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Venus (The Venus of Capua), Roman, A.D. 117–138. Marble, 87 in. high. Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Image © www.pedicinimages.com

LOS ANGELES, CA.- 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.

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Aphrodite Spanking Eros, Greek, 200–1 B.C. Bronze, 11 5/16 in. high. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 57.AB.7

“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.”

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Venus Bathing, Roman, unknown sculptor after Praxiteles, A.D. 175–200. Marble and pigment, 38 1/4 in. (97.2 cm) high. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 72.AA.93

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.” 

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Head of Aphrodite (The Bartlett Head), Greek, 330–300 B.C. Marble, 11 5/16 in. high. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Francis Bartlett Donation of 1900

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. 

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Ring with a Woman Weighing Eros Figures, Greek, about 350 B.C. Gold, 7/8 in. high. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 85.AM.277

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Mirror Cover with Erotic Scenes, Greek, 340–320 B.C. Bronze and silver, 6 7/8 in. (17.5 cm) diam. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Edward Perry Warren. photography © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. All Rights Reserv

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Mirror with women bathing before a statue of Aphrodite on a pillar, The J. Paul Getty Museum, 110-117.

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. 

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Oil Jar in the Shape of Aphrodite at Her Birth, Greek, 380–370 B.C. Terracotta, pigment, and gold, 8 3/8 in. high. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Catharine Page Perkins Fund

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Female Figure, Cypriot, 1450–1200 B.C. Terracotta, 4 3/8 in. (11.1 cm) high. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Museum purchase with funds donated by subscription

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Head of Aphrodite or a Priestess of the Goddess, Cypriot, 525–475 B.C. Limestone, 20 1/16 in. high. Museum Purchase, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts

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. 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. 

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Wall Fragment with the Judgment of Paris, Roman, A.D. 45–79. Fresco, 23 15/16 in. high x 23 5/16 in. wide. Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Image © www.pedicinimages.com

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Cup with the Departure and Recovery of Helen, Greek, 490–480 B.C. Terracotta, 8 7/16 in. high. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Francis Bartlett Donation of 1912

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. 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. 

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Hermaphroditos (The Sleeping Hermaphrodite), Roman, A.D. 100–200. Marble, 59 1/16 in. long. Museo Nazionale Romano. Su concessione del Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali - Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma

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Eros Wearing a Lionskin, Greek, 100–1 B.C. Terracotta, pigment, and gold, 15 3/4 in. high. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Henry Lillie Pierce Fund

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Relief with Aphrodite and Worshippers, Greek, 400–300 B.C. Marble, 18 3/8–19 1/8 in. high x 23 1/4–24 1/2 in. wide. Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Image © www.pedicinimages.com

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Water Jar with Aphrodite and Adonis, Greek, 425–400 B.C. Terracotta, 18 1/2 in. high. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Firenze (Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Toscana). Reproduced with permission of the Ministry of Heritage and Culture. Superintendence for Archaeological Heritage of Tuscany

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Figure of Armed Aphrodite, Greek, 600–580 B.C. Bronze, 3 in. high. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Tarquinia. Courtesy of the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici dell' Etruria Meridionale, Roma. All rights reserved

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Figure of Armed Aphrodite, Greek, 550–540 B.C. Bronze, 7 1/2 in. high. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Tarquinia. Courtesy of the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici dell' Etruria Meridionale, Roma. All rights reserved

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Venus (The Lovatelli Venus), Roman, 200–1 B.C. Marble and pigment, 40 15/16 in. high. Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Image © www.pedicinimages.com

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Gem with Empress Livia Holding a Portrait Bust, Roman, A.D. 14–37. Turquoise cameo, 1 1/4 in. high. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Henry Lillie Pierce Fund. Photography © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. All Rights Reserved.