Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Goddess Aphrodite Goes West (To The Getty)

Head of Aphrodite ("The Bartlett Head"), Greek, Late Classical or Early Hellenistic Period, about 330–300 B.C. Parian marble.

Typically associated with beauty and erotic desire, Aphrodite is one of the most compelling and powerful of ancient Greek divinities. Aphrodite and the Gods of Love, on view at the Getty Villa from March 28 through July 9, 2012, presents the goddess in her manifold aspects, exploring her precursors in the ancient Near East, her devotees, her companions and offspring, and culminates with her adaptation in Roman religion as Venus. 

“We are thrilled to have worked collaboratively with our colleagues at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston to present this first U.S. museum exhibition devoted to Aphrodite, which includes many important works from the collections of both museums as well as from Italian institutions,” says David Bomford, acting director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “This exhibition is an opportunity for a broader examination of the goddess, a favored subject of J. Paul Getty himself.” 

Oil flask (lekythos) in the form of Aphrodite, Greek, Late Classical Period, mid-4th century B.C. Ceramic, Figural.

David Saunders, assistant curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum and curator of the exhibition at the Getty adds, “This exhibition goes beyond the conventional preconceptions of Aphrodite as simply the goddess of love. It reveals other sides of her that deserve attention—her role as a protectress in certain cities, for example, or her care for sailors and merchants. Furthermore, we demonstrate that she was not always benevolent. There are numerous cases in which she and Eros manipulate the desires of both men and gods.” 

Statuette of Aphrodite untying a sandal (Sandalbinder), Greek, East Greek, Late Hellenistic Period, 1st century B.C. Terracotta.

The exhibition begins with Aphrodite as we expect her—nude, beautiful, and seductive. Her naked body was first depicted by the Greek sculptor Praxiteles around 350 B.C., and his sensational cult statue for her temple at Knidos (in present-day Turkey)—now lost— proved enormously influential. In the exhibition, sculptures showing Aphrodite bathing and dressing herself represent the major variations of the female nude. In addition, perfume vessels, storage jars, and mirrors demonstrate how the goddess served as a model for women in their boudoirs and baths. 

Sleeping Hermaphrodite, Roman, Imperial Period, 1st century B.C. Marble. Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma.

 Having outlined what is familiar about Aphrodite, the exhibition turns to lesser known themes. First is the vexed question of her origins. She was not native to early Greek religion but evolved over centuries, influenced by a variety of Near Eastern goddesses associated with power, fertility, and war. Figurines from Cyprus and the Near East dating as far back as the third millennium B.C. are used to explore the complex story of the goddess’s genesis. The next section of the exhibition looks at Aphrodite’s involvement in affairs of the heart, most notably in the mythical Judgment of Paris, when she offered Helen, queen of Sparta, as her prize. 

The Judgment of Paris, Roman, Imperial Period, 45–79 A.D. Fresco. Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

Aphrodite was hardly a model wife herself, and the child of her liaison with Hermes was Hermaphroditos, represented in the exhibition by the magnificent sculpture of the Sleeping Hermaphrodite from the Palazzo Massimo in Rome. The fickle nature of Aphrodite’s companion, and in some sources, son, Eros is also explored in this section. He is a child who toys with lovers, and is often described in ancient texts as capricious and troublesome. Many of the depictions of Eros in the exhibition reinforce this notion. One terracotta statue portrays him as a young boy wearing a lion-skin, just like Herakles. The combination looks endearing, but conveys how powerful and potentially destructive desire can be. 

Statuette of Eros wearing the lionskin of Herakles, Greek, East Greek, Hellenistic Period, 1st century B.C. Terracotta.

The final section of the exhibition focuses on Aphrodite’s worship, using material from sites such as Athens, Cyprus, Naukratis, and Aphrodisias to examine the identity of her devotees, the kinds of offerings they made, and regional cults. On display only at the Getty Villa are votive offerings from Aphrodite’s sanctuary at the Etruscan port of Gravisca

Statuette of Aphrodite emerging from the sea, Greek or Roman, Eastern Mediterranean, Hellenistic or Imperial Period, 1st century B.C. or 1st century A.D. Marble probably from the Greek island of Paros.

These demonstrate her importance to merchants, for her powers over the sea meant that she could permit smooth-sailing for travelers. At the center of this section stands the Capua Venus, an over life-size Roman statue discovered in the amphitheater at Capua. This imposing figure originally held a shield, a symbol of Aphrodite’s much-debated martial nature. The statue also looks forward to the final section of the exhibition—the similarities and differences between the Greek goddess, and Venus, her Roman counterpart.

Votive Relief with Aphrodite and devotees, Greek, Late Classical period, 4th century B.C. Marble. Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. 


This exhibition looks splendid.  I’m sorry I didn’t see it in Boston, but my travels lately have been tightly circumscribed.  If you are looking for me (unlikely, but possible), I’m easy to find.    I answer to several names, however.  

Spring is here and the time is righter than ever (as Cliff Richard used to say in response to nagging questions about when he would finally marry)  for Aphrodite.  If I were in Los Angeles, I would make tracks to the Getty Villa  to visit this show.


  1. Love that terra cotta. And the hermaphrodite has me rethinking everything I think I know about myself.

    All hail!

  2. I'm glad you liked this. I was moved and cast into rethinking mode also. As for what I know about myself, at present I'm really, really unsure. I guess the glass-half-full view is that I'm often surprised by what I think I know. The exhibition looks so great and a trip to visit Aphrodite in Malibu seems like the ideal thing to do. Curtis