Painted between 1875 and 1877, Astarte Syriaca was originally entitled "Venus Astarte," in honour of the Syrian Love Goddess. Rossetti composed the painting on an immense six-foot (1.83 m) canvas, so that it was long enough for a full-length portrait. This is probably the most "revealing" portrait of Jane Morris, and its composition was partially based on Botticelli's The Birth of Venus.
The painting drew criticism when it was displayed, due to its erotic content. Victorian audiences were shocked by its overt sensuality. Venus' hands are positioned to draw attention to her fertility (use your imagination!), and are identical to the hand position of Botticelli's Venus. Furthermore, as Rossetti's poem (below) indicates, her girdle also highlights her voluptuousness("her twofold girdle clasps the infinite boon of bliss whereof the heaven and earth commune"). The girdle also functions in much the same way as the hair of Venus in Botticelli's version, but is a bit more subtle.
If you compare the way Jane looks in Rossetti's portrait (strong and sensual) to a photograph taken of her during roughly the same period, you can easily see that Rossetti has chosen to alter her appearance significantly. In fact, in a letter written a few years after Astarte Syriaca was finished, Jane complained to Rossetti that he probably didn't want to see her because she'd "grown too thin." Even at the time this painting was composed, you can see that she was hardly the robust figure that Rossetti painted. Nevertheless, isn't that what artistic license is for?
Rossetti wrote the following sonnet to accompany the painting:
Mystery, lo! betwixt the sun and moon
Astarte of the Syrians: Venus Queen
Ere Aphrodite was. In silver sheen
Her twofold girdle clasps the infinite boon
Of bliss whereof the heaven and earth commune:
And from her neck's inclining flower-stem lean
Love-freighted lips and absolute eyes that wean
The pulse of hearts to the sphere's dominant tune.
Torch-bearing, her sweet ministers compel
All thrones of light beyond the sky and sea
The witnesses of Beauty's face to be:
That face, of Love's all-penetrative spell
Amulet, talisman, and oracle,-
Betwixt the sun and moon a mystery.
Source Consulted: Tim Barringer. The Pre-Raphaelites. London: The Everyman Art Library, 1998.