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Out of the clutches of Zephyrus April 19, 2011

Posted by Jenny in art, nature.
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"Primavera," or "The Allegory of Spring," by Botticelli

We have entered an orange grove that is carpeted with flowers. It is twilight, or perhaps a time outside of the twenty-four hours, a time of eternal translucent blueness. The grove is a very busy place. To the right, chilly Zephyrus attempts to capture the nymph Chloris, but she escapes, flowers spilling from her mouth as she flees. Flora walks serenely forward, scattering flowers that she has gathered in her gown. Venus presides over the scene. The Three Graces dance, intent on each other and not noticing that Cupid is aiming his arrow toward the one in the center. Mercury lifts his caduceus to ward off any harm.

At least, those identifications and those meanings are common among the countless interpretations and discussions of this very well-known painting created around 1482 by Sandro Botticelli. Some see in it an allegory of Neoplatonism, with Venus representing a calm intellectual love that is different from the lust embodied in Zephyrus.

I don’t worry too much about what each figure is supposed to symbolize. There are too many other aspects of it that enthrall me. I think what I find especially appealing is the way in which each participant in the scene is so unselfconsciously intent on his or her purpose. None of them, except perhaps Venus, is looking back at us, aware of the outside world. And she is somehow the least appealing of the group. Her gaze is a bit vacant, distracted. If she does in fact symbolize a calm intellectual love, she’s not doing much to make that seem appealing.

Venus and Cupid

Zephyrus is wonderful. That hint of blue in his flesh—how many painters could have done that? And his menacing look, full of determination to capture his prey. Chloris does look like a tempting prize (as every nymph should be). She has that perfect version of beauty that you see in so many of Botticelli’s faces. You could argue that they all look too much the same, but I never get tired of looking at those faces. Her hair has been done by the same stylist as the Venus in “Birth of Venus” (a.k.a “Venus on the Half Shell”). The Three Graces have had their hair done there, too.

Zephyrus and Chloris

I just looked up “nymph” in the dictionary to refresh my memory of its exact meaning. Merriam-Webster: “Any of the minor divinities of nature in classical mythology represented as beautiful maidens dwelling in the mountains, forests, trees, and waters.” Wouldn’t life be much more interesting if we could actually believe in such minor divinities?

Flora’s face is amazing. Those pale blue eyes, that slight smile that suggests an inner contentment. She is happy with her task of scattering flowers. It is said that the painting depicts 190 species of flowers, of which 130 have been specifically identified.


More than any of the other figures, Mercury seems oblivious to all of the activity around him. He is looking up at his caduceus, the staff he carries in his role of messenger or herald. It is composed of a design of wings above two twining snakes—now most often used as a symbol of medicine. Here I find I don’t want to agree with the common interpretation that he is using the caduceus to ward off harm. To me, it looks more as if he has just been given the caduceus—perhaps he has just graduated from the College of Messengers—and he is posing with it, thinking to himself, “Don’t I look cool?”


The Three Graces. I might like them best of all. Their expressions are so intent, so serious. They are dancing rather gravely, belying their usual identification as Aglaia (Splendor), Euphrosyne (Mirth), and Thalia (Good Cheer). But there is something in that seeming contradiction of dance and seriousness that seems exactly appropriate to the season of spring, which has something massive and powerful lurking behind its delicate new plants.

And now I will tiptoe back out of the orange grove, leaving this collection of solipsists to their strange, dreamlike mixture of activities.

The Three Graces


1. Greg Hoover - April 19, 2011

Living in a world inhabited by nymphs…I’ve mentioned to students a time or two how much fun it would be to live in a world inhabited by invisible, mysterious “little people” — such as the Cherokee believed. There’d be a sense of excitement at the prospects of encountering one occasionally. (They don’t usually seem to get my point. I should probably say, “Wouldn’t it be great if there really was a Santa Claus!” Same point, just dumbed-down a bit.

Jenny - April 19, 2011

No, don’t dumb it down. Let them either exercise their imaginations a little, or just not get it. Besides, I think it’s a similar point but not quite the same. Santa Claus is a big tubby guy who lands with a thud at the bottom of the chimney—and there’s only one of him. Different from the idea of untold numbers of small, mysterious beings flitting about.

2. kaslkaos - April 21, 2011

I love your very personal interpretation of a well known piece of art. It is wonderful to have a discussion with such freedom in it.
Greg, maybe your students just are not out in the woods enough. Cities are full of well defined lines, borders, concrete figurative & literal. I find it very hard not to believe in the ethereal when I’m in the woods.

Jenny - April 21, 2011

Thank you! As you know, what’s great about blogging is that you can put absolutely whatever you feel like into it.

3. TWL - April 23, 2011

I have read this essay five times. I have held off commenting trying to come up with something witty. Let me just say, I loved it.

Jenny - April 24, 2011

Thank you, TWL.

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