This picture by Botticelli has been given the name Venus and Mars purportedly, because of its dimensions, it is meant as an insert to a piece of furniture such as a bed, and has certain attributes that have led scholars to this conclusion about the subject matter. To refresh the memory of those not familiar with the Roman or Greek mythology, Venus, the goddess of love, affection, and Roman victories, had a fling with the God of War, Mars, the father of Romulus, the namesake of the great city, even though she was the wife of Vulcan, the god of fire, the forge, and volcanoes.
The attributes in depictions of Venus include roses and myrtle as we see in the Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.
Those of Mars are the Helmet, Armor, and Spear.
Yet this picture of Venus and Mars by Botticelli seems not quite right. The only thing that leads one to believe that the female figure is Venus is the presence of myrtle (or laurel) in the background. Of course, laurel is sacred to Apollo as we know from the story of Daphne and Apollo. Many depictions of Venus and Mars include Cupid, the son of Venus, who is not among the figures here. Nothing else would point to Venus. Why would one represent marriage by the adulterous relationship between Venus and Mars when she is married to Vulcan?
The iconography of Mars does include a helmet, armor, and a spear. However, instead, we see a lance rather than a spear, although, since this was painted during the Renaissance, a lance may not be out of place. Nothing else places this figure as a representation of the God of War. Even so, the presence of refined armor can denote a knight or a young man of a noble family, not necessarily a god.
The sensual nature of the goddess does not come through in this picture. Venus is entirely dressed with scholars giving the excuse that she represents a bride just married and, therefore, is presented modestly. Then why is Mars nearly nude? The usual image of Venus and Mars displays Venus as the unclothed figure, while Mars is in full regalia.
Then we come to this drugged like stupor of Mars. A childlike satyr blows a conch right next to his ear. The usual explanation has the god sleeping after having vigorous relations with Venus and to further justify this explanation, puts forth the idea that this is a common joke during the Renaissance. If this is the case, why is Venus so unperturbed by the situation? She looks as though she has just reclined, undisheveled and undisturbed. The lack of Cupid or Eros in the painting seems a serious mistake since he represents erotic love or desire, even though he is also seen as the child of Venus, he completes the iconography. We see Cupid in Botticelli’s La Primavera and other Renaissance representations of Venus and Mars.
I will not go into the enigmatic nature of the La Primavera. Its various references to Roman mythology become more confusing than our subject of Venus and Mars.
What if the little satyrs are representations or misinterpretations of something else? Baby satyrs or fauns in Renaissance art are playful little things due to their association with Bacchus or Liber, the God of Wine. They have similar characteristics of Pan. Like the satyrs, Pan was also sexually aggressive and lured Selene or Luna into the woods and had relations with her.
What if the male figure cannot awake? Here, someone is blowing a conch in his ear and not a response, not even a flinch. The painting seems to emphasize this point. Is it possible that the figure is not asleep but divinely bewitched, fixed into a coma for some godly purpose?
Say we changed our minds and decided that this is not a depiction of Venus and Mars. What other stories in mythology might explain this painting? One might suggest Somnus or Hypnos, the God of Sleep. Or there are his brothers Peaceful Death and Dreams. However, these gods or personifications are usually shown as winged beings in a dark environment. We do not have Morpheus and Iris here because Morpheus awoke when Iris drew near. Morpheus is the son of Somnus but had come to be considered the God of Sleep and Dreams by the time of the Romans, especially those that portend the future. Here is the charming Greek story of Iris and Sleep.
The story left to consider becomes Selene–the one seduced by Pan–and Endymion. Perpetually asleep, Endymion is the love of Selene or the Moon who asked Zeus to preserve his beauty forever by this eternal sleep. Here we have a mostly nude, handsome male figure that appears incapable of waking and a woman on the other side quietly in repose. The dimensions of the picture and the composition is very much like a Roman sarcophagus with the same composition.
Notice the posture of Endymion in the lower right as well as his bed cloth or shroud. The poses look a lot alike. Maybe this panel represents a lost love or the hope of love, with the pictorial unification of the two figures by the horizontal line of the lance and the artistic rhythm of the arched over baby satyrs who carry it.
The buzzing wasps near the male figure’s head, I consider much like the other symbols of various noble families in Italy during the Renaissance. Bees were the symbol of the Barberini family, for instance. The Vespucci family, whose symbol was wasps, lived near Botticelli and had commissioned another work of his. The Vespucci family was related to Amerigo Vespucci, the man who gave the new world his name.
This painting by Botticelli was never meant to be an exacting iconographic study of two figures in mythology. We notice that Selene does not sport the crescent moon on her head but the image has a paucity of attributes for any character from ancient times. Nevertheless, rather than an image of Venus and Mars, Botticelli’s work is of Selene and Endymion which explains many of the features of this painting.