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13 / The Body

Statue of Aphrodite
Statue of Aphrodite
Artist / Origin Roman artist
Region: Europe
Date 1st–2nd century CE copy after Greek original ca. 3rd–2nd century BCE
Period: 500 BCE - 1 CE
Material Marble
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions H: 62 ½ in. (158.8 cm.) (with plinth)
Location The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Credit Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

expert perspective

Andrew StewartProfessor of the History of Art and Greek Studies, UC Berkeley

Statue of Aphrodite

» Roman artist

expert perspective

Andrew Stewart 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.” 

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