Ancient History Archaeology art greece hellenistic Hellenistic greece sculpture

Art: Venus de Milo

No other statue of a woman from antiquity is as famous as the armless beauty now residing at the louvre in paris. After its discovery in 1820 on the greek island of milos, it has captured the imagination of the many people who look upon it every year. The statue itself is a prime example of Hellenistic sculpture as it shows the drama in its composition and attention to detail that is typical for the period. It has long been thought that this woman is none other than Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. But is this really the case and if she is not Aphrodite, then who is she?

Elke Close 

Finding Aphrodite?

The statue was discovered in 1820 on the Greek island of Milos. The exact conditions of this discovery are conflicting and misleading but the general idea is this: a Greek farmer and his father or son found the statue while plowing his field or searching for reusable building blocks on or near the farmer’s plot of land which was on a rocky hillside. There they either saw the statue in a small cavity, found it hidden away in a niche or found it among the ancient city ruins. The different versions also mention that together with the statue several herms and other marble fragments were found such an upper arm and a hand holding an object and that it the statue was found with the two marble blocks still joined together. Whatever the real story was, remains a mystery. After the discovery, the statue was presented by the Marquis de Rivière, the French ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the time, to king Louis XVIII who in turn donated it to the Louvre.

Describing Aphrodite?

The statue was made out of two different marble slabs on which additional parts were connected through the use of vertical pegs. These parts – such as the, left leg, bust, left arm and foot – were sculpted separately. Unlike the clean marble look we are used to seeing today, the statue wore jewelry like bracelet, earrings, and headband made from metal. Parts of her could have been coloured in with paint. However none of these decorative elements are remain visible today aside from the fixation holes for the metal jewelry. The arms of the statue were never found.  

Dating Aphrodite?

Originally, Praxiteles or Scopas were named as the creators of the statue, but a plinth found with the statue bore the following inscription: ‘[Alex]ander, son of [M]enides, from [Ant]iochia on the Menander, made this [statue]‘.  The mention of the of Antioch on the Menander dates this work to the Hellenistic period. Even so, the statue has often been thought to be a copy of an original from the fourth century as it shows many similarities to the Aphrodite of Capua. While she does have characteristics of classical Greek sculpture such as her impassive gaze, idealized features and hairstyle, certain Hellenistic innovations cannot be ignored.  The composition of her body with a slight twist, the elongated torso and the placement of the figure in a three-dimensional space as well as the attention to the drapery of her clothing all point to the Hellenistic period. 

Designating Aphrodite?

The statue is thought to represent the Greek goddess of love Aphrodite. This identification was immediately made based on the woman’s naked torso as well as the round object found in the hand that was found with statue. This round object was supposedly seen as the apple of discord. There is no certainty however that this hand – and the apple – actually belonged to the statue, even though there are several known examples of a Venus statue holding an apple. The lack of arms and attributes makes a certain identification and possible recreation very difficult.

Several of these reconstructions exist: Aphrodite together with Mars, holding a stylus, mirror, apple, leaning on a column, etc..  She has been interpreted as Nike, Artemis, or even a mere mortal.  Some scholars have also argued that this is actually the sea goddess Amphitrite, the wife of Poseidon. She was widely popular on the island of Milos and was worshipped there as is indicated by another statue of the sea goddess and her husband which was also found on the island. The three statues were made around the same time, but our ‘Venus’ is very different from the statue of Amphitrite seen above. Is this difference solely the result of the artists’ interpretation of the same goddess or was there a different way of depicting Amphitrite which makes the identification of the ‘Venus de Milo’ as the sea goddess a bit more difficult? Whether or not this was actually Aphrodite or Amphitrite or Artemis or Nike, it will remain impossible to say, unless her arms magically appear. For now, this lady is keeping her real identity a secret.

Further reading:

Astier, M.B. Aphrodite, known as the “Venus de Milo”.

Curtis, G. Disarmed: The Story of the Venus de Milo, 2004.

Havelock, C. M., The Aphrodite of Knidos and Her Successors, A Historical Review of the female Nude in Greek Art, University of Michigan, 1995.

Laugier, L., « La Vénus de Milo », Feuillet pédagogique du Musée du Louvre, 3, n°50, Paris, 2001.

Oppen, B. V.  Disarming Aphrodite: Rediscovering the Venus de Milo. World History Encyclopedia, 2009.

Ridgway (B. S.), Hellenistic Sculpture, II, 2000.

The Venus of Milo is housed at the Louvre. For those of you who like colouring and know that I am working on a colouring book for adults about Ancient Greece, you can already find a downloadable version of the Venus de Milo here. For more designs, have a look at my redbubble shop where you buy cards with the Venus de Milo on it. 

 

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