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Aphrodite Essay, Research Paper
According to the ancient Greeks, Aphrodite was a beautiful, youthful goddess, associated with the attributes of love and life (Schefold 15). Between the 6th century B.C. and the 1st century A.D., she was frequently used as a subject matter in Greek and Hellenistic art. During that period, goddesses related to Aphrodite were often seen in Near Eastern art as well. In fact, Aphrodite’s origins can be found in the goddess Astarte, who was worshipped by the Phoenicians. The Assyrians, who controlled the Near East up to the end of the seventh century B.C., worshipped a goddess named Ishtar who was similar in many ways to Aphrodite. The Babylonians adapted Ishtar to their pantheon and, like the Assyrians, considered her to be not only the goddess of love and life, but also of warfare (Ghirshman 393). The Persians, who took control of the region in 539 B.C., had a goddess named Anahita. This goddess, like Ishtar, held dominion over love and fertility. Furthermore, Anahita, like Ishtar, not only “ensured the continuity of life” but “was at the same time a goddess of war” (Ghirshman 250). This paradox of a goddess ruling warfare as well as love and life was found among the Greeks as well. Thus, statues of Aphrodite were often worshipped by Greek warriors before going into battle. According to Getty, the beautiful young woman was seen as being a symbol for all that the men were fighting for. Thus, the goddess was “called upon to drive the men into battle-frenzy in order to satisfy their honour and the need to protect their ‘property’” (Getty 23). Just as there are similarities in theme between the Greek and Near Eastern versions of Aphrodite, there are also certain similarities to be found in comparing her poses and gestures in the art of those two regions. Basically, the Near Eastern depictions of the goddess were less naturalistic than those of the Greeks. The Greeks sought to “humanize” Aphrodite, as well as the other deities, in their art. In this way, an effort was made to show a relationship between human beings and the gods. By contrast, Near Eastern representations sought to maintain a distance between worshipper and deity. The goddess statues of that region often avoided realism by using simple geometric shapes. In fact, in early Near Eastern representations of Ishtar, the heads were usually “reduced to enormous staring eyes” (Getty 90-91). According to Janson, the ancient Near Eastern artists avoided showing any other details because they wanted to emphasize the eyes, which they considered to be “the windows of the soul” (122). Along with using simple shapes, the Near Eastern artists often depicted their deities in stiff poses. This “Mesopotamian tradition” in art persisted throughout the Hellenistic period and could be seen, for example, even in relatively late Persian works (Janson 135). During the classic period, Greek artists revolutionized Western art by frequently posing Aphrodite in the nude. As a general rule, nude depictions of the goddess are rare in Near Eastern art, although there are some notable exceptions. In fact, a stone relief of Lilith from about 2000 B.C. is “the first voluptuous female nude known from antiquity” (Hartt 110). It is interesting to note that Lilith, in contrast to Aphrodite, was the Assyrian goddess of death rather than life. Despite being the earliest known female nude, this depiction of Lilith was far from realistic. In fact, she was shown with wings and taloned feet. Furthermore, her pose is rigid and her only gesture is to hold her arms up in front of her. Another rare Near Eastern female nude can be seen in a stone statue from approximately 1000 B.C. In sharp contrast to the norm of the period, this figure of the goddess depicts the nude human body “with loving care” (Parrot 161). Apparently, the Phoenicians went against the Near Eastern tradition in this respect. Interestingly, although the Greeks became famous for showing Aphrodite in the nude, they did not start out by posing her in this way. Thus, as noted by Honour and Fleming, the Phoenician goddess Astarte, “usually nude in her homeland, was clothed by the Greeks when they transformed her into Aphrodite” (98). Prior to about the 4th century B.C., the Greek depictions of Aphrodite were generally restrained in the typical Near Eastern manner. An example of this can be seen in a stone statue from about 650 B.C., in which the goddess is shown in simple, conical shapes (Honour and Fleming 98). Her pose is extremely stiff and rigid, and her arms are held down straight by her side. A Greek vase from about the same time shows Aphrodite in two-dimensional profile (Schefold 31). Again, the pose is somewhat stiff and unrealistic. The Aphrodite Urania (from the 5th century B.C.) is representative of the way the goddess was depicted in Greece prior to the 4th century. In contrast to the later humanism of the nude female form, this depiction gives the goddess “a quality of super-human dignity” (Langlotz 646). Nevertheless, the basic pose of the Aphrodite Urania was imitated in various ways by later Greek sculptors. This can especially be seen in the way the goddess has one foot forward and slightly raised. According to Langlotz, “even the beautiful body and movement of the Venus de Milo depend upon the Urania, although they follow the formal laws of a later period” (646). Although they originally followed Near Eastern models, the statues of the goddess and other deities in Greece were soon “assimilated into a new and unmistakably Greek idiom” (Honour and Fleming 97). By the 4th century B.C., Aphrodite had been transformed from an aloof, unapproachable goddess to one who was more human than divine. Praxiteles, a sculptor who lived during the early fourth century, was an important figure in this revolutionary new style. Praxiteles depicted Aphrodite in more flexible poses than ever before. In his statues of the goddess, it is apparent that he was striving for a high degree of realism. He was keenly aware of human anatomy and, for the first time in art history, there was an effort to convey a sense of “the flesh and bones beneath the skin” (Prag 139). The most famous sculpture of the goddess by Praxiteles is known as the Aphrodite of Cnidus. Although male nudes had already become commonplace at the time, this sculpture was the first nude female statue to be found in classic Greek art (Gardner 141). Praxiteles used a carving technique which made the stone appear soft and smooth, like real flesh. He also posed the goddess in a more naturalistic manner. In the words of Langlotz, the pose of the Aphrodite of Cnidus “reveals a richly variegated movement conditioned by a greater flexibility of the figures’ axis in contrast to the concentrated, resilient effect of the Urania” (646). Honour and Fleming point out that this Aphrodite’s pose, with “left knee slightly advanced and left foot withdrawn,” is a reversal of the pose generally found in nude male statues of the time (112). Although the arms are missing from the Aphrodite of Cnidus, it is presumed that the figure’s gesture, like her pose, was more naturalistic than those of earlier models. By depicting Aphrodite as a beautiful nude woman, Praxiteles brought forth all of the best attributes of this goddess of love and life. The Aphrodite of Cnidus is often hailed as being “the perfect embodiment of female beauty, supremely and deceptively lifelike” (Honour and Fleming 112).
Praxiteles’ version of Aphrodite had a strong influence on later Greek versions of the goddess. For example, the Aphrodite of Cyrene, from about 100 B.C., is a nude female whose pose is very similar to that of the Cnidus example. Another example can be seen in the Aphrodite of Melos, also known as the Venus de Milo (”Venus” being the Roman name for Aphrodite). In contrast to Near Eastern examples, the Venus de Milo imitates the style of Praxiteles in which “the feeling for stone as stone has quite surrendered to the ambition of making stone look as though it were the soft, warm substance of the human body” (Gardner 148). As in the Aphrodite of Cnidus, this naturalism is enhanced by the realistic pose of the figure. Although there are few Near Eastern parallels to Praxiteles in terms of nude or naturalistic poses, the depictions of the goddess in that region nonetheless show certain similarities in terms of gesture. One common theme in both Greek and Near Eastern portrayals of the goddess is the gesture of “offering the breasts.” In this gesture, the goddess cups her breasts with her hands, as if offering them “to the world in a timeless sacred gesture, a reminder to all that it is through the breast that life is nurtured” (Getty 38). Various Greek statues of the goddess show this gesture (Getty 70). In addition, small cylindrical statues of goddesses have been found in Persia which show them “holding up their bare breasts” (Ghirshman 47). Although the Near Eastern depictions are less detailed and less refined than the Greek examples, this nurturing gesture appears to be a common artistic theme in both places. In the Near East, there was even a funeral sarcophagus depicting Astarte with this gesture. This was meant to symbolize the goddess’ ability to nourish the soul after death, “and to reaffirm that death as well as life is under the protection of the Goddess” (Getty 70). Another common gesture in both Greek and Near Eastern art is that which is known as the “pudica” or “modesty” pose. Particularly found among nude depictions of the goddess, this gesture shows “one hand covering the breasts and the other concealing the lower body” (Ghirshman 403). The presumed positioning of the arms in the Aphrodite of Cnidus, for example, comes close to showing this gesture (Honour and Fleming 112). A later model, known as the Capitoline Aphrodite, shows this gesture more explicitly. Honour and Fleming note that this gesture emphasizes the natural beauty of the love goddess. Thus, the so-called “Pudic Venus” was “a figure whose erotic attraction was … enhanced by her modest gesture” (Honour and Fleming 112). In the few nude female statuettes of the Near East, the “gesture of the Venus Pudica” was also often used (Ghirshman 47). Aphrodite was an important goddess because she represented an important area of human life. In fact, without the attributes of love and fertility there would be no life at all. She was known not only in Greece, but in the Near East as well, where she went by such names as Ishtar, Astarte or Anahita. Although she was known by different names, the basic themes surrounding her were generally the same. Because of these common attributes, similar gestures can be found in the representations of the goddess in both Greece and the Near East. Thus, the offering of the breasts serves as a symbol for the goddess’ protection of life. In addition, the gesture of modesty serves as a symbol for the delicacy of feminine beauty. Despite these similarities, the poses of Aphrodite in Greek and Near Eastern art often conflicted with one another. In the Near East, the goddess was often shown in a static, unrealistic pose. In Greece, on the other hand, a radical innovation occurred in which the goddess was humanized. By depicting Aphrodite as a young nude woman, the Greeks developed the attributes of the goddess so that she became a symbol of artistic beauty as well as love and nourishment.
Gardner, Louise. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. 7th ed. Horst de la Croix and Richard G. Tansey, rev. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980. Getty, Adele. Goddess: Mother of Living Nature. London: Thames and Hudson, 1990. Ghirshman, Roman. Persia: From the Origins to Alexander the Great. Stuart Gilbert and James Emmons, trans. London: Thames and Hudson, 1964. Hartt, Frederick. Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989. Honour, Hugh, and John Fleming. The Visual Arts: A History. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1982. Janson, H. W. History of Art. 4th ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1991. Langlotz, Ernst. “Classic Art.” Encyclopedia of World Art. Vol. 3. Robert W. Crandall, ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1960, 631-673. Parrot, Andre. Nineveh and Babylon. Stuart Gilbert and James Emmons, trans. London: Thames and Hudson, 1961. Prag, A. J. N. W. “Classical Greek Art.” A History of Art. Sir Lawrence Gowing, ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1983, 131-148. Schefold, Karl. Myth and Legend in Early Greek Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, n.d.

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