I described in a previous post, The Nude, a Study in Ideal Form, the Platonic distinction between the Celestial and Natural Venus. This was the idea that there were essentially two aspects of Venus, one concerned with spiritual love and the other with earthly love. The notion of a pure, innocent Celestial Venus became in part an intellectual justification for the naked portrayal of the goddess Venus during the Renaissance. It allowed the pretence of presenting something spiritual rather than something sensuous. It is however a concept steeped in ambiguity and uncertainty, and open to varying interpretations.
The notion of a distinction between Sacred and Profane Love is celebrated in the title of one of the most famous of Renaissance images, painted by Titian early in his career. Guided by the title you would assume that the picture shows the two aspects of Venus, the sacred and profane or the celestial and the natural, sitting together. However, all might not be as it seems; the content and meaning of this picture continues to be argued over by art historians.
It transpires for a start that it was given its current title at least a hundred years after it was painted and no-one knows what, if any, original title it had. It was probably painted as a marriage painting, possibly to celebrate the marriage of Niccolo Aurelio, an important Venetian official, to the young widow Laura Bagarotto. As such it might simply depict the bride sitting beside Cupid and being advised by Venus.
Edwin Panofsky was one of the foremost interpreters of Renaissance art of the C20 and he was convinced that the picture did indeed represent the Celestial and Natural Venus, with his key assertion being that the Celestial Venus is the naked figure on the right holding the spiritual light and the Natural Venus on the left holding the material wealth of a jewellery box and about to be married.
Kenneth Clark was not convinced: “It has been claimed, perhaps correctly, that she represents Celestial Venus , while her clothed sister is Natural. But to anyone who looks at Titian’s painting as a poem and not as a puzzle, her significant is clear enough. Beyond almost any figure in art, she has what Blake called ‘the lineaments of gratified desire’.” He goes on to describe the female nude in this image as “this glowing panoply of flesh”.
Titian himself was a young man when he painted this picture and certainly enjoyed the pleasures of the flesh. Whilst it undoubtedly has some symbolic significance is it not more than anything beautiful to behold. It seems to me that he would be deeply amused by the intellectual debate about this picture and would likely encourage us to enjoy the image and find our own interpretations.
For my part, I see the picture not as representing two people, but two aspects of the same person. To quote Pablo Neruda, the famous Chilean poet, “We are many”. We all have different aspects, competing wishes and desires, difficult choices. That is what the picture represents and what I have chosen to reflect on photographs inspired by the painting and reflecting those different aspects; indeed, What is sacred? What profane?