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Goddess of Love and Beauty Takes Center Stage

MFA show first ever devoted to Aphrodite

Head of Aphrodite Bartlett Head, Aphrodite and the Gods of Love, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Head of Aphrodite (Bartlett Head), about 330-300 BC, is one of the noted items in the Museum of Fine Arts current show, Aphrodite and the Gods of Love. Photograph courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Valentine’s Day may be more than a month away, but a new exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts is already celebrating the goddess of love and desire, Aphrodite.

Aphrodite and the Gods of Love is billed as “the first ever exhibition dedicated entirely to the goddess” who was known as Aphrodite to the ancient Greeks and Venus to the ancient Romans. Drawing on more than 150 objects culled from its own impressive collection of Greek and Roman classical antiquities, most notably, Head of Aphrodite (Bartlett Head), from 330-300 BC, the MFA show also features 13 pieces on loan, most from Rome and Naples and most never before on view in the United States.

This entertaining exhibition reveals Aphrodite in all of her many guises: wife, mother, seducer, patroness of brides, seafarers, and warriors. As the objects reveal, the goddess was not only beautiful and highly sexual, but calculating and powerful, making her a fascinating subject for modern audiences.

Through sculpture, jewelry, bathing vessels, and other objects, the viewer is shown Aphrodite’s pivotal role in Western art for more than 2,500 years, as well as the ways that representations of her have changed throughout antiquity. In fact, the history of the female nude in Western art began with a fourth-century rendering of Aphrodite by an Athenian sculptor named Praxiteles. Prior to that, only males had been portrayed in the nude. And while Praxiteles’ sculpture has never been found, it inspired numerous other sculptors and helped to define the concept of beauty throughout the Greek and Roman world.

Statuette of Aphrodite emerging from the sea, Aphrodite and the Gods of Love, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Statuette of Aphrodite emerging from the sea, Greek or Roman, Eastern Mediterranean, Hellenistic or Imperial Period, first century BC or first century AD. Photograph courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Aphrodite, the daughter of Zeus and the earth mother goddess Dione, is said to have emerged from a seashell off the coast of Cyprus, already a beautiful grown woman. Myth has it that her birth occurred after the Titan Kronos, the father of Zeus, castrated his father, the sky god Ouranos, and threw his genitals into the sea. Waves turned them into a foam from which Aphrodite was formed.

The show includes several of the goddesses who predate Aphrodite. Small terra-cotta figurines, some dating back to 6000 BC, portray early divinities from the Near East, Egypt, and Cyprus who, according to the show’s curators, would later become Aphrodite.

Two of the more narrative works in the exhibition depict Aphrodite’s critical role in one of the key events in Greek mythology, the Trojan War. A fresco from Pompeii, titled The Judgment of Paris (Roman, AD 45-79), on loan from the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, shows Zeus asking the Trojan prince Paris to choose the most beautiful of three goddesses—Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. Paris selected Aphrodite after she rewarded him with Helen, the wife of Menelaos, king of Sparta, setting off the 10-year war memorialized in Homer’s Iliad. The Trojan War is also the subject of Drinking cup with the departure and recovery of Helen (Greek, about 490-480 BC), an object from the MFA’s collection.

The towering sculpture Aphrodite of Capua portrays Aphrodite as a goddess of military victory. The statue, created sometime between AD 117 and 138 and discovered near Naples in 1750 (yet another loan from the Museo Archeologico Nazionale), was worshiped by Romans.

Sleeping Hermaphrodite, Aphrodite and the Gods of Love, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Sleeping Hermaphrodite, Roman, Imperial Period, first century BC, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome. Photo courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The MFA show makes clear that Aphrodite was anything but monogamous. Married to Hephaistus, the god of metalsmiths, she was better known for her affairs with Ares, the god of war, Hermes, messenger of the gods, and Dionysus, the god of wine, as well as with such mortals as Adonis and Anchises, with whom she conceived Aeneas, father of the Romans. Many of the objects in the exhibition concern her offspring, most notably Eros, the winged god of desire, also known as Cupid, and Hermaphrodite, the androgynous child she conceived with Hermes. The stunning marble sculpture titled Sleeping Hermaphrodite, dating from the Imperial Period, first century BC, is something of a tease and offers a paradox. Approaching the reclining figure from behind, one sees only the curve of a female back and the suggestion of a woman’s breast. But walk around to the front and the figure is endowed with male genitals.

Women in ancient Greece sought to emulate the beauty of Aphrodite, and paid homage to her because of her influence over love and marriage. Men worshiped her because it was believed she oversaw male potency and war. The MFA show captures the enormous influence she held over virtually every aspect of society in ancient Greece and Rome.

Aphrodite and the Gods of Love is organized under the auspices of the president of the Italian Republic, in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy. After its run at the MFA, the show will travel to the J. Paul Getty Museum, in Malibu, Calif., the San Antonio Museum of Art, and the Philbrook Museum of Art, in Tulsa, Okla.

Aphrodite and the Gods of Love runs through February 20 at the Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., Boston. Phone: 617-267-9300. Hours: Monday and Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., Wednesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 9:45 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Admission is free for BU students with a valid college ID, $22 for adults, $20 for seniors and students, and free to children 17 and under. Wednesday nights after 4 p.m., admission is by voluntary contribution. By public transportation, take the MBTA Green Line E trolley to the Museum of Fine Arts stop or any Orange Line outbound train to the Ruggles stop. You can also take the #39 bus from Copley Square to the Museum of Fine Arts stop.

john o'rourke, editor, bu today
John O’Rourke

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

3 Comments on Goddess of Love and Beauty Takes Center Stage

  • Talia on 02.16.2012 at 1:49 pm

    Was the sleeping hermaphrodite created in 1st or 2nd century ad? The hermaphrodite caption lists it as 1st century, yet the article says 2nd.

    • BU Today on 02.16.2012 at 2:29 pm

      Thanks for the question, Talia. It is first century BC, and we’ve made the changes in the article.

  • Eli Russell on 03.29.2012 at 1:07 pm

    Hi John; great post. My friend just saw the exhibit at the Getty yesterday and sent me a few pictures. Beautiful stuff. Thanks John.

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