What I enjoyed most about reading the Faerie Queene, book III, wasn’t really evident to me until one of our discussions about the book in class, when Professor Clayton brought up the parallels between many of the ideas brought up in Spenser’s epic poem and Renaissance art. It brought me back to my days in High School in my favorite AP class, Art History. Spenser was interested in championing Humanism, just like so many Renaissance painters and sculpters. Humanism was the looking back on and studying of classical thought, and adapting it to Christianity and some of the new ideas in the world.
The first connection between Spenser’s poetry and art that we made through our discussions in class was the representation and interest with the story of Venus and Adonis. Specifically, we looked at Titian’s Venus and Adonis, which he painted in the year 1553. Instantly, so many parallels were clear. The multiple references to boar spears in book III allude to Adonis’ hunting boars. In Titian’s work, Adonis is actually carrying his spear, seemingly uninterested with Venus’ pleas for him to not go out and put himself in danger. Cupid, Venus’ son and a miscreant with the power to enchant love, is in the background. He doesn’t quite look like Spenser’s creation, Busirane, may have envisioned him, but that’s because he enjoyed the side of Cupid that incited lust, the type of “love,” if you can really call it that, which brings about violence and trickery. Titian is using the subject matter for his painting much in the same way that Spenser did in his poem. They are both using the age-old story and casting it in a new light to create a new message more pertinent to the Christian ideals of their moment.
Parallels can be seen in various other references to Classic myths, such as Belpheobe being born from a ray of light, a reference to the story of Danae, who was impregnated by Jove who embodied “showers of gold.” This is often perceived by painters to mean that he was also rays of light, like Titian shows in his Danae and the Showers of Gold, done in 1554. Another Humanist painting of Cupid and Venus also invokes some of the same ideas as Spenser’s poem, and that is Bronzino’s Triumph of Venus, done in 1545. While the relationship between mother and son seems drastically different in this piece than in Titian’s painting, it nonetheless shows Venus’ resolve and unique form of chastity through her sacrifice of herself to disarm her son (you can see her pulling the arrow out of Cupid’s quiver).
The Fairie Queene unto itself was interesting, but also very long-winded from my perspective. The thing that kept the dull moments between action slightly engaging was in my trying to connect the stories and Classical myths presented back to Renaissance art. It is my own belief that painting and sculpture can provide the deep layers of meaning and implied lessons that books and poems can. Still, if one is not educated enough to find that meaning, or simply doesn’t have the time, paintings offer at least a moment or two of aesthetic pleasure. To attempt to take Spenser’s poem in within such a short time may just make your head hurt.