Art Through Time: A Global View
The Body Art: Statue of Aphrodite
During the Hellenistic period in Greece, statues of Aphrodite became increasingly popular.
The most renowned of these Greek goddesses was the marble Aphrodite of Knidos, created in the fourth century BCE by the sculptor Praxiteles, and believed to be the first major work to depict the goddess in the nude. Around the same time Praxiteles produced the Aphrodite of Knidos, he turned out another figure of the goddess, this one draped. According to Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE), the clothed figure was purchased first, while the nude was initially rejected. Nevertheless, the people of Knidos soon bought the naked statue and set it in an open-air shrine, where it quickly became a sensation in the Greek world.
A celebration of the female body in three dimensions, Praxiteles’ Aphrodite served as inspiration for later Roman sculptors who looked to it as the ideal of beauty, proportion, and grace. These artists made countless copies and over time, the gesture and stance of the Aphrodite of Knidos were conventionalized.
Modestly shielding her genitals and breasts, while at the same time drawing attention to her nakedness, the Aphrodite of Knidoswas a clever solution by Praxiteles to the problem of depicting a figure that was at once a powerful goddess demanding worship and a beautiful woman associated with love and sexuality. Like Praxiteles’ goddess, the Roman Aphrodite seen here would, in its original state, have gestured ambivalently. Sculptures like this one and the well-known Medici Venus, another Roman copy, are known as Venus pudica, or the modest Venus types. In European art of the Renaissance, the same pose is often Christianized, borrowed in representations of Eve after the Fall.
Andrew Stewart, Professor of the History of Art and Greek Studies, UC Berkeley
“When Praxiteles took the clothes off Aphrodite, he took not just a logical step, but made a brilliant move in realizing that the essence of the love goddess is her body. Hitherto, clothing had hidden that body. No matter it was just gorgeous clothing or she was wearing beautiful bangles and all the rest. But Praxiteles said, ‘Wait a minute, what is it about the love goddess that makes her the most desirable and beautiful woman in the universe?’ Answer: Take off her clothes and you’ll find out.
That sets up a dilemma because not only do people who see goddesses unclothed without their wishes normally come to a sticky end, but it also, as one famous textbook in the twentieth century once put it, tends to bring the gods down to earth and makes them just charming, beautiful human beings. What Praxiteles had to do was to devise gambits to distance the goddess from the observer, from the man. He made her larger than life. She’s almost seven feet tall—average Greek woman would be about five feet tall. He put her on a pedestal; the pedestal survives—it’s about four feet tall. So, she towers, ten or eleven feet above you. She looks sideways, with a faint, holy smile, we are told. Hmm. So who’s she smiling at, we ask ourselves, who’s the other guy? It could be one of her mortal lovers; she had several. But most likely, since she’s a goddess, it’s going to be her lover on Olympus, the blood-soaked butcher Ares—not a good idea to be shut up in a temple with the goddess and your rival is Ares. So what I think Praxiteles does there is set up the classic love triangle. You walk into the temple, she affects not to see you, maybe doesn’t see you, she’s looking, smiling at somebody else. So you’re already in a position of if not powerlessness, you’re already in a position of subordination to both her—with her amazing beauty, stunning beauty—and the hypothetical him off to your right.
But he goes further than that—if you look at her posture, he opens the composition up on our right, the goddess’s left. The other side is a series of closed curves. So that itself, as it were, invites the other person in. He suffuses the body with a sinuous S-curve using the Polykleitan posture, so-called contrapposto, where the limbs are arranged in a pattern of engaged and relaxed, but the S-curve makes it suprahuman, almost ethereal. Your eye travels up and down this sinuous S which itself seems to instantiate the goddess’s own sexuality and own appeal. And finally, we know that Praxiteles devised a virtuoso surface treatment, probably exploiting the translucency of the fine Parian marble he used so that the light would penetrate the marble from maybe two or three inches worth and suffuse the skin with a divine glow. So that even the interface between her and the world was, let’s say, a little bit fuzzy and a little bit uncanny.
I think the issue of Praxiteles stripping the goddess naked is one of the big unanswered questions in our knowledge of Greek art and Greek civilization. One must remember that the last time that the Greeks had produced naked images of goddesses was 250 years previously. The so-called Near Eastern naked goddess type appears in Greece in the eighth century and persists particularly in Southern Greece and Crete down to about 600, when they disappear. And we have a lot of them in statuette form, but also in major sculpture, none life-size, but major sculpture at least of the period. But increasingly from the late sixth century images of goddesses are draped and they remain draped right the way through down to about 400. On the Parthenon, Phidias—or at least one of his collaborators—on the east pediment shows Aphrodite in skimpily revealing costume. A couple of statues which survive in Roman copies from a generation later show the goddess revealing a breast and also dressed in basically see-through drapery. And then Praxiteles goes the whole hog.”
Havelock, Christine Mitchell. The Aphrodite of Knidos and her Successors: A Historical Review of the Female Nude in Greek Art. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.
Hersey, George L. The Evolution of Allure: Sexual Selection from the Medici Venus to the Incredible Hulk. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.
Kolosky-Ostrow, Ann Olga, and Claire L. Lyons, eds. Naked Truths: Women, Sexuality, and Gender in Classical Art and Archaeology. London; New York: Routledge, 2000.
Stewart, Andrew. Art, Desire, and the Body in Ancient Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Stewart, Andrew. Classical Greece and the Birth of Western Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.