Pallas and the Centaur by Botticelli: Description & Interpretation

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Sandro Botticelli was one of the most famous artists of the Renaissance, renowned for his layers of symbolism. In this lesson, we'll look at one of his paintings and see what it really means.

Botticelli and the Renaissance

The Italian Renaissance was one of the most famous periods of art in Western history, and for good reason. While Renaissance art is beautiful, it also tends to be deeply symbolic, which makes it lots of fun to analyze.

We see this frequently in Renaissance depictions of Greek and Roman themes. Wealthy patrons would often commission art with Classical themes to show how sophisticated they were; this indicated that they had been educated in the classical literature of Greece and Rome.

At the same time, this was a deeply Christian society where the Catholic Church reigned supreme. So, how could artists depict pagan symbols in a Christian world? Few artists struck this balance better than Sandro Botticelli (c.1445-1510).

Sandro Botticelli

One of the most renowned painters of the Renaissance, Botticelli completed some of the finest Christian paintings of the era, as well as some of the greatest depictions of Classical mythology. To understand how he blended these ideas, we can start with his painting of Pallas and the Centaur.

Pallas and the Centaur

So, what's the deal this painting? Pallas and the Centaur was painted with tempera (paint that uses egg as a binding element) on canvas. It seems to have been commissioned by the great Florentine patron Lorenzo de' Medici, and completed around the 1480s. Some scholars have theorized that it was meant as a companion to one of Botticelli's most famous masterpieces, Primavera. It was actually lost for centuries, and only rediscovered in the mid-to-late 20th century, which was pretty exciting.

Pallas and the Centaur

The painting itself shows a tall and beautiful woman grabbing a centaur by the hair. The woman has been identified as the Greek deity Athena, specifically by her epithet of Pallas, which identifies her as a goddess of wisdom and peace. The olive branches that cover her clothing also reinforce that interpretation.

Art historians have also suggested that the woman could represent an Amazon warrior named Camilla. The Roman poet Virgil wrote about Camilla in the Aeneid, and described her as chaste, pure, and powerful. It's possible that Botticelli painted this woman to be both figures simultaneously -- mixing Greek and Roman themes together was something he did pretty often.

Virtue and Lust

Botticelli's painting shows Athena Pallas grabbing a trespassing centaur by the hair. So, what's it mean? Let's start our analysis with the setting. If you've ever seen Botticelli's Primavera, then you know how much effort he can put into his scenery. By comparison, this scene is stark, relatively empty, and very dark. That tells us something: Botticelli wants us to focus almost exclusively on the two figures.

In Classical mythology, centaurs were not evil creatures. They were, however, subjects to their own desires. They get drunk and ruin parties, and are often overcome by lust, passion, or greed. Athena Pallas, on the other hand, was the goddess of wisdom and a symbol of rational logic.

Athena Pallas was the patron goddess of Athens, the city of Socrates and Aristotle. With that in mind, this ceases to be a painting about mythology and becomes a tale of morality. This is the story of virtue conquering lust.

That's a message that Catholic Italy could get behind. Botticelli's purpose wasn't to convince people to worship Athena; it was to communicate how ration, wisdom and moral purity are stronger than passion, lust, and greed. The use of Classical mythology and Classical philosophy (particularly about wisdom) to reinforce Christian morality was a very Renaissance thing to do, and Botticelli did it better than nearly anyone.

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