Aphrodite of Knidos

Aphrodite of Knidos

The Aphrodite of Cnidus, Aphrodite Cnidea or Venus of Cnidus was one of the most famous sculptures of the Greek author Praxiteles and one of his first works, made in Athens around 360 B.C. The statue represented Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love (mainly in its meaning of erotic love), female beauty and fertility, preparing to perform the ritual bath of the Eleusiada or after having performed it.

The sculpture was intended to be placed in a temple in the Hellenic city of Cnidus in Caria, Anatolia. It was called Knidia or Cnidia because it was the inhabitants of this city who acquired the statue, after the citizens of Cos had rejected it and bought from Praxiteles a version of the goddess dressed in a "more modest and severe" manner.

The Aphrodite of Cnidus, for which the hetera Phryne is thought to have served as a model, was depicted nude in a personally intimate attitude, an element of eroticism sought and achieved. It is the first known representation of the complete female nude in Greek sculpture, and the first monumental one in classical sculpture.

It established a canon in the proportions of the female nude, which inspired many subsequent works. Like other classical statues, it was polychrome with great realism.

Praxiteles' sculpture quickly became famous and highly revered, and Pliny the Elder even relates that a young man "fell in love" with it. King Nicomedes of Cos tried to buy it from the city of Cnidus in exchange for paying off the city's debt, which its inhabitants refused.

The original work was destroyed during a fire during the rebellion of Nika in Constantinople. Despite this, numerous copies and variants from the Roman period have survived, which allow us to imagine what the original model looked like.

History of Aphrodite of Knidos

The sculpture of the Aphrodite of Cnidus is mentioned in numerous literary sources, including Pliny the Elder:

"We have mentioned in [the art of] statuary the time of Praxiteles, who excelled in the glory of marble. His works are to be found in Athens, in Ceramicus, but above all the works, not only of Praxiteles but of the whole earth, is the Venus; many have travelled to Cnidus to behold it."

-Pliny the Elder, Naturalis historia, XXXVI, 4.20

According to Pliny's account, Praxiteles sculpted a nude and a clothed statue of Aphrodite. The city of Cos bought the latter as they considered the unclothed version to be indecent and not representative of their city, while the city of Cnidus purchased the nude sculpture.

The image was installed in a temple dedicated to the goddess, and the sculpture quickly became famous for its beauty, which led to its cult gaining many followers. It depicted the deity nude, interrupted while she was taking a bath.

The city of Cnidus welcomed the sculpture and held it in very high esteem. Pliny states that the statue brought renown to Cnidus, a fact that seems to be confirmed by the issuance at the time of coins on which it was depicted. In his work he relates this fact as follows:

"Praxiteles in fact made two statues which he offered for sale at the same time. One of them was covered, and as it was, it was the one chosen by the people of Cos, who had preference in the choice of sculptures (which were offered at the same price). They thought it was the right decision. However, the statue they rejected was chosen by the people of Cnidus, and it was this sculpture that became famous. Later King Nicomedes [of Cos] tried to buy it from the Cnidians, promising to free them from their huge state debt. But the Cnidians stood firm in their decision about the statue, and rightly so, for it was Praxiteles' work that made Cnidus famous."

-Naturalis historia, XXXVI.4.20-I

One of the ancient legends about the origin of the sculpture stated that Praxiteles supposedly used the courtesan Phryne as a model, after taking a bath in the sea during the Eleusiadas, although other ancient authors maintain that the model was another of Praxiteles' hetero-lovers, Cratina.

From this hypothesis, some experts expose that Praxiteles would have been inspired by the rosto of Crátina and the body of Friné,although it seems more likely that Crátina is simply an erroneous transcription of the name Friné.his legend is collected in Alcifrón's work Dialogues of the courtesans:

"...fear not; you have created a most beautiful work of art, such as no one, indeed, has ever seen before among all things created by the hand of man: you have installed a statue of your own mistress in the sacred precinct...And do not envy me this honor. For it is Praxiteles whom people praise when they look at me..."

-Alciphron, Dialogues of the Courtesans: Phryne to Praxiteles

The work became so well known and copied that a humorous anecdote recounted how Aphrodite herself came to Cnidus to see it. In a lyric epigram by Antipater of Sidon the goddess herself enunciates a hypothetical question:

"Paris, Adonis and Anchises saw me naked, this is all I know, but how did Praxiteles get it?"

-Antipater, Greek Anthology, XVI.168.

A similar epigram is attributed to Plato:

"When Cypria17saw Cypria at Cnidus, she said, "Alas!", "Where did Praxiteles see me naked?"

-Plato, Epigram XVII

At the beginning of the 5th century it became part of the collection of pagan works of art of Lauso, who installed it in his palace in Constantinople, a city to which Emperor Theodosius had had it transported. A fire during the Nikah in 475 destroyed the palace and also the original by Praxiteles.

Description of Aphrodite of Knidos

In the dialogue Amores, traditionally attributed in error to Lucian of Samosata, the sculpture of the Aphrodite of Cnidos is described as follows:

"When we exhaust the charms of these places we enter the temple. In the center of it stands the goddess, a beautiful statue made of Paros marble with her lips slightly parted by a haughty smile. With no clothes covering her, all her beauty is uncovered and exposed, except to the extent that she discreetly uses one hand to hide her private parts. The sculptor's skill has been so successful that the marble seems to have lost its hardness to mold the grace of her limbs."

Pseudo-Lucianus, Amores, 13-14

The original sculpture can only be described in broad strokes, because the numerous copies show different body forms, posture and accessories. In all of them Aphrodite is depicted preparing for the ritual bath that would restore her purity (but not her virginity), stripping off her clothes with one hand, while modestly covering her pubis with the other (aidôs), in a gesture of instinctive yet unconcerned modesty, as if the goddess had been caught in such a pose by a stranger.

She lets her garments fall almost languidly over a hydria placed at her side. According to Christine Mitchell Havelock, her nudity would signify the divine rebirth of the sea, the modest gesture would not indicate shame but would symbolize her fertility;

the hydria would not represent bathing but eternal youth through the ritual of cleansing and renewal, and the clothing would not be a symbol of her nudity but would connect compositionally the water vessel and the figure. The clothing and the amphora fulfill the function of structural support, despite the fact that the suggested impression is the opposite, so that the body can "rotate" slightly forward and to the left.

The hand gesture takes up the conventional posture from the first sculptures of Aphrodite from Crete in the 7th century BC, close to the image of Astarte, and was to be seen "as a gesture that orients the gaze and designates the source of her supremacy. "

In Praxiteles' work, which established a canon in the proportions of the female nude, the shoulders are narrower and lean slightly forward, the chest is small, the knees are closer together, the hips are wider and the legs are more slender than in earlier depictions of the goddess.

The flesh is treated with sensuality. The torso is bent with the contrapposto position, an artistic innovation in Greek art that realistically portrays a normal human posture, with the head probably turned to the left. Although Lucian of Samosata said that "she had a slight smile that slightly showed her teeth, " most later copies did not maintain this gesture.

The arrangement of the figure in an intimate attitude was called intimate withdrawal and was used mainly in antiquity, both by Praxiteles and by Scopas, to represent divinities and mythical characters in particularly carefree poses. The seduction is accentuated by the smoothness obtained by the fine carving of the marble, enhanced by the curvilinear and soft forms of the female body, forming a sinuous profile in the shape of an "S".

The historian Alain Pasquier stated about the work that "far from any restlessness, calm, she is confident of her invulnerability as of her great power: the nudity that makes mortals fragile nevertheless increases the strength of the goddess of love; a power increased by the purification of the bath. "

In most of the preserved copies, the face stands out for its elongated and totally regular oval. The forehead is defined by a triangle, the superciliary arches form a very regular semicircle towards the nose, the gaze is affectionate, the cheeks are rounded, the mouth is small and sensual and the lips are fleshy.

In some versions, the hair is unadorned and parted in the center of the head, falling in long wavy locks to the nape of the neck, where they are gathered in a bun. The gesture is a subtle blend of classical balance and novel features.

In his work Images (VI), Lucian focuses his comments on the head of the goddess. Imagining the ideal woman, constructed from the most beautiful parts of other statues, it is the head of the Aphrodite of Cnidus that he would use, keeping the area around the hair and forehead,

the line of the eyebrows, as well as the eyes "which observe so limpidly and at the same time with such clarity and wisdom." Even the age of this ideal woman, says the poet, should be the same as that of Praxiteles' statue.

Location of Aphrodite of Knidos

The sculpture of the Aphrodite of Cnidus was installed in a sanctuary dedicated to the goddess, in the center of a tolos or monopteros temple, or perhaps in the naos of a small temple at Cnidus dedicated to Aphrodite Euplea (or Euploia, i.e., "of happy navigation"), protector of sailors.

The circular form had a second gate that allowed it to be observed both from the front and from the back. Pausanias relates that the original sanctuary of Aphrodite commemorated an Athenian naval victory against the Spartans in 394 B.C. at Cnidus:

"For the Cnidians hold Aphrodite in high esteem, and have shrines of the goddess...the most recent is that of Aphrodite called Cnidia by men in general, but Euploia (Happy Journey) by the Cnidians themselves."

Pausanias, Description of Greece, I.1.35

In the dialogue Amores, Lucian gives a full description of the témenos or sanctuary dedicated to the goddess:

"The ground of the courtyard has not been condemned to sterility by a stone pavement, but on the contrary bursts with fertility, as befits Aphrodite: fruit trees with green foliage reach prodigious heights, with their branches entwining a high vault. The myrtle, beloved of the goddess, crowns with its berry-laden branches [a height] not inferior to the rest of the trees that so elegantly spread out.

The foliage was never known to age, its branches always remaining thick and leafy. To tell the truth, some barren trees can be observed among them, but they have a beauty similar to their fruit. Those are the cypresses and plane trees that soar toward the heavens, as well as the tree of Daphnis, who once fled from Aphrodite but returned in search of shelter.

Ivy lovingly entwines itself around each of these trees. Heavy bunches of grapes hang from the twisted vines: certainly, Aphrodite is only more attractive when united with Bacchus; her pleasures are sweeter when united. Separated, they have less joviality. Under the cozy shade of the branches, comfortable beds await the celebrants.

Truly, the wise men of the town seldom frequent these green corridors, but the crowd swirls here on feast days, to make way publicly for the delight of love."

-Pseudo-Lucianus, Amores

As for the temple itself and the location of the statue, the narrator describes them as follows:

"The temple has a door on each side for the benefit of those who wish to have a good view of the goddess from behind, so that no part of her is left unadmired.

Therefore, it is easy to enter through the other door and inspect the beauty of her back side. So we decided to see all the goddesses and went around the back of the enclosure. Then, when the woman responsible for keeping the keys opened the door, we were filled with immediate amazement at the beauty we beheld."

-Pseudo-Lucianus, Amores, 13-14.5

Aphrodite of Knidos Popularity

The Aphrodite of Cnidus became a tourist attraction despite being a cult image and the patron saint of the Cnidians. She was admired by the population of all the Greek islands. Nicomedes I of Bithynia offered to pay the enormous debts of the city of Cnidus in exchange for it, but the inhabitants refused his offer.

The sculpture was probably polychrome, using according to Pliny the "technique of circumlitio, in which the effects of shadow and light were particularly worked". It must have been so real that it gave rise to numerous legends about the power it exercised on the passion of men. One of them tells the story of a young man who entered the temple at night and tried to copulate with the statue, leaving a spot on it.

Prior to this time it was not common for female statues to be depicted nude, simply because nudity was a heroic distinction assigned only to men. The heroic nude was at the service of the male point of view and its purpose was the visual delight of the viewer, who was eminently male.

In Greek sculpture, the female nude appeared about three centuries after its male equivalent, the kuros. Until then, kore or young women were depicted clothed. The Aphrodite of Cnidus established a precedent for the proportions of the female nude and served as an example for numerous later copies.

In sculpting his work, some scholars such as Nigel Spivey argue that Praxiteles may have created an iconography to be viewed by an exclusively male audience, as well as to evoke a male sexual response upon viewing, encouraged by the temple staff.

Furthermore, Spivey describes that the worship that was paid to this statue was attributed to both heterosexual and homosexual men. Thus, the citizens of Cnidus would frequent the temple of the goddess to have an intimate view of the statue. Spivey adds in his report the conjecture that the statue was hermaphroditic, although this argument would be invalidated if one thinks that the work was the representation of the woman of the time.

Aphrodite of Knidos Copies

The Aphrodite of Cnidus has been one of the most reproduced sculptures of antiquity, so that a general idea of the statue can be deduced from the descriptions and replicas that have survived. About 200 representations of the figure are known, including more or less fragmentary copies, marble, bronze, silver, glass and terracotta statuettes; coins and reliefs, all of them reproductions of the best documented statue of Praxiteles' work.

They are generally grouped into two main families: the "restless" type, where the goddess, surprised, tries to hide herself, and the "serene" type, with a confident gesture and poise, where she seems to show her sex rather than hide it. Of the first type the best copies are the Aphrodite Braschi and the Belvedere Venus.

The Venus Colonna, a Roman copy preserved in the Vatican Museums, is considered to be the best of the second type and, although it would not match the refined beauty of the original, it would be the closest to it. In the fourth century B.C., the images of the goddesses became more humanized, although they did not show their weaknesses.

The Venus of Belvedere is a Hellenistic representation of the figure, more earthly, eroticized and profane. However, other experts, who base their arguments on the representations of the statue on the coins of Cnidus, consider that the Belvedere Venus and others of this type would be the closest to the original of Praxiteles.

In 1969, the archaeologist Iris Love thought she had found the only remains that would have survived of the original statue, which are currently stored in the British Museum. The prevailing opinion among archaeologists today is that the fragment in question is not of the Aphrodite of Cnidus but of another statue.

The following list points out the main copies:

  • Aphrodite of Cnidus called the Venus Colonna, a Roman copy located in the Museo Pio-Clementino which is part of the collection of the Vatican Museums in Vatican City. It is considered one of the finest Roman copies.
  • Venus of Belvedere, a work found and given to Pope Paul III, and later cast in bronze at the request of King Francis I of France. It is now in the Museo Pio-Clementino, Vatican (Inv. 4260).
  • Aphrodite Braschi, another of the best copies of this sculpture, located in the Munich Glyptotheque.
  • Aphrodite of Cnidus (Ludovisi), Altemps Palace Museum, Rome. The torso and thighs are a Roman copy, while the head, arms, legs and drapery were later restored.
  • Kaufmann head ca. 150 BC. (no. 3518). Found in Trales, acquired from the collection of C. M. Kaufmann collection in Berlin and preserved in the Louvre Museum (Paris), it is considered to be a very faithful Roman reproduction of the head of the original sculpture.
  • Head of Aphrodite of Cnidus, (no. 421) 2nd century B.C. Roman copy, Musée du Louvre.
  • Head of Aphrodite (no. 561) Roman copy, 3rd century BC, Musée du Louvre.
  • Aphrodite of Cnidus or Venus pudica, 2nd century BC copy, Museo del Prado.
  • Head of Aphrodite of Cnidus, Archaeological Museum of Olympia.
  • Head of Aphrodite of Cnidus, National Archaeological Museum of Athens.
  • Head of Aphrodite of Cnidus, Roman copy in the Prado Museum, Madrid.
  • At Villa Adriana, near Tivoli, Italy, there is a 2nd century recreation of the temple of Cnidus with fragments of a replica of the Aphrodite in the center.

In addition to the existence of several valuable copies of the original sculpture, many variations of it are also preserved:

  • Venus Borghese, a 2nd century Roman copy. It originally belonged to the Borghese collection and is now in the Louvre Museum after its acquisition by Napoleon.
  • Venus Capitolina, located in the Capitoline Museums, Rome.
  • Venus of Arles, now in the Louvre Museum, Paris.
  • Venus de Medici, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
  • Venus Barberini, a copy similar to the Medici Venus with 18th century additions, originally belonging to the Barberini family.
  • Venus Esquiline, Capitoline Museums, Rome.
  • Venus of the Venus Esquiline type, Musée du Louvre.
  • Crouching Aphrodite, including two copies, one in the Louvre and the other in the British Museum, London.
  • Venus Calypigia or Venus of the beautiful buttocks, National Archaeological Museum of Naples.
  • Venus Victrix or victorious Venus, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
  • Venus Urania, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
  • Venus Townley, Roman copy discovered by Gavin Hamilton in Ostia (Italy) in 1775 and acquired by the antiquarian Charles Townley for his collection. It was made in Paros marble in reduced size. The English sculptor Joseph Nollekens restored the arms at the end of the 18th century. It is now in the British Museum.
  • Venus Mazarinus, so named because it belonged to Cardinal Mazarinus and is now in the J. Paul Getty Museum.
  • Venus Felix or Venus Felix, Vatican Museums, another possible variation of the type.
  • Aphrodite, Pan and Eros, sculptural ensemble with the added figures of Pan and Cupid, National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

Praxiteles' masterpiece later inspired many other sculptors, including the author of the Venus de Milo.

Back to blog