Getty Villa exhibition on Aphrodite: beyond goddess of love

29 March 2012

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.

“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.”

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.”

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.

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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