Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Knidian Aphrodite, Praxiteles

The Aphrodite of Knidos, Praxiteles, c. 340 - 330 BCE

She is the most celebrated piece of sculpture in the Classical world. The work was said to have been controversial - she is the first nude goddess in sculpture - and was rejected by its original commission; the town of Knidos gratefully accepted it. She became a celebrated tourist attraction - as usual, the original is missing - and was the most widely copied work at the time. Most of the copies are weak, though some of the torsos and heads are vivid, memorable, and might give us some sense of the power of the original.

If we had the original, we might dispel the gossip about a stain found on one of her thighs - said to be semen from an over-active young man. A wonderful description of her comes to us from one of her many admirers, who got the guard to let them through the gate so they could admire her bottom. You can read it in the Dialogue Comparing Male and Female Love, attributed to Lucian of Samosata. Here is part of it:

13. ...The goddess stands in the center; her statue made of marble from Paros. Her lips are slightly parted by a lofty smile. Nothing hides her beauty, which is entirely exposed, other than a furtive hand veiling her modesty. The art of the sculptor has succeeded so well that it seems the marble has shed its hardness to mold the grace of her limbs. Charícles, dazed by this spectacle, impulsively burst out, "Lucky Mars, to be chained by such a goddess!" He rushed forward as he spoke, lips pursed, neck stretched to give her a kiss. Callicratídas watched the display in silence. The temple has a second entrance for those who wish to contemplate the goddess from behind, for none of her parts should escape admiration. It is easy in that fashion to gaze upon her hind beauty.
14. Wanting to see the goddess entire we approached this gate. Upon being let in by the woman who kept the keys, we were overwhelmed by her abundant beauty. As soon as the Athenian, who had so far been indifferent, glimpsed this side of the goddess, which reminded him of boys, he exclaimed with even greater enthusiasm than that of Charícles, "By Hercules, what a harmonious back. What rounded thighs, begging to be caressed with both hands! How well the lines of her cheeks flow, neither too skinny, showing the bones, nor so voluminous as to droop! How inexpressible the tenderness of that smile pressed into her dimpled loins! How precise that line running from thigh, to leg, to foot! (Lucian of Samosata, Erotes, translated by Andrew Kallimachos on the Diotima site)

Aphrodite is taking a bath, said to be a ritual bath, which an entry in Wikipedia identifies as restoring her virginity; this is not an aspect of her myth I am familiar with, and seems unlikely. Hera does bathe to restore her virginity, but the Aphrodite I know (and love) has very little use for virginity. The mikvah of Jewish tradition is the ritual bath. Robert Alter's note says that David lies with Bathsheba "she having just cleansed herself of her impurity. The reference is to the ritually required bath after the end of menstruation. This explains Bathsheba's bathing on the roof and also makes it clear that she could not be pregnant by her husband"(The David Story, 251). I don't know even if Aphrodite menstruates. It is enough to know - to see - that she is taking a bath, and just discarding, or picking up, her garment. Woodford calls the bath an "everyday" sort of occasion, which I think is good.

Aphrodite's pose is celebrated and, as I said, widely copied. She has been called the Venus pudica, the bashful Aphrodite, for apparently trying to shield her genitals. Other copies of the pose have her shielding her breasts as well. It has also been noticed that she does a rather poor job of hiding herself, and may - she is, remember, Aphrodite - be pointing them out to us. In some copies her shielding hand is broken off, which we much prefer to those copies with awkward restorations. Likely enough, the best interpretation is that she is both hiding her charms, or pretending to, and displaying them, or pretending to. Her forbears in goddesses of the Ancient Near East (Inanna, Ishtar, Astarte) would definitively have been displaying themselves; their cults involved what we refer to as ritual prostitution.

Incidentally, the name Venus pudica gave rise to the waggish venus impudica, the name given to one of the charming female statuettes of the Paleolithic, and, hence, to our calling them all, misleadingly, I think, Venus figures.

She is the goddess of sex, and in particular its physical attractions and pleasures, all of which associate with beauty and love. Classically (in every sense of the term) there are two goddesses, or one with two very different aspects - the heavenly, spiritual, refined goddess of love and the earthly (and earthy) goddess of sex and sexual pleasure. She is, of course, no gentle goddess. Though she dearly loves her son Aeneas, she lets him fall from her arms when she is scratched by Diomedes in Book 5 of the Iliad. With her son Eros (Cupid) she wreaks havoc among both gods (witness the rape of Persephone) and men. As the recipient of the golden apple in the story of the judgment of Paris, she is the root cause of the Trojan War.

Let's turn back to look again at this sculpture, where the contrapposto pose is adapted to the female form. Here is Susan Woodford to help us look:
Praxiteles’ masterpiece demonstrated that sensuousness as well as equilibrium can be conveyed by applying contrapposto to the female form. Aphrodite rests her weight on her right leg, raising the hip on that side; her right shoulder is lowered as she holds her hand modestly in front of her genitals. That side of her torso is contracted, while the other side is extended. The incline of her shoulders (downward to our left) contrasts with the incline of her hips (downward to our right) to produce a rhythm that is both organically alive and dynamically balanced. The weight-bearing foot is slightly in advance of the other; the knees are pressed together so that the swelling mass of thighs and hips expands gracefully from the narrow base. The formal arrangement that had originally been devised for an athletic male has been brilliantly modified to become a vehicle to reveal the newly discovered charm of the feminine form.

Aphrodite looks sharply to her left, as if suddenly disturbed. Her nudity is explained by the fact that she is preparing to bathe. She holds her clothing to one side; it falls over the hydria containing the water she needs. The limp, inert drapery and the rigid water-jar contrast with the soft, living body of the goddess. The statue has been carefully worked out in terms of contrasts and composition, The hydria and the drapery provided the supports that were required for sculpture in marble, but an artist as skilful as Praxitiles would probably have found a way of doing without the strut at the hip which the copyist found necessary. (Susan Woodford, An Introduction to Greek Art, 154)

From Woodford helping us through the scene, we may apprehend the piece something as we saw the Doryphoros; I am not saying that if he were female, he would be she, but there does remain from him to her the articulation of a system, based on geometry, whereby what is rendered as naturalistic is also composed as if emerging from the timeless world of abstract forms and symmetries.

The goddess Aphrodite is best understood, I think, or perhaps I should say best apprehended, through the poetry of Sappho. Here is a rendition of one of my favorites

Come, Goddess,
Come from Crete
Come to your grove
Where I await
Where sweet apples
In the trees await
And where the altar
Smokes with frankincense
To praise you.

A rippling babble
Of cold spring water
Echoes through the apple orchard.
And everything is roses
And shadows in the leaves,
And mazy sleep
Comes down with evening,
All among these flowers
Where horses are grazing.

Come, Goddess,
Pour the nectar
To our feast
In burnished cups.