The Lely Venus

One of our students was inspired when she went to see this statue in the British Museum. And indeed to see it is to marvel at its beauty and vitality.

Its motif, of the crouching Venus, has been admired and reworked since the Classical period of Greece, and there are examples of it all over Europe and beyond; but this one in London has been especially prized. It is Roman, carved in the 2nd century from a Greek original of several hundred years before, and was purchased by Charles I from the Gonzaga family.  It is now on loan to the Museum from the Royal Collection.

There is no Latin verb that means to kneel, as one pupil discovered when doing a prose composition. Nor is there a word for to crouch, which may be why, in a passage of Pliny the Elder*, he cannot describe a statue of this kind in the temple of Jupiter Stator: he designates the Venus as se lavantem, in contrast to another that is stantem.

If we accept the conclusions that follow from Carl Jung’s theories of the classical world, then Greek religion involves a veneration of the human form, and the pagan gods are used by Greek artists to celebrate the beauties of the human body in its different physiques and postures.  The crouching Venus, which has so fascinated people since ancient times, celebrates womanhood in a different way from the more remote figures—sometimes quite slender and dreamlike—of Venus standing.   We do not know what experiments the original artist went through with his model when he chanced on this pose that would present a different aspect of female beauty for admiration. But his skill, the more one considers it, was of an order to challenge belief.

*Historia Naturalis, Book XXXVI, Chap.4

This muddy vesture

Some 14-year-olds, reading the myth of Prometheus, saw the statement that the first human beings were fashioned from clay and water—ex luto et aqua.

They were smiling at such a primitive notion, when one boy—perhaps a future habitué of the Cavendish Laboratory—pointed out that yes, it is entirely correct: the human body is over 60% water and the rest is compounded from the topsoil of the planet.

By coincidence a thoughtful sixth former was wrestling with Aeneid Book VI, line 724 onwards, and asked for it to be clarified:

principio caelum ac terras camposque liquentis
lucentemque globum lunae Titaniaque astra   725
spiritus intus alit, totamque infusa per artus
mens agitat molem et magno se corpore miscet.
inde hominum pecudumque genus vitaeque volantum
et quae marmoreo fert monstra sub aequore pontus.
igneus est ollis vigor et caelestis origo               730
seminibus, quantum non noxia corpora tardant
terrenique hebetant artus moribundaque membra.

‘Essentially the heaven, the lands, and the watery expanses,
and the glowing ball of the moon, and the star of Titan,
are nurtured by a spirit within: a mind, infused through their parts,
motivates the whole mass and blends itself in their great framework.
From it comes the race of men and beasts, and the lively birds,
and the monsters that ocean bears below that smooth surface.
These have energy like fire, and there is heavenly origin for their seeds—
so far as they are not slowed by their hurtful bodies and dulled
by their limbs of clay and perishable frame.’

This is the belief, known to the Stoics, that has origins with Anaxagoras, then Plato, and then the pupils of Pythagoras, that there is an anima mundi: a psyche of the universe, which is the source of all being: from it, all living things contain the animating seeds that give life to what would else be clay and water.

The body, however, can be a prison, enclosing human beings in a darkness that thwarts them from seeing—or hearing—beyond.

In English literature:

‘…a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.’
William Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey

‘Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.’
      William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, V.1

Of interest:
James Lovelock, Gaia: a new look at life on earth, OUP, 2000.
See also the accounts in Hindu, Buddhist and Neo-Confucian literature.