Hellenistic Ceramic Head of Aphrodite
Period: Black Sea Region, circa 3rd-1st Century B.C.
Material: Greek Ceramic
Dimensions: H: 22.8 cm
Ex-New York private collection, USA.
This majestic head of female figure possesses a remarkable presence, which is accentuated by well-preserved surface details. Eyes, nose, and lips are sensitively modeled and embody the grace and grandeur fitting for the representation of a goddess rather than a mortal woman. The figure is crowned by a richly decorated diadem with four multiple chain pendants, each chain terminating in round beads. She is additionally adorned with a necklace, and would have worn metal earrings. The diadem – representing one made of gold embellished with semi-precious or precious stones – is decorated with the heads of figures alternating with cabochon-cut stones secured in round or diamond-shaped settings. Use of gold as a framework for setting precious stones is a technique practiced in the later Hellenistic period. The style of the diadem and necklace, particularly the pendant decorations of the diadem point to jewelry types known from northern Greece and the area of the Black Sea.
The diadem crowning this stately figure, as well as her similarly fashioned necklace and the overall richness of ornament, mark her as the representation of a divinity, most likely Aphrodite. Feminine charm, grace and delicacy could not find a more perfect expression than that embodied in this representation of the goddess. The sculpture’s softly modeled face, framed by wavy locks of hair, possesses a serene and outward-looking gaze. Her hair parted above the forehead is held in place by the diadem, with thick, softly modeled tresses flowing back at the sides and covering the tips of the ears. The nose is delicate and well-shaped, the forehead is flat, and the eyes, not deeply set nor wide open, contribute to the face’s dreamy countenance. The modeling of the lips adds to this overall softness of expression. One of the closest parallels for this sculptural type of Aphrodite wearing a diadem can be found in the well-preserved, famous sculpture of a semi-draped Aphrodite known as the Aphrodite of Capua, now in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. An additional, terracotta example of Aphrodite wearing a diadem, and likely based on a similar prototype as the Capua sculpture, can be found in the Staatliche Museum in Berlin.
Stylistically such representations of Aphrodite ultimately draw inspiration from the works of the famous late classical sculptor, Praxiteles. Born around 400 B.C., he was active for most of the 4th century, from about 380 B.C onward. While original sculptures by his hand have been lost to us, a long and illustrious career is documented by inscribed statue bases and over one hundred literary sources, ranging from the Hellenistic through the Byzantine periods. Among the most notable references to the sculptor is the one recorded by Pliny (Natural History 36.20-21):
I have mentioned the date of Praxiteles among those sculptors who worked in bronze; yet in his fame as a marble-worker he surpassed even himself. There are works by him at Athens in the Ceramicus (Keramikos), but first and foremost not only of this, but indeed in the whole world, is the Venus (Aphrodite) that many have sailed to Cnidus (Knidos) to see The shrine she stands in is completely open, so that one can view the image of the goddess from all sides, an arrangement (so it is believed) that she herself favored. The statue is equally admirable from every angle. Praxiteles died around 325 B.C., but his canon for the representation of both deities and mortals, male figures, and female figures especially, remained influential for the rest of antiquity. Female figures, those of Aphrodite in particular, are considered among the primary creative achievements of this Athenian master. He is the undisputed creator of the greatest of all sculptures of this goddess, the Aphrodite of Knidos, which remained for centuries as the most renowned image of the goddess of love and the embodiment of womanly charm.
Aphrodite played a leading role in both Greek myth and religious ritual, and while there is no agreement on her historical origins, the ancient Greeks thought of her as coming from the east (Herodotus 1.105, Pausanias 1.14.7). . In the literary record she is often given the epithet the Cyprian, and Paphos in Cyprus was the center of one of her most famous cults. In the Greek language aphrodisia, or the verb aphrodisiazein, refers to the act of love, and the name of the goddess is used in Homer’s Odyssey with the same connotation. In Greece she was worshiped primarily as a figure presiding over sexuality and reproduction, and was therefore associated with marriage. This allowed Aphrodite to be identified with the fecundity of the earth, since the Greeks perceived a bond to exist between human fertility and the fruitfulness of the land. Ancient literature also celebrates the power of love as the dominion of Aphrodite, and among the gods Ares, Adonis, Hermes and Dionysos are identified as her lovers, as well as the mortal Anchises. In the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, Zeus boasts to the gods that she, Aphrodite, lover of laughter, with a sweet smile had mated the gods with mortal women and they bore mortal sons to immortal gods, and that she mated goddesses with mortal men. As viewed in art and literature throughout antiquity, Aphrodite proved to be one of the most appropriate subjects for the work of ancient sculptors — a goddess whose form and expression embodied the xaris, the compelling charm and spiritual grace of Hellenistic sculpture, so evident in this terracotta image.
For Hellenistic jewelry from Northern Greece and the Black Sea region, see:
HOFFMAN H. – P. DAVIDSON, Greek Gold: Jewelry from the Age of Alexander, Boston, 1965, p. 63, no. 4.
WILLIAMS D. – J. OGDEN, Greek Gold: Jewelry of the Classical World, New York, 1994, p. 94, no. 46.
YALOURIS N. – K. RHOMIOPOULOU, The Search for Alexander, Washington, 1980, p. 143, no. 79A.
For the Capua Aphrodite (Naples 6017), see:
MATTUSCH C. et al., Pompeii and the Roman Villa, Washington, 2008, pp. 236-37, no. 107.
SMITH R. R. R., Hellenistic Sculpture, New York, 1991, p. 81, fig. 105.
For an additional sculpture of Aphrodite wearing a diadem, see:
VERMEULE C., Greek and Roman Sculpture in America, Berkeley, 1981, p. 170, no. 137 (Corcoran Gallery of Art, no. 86.9).
For the Berlin Aphrodite (Berlin Inv. 31272), see:
LULLIES R. – M. HIRMER, Greek Sculpture, New York, 1960, pp. 105-06, pl. 272.
On Praxiteles, see:
STEWART A., Greek Sculpture: An Exploration, New Haven, 1990, pp. 277-281 (with extensive bibliography for Praxiteles).
On Aphrodite, see:
BURKERT W., Greek Religion, Cambridge, 1985, pp. 152-56.
FARNELL L. R., The Cults of the Greek States, Oxford, 1896, especially pp. 618-69 for Aphrodite worship, pp. 670-708 for monuments of Aphrodite, pp. 709-30 for ideal types of Aphrodite, pp. 711-19 particularly for the Aphrodite of Knidos.
GANZ T., Early Greek Myth, Baltimore and London, 1993, pp. 99-105.
Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (LIMC), Vol. II, Zurich, 1986, s.v. Aphrodite, pp. 2-151.
OTTO W. F., The Homeric Gods: The Spiritual Significance of Greek Religion, New York, 1955, translated from the German original, 1929, pp. 91-103.
For the Homeric Hymns, see:
Homeric Hymn, to Aphrodite (5.48-52); trans. by C. Boer, The Homeric Hymns, Chicago, 1970, 74.