Just wrote this for a school discussion prompt and thought I would share it on here too.
The Prompt: Identify two works in the same medium (painting, sculpture, architecture, etc.) from two different time periods, and briefly compare and contrast them in terms of the concepts covered in your reading this week: line, color, form, space, texture, perspective, and overall composition. Which work do you feel more drawn to personally? Which one is more effective in engaging you as a viewer? Why?
I want to take a look at two pieces that share similar perspectives on the female form. They are “Mary Magdalene” in St. John Cathedral in Torun, a sculpture, and “The Birth of Venus” by Sandro Botticelli, a painting.
Venus, which was painted in 1486, is a renaissance piece that depicts the birth of the Roman goddess.
The first standout point from this painting is the tone of the color. It’s very cool and subtle which speaks well to the nature of the goddess and the subjects of sex, beauty and love. Venus her self is very is a soft pale color that comes off natural and speaks to the female form. Speaking of form or texture, the painting is smooth and that is highlighted from the fact the majority of the surface in the frame is water. An important thing to note though is that Venus stands on a visibly rigid sea shell which is situated upon the water. Does true love or beauty find stability in a sea of endless options? That is one many hypothesis that people can pull away from the placement and the texture of the shell.
There is also a rule of thirds aspect to this painting that is very important. Venus is situated in the center and is the subject to the action of what is going on around her. To her right there is a maiden and to her left there are lovers. The maiden represents a struggle with conformity, the overwhelming need for society to cloth the aspects of grace, beauty and sexuality. The left side features a male angel and a woman, intertwined and flying to somewhere. With the flowers surrounding them they represent unbridled passion. Venus, situated upon a shell, is in the middle of all this action, like a constant. I believe Botticelli is asserting love or beauty isn’t secular or a divine concept or notion. Beauty or love is present in her form. And we can tell that from the way the painting is blocked into thirds.
One more bit on structure, before the next point, is what is featured in the absolute center of the painting. It’s her stomach. While it isn’t pronounced as if she were with child, it is undeniably defined – and, combined with the sexual and sensual tones of the painting, we are reminded that the greatest gift of the female form is the ability to reproduce.
The last thing that is a real take away from the painting is the hair of the featured women. Venus’ hair almost overcomes her while the other two women have hair, at least visibly, at different lengths. Hair is natural and is most likely viewed as an extension of their gender or authenticity. Venus has nothing to hide and nothing to conform to. She is free to live in the body that is hers and is revered for it. That is why her hair wraps around her almost effortlessly – it’s intertwined to who she is.
The second piece comes from a different medium. The sculpture of Mary Magdalene housed in St. John Cathedral in Torun, features a lot of similarities to Botticelli’s Venus. It also has some notable differences.
The notable, obvious, difference between this sculpture and the aforementioned painting is the added dimension in the sculpture. That really plays a part in how we are to interpret the piece. The angels are lifting Mary and she is almost pushed for a bit. That type of perspective is hard to convey in a painting and adds a dimension to this piece.
The angels and Mary play really well together and that ties into the form and space of this piece. The angels lift Mary up and make her into something she may not have been. They literally and figuratively take her to a new plateau. That is important in looking at the work. While the long, flowing Mary is in the center of the shot, the portions at play around her have an apparent texture to them.
One of the big take-aways we had from the painting of Venus was how hair played into the piece. In this sculpture it kind of works in an opposite fashion. Mary is covered in hair, almost entirely, while the angels have hair that is precise and almost identical. I see this as meaning one one of two things. The sculptor could be asserting the same things as the painter and that Mary is worthy of such adoration because of her natural essence which is personified by her hair, or the sculptor could be asserting that the angles are lifting her up because she is so wrapped up in her natural essences that she needs the guidance and love that Christ may bring. I tend to think it is the latter. Mary is looking upward and seems like an accepting or willing participant to what is happening and, since this sculpture is housed in a church, I think that is a message that really works well.
Another aspect that is really apparent are the colors. Three colors really intertwine in this piece. There is the burnt red color of Mary’s hair paired with the glaring gold wings of the angels situated upon silver clouds. While I don’t have any specific interpretations I can point to, something that really plays big is the contrast between the three colors. Maybe the contrast of the colors enhances the contrast of the angels and Mary? I think that is the one strong point that can be explored a bit further.
One of the questions in the prompt is my personal feeling on the two pieces and how does whatever I like engage me as a viewer. It’s hard for me to respond to questions like that because so many times we are tasked to be analytical and leave our self out of the equation. I liked both of these pieces of art (which is why i picked them) and they interact with me in differing ways. If I have to pick one I would have to go with Venus. While I appreciate the aspects i mentioned in my earlier analysis, something I may have missed and hooked me from the beginning, are her eyes. Her eyes stare directly at you. They are inviting, alluring and mesmerizing. If I had to feature one of them in my house, I would feature Venus.
Mary Magdalene in St. John Cathedral in Toruń. Photograph by Wikipedia user Pko (CC BY-SA 3.0).
The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli. Photograph courtesy of WallPaperWeb.org (PD).