“Bronzino, An Allegory with Venus & Cupid, 1545 Photo Copyright National Gallery London.”
Why (in the National Gallery of London) does The Allegory of Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time create so many unanswered questions? Because the golden object in the hand of Venus is not the Apple of Discord, but The Golden Ball from the story of Jason and the Argonauts. This and other answers behind the cryptic scene can be deciphered when identifying the characters from the painting and connecting them to the Argonautika by Apollonius Rhodius (Book Three) and Medea by Euripides. The painting simply represents the relationship of Jason and Medea.
After the collapse of Constantinople in 1453, a flood of influence appeared in Florence when Byzantine refugees arrived.The Italian city began to flourish with a new interest in the ancient Greco-Roman era. Ruling the city of Florence was the authoritarian leader Cosimo l de’ Medici, who had inherited the patriarch position at the age of 17. Not only was he naturally diplomatic, but also skilled in promoting and acquiring fine arts. Under the patronage of the Medici Family, a mannerist artist known as Agnolo Bronzino created an oil-on-wood painting of a mysterious set of seven characters. Completed in the 1540s The Allegory is unusually encrypted compared to Bronzino’s other works.
Assuming the painting was commissioned by Cosimo l de’ Medici, it is by no means a random collection of characters, especially since he had it sent to his lifelong adversary, the French King Francois I—who, besides his love of country, women, and war…was a collector of art and artists. Francois l, for example, had persuaded Leonardo da Vinci to leave Rome, and spend the rest of his years with the king in a permanent art residency.
One of the first modern art historians was a Florentine by the name of Giorgio Vasari. He recorded a short description of the painting in his book Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects…
And he painted a picture of singular beauty that was sent to King Francis in France, wherein was a nude Venus, with a Cupid who was kissing her, and Pleasure on one side with Play and other Loves, and on the other side Fraud and Jealousy and other passions of love.
Painted in a lighter tone, the three central nude characters represent the beginning of Jason and Medea’s relationship. When Cupid, the son of Venus, was sent to play matchmaker. All three painted with golden-blonde hair. The first piece of evidence is the baseball-sized golden ball in the hand of the nude female (Venus). Over the years it had been labeled The Golden Apple of Discord, a rare and magical fruit coveted by the Olympians, and in one circumstance initiated the Trojan War. This is an understandable observation, but only if Bronzino was unknown for his expertise in details. Examine the object, and one will notice it is not The Apple of Discord, for there are no leaves, the shape is too round, and there is no inscription by the goddess Eris. Below is a description of the Golden Ball in the ancient poem known as the Argonautika…
“Come, be ready to perform for me the task I will tell thee of, and I will give thee Zeus’ all-beauteous plaything—the one which his dear nurse Adrasteia made for him, while he still lived a child, with childish ways, in the Idaean cave—a well-rounded ball; no better toy wilt thou get from the hands of Hephaestus. All of gold are its zones, and round each double seams run in a circle; but the stitches are hidden, and a dark blue spiral overlays them all. But if thou shouldst cast it with thy hands, lo, like a star, it sends a flaming track through the sky. This I will give thee; and do thou strike with thy shaft and charm the daughter of Aeetes with love for Jason; and let there be no loitering. (Apollonius , Book Three 130-144).”
ORCHARD of ZEUS
In the painting, the goddess Venus is identified by the presence of two doves (pleasure of Loves), flower petals (Loves), and the blue sheet representing her emergence from the sea. Ganymedes (Play), the boy on the right of Venus is identified by the anklet of bells as the Trojan cupbearer. The flower petals in his hands replace the dice from the story, and another attribute of Venus. The foliage creeping around the blue sheet, and Ganymedes (Play) stepping on a thorn represent the Orchard of Zeus. This passage from the Argonautika describes the setting of the painting…
And Cypris (Venus) went on her way through the glens of Olympus to find her boy. And she found him apart, in the blooming orchard of Zeus, not alone, but with him Ganymedes, whom once Zeus had set to dwell among the immortal gods, being enamoured of his beauty. And they were playing for golden dice, as boys in one house are wont to do. And already greedy Eros (Cupid) was holding the palm of his left hand quite full of them under his breast, standing upright; and on the bloom of his cheeks a sweet blush was glowing. But the other sat crouching hard by, silent and downcast, and he had two dice left which he threw one after the other, and was angered by the loud laughter of Eros (Cupid). (Apollonius, Book Three 112-126).
HUG and KISS
When Venus asked Cupid to shoot Medea with an arrow, the winged boy was not easily persuaded. But when presented with The Golden Ball he immediately gave his mother a kiss and hug. Venus then outstretched her arm, and held the ball out of reach until Cupid promised to obey…
Thus she spake, and welcome were her words to the listening boy. And he (Cupid) threw down all his toys, and eagerly seizing her robe on this side and on that, clung to the goddess. And he implored her to bestow the gift at once; but she, facing him with kindly words, touched his cheeks, kissed him and drew him to her, and replied with a smile (Apollonius, Book Three 145-150)
SHAFT, BALDRIC, BOW, and QUIVER
In the painting, Venus is seen holding up one of Cupid’s arrows from the quiver that hung around his shoulder…
“Be witness now thy dear head and mine, that surely I will give thee the gift and deceive thee not, if thou wilt strike with thy shaft Aeetes’ daughter.” She spoke, and he (Cupid) gathered up his dice, and having well counted them all threw them into his mother’s gleaming lap. And straightway with golden baldric he slung round him his quiver from where it leant against a tree-trunk, and took up his curved bow (Apollonius, Book Three 145-150).
The other four characters represent the end of the relationship. Another Hellenistic poet, Euripides tells the story of the relationship of Jason and Medea in his work Medea…
She gave all sorts of help to Jason.
That’s when life is most secure and safe,
when woman and her husband stand as one.
But that marriage changed. Now they’re enemies.
Their fine love’s grown sick, diseased, for Jason,
Medea and serpents/dragons appear together in ancient Greco-Roman literature more than most characters. She was responsible for killing the dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece, and was rescued by a dragon-pulled chariot, creating a serpent/monster image for herself…
“No woman from Greece would dare
to do this, but I chose you as my wife
above them all, and that has proved to be
a hateful marriage—it has destroyed me.
You’re not a woman. You’re a she-lion.
Your nature is more bestial than Scylla,
the Tuscan monster.”(Euripides 1556-1662).
HONEYCOMB and STINGER
The viewer will notice the duality of love theme on the right side of the painting with Medea’s backward hand arrangement, the honeycomb and stinger, and the masks. In Medea’s twisted hand is a honeycomb (Loves) and in the other, a stinger (Loves). The honeycomb, is one of the ingredients (in her potion) that helped Jason. The stinger represents the pain that Jason would endure when he broke their arrangement of love. The masks (Loves) represent duo-nature and appear to be a satyr and nymph.
“And propitiate only-begotten Hecate, daughter of Perses, pouring from a goblet the hive-stored labour of bees (Apollonius Book Three).
The muscular character in a purple toga and in great pain is Jason (Fraud). He is physically and mentally destroyed by the revenge of Medea. Jason forced a divorce on Medea ten years after he promised to make her his wife. On their voyage with the Argonauts she retrieved the Golden Fleece, protected the Argonauts on the journey home, provided Jason with children, and eliminated his enemies. Regardless, Jason committed fraud by taking a younger bride. Out of jealousy, Medea arranged the murder of his new fiancé (a younger Corinthian princess), the father of the princess, and the two sons of Jason…
“Now, after I’ve done all this to help you,
you brute, you betray me and help yourself
to some new wife. And we have children!
If you’d had no children, I’d understand
why you’re so keen on marrying this girl.
And what about the promises you made?(Euripides 1556-1661).
The life of Jason began to end when he lost the favor of the goddess Hera. Aging lonely and unhappy, Jason the Hero was painted by Bronzino wearing a purple toga. Possibly, the same purple robe he wore as a baby when placed in the care of the centaur Chiron. A color reserved for royalty and the wealthy. From the days of the ancients until the years of The Allegory’s creation, the color purple was not readily available…
Now he (Jason) had buckled round his shoulders a purple mantle of double fold, the work of the Tritonian goddess, which Pallas had given him when she first laid the keel-props of the ship Argo and taught him how to measure timbers with the rule.(Apollonius Book Three).
JEALOUSY and TIME
The last two characters behind the blue cloth are Chronus (Father Time), and a shadowy figure. The hollow eyes and wispy figure are none other than the Greco-Roman god Phthonos (Jealousy)…
He spoke, and disquieted the mind of selfborn Athena, and the more increased the wrath of jealous Hera. Swift leapt up Phthonos (Envy) and wagging his crooked knees passed on his sidelong roads through the lower air: he moved like smoke to human eyes and thoughts, arming his Telkhine’s mind for deceit and mischief (Nonnus, Dionysiaca) .”
In conclusion, Bronzino painted the scene of Venus, Cupid, and Ganymedes (Play) in front of the blue sheet with Phthonos (Jealousy) holding it up as if he orchestrated the failed relationship of Jason (Fraud) and Medea (Pleasure). In the corner we notice an angry Chronus arriving to reveal the betrayal, he begins to pull down the blue sheet and expose the work of Phthonos (Jealousy). Bronzino painted a scene to depict that in time, love turns into jealousy.
Zeus on Olympus,
dispenses many things.
Gods often contradict
our fondest expectations.
What we anticipate does not come to pass.
What we don’t expect
some god finds a way
to make it happen.
So with this story (Euripides 1683-1692)
LEVEY, MICHAEL “Bronzino” The Masters. 1967. Printed by Purnell & Sons. Limited. Paulton.
APOLLONIUS, RHODIUS; (ED. & TRANS) SEATON, R.C. “The Argonautica” (Harvard University Pres, Cambridge MA, 1912)
EURIPIDES, (TRANS) JOHNSTON, IAN “Medea” Malaspian University College, Nannimo. (Richard Resources Publications)