Apropos of yesterday’s post on Canova and today’s being Valentine’s day, images of two of his sculptures of Venus. The final image is the work of one of Canova’s students, the Welshman John Gibson. Gibson’s Tinted Venus is fascinating to me, as she holds the Golden Apple, which has written upon it what appears to be the phrase μολὼν λαβέ (molon labe), or some Hellenic-Roman alphabetic script mashup that approximates that phrase.
If it does, in fact, read μολὼν λαβέ, this is a fascinating juxtaposition: the Golden Apple, according to the poets, was in many ways the source of the Trojan War. The story, in short: inscribed by the goddess Eris with the phrase ΤΗΙ ΚΑΛΛΙΣΤΗΙ (to the fairest) and tossed into the middle of a feast of the gods, the Golden Apple was fought over by Hera, Aphrodite(Venus), and Athena, each of whom was convinced that she was the fairest. Zeus refused to judge, and left that judgement up to the mortal, Paris of Troy. Each goddess attempted to bribe Paris to pick her, and when Aphrodite promised Paris the world’s most beautiful woman, he picked Aphrodite. The promised woman ended up being Helen, and the Trojan War began.
As I examine the image of Gibson’s Tinted Venus, I don’t see the apple as reading ΤΗΙ ΚΑΛΛΙΣΤΗΙ; to me, it does seem to read μολὼν λαβέ. This phrase (“come and take them”), was uttered by King Leonidas of Sparta as a defiant statement to the Persian order that the Spartans surrender their weapons at the Battle of Thermopylae (the movie 300, y’all).
If Gibson did indeed paint the apple with this phrase, it presents us with a fascinating mediation on the connections between love and war. Yes, we think of “love and war” together in glib ways, but it is also useful to think through these connections, the ways in which beauty, discord, love, and anger all come together–and perhaps especially on this, St. Valentine’s Day.