that sex in the marriage bed would, hopefully, generate love between couples who may not have ever met before they were engaged.


[5] The Italians of this time would have referred to this “cupid” figure simply as an “amor:” [lower case “m” so as not to be confused with the Latin name for Cupid.] or “love” figure, an agent of Eros or Venus, but not exactly Cupid. Eros/Cupid, the son of Venus, had always been conceived of as a adolescent boy, not a baby. As an amor, the meaning of the blindfolded baby is more clear. Like Cupid, he represents love, but more generically, and shoots his arrow, causing the central figure of the Graces to fall in love with the final figure, Mercury. However, blindfolded, it is mortal love that he represents. At the time, this was a common subject in art. See also Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology, in the chapter entitled “Blind Cupid,” pp. 125-126.


[6]Wind, op. cit., pp. 103-104


[7] Plato’s Phaedrus and Symposium, and its Medici interpreter Marsilio Ficino, would certainly have influenced the more profound meanings which have been found in this painting. That mortal love causes the “wings of the soul to grow” is Plato’s famous metaphor expounded by Socrates in his second speech in the Phaedrus.  Note that the doctrine of love presented by this work became something of a universal in certain strains of Christian theology. See my website article on Puritan symbolism.


[8] D’Ancona, Mirella Levi, Botticelli’s Primavera, a Botanical Interpretation including Astrology, Alchemy and the Medici, Florence, 1958, p.40. The Calendimaggio, “was a feast of love and flowers.”


[9] The Giotto in the Arena Chapel in Padua: the Piero in the National Gallery in London.