Love is the Drug, or is it? Sandro Boticelli’s Venus and Mars

Sandro Botticelli, Venus and Mars, about 1485, © The National Gallery, London
Sandro Botticelli, Venus and Mars, about 1485, © The National Gallery, London

BY CHRISTINE ALFORD

This painting at the National Gallery tells the tale of a complicated love triangle from an ancient Greek myth. Venus, the goddess of love and beauty is married to Vulcan, the Roman God of fire. But Vulcan cannot satisfy her passions, so Venus has an affair with Mars, the God of War. Venus is the beautiful lady in the white dress, with its elegant drapery. This scene illustrates the classic post-coital moment. Mars is fast asleep, exhausted after their lovemaking and she is still awake and wants to chat.

There are four mischievous satyrs cavorting in this painting. A satyr is a mythical creature, with the body of a man and the legs of a goat. One of the satyrs is blowing through a conch shell in an attempt to wake Mars. But he does not stir. The other satyrs are playing with Mar’s armour and one of them is trying on Mar’s helmet. The armour is a reminder that the liaison is adulterous, as it has been made by Vulcan, the cuckolded God of Fire. The satyr in the bottom right corner is playing with a hallucinogenic plant, known as ‘the poor man’s acid.’ The plant called Datura Stramonium, causes madness and the urge to take ones clothes off. The traditional interpretation of this painting is that Venus the God of love has conquered Mars the God of War. But did she have a little bit of help from a Renaissance love drug?

If you enjoyed reading this article you might like my audio-tour of the National Gallery for Tupuy. Tupuy create audio-guide apps for museums and art galleries in many different languages. Check them out if you love visiting art galleries and museums!

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