This article was originally published on the defunct Ancient World Magazine website and is now re-published here.
What do the Louvre in Paris, the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, the Archaeological Museum of Rhodes, to name but three museums featuring antiquities, have in common? Among other things, they all have at least one marble statue depicting the goddess Aphrodite – or Venus, as the Romans called her – in a crouching position.
As the descriptive plaque in the museum of Rhodes makes clear, sculptures like these were used from the Hellenistic period onwards (323 BC and later) to adorn the interiors of wealthy houses, as well as bath houses, and private and public gardens. The museum adds that all of the statues ultimately derive from a Greek original of the third century BC, attributed to Doidalsas (or Daedalsas) of Bythinia (a region along the north coast of Anatolia), as per a statement in Pliny’s Natural History (36.4).
While ancient Greek sculptors had no problem depicting the naked male form, they mostly avoided creating statues of naked women. Towards the end of the fifth century BC, there were some experiments: the “wet-drapery” style used for the Caryatids on the Athenian Acropolis, for example, were fully clothed, but the way that their dress stuck to the body helped accentuate the female form beneath. It wasn’t until the fourth century BC that women were depicted fully nude in sculpture, with the Aphrodite of Knidos by Praxiteles widely regarded as a watershed moment. This Attic statue depicted the goddess standing, completely naked and about to take a bath.
The many statues that depict Aphrodite/Venus crouching all show the goddess bathing or about to wash. The small statue from Rhodes (right, in the picture above) shows the goddess rinsing or trying to dry her hair. In the other statues shown above, she has her hair tied and kept high in order to keep it dry. In all instances, she’s kneeling, with one knee raised and the other kept low to the ground. Characteristically for statues of this type, her head – and sometimes shoulders, too – are turned to the right.
Many of these statues have a subtle eroticism to them. Often, hands and arms obscure the breasts: look, for example, at the statue from the Louvre (left, in the picture above) or the one from Naples (centre). The genitals are usually obscured from view due to the position of the legs, but note how the left hand of the statue in Naples (centre) subtly leads the eye of the observer. This kind of playful eroticism is typical of the Hellenistic period: art from the Classical period is, for the most part, almost blunt and straightforward in comparison.
But why associate the goddess of love with bathing and water? According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Aphrodite was born when the Titans, led by Cronus, cut off their father Uranus’ genitals and cast them into the sea. Out of the foam arose a beautiful young women, fully grown, who stepped ashore on either the island of Cythera or Cyprus. The first thing she would have done was dry herself, for example by rinsing or wringing out her hair as in the statue from Rhodes.