Articulating Art – Carlo Saraceni’s Venus and Mars

This week I was thinking about how I could make this blog more accessible to those who feel they have little art historical knowledge. I strongly believe that art should not be feared by those who don’t know what year in which Michelangelo was born or the style in which Picasso painted – art is, and always will be, for all. So, here is my first attempt at a new series titled ‘Articulating Art’. For each post I’ll have an informal chat about an artwork with someone close to me and type up our conversation. That’s it. I hope this will be the gentle nudge that people need to not be afraid to talk about art and proof that it really can be for everyone. For this ‘Articulating Art’ session I spoke with my boyfriend about a work that captured his eye, Carlo Saraceni’s Venus and Mars.

Carlo Saraceni, Venus and Mars, c.1600, oil on copper, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

IA: So, the painting is called Venus and Mars by Carlo Saraceni, around 1580 to 1620. First thing I see is it looks like a Mum and Dad with tons of kids, and there’s so many bits of detail to look at, and as I’m looking at it there’s even more. What’s that in the back room after all these pillars? Are these guys even people? What do the curtains represent? And then I see the armour in the corner and I’m wandering about this guy…who is he? And her clothes don’t look super fancy, is she a maid? Is it a soldier and a maid, like love exists no matter what? 

JM: That would be a good message.  

IA: As in, the standing that they’re in during that time period. 

JM: The fact that their clothes are all on the floor; they’re not the central part of the image. If you look at this painting first and foremost your eyes go to them, to the bed. They are clearly the focus of the picture so their clothes are lying all around, the sheets are all messy even these little, these are cherubs, they’re playing with all the clothes, it’s playful, it feels childish. But that just shows that the nakedness of these people isn’t what’s important, it’s the love that’s between them, not the materialistic nature of the clothes.  

IA: What’s ‘cherub’?  

JM: Cherubs are little angels, mini-angels and usually in paintings they’re called ‘putti’ in Italian. So that could be what these mean, they are childish and represent a youthful nature of art. So maybe, I don’t know if here, they represent the potential for children in this family or if they’re already symbolic of children that exist, I’m not sure. But they definitely add something.   

IA: I also like is that if I look at the lady, who’s naked, it doesn’t evoke sexual thoughts. If you see stuff today you can still wear lingerie and it feels so sexual the way they are advertised. I know it’s not the same as in artwork or painting but the way the woman is reflected here is not sexual, it’s not trying to be and it feels so innocent. It feels fine to look at here; it feels PG almost even though they are naked. 

JM: There are the sculptures in the background that almost look alive, they’re also naked and look like Greek or Roman gods from mythology perhaps. And that fits with who these people are meant to be, Venus and Mars, they’re from mythology. Of course, in that time nakedness was normal it didn’t have to be anything sexualised it was a form of raw natural beauty. You see statues similar to what these are, these huge sculptures that are naked but it’s not sexual, its romantic and celebrating natural beauty.  

IA: I didn’t see the romance part immediately until you described it to me 

JM: They’re kissing. She’s very laid back; her leg is very casually over his, perhaps post sex. I was trying to say post-coitus and I just said “poist”. That’s not right.  

IA: There’s a lot of sculptures on the top-left. It’s kind of like everyone here is involved in what’s going on. On the right with the curtain – is this supposed to represent that this scene is universal and everyone is in on it? 

JM: Perhaps everyone is one big family. This particular style is very common for this time period, in paintings and in real life. It looks like a form of graffiti on walls that’s very grey and reminiscent of roman classical statues. Maybe because its Venus and Mars the artist has taken it one step further and the background statues are very much part of the painting and the scene that’s going on. They’re not just images on a wall they are watching the couple and engaging with them. But even that guy on the curtain looks like he’s trying to step out of it.  

IA: So, this is one guy who painted this, for real? He actually painted it? Was it a big piece?  

[Checks dimensions]  

IA: Oh, it’s actually quite small. 40cm by 55cm.  

JM: Which is amazing considering how much detail is in it.  

IA: …There are faces on the bed… [visible confusion

JM: Even on the bed, it mimics the actual people. There’s a tiny cherub figure next to an actual putti figure.  

IA: So, what do you think about the armour? 

JM: In my mind the armour is symbolic of Mars, because he, in mythology is the God of war. So usually whenever Mars is depicted in any artwork there’s always going to be some kind of armour or war materials. But this is nice because it’s all on the side, he’s put down his responsibilities and he’s gone to his lover.  

IA: The little cherub pointing at the shield looks like the Michelangelo Sistine Chapel.  

JM: Maybe this painting was homage to that, or maybe the cherub is just being playful looking in the mirror and pointing at himself.  

Michelangelo, detail of The Creation of Adam from The Sistine Chapel, Rome.

IA: This guy’s standing on the helmet, maybe it means that it’s condescending towards war, stepping all over it like love is more important.  

[Brief pause while Imrul attempts to remove an eyelash from Jess’s eye, she makes it worse by continuing to blink

JM: I reckon these are maybe symbolic scenes of the painter’s life or where this was going to be shown. I don’t know much about this artist, but I love all the detail. This must have taken ages to do; it would definitely have taken me years to do. We were saying about all the people who are participating in the scene and watching from the side lines, but even the bed itself is in this giant room that has a corridor that leads all the way down.  

JM: The corridor presumably through the house, so they’re not afraid to show their love or their nakedness. For me, that links back to Adam and Eve before they sinned in the Garden and they were naked. But when sin fell upon them, they had to cover themselves up because they were ashamed of their body. And that is the legend of how we came to wear clothes! So, Venus and Mars have gone back to that original idea of no shame or sin just pure love for each other and pure celebration.  

IA: Do you think there’s a difference in what each cherub is doing or are they all representing playfulness? Because one’s hanging onto the corner of the bed under the cover, one’s trying to fold some sheets, one’s pointing at the shield, one’s at the bar like “let me tell you this story” and the other is fighting some invisible monsters on mushrooms.  

JM: You never know really.  

IA: looking at it, it’s so detailed. I like it. If we just talk about the skill of the artist its incredible. It would have taken me my entire life to paint this. And the colours are very muted. The brightest thing is Venus. Even the white is lighter but it doesn’t stand out. This is a very mellow red, mellow yellow or mustard.  

JM: Because most of the red in this picture is covering the very far right-hand side of the painting which is nearest her. So, if I was thinking about that, it would be that this deep red is, and even the yellow clothing around the sword, is all drawing you to the scene on the bed. The colour on the other side is all muted or a similar shade, so it’s all working towards making you focus on this scene.  

IA: Oh, I see. Interesting, that’s clever.  

JM: I’ve just noticed that Mars’ hand mimics this guy over here, which makes it easier for us to look at as it relates more.  

IA: What if he’s saying, “why are there people watching us?” 

JM: “We’d better put some clothes on…”   

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