Aphrodite of Knidos
The Aphrodite of Knidos was one of the most famous works of the ancient Greek sculptor Praxiteles of Athens (4th century BC). It and its copies are often referred to as the Venus Pudica ("modest Venus") type, on account of her covering her naked pubis with her right hand. Variants of the Venus Pudica (suggesting an action to cover the breasts) are the Venus de' Medici and the Capitoline Venus.
The Aphrodite of Knidos is famous for its beauty. It is meant to be appreciated from every angle, as it is one of the first life-sized representations of the nude female form. It was especially shocking as it was commissioned as the cult statue for a temple. It depicted the goddess Aphrodite as she prepared for the ritual bath that restored her purity (not virginity), discarding her drapery with one hand, while modestly shielding herself with the other. Her hands are placed in a motion that simultaneously shields her womanhood and draws attention to her nudity. Because the various copies show different body shapes, poses and accessories, the original can only be described in general terms; the body bending in a contrapposto position, an artistic innovation of Greek art which realistically portrays normal human stance, with the head probably turned to the left. Lucian said that she "wore a slight smile that just revealed her teeth", although most later copies do not preserve this. While it is popular belief that the female nude has always been a classical subject, the female nude occurred nearly three centuries after her nude male counterpart. According to an account by Pliny the Elder, Praxiteles sculpted both a nude statue and a draped statue of Aphrodite. The city of Kos purchased the draped statue, because they felt the nude version was indecent, while the city of Knidos purchased the nude statue. Pliny claims that the statue brought fame to Knidos. Coins issued in Knidos depicting the statue seem to confirm this claim.
Praxiteles was alleged to have used the courtesan Phryne as a model for the statue, which added to the gossip surrounding its origin. The statue became so widely known and copied that in a humorous anecdote the goddess Aphrodite herself came to Knidos to see it. A lyric epigram of Antipater of Sidon places a hypothetical question on the lips of the goddess herself:
A similar epigram is attributed to Plato:
When Cypris saw Cypris at Cnidus, "Alas!" said she; "where did Praxiteles see me naked?"
The statue became a tourist attraction in spite of being a cult image, and a patron of the Knidians. Nicomedes I of Bithynia offered to pay off the enormous debts of the city of Knidos in exchange for the statue, but the Knidians rejected his offer. The statue would have been polychromed, and was so lifelike that it even aroused men sexually, as witnessed by the tradition that a young man broke into the temple at night and attempted to copulate with the statue, leaving a stain on it. This story is recorded in the dialogue Erotes (section 15), traditionally misattributed to Lucian of Samosata. The same dialogue also offers the fullest literary description of the temenos of Aphrodite at Knidos:
The floor of the court had not been doomed to sterility by a stone pavement, but on the contrary, it burst with fertility, as behooves Aphrodite: fruit trees with verdant foliage rose to prodigious heights, their limbs weaving a lofty vault. The myrtle, beloved by the goddess, reached up its berry-laden branches no less than the other trees which so gracefully stretched out. They never know foliage grown old, their boughs always being thick with leaves. To tell the truth, you can notice among them some infertile trees, but they have beauty as their fruit. Such were the cypress and the planes which towered to the heavens, as well as the tree of Daphnis, who once fled Aphrodite but now has come here to seek refuge. Ivies entwine themselves lovingly around each of these trees. Heavy clusters of grapes hang from the gnarled vines: indeed, Aphrodite is only more attractive when united with Bacchus; their pleasures are sweeter for being mixed together. Apart, they have less spice. Under the welcome shade of the boughs, comfortable beds await the celebrants— actually the better people of the town only rarely frequent these green halls, but the common crowds jostle there on festive days, to yield publicly to the joys of love. (Pseudo-Lucian, Erotes)
Of the Aphrodite herself, the narrator resorts to hyperbole:
When we had exhausted the charms of these places we pressed on into the temple itself. 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 (Pseudo-Lucian, Erotes)
Around 330 BC, Praxiteles was commissioned to create a sculpture of Aphrodite by the Island, Kos. He created two statues: one fully clothed and the other naked. Kos was horrified at the depiction of Aphrodite nude so they took the clothed statue. Knidos bought the remaining Aphrodite and she was installed in Knidos' sanctuary to the goddess, and thus gained a widespread cult-like following for its beauty. The statue was created for the temple of Aphrodite Euploia at Knidos and depicts a naked Aphrodite as she is interrupted while bathing.
The Knidian Aphrodite has not survived. Possibly the statue was removed to Constantinople (modern Istanbul,) where it was housed in the Palace of Lausus; in 475, the palace burned and the statue was lost. It was one of the most widely copied statues in the ancient world, so a general idea of the appearance of the statue can be gleaned from the descriptions and replicas that have survived to the modern day. For a time in 1969, the archaeologist Iris Love thought she had found the only surviving fragments of the original statue, which are now in storage at the British Museum. The prevailing opinion of archaeologists is that the fragment in question is not of the Knidia, but of a different statue.
- Probably the most faithful replica of the statue is the Colonna Venus conserved in the Museo Pio-Clementino, part of the collections of the Vatican Museums.
- The Kaufmann Head, found at Tralles, purchased from the C.M. Kaufmann collection, Berlin, and conserved in the Musée du Louvre, is thought to be a very faithful Roman reproduction of the head of the Knidian Aphrodite.
- At Hadrian's Villa near Tivoli in Italy, there is a second-century recreation of the temple at Knidos with a fragmentary replica of the Aphrodite standing at the center of it, generally matching descriptions in ancient accounts of how the original was displayed.
- At the Prado Museum.
As well as more or less faithful copies, the Aphrodite of Knidos also inspired various variations, which include:
- the Capitoline Venus (Capitoline Museums, Rome)
- the Barberini Venus
- the Borghese Venus
- the Venus of Arles (Louvre, Paris)
- the Aphrodite of Melos (the Venus de Milo, Louvre, Paris)
- the Venus de' Medici (Uffizi Gallery, Florence)
- the Esquiline Venus (Capitoline Museum, Rome)
- Venus of the Esquiline type (Louvre, Paris)
- the Crouching Venus (Louvre, Paris and British Museum, London)
- the Aphrodite Kallipygos (aka Venus Kalypygos, Museo Archeologico Nazionale Napoli, Naples)
- the Venus Victrix (Uffizi Gallery)
- Venus Urania (Uffizi Gallery)
- The Mazarin Venus, named after Cardinal Mazarin (now in the J. Paul Getty Museum)
- An example with added figures of Pan and Cupid at the Athens National Archaeological Museum.
- The Venus Felix at the Vatican Museums, a possible variation of the type.
- Most, but not all, copies have the right hand covering the pubic area. (Havelock, p.12)
- Havelock, p.13
- Excerpt from Nanette Salomon, "The Venus Pudica: uncovering art history's 'hidden agenda' and pernicious pedigrees," published in Griselda Pollock, Generations and Geographies in the Visual Arts.
- Spivey, Nigel (1997). Understanding Greek Sculpture: Ancient Meanings, Modern Readings. Thames and Hudson Ltd, London. p. 178. ISBN 0500278768.
The greatest work of this sculptor, indeed one of the greatest sculptures in the whole world, is his Venus, which many people have sailed to Knidos to see. Praxiteles in fact made two statues which he put up for sale together. One of them was draped, and because it was draped was preferred by the people of Kos, who had first choice of the statues (which were offered at the same price). They thought this the decent thing to do. But the statue they refused was taken instead by the people of Knidos, and it was this statue which became renowned. Later King Nicomedes [of Kos] tried to buy it from the Knidians, promising to discharge their enormous state debt. But the Knidians resolutely held on to their statue, and rightly so: for it was this work of Praxiteles which made Knidos famous. The shrine in which it stands is openly constructed in order to allow the statue of the goddess to be viewed from every angle, and they say that the goddess encouraged this herself. And indeed the statue is equally marvellous whichever way you look at it. (Natural History XXXVI.4.20-I)
- Antipater, Greek Anthology XVI.168 [The author of this poem is listed as anonymous in the Loeb edition (The Greek Anthology Vol. V., p. 257).]
- Edmonds, J. M., trans.; rev. John M. Cooper. "Epigrams". Plato: Complete Works. Ed. John M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997. p 1744. Print.
- Havelock, p.13. Pliny recounts that Praxilites valued most the sculptures of his that were painted by the hand of the Athenian Nikias, although he does not specifically link Nikias to the Knidian Aphrodite
- See also the Hellenistic story of Pygmalion.
- "The head from Martres Tolosanes and, especially, the so-called Kaufmann appear to me the best extant replicas" (Charles Waldstein, "A Head of Aphrodite, Probably from the Eastern Pediment of the Parthenon, at Holkham Hall", The Journal of Hellenic Studies 33 (1913:276-295) p. 283; "general agreement on the genuineness of the Kaufmann Collection Aphrodite as a replica of the Cnidian aphrodite" (Robert I. Edenbaum, "Panthea: Lucian and Ideal Beauty" The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism" 25.1 (Autumn 1966:65-700 p. 69.
- Theodor Kraus. Die Aphrodite von Knidos. Walter Dorn Verlag, Bremen/Hannover, 1957.
- Leonard Closuit. L'Aphrodite de Cnide: Etude typologique des principales répliques antiques de l'Aphrodite de Cnide de Praxitèle. Imrimerie Pillet - Martigney, 1978.
- Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny. Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture, 1500-1900. Yale University Press, New Haven/London, 1981.
- Christine Mitchell Havelock. The Aphrodite of Knidos and Her Successors: A Historical Review of the Female Nude in Greek Art University of Michigan Press, 1995.
Cyril Mango, “Antique Statuary and the Byzantine Beholder,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 17 (1963), pp. 53-75.