Venus vs. Vanitas


Leslie Parke, "Venus", oil on linen









Recently I painted some paintings of The Art Newspaper crumpled up. Besides playing with images of “garbage” and recycled materials, with these crunched up bits of paper it was possible to distort and juxtapose paintings from many different eras. While working on the painting Venus, I saw an image of a skull in the hair on the shoulder of Titian’s Venus of Urbino, and I wasn’t sure if it was an aberration caused by the distortion of the picture or if it was visible in the original. And, if it was, was it intended?

This sent me back to the original to find out.

Venus of Urbino by Titian

Venus of Urbino by Titian

Months later, while touring the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, I came across an image of a skull next to the head of a woman in a 15th Century French tapestry. The guard told me that it signified that the person was deceased. The placement of the skull on her shoulder made me wonder if this was an iconography with which Titian was familiar.

Detail of Tapestry at the Hyde Collection

Detail of Tapestry at the Hyde Collection

Although I was unable to find out if there was any significance to the placement of the skull on the shoulder, I did discover (thanks to Wikipedia) that a skull missing a lower jaw was a symbol of a rake!


Here is the section of the Titian in question and a picture of a skull for comparison:




Venus of Urbino has had many interpretations, the most prevalent of which is that this is a wedding painting; something meant to be a bit instructive to the bride, perhaps meant to get the juices flowing. But upon closer examination, it is a mixed bag of promptings and admonitions.

In a typical Vanitas painting, one is reminded of the fleeting nature of beauty by the presence of a rotting apple or a snuffed candle. Here, could it be death itself that tempers ardor for such beauty?

Is this too much of a stretch? Titian’s Venus of Urbino is rife with symbols, yet the meaning of the painting has remained somewhat ambiguous. Is it a bridal painting, as is implied by the wedding chests in the background. Or is it meant to be an erotic painting, or depiction of a courtesan?

Some of the explanations of the symbolism are as follows:  white bed linen — purity;  crimson bed and  red roses — love;  fading red roses and  fallen rose — death;  pattern of black flowers,  black enamels of the bracelet, widow’s black ring and  triangular black spot — mourning;  green drapery — hope;  pearl — symbol of passing, “Vanitas”;  small dog — marital faithfulness;  green myrtle in the jardiniere — marital love;  column — symbol of virtue of bravery and boldness “Fortitudo,” also the emblem of the house of Colonna; and  “cassoni” — bridal chests as well as other significant elements. In Titian’s picture all of these symbols concur in the creation of an allegory of love and at the same time of the philosophical treatise which is a reflection on life, death, love and on the temporary earthly time which should be enjoyed. []

The Oxford Companion goes on: The skull as an intimation of death was also an obvious aspect of sixteenth-century century fashion and art. In the early decades of the century, portraits had skulls printed on the back in order to symbolize the inevitable demise of the sitter. Men and women of the upper classes wore medallions engraved with skulls and ivory heads as jewelry. These objects normally portrayed a living face on one side and the human skull on the other side. The mementos were to remind both the wearer and the onlooker of death and their obligation to lead moral lives. The keepsakes also revealed the tension experienced by members of the upper classes who desired to display their wealth while appearing to obey the dictates of Christian piety. []

Perhaps, as with the Victorian painting of the woman at her “vanity”, the meaning is in the eye of the beholder.

Books of interest:

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  1. betty ming liu
    betty ming liu12-28-2011

    your research makes this exploration of venus really interesting! it leaves me wondering about your painting — and the mystery of the meaning there. thanks for creating these multiple layers of experience through a blog post!

    • Leslie Parke
      Leslie Parke12-28-2011

      Thank you, Betty. I went to your blog — — and copied your noodle recipe to try later! Thank you for your interest in this post.

  2. Grant

    To my eye, when viewed sideways, the dog on the couch in Venus of Urbino appears to be a partial skull as distinct as any vanitas painting. In my low quality print the dogs ear appears to be the eye socket. What do you think?

    • Leslie Parke
      Leslie Parke05-23-2014

      Grant, Once you start seeing this image, I am sure it appears every where. What would be interesting to know is the degree to which these Renaissance artists chose to imbed their paintings with layers of meaning and how they did that.

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