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Hermes in Bottecelli's La Primavera

Updated: Sep 11, 2023

Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

Bottecelli's "allegory of Spring" is acknowledged as a mythological riddle, a piece without a single interpretation and whose mysteriousness has sustained La Primavera as one of the most notable paintings in Western art. Within this allegorical painting composed of many elements, the god Hermes, positioned on the far left, is significant to La Primavera's enigmatic nature, playing a pivotal role in interpreting its complex symbolism.

Deciphering the Complexity of "La Primavera"

The Post-classical painting presents a difficult-to-interpret story. Unlike most other commissioned works of the era, it diverges from Christian tradition. Instead it portrays six mythological figures - the God Hermes, the Three Graces, Cupid, Aphrodite, the nymph Chloris and her transformation into Flora, and the God Zephyrus - thus defying a simple interpretation. Although unconfirmed, its provenance suggests it was commissioned by the influential Medici family as a wedding gift for Lorenzo di Pierfranceso de' Medici. This link to marriage offers a lens through which to comprehend Botticelli's meticulous representation of Spring and its underlying theme of transformation. Examining the possible connection between the painting and matrimony unveils key insights into the profound symbolism of La Primavera, particularly the role of Hermes within it.

Hermes: Symbol of Transition

Central to understanding La Primavera is the divine figure Hermes, positioned as a boundary-crossing entity on the far left of the painting. Hermes symbolizes multiple transitions within the artwork—primarily, the shift from the dormancy of winter to the vibrancy of spring and from youth to adulthood. In ancient Greece, Hermes statues, known as Herms, were vital boundary markers, making his placement in the painting as the guardian between seasons significant. He becomes the usher, facilitating the transition from the cold grip of winter to the vibrant arrival of spring.

Marriage and Transformation

If Botticelli's work was a wedding gift, it establishes marriage as a central thematic framework, inviting viewers to explore themes of love, growth, and transformation.

Marriage, an event that eternally unites two individuals, marks one of life's most significant transitions. The spring season, from which the painting derives its name, symbolizes transition and celebration. In Spring, death is renewed into life, mirroring the profound shifts and new beginnings associated with marriage.

Hermes as the Usher of New Beginnings

Hermes, positioned as a boundary-crossing figure on the far left, personifies the transition from winter's dormancy to spring's vibrancy and from youth to adulthood—mirroring the journey from solitude to matrimony. In mythology, Hermes embodies the transition from boyhood to manhood, as depicted in the Homeric hymn to Hermes, where initially portrayed as immature, he evolves into a responsible brother and son, symbolizing the transformation from a boy into a man. The inclusion of Hermes likely symbolizes this very transition from boyhood to manhood, with marriage signifying the passage and responsibilities associated with becoming a man. Hermes, in this context, embodies this journey into manhood, while Chloris, who transforms into the goddess Flora, may represent his bride.

One of the best-known works of art of the Florentine Renaissance, La Primavera, can be understood as an archetype of metamorphosis. The divine and boundary-marker Hermes is the usher of the new season, the harbinger of manhood, and the introduction to the responsibilities of marriage.

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