Resemble I the Amorous Dove?

Entry 31 October 19, 2014
40-11-28/24When I looked at Mars, Venus and Cupid (ca. 1550) by Lambert Sustris (ca. 1515-1584), I didn’t pay much attention at first to anything except the lovely nude, reclining Venus that dominates the image. None of the minor figures—Mars in the background, Cupid in the foreground pointing an arrow at two small doves next to him—interested me, not even the doves, even though Venus’s right hand clasps one of them by its extended wings and positions it on the back of the other, and the editors underscore the doves’ importance by including a separate, enlarged reproduction of them on the two-page spread devoted to the Sustris painting.

As it turns out, though, I’m going to write mainly about the doves. It isn’t because of what they look like, or even because of the wealth of images I’ve looked at now of Venus accompanied by a pair of doves, but rather because of the way the commentary from The Louvre: All the Paintings refers to them. They are called “two amorous doves,” a phrase that reminded me of a line from Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Iolanthe, from the song “Oh Foolish Faye”, in which the queen of the fairies, ashamed because she has experienced desire for a mortal, a love which is forbidden to fairies and which she is planning to punish Iolanthe for indulging in, protests to her fairy subjects that she would never yield to the desire. She will not disobey the fairy laws, she says, even if her heart is as soft as that of “the amorous dove.”

I enjoyed the reminder of the play, a favourite of mine, and I wondered whether the commentary’s choice of words indicated that there was some kind of relationship between the painting and lyricist W.S. Gilbert. For example, was it known that Gilbert had coined the phrase after seeing Sustris’s painting?

As with so many of my bright ideas, this one hasn’t led me where I thought it might. Although it seems likely that Gilbert, a cultured Englishman, visited the Louvre, there’s no sign that the Venus inspired him the way the sword falling in his office inspired The Mikado. And there’s plenty of evidence that he did not invent the phrase “amorous dove.” On the contrary, a Google search for “amorous dove” produced several instances, within the first two pages of results, of the phrase showing up in Googlebooks, mostly in 19th century poetry collections, but notably, also, in Henry Fielding’s popular and influential novel, Tom Jones, where, in Book I, Chapter vi, there is a reference to “the amorous dove and every innocent little bird” who in response to a kite flying overhead “spread wide the alarm, and fly trembling to their hiding-places.” Another, admittedly tenuous, link between Fielding and Gilbert is that both refer to Ovid: Gilbert calls the “amorous dove” “type of Ovidius Naso”, using Ovid’s Latin name; in the epigraph of Book V, Chapter x, of Tom Jones, Fielding promises the chapter will show “the truth of many observations of Ovid.”

These verbal links don’t add up to identifying where Gilbert came up with amorous dove, let alone where the author of my Louvre book’s commentary came up with the word pair. With respect to Gilbert’s source, I console myself with the thought that I’m not alone; my Google searches so far haven’t produced any solid link between the lyrics of “Oh Foolish Fay” and any previous usage of the phrase “amorous dove,” although the topic has certainly intrigued previous researchers. The most striking was from 2011, a contribution to a listserve from David Cookson,, that made a link between the fairy queen’s love experience and the story of a dove in Book XV of Ovid’s Heroides. Here’s a link to Cookson’s post:

Even if I were to find where Gilbert first came across “the amorous dove”, of course, it wouldn’t explain where the author of the Sustris commentary acquired the phrase.

I have tried to approach the subject through art history as well; I hoped someone might have connected visual artists’ renderings of Venus accompanied by doves to the many poetic celebrations of the same image. So far, nothing, although I’ve looked at far more paintings of Venus with doves than I ever imagined there might be, and some of them perhaps not quite so idealizing as I would have liked. I must admit that after looking at them I felt a little less comfortable about what Sustris might have been suggesting when depicting Venus piling one dove on top of another.

Perhaps Gilbert’s fairy queen was right. Maybe it’s best to be cautious when acting on one’s feelings. But to Sustris I owe a pleasant few weeks of humming “Oh Foolish Faye” and even attempting the wonderfully complex lines with which the queen of the fairies expresses her admiration for a human in uniform.