Friday, April 8, 2016

Romance of the Flowers: A Greek Love Story

Primavera by Sandro Botticelli, ca 1482

As spring emerges we think of flowers. New growth in plants, whether its weeds we must pull, new grass that needs to be mowed or visiting the garden store to buy our flower plants for the season. 

In the Renaissance painting above, aptly called Primavera--a Celebration of Spring--we have Aphrodite in the center, or Venus to the Romans; the goddess of love. Above her is Cupid, his arrows at the ready. Surrounding her are other goddesses. The three muses are to her left, dancing in celebration of the coming of spring.  Mercury is the man to the far left. He's a messenger of the gods, and is looking off into the distance, not joining the festivities. 

To the right of Aphrodite/Venus (our central figure) are two female figures. The first one is clothed in a flowing floral gown and is known as Primavera. You'll notice the woman on the far right, next to Primavera, is about to be seized by a man with a bluish face who appears to be dropping down from the sky. The scantly clad woman is Khloris, a forest nymph. The man seizing her is Zephyrus, Greek god of the west wind. He is considered one of the gentlest of the wind gods, and is a messenger of spring.  (think warm wind from the west, a spring zephyr, a gently flowing warm wind). He is a god, and yet, he is a sensual man. He's said to have had more than one wife. 

In this 15th century depiction by Botticelli, the god appears to be about to kidnap Khloris. I admit, he looks a little scary here, like a stalker, but his intent in the myth is more romantic than threatening.
As a nymph, Khloris is associated with springtime, and flowers. The Romans referred to her as Flora. But, this affiliation came about after she was taken away by Zephyrus. After their union, she becomes a goddess of the flowers. When Zephyrus abducted Khloris and married her, he gave her dominion over the flowers of the earth. They had a child together, named Karpos, which literally means fruit.
Okay, so the west wind pollinates the flowers and we have the result of that act in growing fruit. You can see the sexual parallels in this story. 

In the painting above, it looks ominous for Khloris as the God of the West Wind drops down from the sky to seize her and carry her away to his lair.  But, this is not the rape/abduction scenario as we might interpret it in modern times. Botticelli lived in the 15th century. This depiction idealizes the coming of spring, flowers, new growth, fertility, and the conception of fruit into a romantic allegory. In the world of the Renaissance, the male lover swoops in to gather the female in his arms, carries her away, makes love to her and gives her the power over all flora on the earth. The result of their union is 'fruit'. Not only is this a very sensual and primitive depiction of procreation, but it's a romanticized notion that Spring arrives because a man and a woman made love.  

Another illustration of the myth comes from a painting created in 1875 by William Adolph Bouguereau. In this depiction, we a see Khloris napping in the grass and Zephyrus comes upon her and kisses her cheek, here we have a romantic interlude instead of the more stark idea of seizure. 

By Stephencdickson - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Either way, our idea of Springtime is a time for falling in love. Anyone recall the old adage about springtime being a time when young men abandon their school books because their mind is on romance?  Ah, the Greeks and their mythologies!

Depending on the interpretations of this painting and the meaning of the characters in it, you'll find philosophical arguments that both women on the right of Venus, Primavera and Khloris, represent the same person. This interpretation embraces the idea that Khloris became Primavera, (or Flora), because of her love affair with Zephyrus. I was taught this interpretation in my Art History classes ca. 2004. However, each generation of art scholars discover new meanings in the symbolism of a painting so interpretations can change over time.

Bottom Line: we have Spring being brought to us by an act of romance, the handsome god swooping down to gather the lovely maiden in his arms. He carries her away in a moment of passion. His act changes her, it gives her a new purpose in life. She becomes the goddess in charge of all the flowers of the earth, not just a meandering forest nymph.

This Sweep-Me-Away story-line predates Harlequin Romance books by at least a few millennium. Despite the cultural stigma of reading romance, Romance novels still sell more than any other genre of books, meaning women still like the fantasy of being taken away from a dull life by the billionaire, or the bad boy, the rock star or the rogue. We still like a little escapism with our love stories. Doesn't matter if it's Edward in Twilight taking Bella away from her mundane life as a high school student and opening her up to a whole new world she didn't know existed consisting of vampires and werewolves, or a Greek god swooping down to embrace beauty and take her away to a new world with new opportunities, giving her power as a goddess in her own right.

Don't you just love the Greek myths!  Romance abounds in those old stories. Betrayal and lust, too, but we're not going there today.  

Happy Spring!

As I write this, it's snowing outside my window. Yes, that's right, snowing on April 8th in Wisconsin. The lovely green grass is covered with a fresh layer of snow.  

Next time, more Greek Lovers. Here's a shot from my photography collection.
Irises by Lily Silver, 2007

P.S.  As it happens, Iris is said to be another wife of Zephyrus!