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Venus of the Cydnus


Image copyright Fern Petrie 2017

Fern Petrie, Venus of the Cydnus, Oil on Canvas, 100 x 75 cm, 2015.

"Therefore when she was sent unto by divers letters, both from Antonius himself and also from his friends, she made so light of it and mocked Antonius so much that she disdained to set forward otherwise but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus, the poop whereof was of gold, the sails of purple, and the oars of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music of flutes, howboys, cithernes, viols, and such other instruments as they played upon in the barge. And now for the person of herself: she was laid under a pavilion of cloth of gold of tissue, appareled and attired like the goddess Venus commonly drawn in picture; and hard by her, on either hand of her, pretty fair boys appareled as painters do set forth god Cupid, with little fans in their hands, with the which they fanned wind upon her. Her ladies and gentlewomen also, the fairest of them were appareled like the nymphs Nereides (which are the mermaids of the waters) and like the Graces, some steering the helm, others tending the tackle and ropes of the barge, out of which there came a wonderful passing sweet savor of perfumes, that perfumed the wharf's side, pestered with innumerable multitudes of people."

                                                                                                                                                                                                           Plutarch, Life of Marcus Antonius (XXVI)


Like Marie Antoinette, Cleopatra was only in her late 30’s when her hour glass ran out. She had played a skillful game and almost ruled the entire Roman world, she left behind the story of a life lived brilliantly and to its limits. The above quote from Plutarch’s Life of Marcus Antonius was written a hundred years after the event but lovingly conjures an image of Cleopatra as master of the art of spectacle.

Unlike Marie Antoinette whose performances were for friends and admirers to escape the strictures of courtly life, Cleopatra’s situation was quite different. She needed a strong Roman ally after the death of Caesar and her performance was offered for much higher stakes.


In this image ‘Venus of the Cydnus’ I wanted to depict the queen in the role of goddess surrounded by majesty and awe. As a Greek pharaoh she dressed to personify her connection with the Roman world and celebrate her claim over Egypt. She wears the headdress of Isis surrounded by the symbolic flower of Egypt; the blue water lily. Rome is hinted at in the royal purple of the right half of her dress. Her shift is based on the Roman stola reflecting the Nile symbolically undulating down her body as it flows through Egypt. The mass of water which surrounds Cleopatra is both the Cydnus of southern Turkey where the meeting took place and also the Nile; the wellspring of Egypt’s prosperity and reason for Cleopatra’s importance in the Roman world. Upon the banks of the Nile on the left, sit the temple of Isis at Philae and on the right the Dendera Temple, which still sports reliefs of her son by Caesar; Caesarion.


The golden moths which flutter around Cleopatra and glowing moon reveal Antony’s ambition which he hoped would be realised with her help. In her arms the bouquet signifies Caesarion and the three children Antony and Cleopatra had together while the rose in her hand speaks of her willingness to share all she had with the Roman general.

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