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Explorations of Iconography Research Paper

Those who observe the depictions of Venus and Madonna in Renaissance paintings, immediately notice that there is a common motif to the artistic representations of these two mythological female figures. This motif is being concerned with the celebration of one of the foremost feminine virtues – fertility.

In its turn, this can be explained by the fact that, even though that, formally speaking, the Greco-Roman antiquity’s aesthetic ideals and the theological postulates of Catholicism do not quite correlate, they nevertheless reflect the innermost workings of the same Faustian (Western) psyche, which has always been known to celebrate sexuality, as the driving force of existence.1

One of the most famous depictions of Venus (Roman goddess of love and passion) is being associated with Titian’s painting ‘Venus with a Mirror’. In this painting, we get to observe a beautiful blond woman looking at her reflection in the mirror.

However, it can hardly escape anyone’s attention that Titian’s Venus appears to be slightly plump. This is because, in full accordance with Greco-Roman tradition, Renaissance artists never assessed the notion of a female beauty in terms of a ‘thing in itself’. That is, they appraised the aesthetic subtleties of a woman’s bodily appeal, as such that reflected her ability to give birth to healthy children.

And, as physicians are being well aware of – the skinnier a particular woman happened to be, the more difficulties she will be experiencing at childbirth. Therefore, there is nothing too surprising about the fact that Renaissance painters never used skinny models – for them, the idea that female beauty could be discussed outside of what account for the woman body’s reproductive functions, simply did not make any sense.2

This, of course, does confirm the validity of an idea that Titian’s Venus may indeed be referred to as a fertile role model, which glorifies the earlier mentioned virtue of womanhood.

Therefore, the fact that this painting also features one of the two Cupids trying to place a wreath on Venus’s head (another one is holding the mirror), has a strongly defined symbolical significance. Apparently, Titian wanted viewers to consider the possibility that it is a specifically women’s ability to ensure the spatial continuation of humankind, which represents a true measure of their existential worth.

The earlier suggestion’s validity can also be illustrated in regards to the painting ‘Venus and Cupid’ by Battista Dossi. The first thing that immediately comes in sight, about this painting, is the fact that there are strongly defined erotic undertones to it.3

For example, contrary to what used to be the 16th century’s conventions of a female modesty (as well as contemporary ones), with her left hand Venus exposes her bare breast. This, of course, was meant to emphasize the fact that Venus’s godliness is being reflective of her physiological constitution of a woman, capable of breastfeeding.

There is, however, even more – Venus’s dress is being jammed between her legs in such a manner that, despite that fact that the lower part of her body is being concealed, the audience’s male-members cannot help imagining Venus naked.

What also adds rather considerably to the strengthening of this painting’s fertility-related overtones is that Cupid (who throws ‘love arrows’ in men and women’s hearts – hence, causing them to fall in love with each other), appears to be asking for Venus’s ‘blessing’ to proceed with doing what he does the best.

Given the fact that, as it was pointed out earlier, Dossi’s Venus clearly emanates the feminine virtue of fertility, this can have only one meaning – the artist wanted to promote the idea that a true love between the representatives of opposite genders must always result in the sexual copulation.

Moreover, Dossi appears to have also wanted to encourage viewers to think that without sex (which presupposes women’s fertility) there can be no civilization. This is exactly the reason why his painting’s background features a distant town (society) and sea-vessels (trade).

There can be few doubts as to the fact that, as it is being the case with the earlier discussed paintings of Titian and Dossi, Lorenzo Lotto’s ‘Venus and Cupid’ is also being concerned with the celebration of women’s sexual powers, which women would not have possessed if they were not fertile.4

The logic behind this conclusion is quite apparent – the very appearance of Venus naked body in this painting, suggests that she is ripe for sexual consummation and consequently – childbirth. For example, there is an undeniable firmness to Venus’s breasts, which implies that her sensual pleasures from having sex would be particularly intense.

The adequate width of her hips also points out to the fact that, while giving birth, she will not be experiencing much of a pain. This is the reason why Lotto depicted his Venus holding a bridal wreath – apparently, he also tended to think of a female virtuousness in essentially reproductive terms.5

The validity of this statement appears especially obvious in the light of Cupid pissing on Venus’s bridal wreath, as there is a symbolic significance to it – Lotto wanted to emphasize Venus’s female virtuousness a subject to male-fertilization.

Therefore, we can well conclude that, just as were the previously mentioned Renaissance artists, Lotto was an ardent advocate of a Greco-Roman idea that the measure of just about any woman’s worth should be explored within the context of her varying ability to live up to the physiological and societal purposes of her existence.

Even though that, formally speaking, Antonio da Correggio’s ‘Madonna del Latte’ is supposed to glorify Jesus’ mother Mary, on the account of her ‘virginal purity’, there can be few doubts that the actual themes and motifs, contained in this painting, only formally relate to the Christian fable of the ‘immaculate conception’.6

There are a number of reasons for us to believe that this is indeed being the case. For example, contrary to the iconographic tradition of depicting Saint Mary, Correggio’s Madonna does not appear even slightly sad. Quite on the opposite – she is depicted not just smiling, but smiling in an undeniable sensual manner.

One cannot help but to consider a possibility that, while sucking on his mother’s nipple, child-Jesus was causing her to experience the sensation of a sexual arousal.

This, of course, does not allow viewers to think about Correggio’s depiction of Madonna, as such that emanates a scholastically defined ‘holiness’, but rather the physiological holiness of Saint Mary being young, beautiful and fertile woman, who enjoys the happiness of a motherhood.

Hence, the apparent ‘heresy’ of this particular painting – if Madonna could enjoy the process of breastfeeding Jesus, what is the reason for us to believe that she could not have enjoyed having her vagina penetrated by whoever ‘made’ Jesus? The implications of this ‘heresy’ for the fable of the ‘immaculate conception’ are self-evident.

Therefore, despite being formally religious, Correggio’s ‘Madonna del Latte’ can be best defined as a thoroughly humanistic art-piece, which promotes the idea that it is only those people who, due to some religious considerations, on their part, actively strive to suppress their absolutely natural desires and inclinations, which can be considered true sinners.7

When we take a closer look at Francesco Parmigianino’s painting ‘Madonna with the Long Neck’, it will also appear that there is very little traditional Christian spirit in this piece of art. One of the reasons I consider this to be the case, because it was specifically Parmigianino’s desire to depict the Madonna particularly graceful, which prompted him to work on this painting, in the first place – hence, Madonna’s swan-like neck.8

There is, however, only one reason for women to aspire to look graceful – it increases the strength of their sexual appeal to men. Therefore, by having presented Madonna as a particularly graceful woman, Parmigianino subtly implied that it is namely on the account of her amazing looks that she needs to be admired, rather than on the account of having brought Jesus to this world.

In its turn, this partially explains why Parmigianino intentionally depicted baby-Jesus in a rather grotesque manner – apparently, the artist wanted to dramatize the effect of Madonna’s physical beauty.

The same line of reasoning can be applied, when the explanation of why Parmigianino had made a point in emphasizing Madonna’s bodily curves, is being concerned – he strived to represent Jesus’ mother, as a woman well capable of providing our Savior with little brothers and sisters.

Thus, it will not be much of an exaggeration to suggest that, just as it being the case with the earlier analyzed paintings, Parmigianino’s ‘Madonna with the Long Neck’ promotes the ‘politically-incorrect’ idea that it is namely fertility, which constitutes the womanhood’s foremost virtue.


1 Susan Greenwood, Anthropology of Magic (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2009), 53.

2 Neil Haughton. “Perceptions of Beauty in Renaissance Art.” Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology 3.4 (2004): 231.

3 Scott Schaefer. “Battista Dossi’s ‘Venus and Cupid’.” Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin 74.320 (1978): 20.

4 Rona Goffen. “Lotto’s Lucretia.” Renaissance Quarterly 52.3 (1999): 762.

5 François Quiviger. Sensory World of Italian Renaissance Art (London: Reaktion Books, 2010), 41.

6 Giancarla Periti. “From Allegri to Laetus-Lieto: The Shaping of Correggio’s Artistic Distinctiveness.” The Art Bulletin 86.3 (2004): 465.

7 Andrew Greeley. Catholic Imagination (Ewing: University of California Press, 2001), 55.

8 David Martin. “What Is a Christian Painting?” Leonardo 10.1 (1977): 27.


Goffen, Rona. “Lotto’s Lucretia.” Renaissance Quarterly 52.3 (1999): 742-781.

Greeley, Andrew. Catholic Imagination. Ewing: University of California Press, 2001.

Greenwood, Susan. Anthropology of Magic. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2009.

Haughton, Neil. “Perceptions of Beauty in Renaissance Art.” Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology 3.4 (2004): 229-233.

Martin, David. “What Is a Christian Painting?” Leonardo 10.1 (1977): 23-29.

Periti, Giancarla. “From Allegri to Laetus-Lieto: The Shaping of Correggio’s Artistic Distinctiveness.” The Art Bulletin 86.3 (2004): 459-476.

Quiviger, François. Sensory World of Italian Renaissance Art. London: Reaktion Books, 2010.

Schaefer, Scott. “Battista Dossi’s ‘Venus and Cupid’.” Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin 74.320 (1978): 12-24.

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