Around 330 BC, a Greek sculptor named Praxiteles was commissioned to create a sculpture of the goddess Aphrodite by the island of Kos. He responded, so the Roman writer Pliny tells us, by creating two statues: one fully clothed and another in which Aphrodite was naked.
The islanders of Kos reacted with horror to the naked statue and demanded the clothed version. Hearing that a statue of Aphrodite by the great sculptor might be going cheap, the nearby city of Knidos purchased this naked statue and the Aphrodite of Knidos (pictured above), as she became known, was installed in Knidos’ sanctuary to the goddess.
So, why had the people of Kos been so horrified at the prospect of a statue of a naked Aphrodite, who was, after all, the goddess of love and sex? The answer lay with the sculptural conventions of the day – and in turn the social mores of Greek society – which did not allow women, let alone goddesses, to be shown naked in sculpture. Men had been naked in Greek sculpture for over 350 years, but Praxiteles’ Aphrodite was the first full-sized naked female sculpture in Greek history.
The Aphrodite of Knidos gathered a slavish following of admirers in antiquity. The statue was coveted by sailors, one of whom was said to have been so in love with this image of Aphrodite that he stole into the sanctuary at night and tried to have sex with the statue, leaving an inappropriate stain on Aphrodite’s thigh.
Writers foamed over the way the marble came to life in the roundness of her thighs and her slightly parted mouth. The statue teased the viewer, especially in the placement of Aphrodite’s hands: one on her bath robe by her side, the other moving to cover her exposed genitalia in a way that almost seemed to invite attention. Was she beckoning us in or pushing us away? Was she welcoming the attention or modestly protecting herself?
Late Hellenistic poems portray the goddess bemused by just how like her figure the statue was. “Just how did Praxiteles see me naked?” she is said to have asked, half bemoaning the invasion of her privacy, and half confirming her naked beauty.
So famous did the Aphrodite of Knidos become, in fact, that she inspired generations of artists across the ancient world to make copies. Aphrodite statue after Aphrodite statue was produced, which mimicked or played with the stance and position of the Knidian Aphrodite, and thus her sexual ambiguity.
Some of these imitations placed Aphrodite’s hand, which had been on her bath robe, over her breasts to increase the sense of self-protection, while others took both hands away to make her flaunt everything. One Aphrodite was created in which, from the front, she looked totally clothed but at the back she could be found lifting up her dress to expose her bottom.
Another Aphrodite was sculptured with a slipper in her hand to ward off a satyr’s attempts to push her hand away from her genitalia. These smoke and mirror Aphrodites, created all over the Hellenistic and Roman worlds, exist in museums all over the world today: the Colonna Venus (Venus is the Roman name for Aphrodite), the Capitoline Venus, the Medici Venus, the Barberini Venus, the Venus di Milo, the Borghese Venus, the Aphrodite Kallipyrgos (which translates as the ‘Aphrodite with the nice arse’) – the list goes on.
But the original Aphrodite of Knidos does not survive. Having been stolen from Knidos, it was last seen in the palace of Lausos in Constantinople in the early Christian period, where it is presumed to have burnt in the fire of AD 476. The Aphrodite of Knidos, one of the most famous, boundary-breaking, not to mention sexy, statues of all time, is lost… but who knows if she may still be out there, waiting (and wanting) to be found?