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Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan
Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan, 1604–1608, oil on copper, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital Image Courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program
In the Metamorphoses, the Roman author Ovid tells the story of Vulcan discovering the adultery of his wife Venus and her lover Mars. Vulcan fashioned a fine iron net to catch the pair in bed and publicly expose them to the other gods. Here Vulcan stands in the right foreground clutching the net that trapped the lovers, while other deities look on, amused by the couple’s embarrassment. A rich assortment of detail brings to life this story of love and betrayal.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the sun god Apollo discovered the relationship between Venus and Mars and revealed their deception to Vulcan, setting in motion the unhappy husband’s plot to ensnare them. Here Apollo draws back the bed-curtain to unveil the lovers to the Olympian gods: Jupiter flies in from above clutching a lightning bolt, the messenger Mercury laughs up at Saturn who perches on a cloud with his scythe, and Diana the huntress catches the viewer’s eye with a knowing smile. The light radiating from Apollo’s head and a burst of sunlight in the background behind the other gods reinforce the revelatory nature of the moment.
As the god of fire, Vulcan was also a blacksmith who made all the weapons of the Olympian deities, including Mars, god of war. Here Vulcan tramples on Mars’ armor, which the furtive lover had cast off beside the bed: a breast- and backplate with tassets, which protected the thighs; gauntlets, the long glove that covers part of the forearm; and a helmet. The equipment was identifiably contemporary (about 1585–1595), down to the polished bands and stylized waist then worn in France and Italy.
Visible in the distance through an opening in the bed-curtains is an earlier moment in the story. With a hammer raised in one hand and a pair of tongs gripping the burning-hot metal in the other, Vulcan shapes the gossamer-thin iron netting that he will use to expose his wife’s infidelity. According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Vulcan hung the net from Mars’ bed so that it would fall on the couple as soon as they embraced.
Crowning the bed is a carved garland of grapes, pears, and pomegranates, elements chosen for their symbolism: The pear had long been associated with eroticism, bunches of grapes with fertility, and the pomegranate with eternal marriage. As emblems of sexual desire, fecundity, and fidelity, the fruits represent Venus’ passion for her lover Mars. Cupid flies nearby, targeting his arrow at Apollo in retaliation for humiliating Venus.