restricted access 3. The Girdle of Venus
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3. The Girdle of Venus Sandro Botticelli, "Primavera" (1477-78). Venus and the three graces exhibit the gift of the gods (detail). Courtesy Editorial Photocolor Archives. 44 HE STORY comes from the Iliad, but I will use the Roman names, since they are more frequently associated with this particular episode. It begins with the predicament of Juno. She and Jove are having marital problems, but she has a favor to ask of him; the situation, she feels, requires more than tact on her part, and she appeals to Venus for help. Venus, possessor of "all the suavities and charms of love," takes from under her breast a brocaded girdle. "From this come her enchantments: allurement of the eyes, hunger of longing." Wearing the borrowed kestos beneath her own bosom, Juno hastens over the mountains, "not touching the ground with her feet," her seduction of Jove assured. The kestos appears again in some versions of the story of the judgment of Paris, when Juno and Minerva demand that Venus remove it because it gives her an unfair advantage in the beauty contest. In the second century A.D., Apuleius described the scene of the goddess's bid: "Venus began placidly to move with hesitating slow step, gently swaying her body, slightly inclining her head, and with delicate gestures responded to the voluptuous sound of the flutes, now -with a tender dropping of the eyelids, now with fiery glances." Of course, she won. So motion—especially motion that charms with its ease and fluidity—seems to be intrinsically associated with Venus. When he first beholds her, Aeneas is not certain of her identity, but then she moves "and by her graceful walk a Goddess shows." Grace is found in the moving body. The graceful Venus has also been described as attended by a trio of graces. To the Greek poet Hesiod in the ninth century B.C., they are dancers of the gods from whom come all graces. The central one is Thalia (verdure), for grace makes the soul bloom. The others are Aglaia (brightness) and Euphrosyne (joy). The fifteenth-century Platonic philosopher Marsilio Ficino identified them with the planets, harmonious companions in "the heavenly 45 T 46 / Next Week, Swan Lake dance." He called them Splendour, Youth, and Gladness. Beauty he defined as a grace composed of three graces: Apollo, who attracts the ear with his music; Venus, who attracts the eye with color and shape; Mercury, who attracts the intelligence with the love of divine contemplation. So the graces are identified with the arts and especially with dance, with ordered, beautiful movement. In Botticelli's "Primavera," the graces are surely dancing. As depicted here, Venus has been variously described as melancholy, laughing, and pregnant, while Ernst Gombrich suggests that she is beating time to the dance of the graces. Venus and two of her attendants (the third has her back to us) wear necklaces that end in pendants; those of the graces lie near the throat, but that of the goddess falls—as the Iliad told us it did—just below her breasts. The placement of the kestos is unmistakable in both texts and iconography. The Greeks had good reason to place it there. More than two thousand years later their insight was rediscovered when Isadora Duncan sought "that dance which might be the divine expression of the human spirit through the medium of the body's movement. For hours I would stand quite still, my two hands folded between my breasts, covering the solar plexus. . . . I was seeking, and finally discovered, the central spring of all movement , the crater of motor power, the unity from which all diversions of movements are born . . . the centrifugal force reflecting the spirit's vision." Though Isadora's religion tended to be of a rather personal nature, her reference to the source of movement as a reflection of spiritual power would have pleased the fourth-century Saint Augustine, who condemned graceful movements that merely pleased the senses but accepted those that pleased the soul, which finds delight by means of the senses. Indeed, Augustine's Christian concept of grace was not entirely alien to the idea embodied in the girdle of Venus, for that too was a gift that transformed the recipient, giving him powers that he could not cultivateby merely Girdle of Venus I 47 human effort. Whether secular or spiritual, grace has been conceived as a treasure offered to the chosen few. The idea of earthly grace as a mysterious gift did...


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