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Art Among the Stars with Venus and Mars: this week on The Storyteller's Night Sky

"Venus and Mars" by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1485, National Gallery, London
"Venus and Mars" by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1485, National Gallery, London

In the Italian Renaissance, the humanists practiced the ancient art of “ekphrasis,” where one artistic form was used to emulate another artistic form, particularly painting and poetry, through which a poet might describe an experience, or an object, and a painter would then express it through his medium on a canvas.

I like to imagine that a storytelling approach to the night sky leans into this same practice, of seeking artistic ways to express the motions of the planets and the mysteries of the stars.

The Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli worked in Florence at the Medici court where Cosimo de Medici had established his Platonic Academy. One of his contemporaries at the court was the classical scholar and poet Poliziano.

At least two of Botticelli’s most famous works seem to result from his striving to express through painting what Poliziano was writing in poetry, including his painting of Venus and Mars. I love this image especially this week, when Venus and Mars are in the evening sky on opposite sides of the beehive cluster, at the center of the constellation Cancer.

In Botticelli’s painting, Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, looks over at her lover Mars, god of war. She is alert and dignified, while he is completely undone and sleeping. Childish satyrs play around him, and a hive of wasps buzzes near his head — all of it reminiscent of what’s happening in the sky right now.

It’s assumed by art historians that this picture was painted in celebration of a marriage, and since June is one of the most popular months for weddings, it might be handy to know about this work of art, while Venus and Mars strike a Botticelli pose in the evening sky.

Mary Stewart Adams is a Star Lore Historian and host of “The Storyteller’s Night Sky.” As a global advocate for starry skies, Mary led the team that established the 9th International Dark Sky Park in the world in 2011, which later led to her home state of Michigan protecting 35,000 acres of state land for its natural darkness.