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Aphrodite, 2nd century CE

Aphrodite

Who gave a soul to marble? Who saw

Cypris on earth?

Who wrought such love-longing in a stone?

This must be the work of Praxiteles’ hand,

or else perchance Olympus is bereaved

Since the Paphian has descended to Knidos.

The Greek Anthology, Plaunudean Appendix, 159

In 1993, after ten seasons of excavation at Bet Shean (Nysa-Scythopolis), a statue of Aphrodite, well-preserved except for its missing head, hands, and feet, was discovered in the eastern bath-building, in the center of the Roman city. The statue was found face down between the small pillars of pottery tiles below the caldarium (hot room) floor (figs. 1-2). It seems to have been hidden or thrown there in the sixth century CE. Prior to this, it probably stood in the bath-building along with other statues, continuing to decorate the building well into the Byzantine period. Although pagan cults ceased to be practiced in ancient Palestine around the beginning of the fifth century CE, that is, shortly after the triumph of Christianity, Christians continued to display the classical sculptures that had come down to them from earlier times, just as they continued to cultivate other forms of classical culture. It is not surprising, however, that certain Christian groups were opposed to these works. They regarded sculptures such as the statue of Aphrodite as demonic, fearing that their very beauty and eroticism might tempt believers. The Jewish attitude, by contrast, was apparently more tolerant, as suggested by the following reaction of Rabban Gamliel, the second-century sage, to the statue of Aphrodite in the bath-building of Akko-

Proklos the son of Philosophos asked Rabban Gamliel in Akko while he was bathing in the Bath of Aphrodite, and said to him, “It is written in your Law, None of the devoted things shall cleave to your hand. Why [then] do you bathe in the Bath of Aphrodite?” He answered, “One may not answer in the bath.” And when he came out he said, “I came not within her limits, she came within mine! They do not say, ‘Let us make a bath for Aphrodite,’ but ‘Let us make an Aphrodite as an adornment for the bath.'” (Mishnah Avodah Zarah 3-4)

Other sculptures and sculpture fragments were also found in the ruins of the eastern bath-building, including a life-size statue of Dionysus, a statue of a nymph, and a statue of Athena. In addition, the excavators uncovered the torso of a life-size statue of a cuirassed ruler – apparently one of the Antonine emperors – and the bust (albeit without the head) of an additional emperor in armor. These sculptures, along with fragments of another statue of Aphrodite, statues of Apollo, Herakles, and an additional Athena, and an unusual statue group depicting Leda and the Swan, also found in the bath – undoubtedly formed part of the ornamental program of the eastern bath-building of Bet Shean, as was common in bath-buildings throughout the Roman empire.

Aphrodite, whose dimensions are somewhat larger than life-size (the statue’s original height was 1.90 m), is portrayed in the nude, standing in the classical contrapposto position- her weight is placed on her left leg, her right leg is relaxed and bent slightly at the knee, and her body leans gently forward and to the left. It may be assumed that her head also tilted subtly in this direction; and it is possible to infer the goddess’ hairstyle from the ends of two braids visible on her shoulders. With her right arm Aphrodite attempts, unsuccessfully, to “cover” her bare chest, while her left hand covers her genitalia, these gestures resulting in her forward incline. The positions of the arms – including the missing sections – could be reconstructed precisely, since the points where the arms joined the body are discernable- the left arm was attached at the right thigh, and the right arm at the diaphragm, the left breast, and the left arm. Armlets were painted on both arms. Along the goddess’ left leg runs a well-preserved support, in the form of a winged Eros riding a dolphin over waves.

The statue is well designed. The goddess’ mature body, full at the hips and thighs, is depicted naturalistically, with an emphasis on the chest and globular breasts and the rounded abdomen. The movement of the body is also captured at the back, though this part was not smoothed like the front. Indeed, the artist succeeded in producing a realistic female image, while preserving the main features of the type of statue to which this Aphrodite belongs.

Except for the missing parts, which were apparently broken already in antiquity, the statue has survived in a surprisingly good state, with many traces of paint preserved. This is an extremely rare phenomenon, for even though most of the statues in the classical world were painted, the paint has remained in only a few cases. Traces of brownish red paint have survived on the braids, the chest, the navel, the pubic area, and the upper arms, where the armlets were painted (fig. 5-6). Most of the surviving paint, however, is visible on the support (figs. 5-6)- Eros’ hair and eyebrows were painted red, and his wings were painted yellow on top and blue on the bottom. The dolphin was also painted – its eyes, mouth, tail, and fin were red, and its underside, which was neither smoothed nor completed, was yellow and red, as were the waves below?

Owing to the outstanding preservation of the support, this part of the statue is especially vibrant. Eros is portrayed as a chubby, winged child, seated astride a dolphin and holding onto its fin with his left hand, while wielding a whip in his right. Eros, the god of love, also known as Cupid, meaning “desire” in Latin, was a natural companion of Aphrodite; according to one tradition, he was the son of Aphrodite and the god Ares. In the Roman period, he was frequently depicted as a mischievous boy, usually carrying a bow and arrow and amusing himself in various ways. Sometimes he is shown riding a lion, a panther, or a mytho¬logical beast. Beginning in the Hellenistic period, depictions of groups of Erotes (pl. of Eros) also became common, but the most common representation remained the single Eros riding a dolphin and wielding a whip, as he accompanies Aphrodite. This image is found in paintings, mosaics, and three-¬dimensional sculptures of bronze, clay, and wood; it was commonly carved in marble as a support for statues of Aphrodite of the type presented here. The combination of Eros with a clearly maritime theme alludes to the story of Aphrodite’s origin in sea foam. Of particular interest is the appearance of a support of this type on the famous statue of Augustus from Prima Porta, which hints at the association between the emperor and Aphrodite, patroness of the Roman imperial family.

The statue presented here belongs to a well-known group of statues, numerous examples of which have come to light throughout the Roman world. Depicting Aphrodite entirely in the nude, they have been referred to since the nineteenth century as Venus Pudica, meaning “Modest Venus (Aphrodite).” The statues represent Aphrodite chastely covering her genitalia, or both breasts and genitalia, with her hands, in order to hide them from the eye of the viewer; yet it is this very gesture that draws attention to the goddess’ sexuality.

The depiction of Aphrodite in the nude was one of the most stirring innovations in divine statuary of the Hellenistic period. Of all the classical goddesses, she was the only one to be portrayed life-sized and naked. The prototype for this group was apparently a statue, known as the Knidia, produced by the famous sculptor Praxiteles in the mid-fourth century BCE. The statue earned renown already in antiquity. According to Pliny, Praxiteles made two monumental statues of the goddess of love, beauty, and fertility – one clothed, and the other completely nude – and offered them for sale. The conservative-minded people of the island of Kos selected the former, turning down the work that would come to be regarded as the most beautiful statue in the world. The rejected statue was subsequently purchased by the people of Knidos in Asia Minor, who erected it in a temple overlooking the city’s port. The shrine was open on all sides, and the many visitors who came to see the famous Aphrodite of Knidos could observe the image of the goddess from any angle. While the statue probably did stand in Aphrodite’s shrine at Knidos, which was, it seems, open on all sides, this anecdote does not appear to be entirely accurate, since cult statues were known to have been produced only on special commission for a particular cult place. Athenaeus wrote that the sculpture was modeled after Praxiteles’ mistress, Phryne. This statement, too, should probably not be taken literally, for modern studies have shown that sculptors of the classical period did not employ models, certainly not living ones.

The original Knidia was never found, but it is assumed that the statue portrayed the goddess standing beside an amphora and draping her garment over it with her left hand, while covering her pubic area with her right. This identification is based on depictions on coins of the emperor Caracalla and his wife Plautilla (211-218 CE) from Knidos, and a coin of Maximinus (235-238 CE) from Tarsus. Many Roman-period copies of the Knidia, of various sizes and qualities, have survived at different sites. Particularly renowned is a fine copy dis¬covered in Rome in the eighteenth century, exhibited today in the Vatican Museum (no. 812; fig. 7).

In the nineteenth century, it was customary to interpret representations of the naked goddess shown covering her pubic area with her right hand as Aphrodite preparing herself for or leaving her bath. This interpretation, however, has been rejected by some scholars, who believe that the Knidia was a religious icon par excellence, which integrated Greek traditions regarding Aphrodite with eastern traditions pertaining to Ashtoret and other eastern female deities. The stance of the statue appears to have reflected the fact that the statue stood in an open shrine and was visible from every direction. Further support for this interpretation can be found in parallels between the Knidia type statues and copies of Polykleitos’ Doryphoros, which portray a naked spear-bearer. Both are general, idealized depictions, one of a male figure and the other of a female figure, without narrative context and thus in keeping with a cultic symbol.

Already in antiquity, the Knidia inspired seven basic types of Aphrodite statues, some nude and some partly nude; the different types were established some time in the course of the Hellenistic period. The first type is known as Capitoline Aphrodite (or Venus), after a statue in the Capitoline Museum in Rome (no. 409; fig. 8). Together with a very similar variation called Medici Aphrodite, after a statue formerly in the Villa Medici in Florence and later installed in the Uffizi (no. 224; fig. 9), it is the closest to the Knidia and the most widespread image of the goddess in the Roman world. The six other types are Crouching Aphrodite (fig. 10); Aphrodite Sandalbinder(fig. 11); Aphrodite Anadyomene (“Rising from the Sea”; fig. 12) and Half-Draped Aphrodite Anadyomene (fig. 13); Aphrodite of Melos, whose lower body is draped (fig. 14); and Aphrodite Kallipygos (“Of the Fair Buttocks”), who is draped but reveals her buttocks (fig. 15). Most of the statues depicting the nude Aphrodite had armlets, either carved or painted on one or both arms.

Aphrodite of Bet Shean has been identified as belonging to the Capitoline type. It should be noted, however, that the hairstyle, which can be inferred from the braids in front of the shoulders, is not, in fact, entirely identical to that of the Capitoline type, for in the latter, the two braids drape down the back and the hair is gathered in front. In the Medici type, the hair is entirely gathered and there are no braids at all.

In 1950, 101 statues of the Capitoline type and 38 of the Medici type were counted, having been discovered over the years throughout the classical world. Since then several additional examples of both types have come to light, including the statue from Bet Shean, one of the finest representatives. Also worthy of mention is Aphrodite of Perge in Asia Minor – 1.92 m high – which was found in 1956 among the ruins of the city’s main colonnaded street. This statue is almost identical to the one from Bet Shean; here, too, the braids fall in front of the shoulders and the support takes the form of Eros riding a dolphin. The statue was apparently mended and restored, but no details of the repairs were provided in the publication. According to the author, the source of the statue was Praxiteles’ Knidia. In all likelihood, both Aphrodite of Perge and Aphrodite of Bet Shean were created in the same workshop. Indeed, the marble used for both statues originated in either Aphrodisias or Afyon in Asia Minor. However, possibly the closest and most striking parallel to the Bet Shean Aphrodite is a statue of the goddess found in the vicinity of Naples, which ultimately entered the collection of the Princes Csartoryski Museum in Cracow (fig. 16). The rendering of the body and all its details are identical to those of our statue, except for the braids, missing on the Csartoryski Aphrodite. Other close parallels to Aphrodite of Bet Shean were found in 1920 in a bath-building in Cyrene, and in 1929 in a bath-building in Lepcis Magna in Libya. The former is 1.52 m high; it has braids in front of the shoulders and the head is turned to the left, but the support is in the form of a triton. The latter, also well preserved, is 1.72 m high. Here, too, the head is turned to the left and the braids fall in front of the shoulders; the support is in the form of an amphora covered with a cloth.

Three other marble statues of the Capitoline Aphrodite type should also be mentioned; originating in Italy, two of them reached England in the eighteenth century, while the third was brought to the Louvre at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The first statue (fig. 17) was excavated in 1794 in a Roman villa at Campo Iemini, Latium, by three Englishmen, among them Prince Augustus Frederick. Measuring 1.99 m high, it was described by Carlo Fea, one of the pioneers of archaeology, as “a sublime statue of supreme beauty…” and was considered one of the most famous artworks of its time. The statue was entrusted to the Prince of Wales, later to become George V of England, and donated to the British Museum in 1834 (no. 1834.3-1.1). The second statue (fig. 18) is known as the Barberini Venus; it is also closely related to Aphrodite of Bet Shean – in the stance, in the armlets (though they are carved), and, especially, in the way the braids fall in front of the shoulders. In the early eighteenth century, the statue belonged to the Barberini Family and stood in the family’s palace in Rome, until it was purchased by William Wedel in 1765 for a collection of antiquities that would one day decorate Wedel’s residence at Newby Hall in northern England. Apparently, the Vatican authorities only weakly protested the removal of the naked goddess from the Eternal City, which made it possible to bring the statue to England.34 According to the eighteenth-century archaeologist and art historian J.J. Winckelmann, this statue even surpassed the Medici Aphrodite, which was on exhibit at the time in Florence and was widely regarded as the most beautiful Aphrodite of all. Unfortunately, as was common practice in those days, the statue was restored in such a way that it is difficult to tell which parts are original and which are additions; the head, for instance, was taken from another statue of Aphrodite. The third statue (fig. 19), presently in the Louvre (no. MR369), was also heavily restored, the head, arms, and right leg being among the later additions. Nevertheless, the support in the form of Eros standing on a dolphin, which is similar to the support used for Aphrodite of Bet Shean, appears to be original, though the wings are later additions, as well.

Sculptural images of the naked Aphrodite have represented a combination of sexuality, fertility, and sanctity since Hellenistic times. It seems that the naked female body – in the image of the sensual Aphrodite – first became a popular subject in sculpture at the end of the second century BCE. The popularity of such images continued into the Roman period, when Aphrodite-Venus was revered by the Romans from both a religious and a political standpoint as the mother of Aeneas, the mythical father of the Roman people, and later as patroness of the Roman imperial family. The wide distribution of sculptures and figurines of naked Aphrodite, as well as her representation in painting and other media and her important role in the decorative programs of private houses, villas, and gardens of the Early Roman period, indicate that “we cannot write Aphrodite off as only a pretty and sexy figure or as a purely secular ornament. On the contrary, in the Graeco-Roman period Aphrodite’s image was profoundly meaningful and potent. Her presence in homes, gardens, and tombs suggests that she was a deeply revered goddess who was constantly needed and welcomed in intimate and private contexts.”

In the public sphere as well, statues of Aphrodite-Venus were exceedingly popular, ornamenting theaters, palaces, nymphaea (fountains), bath-buildings, and, of course, serving as cult statues in temples. Bath-buildings in particular were richly embellished with a wide variety of statues; among these, the number of statues of Aphrodite and Eros are second only to those of Dionysos and his entourage. In a study of the decorative program of bath-buildings throughout Roman world, a total of 560 statues have been identified; of these, 54 were statues of Aphrodite and her escorts, while 71 depicted Dionysos and his entourage. The study was completed in 1981, but excavations con¬ducted since then in Asia Minor and Israel have not changed this ratio significantly. The eastern bath-building of Bet Shean, too, yields a similar picture.

The tremendous popularity of the nude figure of Aphrodite in the Graeco¬Roman period is best understood against the background of the rich literature of the period, which includes poems, epigrams, and commentaries that relate to Aphrodite and praise her representations. The Roman poet Ovid, in his treatise on the art of love, refers explicitly to the goddess’ gesture of modesty- “Venus herself never putteth off her veil, but with modest hand she covereth her charms.” “Modest” Aphrodite from the eastern bath-building of Bet Shean is indeed a fine illustration of this.

Gideon Foerster, “A Modest Aphrodite from Bet Shean,” Israel Museum Studies in Archaeology, Volume 4, 2005, p. 3-14.

See also-

Terracotta Statuette of Aphrodite

Posted in: Roman Period II

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