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Representations in Art

Aphrodite has been the inspiration of more works than any other personage in classical mythology, and only a very few works can be mentioned here from the thousands that could be listed.

Aphrodite Urania and Aphrodite Pandemos. Examples of the many works of art inspired by Hesiod’s myth of the birth of Aphrodite from the sea have been discussed in Chapter 3. The alternate myth, which names Zeus and Dione as her parents, is alluded to in the east pediment of the Parthenon, where Dione is one of the seated goddesses receiving the news of Athena's birth. Aphrodite’s rule over the island of Cythera is exquisitely recalled in two paintings by Antoine Watteau, Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera (1717, now in Paris, and a second version, 1718, now in Berlin).
The duality of Aphrodite is continued in the postclassical (and especially Renaissance) theme of sacred and profane love. Urania is shown naked, Pandemos robed in luxurious clothing. The most famous such representation is Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love (1514, now in Rome), a complex painting whose meaning is not fully known. The dual nature of Aphrodite extends also to the allegory of the Choice of Heracles (see Chapter 22): indeed, in Rubens’ design for the Pompa Introitus Ferdinandi, a Cupid, accompanying Pleasure, is trying to pluck away the hero’s club and lion skin.

The Range of Artistic Depictions of Aphrodite. Pre-Greek sculptures from the Aegean islands, which emphasize female sexual attributes, are given the title "Aphrodite" or "Venus," which is an anachronism. In archaic Greek art Aphrodite is shown clothed, whether seated with other Olympians (as in the east pediment and inner frieze of the Parthenon at Athens) or standing or riding in a chariot or even (as on a red-figure vase from Cyprus, ca. 440 B.C., now in Oxford) on a swan. After about 400 she begins to be portrayed nude in statues, but not in vase-paintings. The most famous of these statues is the Venus of Cnidos by Praxiteles (mid-fourth century B.C.; copy in the Vatican), which is known, like other famous versions derived from it (the Medici Venus, etc.), from Roman marble copies from the second century A.D. onwards. A second type is a half-draped Venus; the most famous is the statue from Melos (Venus de Milo, now in Paris), the original of which might have been also by Praxiteles. A third type is a crouching nude statue, of which the bronze original may have been by Doidalsas (ca. 200 B.C.; Roman copy in Paris). All these types have been the inspiration of countless postclassical renditions.

Many paintings include a statue of Aphrodite as a reminder of her power to affect the action of the painting: this is the case in Watteau’s paintings mentioned above; another example is Rubens’ The Garden of Love (1633, now in the Prado), where the statue’s position and attributes reflect the urgency of the lovers in the garden. More subtle, and perhaps satirical, is John Singer Sargent’s Breakfast in the Loggia (1910, now in Washington), where behind the two elegantly dressed women at their meal is a statue of Aphrodite similar to the Venus de Milo. Of the countless representations of reclining Aphrodite it will be sufficient to mention Titian’s three masterpieces—Venus of Urbino (1538, in Florence); Venus at her Toilet with Two Cupids (1555, in Washington); Venus with an Organist (ca. 1550, in Madrid). In eighteenth-century France at the courts of Louis XIV and Louis XV, Venus was the subject of paintings, court ballets, and operas. François Boucher (1703-70) painted a large number of works which were variations on the theme of Venus: many of them, genuinely inspired by their classical origins, are masterpieces now in collections in Paris, London, New York, and many other cities; many, however, are superficial even if technically accomplished.

The Graces. Among companions of Aphrodite in art, the Graces (Charites, but often confused with the Horai, Seasons) are especially popular. They were usually portrayed as three clothed young women and appeared on the statue of Zeus at Olympia (see Chapter 5). At Rome, in a painting from Pompeii, they were shown naked and linked together. This pose has been popular with many postclassical artists: of hundreds of representations, the preeminent one is The Three Graces by Rubens (1635, in Madrid).

The Range of Literary Depictions of Aphrodite.  In Homer Aphrodite fares badly when she takes part in the theomachies (fighting between gods), and she is even wounded by a mortal hero, Diomedes, in Book 5 of the Iliad. She also can show terrible anger, as she reveals to Helen in Book 3 of the Iliad when Helen resists her command to make love to Paris. Her anger is shown also in Euripides’ tragedy Hippolytus (428 B.C.), in which she speaks the prologue and reveals her plan to destroy Hippolytus by means of Phaedra, because of his refusal to worship her. In Book 14 of the Iliad she assists Hera in the deception of Zeus by lending her the kestos (usually translated as "girdle," although Homer says she takes it from her breasts), in which lie all the charm and power of sexual attraction. Her role in the Aeneid is far greater, where she repeatedly appears to comfort, advise, and help her son Aeneas. Because of her success in the judgment of Paris (see Chapter 19), she supports the Trojans in the Trojan War. The myth of her love for the Trojan prince Anchises is told in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite (No. 5): a fine postclassical representation is the painting by Annibale Carracci (1600) of Venus and Anchises in the Farnese Palace at Rome. This Hymn, and the very beautiful and subtle Invocation to Aphrodite by Sappho (ca. 600 B.C.), in their different ways, express the power of the goddess. A distant echo of the ancient hymns is heard in Palamon’s prayer to Venus at her temple in the Canterbury Tales of Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” (ca. 1387).

Priapus. This fertility god, Aphrodite’s son, was worshiped especially at Lampsacus, a Greek city on the Hellespont, where his ritual included the sacrifice of a donkey. Ovid (in the Fasti) twice tells the tale of the reason for the hostility of Priapus to donkeys, and it is a principal theme in Bellini’s painting The Feast of the Gods (1514, now in Washington), discussed in Chapter 5. Priapus’ importance to the fertility of nature was indicated by his statues, which displayed a huge erect phallus and were common in Greek and Roman gardens. A subgenre of poetry, ranging from the lyrically erotic to the obscene, called Priapeia was popular in the Roman world, and the wrath of Priapus is a leading motif in the Latin novel Satyricon, by Petronius (d. 66 A.D.).

Pygmalion and Galatea. From Book 10 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, this popular myth is readily interpreted as an allegory of the inspiration and achievement of the artist, or as the fulfillment of desire by lover or spiritual pilgrim. Both allegories appear in the cycle by Edward Burne-Jones (1868–78, now in Birmingham) based on a poem by William Morris. The titles of the four paintings indicate the nature of the allegories: The Heart Desires, The Hand Refrains, The Godhead Fires, and The Soul Attains (in the fourth painting the statue comes to life and is embraced by the artist). For the comedy by George Bernard Shaw and other modern adaptations, see the DVD section of the Bibliography for this chapter.

Venus and Adonis. The myth of Adonis is the most important for its influence in ritual and religion, as well as in art and poetry. Innumerable postclassical works of art are based on Ovid's full account in Book 10 of the Metamorphoses, Adonis is an Asiatic vegetation deity, the consort of the goddess of creative Nature (Astarte being one of her many names in the East), who dies each year and is resurrected. Sappho (ca. 600 B.C.) refers to his death and the mourning of women for him: these are the basic elements in the myth, to which later are added the motifs of Aphrodite as his lover, the boar hunt, and his birth from the myrrh tree. The tradition of Adonis spending one third of his time with Persephone in the Underworld and two thirds with Aphrodite is old and appears in Greek vase paintings, where he first appears around 400 B.C., sometimes with Eros as well as Aphrodite. In the mid-fourth century he is shown on a couch (on a vase now in Naples) with Zeus enthroned above, adjudicating the sharing of his time with Persephone and Aphrodite. Another feature of his ritual, the "Gardens of Adonis," first appears earlier, however, on Athenian vases around 450 B.C.: there is a good example of ca. 390 B.C. now in Karlsruhe. At Rome he appears in wall paintings at Pompeii, including one (now lost but reproduced from earlier photographs) from around 65 A.D. As a dying and resurrected divinity, he is an obvious source of allegory for funerary art, and on several sarcophagi the three main stages of his legend are narrated sequentially: a sarcophagus of the late second century A.D. (now in Paris) shows scenes of his farewell from Aphrodite, the hunt and the fatal wound, and the mourning over him. In postclassical art an important representation of the myth is the cycle of four paintings by Marcantonio Franceschini (completed before 1699 for the ducal palace in Vaduz, Liechtenstein, where they still are, although not in their original rooms), which show dramatically the birth of Adonis, the hunt with Venus, his death, and the mourning of Venus.
Of the huge number of postclassical paintings, masterpieces, both with the title of Venus and Adonis, by Titian (1554) and Veronese (1584), are exceptional; both are now in Madrid. Titian focuses on the stage of departure, and Veronese on an earlier stage when Adonis sleeps in the lap of Venus. The stage of mourning has been especially popular in the Christian world because of its evocation of lamentation for the dead Christ (i.e., the pietà): the Spanish painter, Jusepe de Ribera (who lived and worked in Naples), painted one such scene (1637, now in Rome), and a very dramatic painting by one of his followers (ca. 1650, now in Cleveland) shows Venus descending from her chariot (drawn by doves) to mourn over the corpse. The departure of Adonis from Venus, and her efforts to restrain him are also popular because of Ovid, as shown by Titian's painting mentioned above, and in the Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis (1593). The myth of Venus and Adonis is similar to that of Cybele and Attis, but Attis has not inspired many works of art, and Cybele will be discussed in Chapter 14.

Eros/Cupid. Of the associates of Aphrodite, Eros is by far the most important. In archaic Greek literature he is the creative force in nature, but potentially maddening and destructive, as Sophocles (in his Antigone, 441 B.C.) says in a chorus addressed to Eros. Around 400 B.C. he begins to be represented as a chubby infant, the Cupid of innumerable ancient and postclassical works. In Roman art, especially in the frescoes from Pompeii, Cupids are shown in all kinds of human activity, and they are the inevitable companions of Venus in postclassical art. Sometimes Eros appears with his opposite, Anteros, a variation on the duality of sacred and profane love. Most often, however, cupids (known as putti) signify the joy, energy, and hope of love, as is the case in almost every painting of Aphrodite and Venus mentioned earlier in this chapter. Veritable swarms of putti appear in paintings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for example, those by Rubens, Poussin, Watteau, and Boucher—four very different masters all using the same decorative and allegorical figures. Cupid is shown in many guises: a mischief-maker who is punished or taught by his mother; a winged archer; a child stung by a bee; a mourner or a joyful celebrant. He is perhaps the commonest of all decorative personages from classical mythology to appear in postclassical art.

Cupid and Psyche. The myth of Cupid and Psyche is an allegory of the union of the human soul with the divine. The lovers appear on Greek vases and reliefs in the fifth century B.C. and on many more in the fourth and third centuries; Psyche is a winged female figure representing the soul, and Plato in his Phaedrus, similarly refers to the soul as winged. Apuleius (ca. 160 A.D.), made Psyche into a mythological figure with her own narrative in his Latin novel, paraphrased in M/L, Chapter 9 (pp. 212–215). In art Psyche often has butterfly wings, and in the Roman world she and Cupid are most commonly shown embracing: the best-known example is the statue now in Rome, a Roman copy of the fourth century A.D. of a Greek original of the second century B.C., in which the lovers are children without wings. This work was especially admired in the eighteenth century and copied in many media, including Wedgwood porcelain. The myth of Cupid and Psyche is also common on funerary reliefs as an allegory of the soul's immortality. Of the hundreds of postclassical representations, the cycle of frescoes by Raphael painted for the Villa Farnesina in Rome (1518, mentioned in Chapter 5) is preeminent.

Venus at Rome. Aphrodite has been celebrated in all ages as the goddess of the creative power in Nature. At Rome she was identified with Venus, the Italian goddess of neatness and fertility in gardens; despite her limited status, one of the most joyous of hymns to Venus is the opening of the De rerum natura of Lucretius (ca. 55 B.C.), imitated by Spenser in the Faerie Queen (4.10.44-47). Lucretius calls Venus "Mother of the descendants of Aeneas" (Aeneadum Genetrix), anticipating the claim of Julius Caesar and Augustus to be descended from Venus. Caesar’s family did most to promote Venus to the first rank of Olympian deities at Rome. He dedicated a temple to Venus Genetrix in his new Forum Iulium in 46 B.C., and in 135 Hadrian (emperor 117–138 A.D.) dedicated a temple to Venus and Roma, one of the largest temples in the city.

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