The Feast of Venus (Rubens)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
The Feast of Venus
Peter Paul Rubens - The Feast of Venus - Google Art Project.jpg
Artist Peter Paul Rubens
Year 1636-37
Type Oil on canvas
Dimensions 217 cm × 350 cm (85 in × 140 in)
Location Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

The Feast of Venus is a painting by Rubens, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. It is a fanciful depiction of the Roman festival Veneralia celebrated in honor of Venus Verticordia.


Rubens. The Worship of Venus (after Titian). c. 1630s. Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.

Titian and Philostratus[edit]

Rubens thought highly of Titian and made a copy of the Venetian master's The Worship of Venus which remained in Rubens' private collection until his death.[1] Titian's work, in turn, was based on the Imagines of the sophist Philostratus of Lemnos, the Imagines consisted of a series of descriptions of ancient paintings presumably decorating a third-century villa near Naples.[2] In the description entitled Cupids (Erotes), Philostratus portrays a "swarm" of cupids in a fragrant garden gathering apples, kissing the apples and throwing them back and forth, engaging in archery using themselves as targets since the arrows are arrows of love, wrestling, and chasing a hare (a symbol of fertility). While the cupids are cavorting, nymphs are attending to a statue of Venus that is garnished with a silver mirror, gilded sandals, and golden brooches.[3] Both Titian and Rubens in his copy depict most of this activity in great detail.


The fourth book (April) of Ovid's Fasti also served as inspiration for Rubens' The Feast of Venus,[2][4] the poem describes a women's festival held on April 1 to honor both Venus Verticordia and Fortuna Virilis. Ovid first describes the ritual cleaning and ornamentation of the cult statue of Venus:

Perform the rites of the goddess, Roman brides and mothers,
And you who must not wear the headbands and long robes.
Remove the golden necklaces from her marble neck,
Remove her riches: the goddess must be cleansed, complete.
Return the gold necklaces to her neck, once it’s dry:
Now she’s given fresh flowers, and new-sprung roses.[5]

"Naked, on the shore, she was drying her dripping hair."
Titian. Venus Anadyomene. c. 1520. Scottish National Gallery.

He then narrates why the rite of bathing under boughs of myrtle is sacred and explains that an offering of incense to Fortuna Virilis will make a woman appear more desirable to men:

She commands you too to bathe, under the green myrtle,
And there’s a particular reason for her command (learn, now!).
Naked, on the shore, she was drying her dripping hair:
The Satyrs, that wanton crowd, spied the goddess.
She sensed it, and hid her body with a screen of myrtle:
Doing so, she was safe: she commands that you do so too.
Learn now why you offer incense to Fortuna Virilis,
In that place that steams with heated water.
All women remove their clothes on entering,
And every blemish on their bodies is seen:
Virile Fortune undertakes to hide those from the men,
And she does this at the behest of a little incense.[5]

Ovid describes the mixture of crushed poppies, milk, and honey that is drunk in honor of Venus's wedding night and gives the reason for the rite - Venus holds the key to a woman's beauty, virtue, and honor:

Don’t begrudge her poppies, crushed in creamy milk
And in flowing honey, squeezed from the comb:
When Venus was first led to her eager spouse,
She drank so: and from that moment was a bride.
Please her with words of supplication: beauty,
Virtue, and good repute are in her keeping.[5]

He concludes by describing the origins of the festival and Venus's epithet and by reciting a prayer:

In our forefather’s time Rome lapsed from chastity:
And the ancients consulted the old woman of Cumae.
She ordered a temple built to Venus: when it was done
Venus took the name of Heart-Changer (Verticordia).
Loveliest One, always look with a benign gaze
On the sons of Aeneas, and guard their many wives.[5]

Ovid's Fasti, not always corroborated by other sources, portrays a somewhat conflicted account of the festival that blurs distinctions between class and the rite's purpose.[6] Primarily, the cult was intended to turn a woman's heart from lust (libidine) to chastity (pudicitia)[7] so that she may retain her "beauty, virtue and good repute." However, Ovid did not include only brides and mothers in his account. In the second line of his poem, he specifies "you who must not wear the headbands and long robes", this is a euphemistic reference to prostitutes (meretrices) who were not allowed to wear the hairstyle and clothes of a respectable matron. Instead, they wore a short tunic and toga. Prostitutes were not being asked to embrace chastity, so their participation must have served other purposes.[8]


Detail of dancing nymphs and satyrs. The nymph on the far left was modeled by Rubens' wife Helena.

Rubens combined key elements of Imagines and Fasti along with details of his own invention to create a spirited allegory of conjugal bliss where "voluptuous sensuality is joined and enhanced by the propriety of marriage."[9]

A statue of Venus Verticordia in a pudica pose is the focal point of the work, she is surrounded by attendants who, in turn, are encircled by dancing and cavorting cupids, satyrs, nymphs, and maenads. Rubens includes all three of Ovid's classes of women in his work, the well-clothed matrons are shown performing rites. One washes the statue while the other, in an attitude of prayer, offers incense from a flaming tripod to Fortuna Virilis, the sea of dancing cupids has momentarily parted to allow two eager brides bearing dolls as offerings to rush to the goddess. The prostitutes are also present. Naked except for fluttering draperies, they stand at the foot of Venus. One clutches a comb while holding up a mirror so that the goddess can view herself,[2][10] the temple of Venus is shown in the background behind a grotto in which a stream of water cascades into an overflowing basin. Rubens does not depict any of the celebrants ritually bathing as described by Ovid, but the basin in the grotto alludes to that practice.[10]

Rubens, like Titian, filled his canvas with a swarm of frisky cupids. Rubens applied his own distinct details to the amoretti, however, some of them are depicted as females without wings. Art historian Philipp Fehl has postulated the amorous couple in the right foreground accompanied by two pairs of doves represents Cupid and Psyche, highlighting how marriage enriches love.[9] Another winged cupid lowers a wreath of roses over the head of Venus in accordance with Ovid: "Now she’s given fresh flowers, and new-sprung roses."[11] The remainder of the cupids who are not dancing are collecting not only the apples of Venus as described by Philostratus but sheaves of wheat and clusters of grapes, these are attributes of Ceres and Bacchus respectively and the gods they represent are shown as seated statues over the grotto. This detail adds to the lustful nature of Rubens' portrayal since a well-known adage immortalized in a play by Terence states: sine Cerere et Baccho friget Venus (without food and wine, love grows cold).[11][12]

The frolicking nymphs and satyrs in front of the grotto are a bacchanalian representation of pure erotic desire. Rubens used his young wife Helena Fourment as the model for the nymph on the far left, she is being held aloft by a leering satyr as she lewdly clutches his horns and stares out of the canvas with a knowing look.[13]


  1. ^ Fehl 1972, p. 159.
  2. ^ a b c Rosenthal 2005, p. 94.
  3. ^ Philostratus the Elder, Philostratus the Younger & Callistratus 1931, pp. 21-29.
  4. ^ Fehl 1972, p. 160.
  5. ^ a b c d Ovid.
  6. ^ Pasco-Pranger 2006, p. 147.
  7. ^ Pasco-Pranger 2006, p. 145.
  8. ^ Pasco-Pranger 2006, p. 149.
  9. ^ a b Fehl 1972, p. 162.
  10. ^ a b Fehl 1972, pp. 160-161.
  11. ^ a b Fehl 1972, p. 161.
  12. ^ Rosenthal 2005, p. 95.
  13. ^ Chapman 2017, pp. 461-462.


  • Chapman, H. Perry (2017). "Rubens, Rembrandt, and the Spousal Model/Muse". In Melion, Walter; Woodall, Joanna; Zell, Michael. Ut pictura amor: The Reflexive Imagery of Love in Artistic Theory and Practice, 1500-1700. Leiden: Brill. pp. 439–482. ISBN 9004346465. 
  • Fehl, Philipp (March 1972). "Rubens's 'Feast of Venus Verticordia'". The Burlington Magazine. Vol. 114 no. 828. pp. 159–162. 
  • Ovid. "Fasti, Book IV". Poetry in Translation. Translated by Kline, A. S. Retrieved 30 January 2018. 
  • Pasco-Pranger, Molly (2006). Founding the Year: Ovid's Fasti and the Poetics of the Roman Calendar. Leiden: Brill. ISBN 9047409590. 
  • Philostratus the Elder; Philostratus the Younger; Callistratus (1931). Philostratus the Elder, Imagines. Philostratus the Younger, Imagines. Callistratus, Descriptions. Translated by Fairbanks, Arthur. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674992822. 
  • Rosenthal, Lisa (2005). Gender, Politics, and Allegory in the Art of Rubens. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521842441. 

External links[edit]