The Iconography of the Vulgar Venus in Medieval Commentary…
and Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale…
When Chaucer finally comes to the description of the Temple image of the vulgar Venus, he follows an iconographical schema that had remained more or less constant since antiquity:
The statue of Venus, glorious for to se,
Was naked, fletynge in the large see,
And fro the navele doun al covered was
With wawes grene, and brighte as any glas.
A citole in hir right hand hadde she,
And on hir heed, ful seemly for to se,
A rose garland, fresh and wel smellynge;
Above hir heed hir dowves flikerynge.
Biforn her stood hir sone Cupido;
Upon his shuldres wynges hadde he two,
And blynd he was, as it is often seene;
A bowe he bar and arwes brighte and kene. (Knight’s Tale, 1955 ff.)
Venus’ attributes, as enumerated here, are entirely conventional, as are the allegorical significations that are immediately implied by them. The goddess is depicted floating in the sea because she was born from the foam caused by the impact, appropriately enough, of the severed membrum virile of Uranus, where it fell into the Mediterranean near the island of Cythera (hence, her epithet, the Cytherean, and her Greek name Aphrodite, from aphros, foam or spray). Moraliter, as the sixth-century Bishop Fulgentius writes in his Mythologiae, the meaning is that the “sailor of Venus” loses all his possessions and suffers shipwreck; or as Petrus Berchorius, the author of a fourteenth-century commentary on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, observes, it is “because she wishes to be immersed in delights”. She is naked because, as the Third Vatican Mythographer explains, “the crime of libido is hard to conceal”, and lust “denudes its victim of reason”.
Venus’ roses were another commonplace, and the explanation offered by Fulgentius is traditional: they blush and prick with their thorns just as lust blushes with shame and pricks with the sting of sin. Like lust, moreover, and the fleeting pleasures it confers, roses quickly fade of a season. Chaucer’s Venus is also accompanied by doves, since these birds (as the Third Vatican Mythographer forthrightly puts it) are “especially fervent in coitus”.
But our poet departs from the conventional iconography in one instructive detail: instead of carrying a conch shell, Venus holds a “citole”, a kind of medieval harp. Chaucer’s authority for this substitution may be a passage from the aforementioned Ovidius moralizatus of Berchorius:
She is said to carry a conch shell in her hand into which she is forever singing and full of light airs…whence the nude whore is seen to say in the Scriptures [Isa. 23: 10, 16]: “Pass thy land as a river, O daughter of the sea, thou hast a girdle no more….Take a harp, go about the city, thou harlot that hast been forgotten: sing well, sing many a song, that thou mayst be remembered.”
The vulgar Venus’ music is thus the song of a prostitute; and as a “daughter of the sea”, it was natural enough to identify her with the Whore of Babylon, “the mother of all fornication” who in the Apocalypse rides upon the beast that rises out of the sea at the end-time. Wishing to emphasize the connection that Berchorius draws between the vulgar Venus and the kind of music performed by her harlot-devotees, Chaucer presumably substituted the “citole” for the traditional shell.