Sunday, October 12

A Goddess on Her Knees

As some of you faithful readers know, I sometimes post here a Villa "Spotlight" object. (For those of you anticipating a "boring" post full of useless facts mined from the depths of my grey matter and various academic publications, I encourage you to stick it out. There is a punchline.) Each month part of our programming at the museum includes featuring one object from the collection as the month's spotlight. We take people into the galleries once a day and discuss just one object in-depth. This month our spotlight object is the "Cult Statue of a Goddess, perhaps Aphrodite." The "perhaps" in the title on her gallery label suggests we aren't sure of the answer to a fundamental question: Who is this colossal goddess? Without the benefit of the identifying attributes she surely once held in her hands, her identity is uncertain. She could be Demeter, Hera, Aphrodite or Persephone, a fertility goddess. The way that the transparent fabric of her chiton and himation clings to her full and sensuous figure, leaving little to the imagination, strongly suggests Aphrodite to some, but the current scholarly consensus is that Persephone is the more likely candidate.

This is a larger than life sized statue (7.5 feet tall) and is the largest statue in the Villa's collection. Her head looks small compared to the rest of her body, but originally she once wore a veil (see the image of the drawing below), which would have negated that effect. The sculpture was carved from limestone, which shows traces of red, blue, and pink paint. So, when she was first created, she would have been brightly painted, looking very different than she does today. Her head, arms, and feet are made from marble. Combining two types of stone in statuary was not unusual in Sicily, where this statue was probably created. Limestone was a local, easily obtainable stone in Sicily, but quality marble was not. Therefore the Sicilians used limestone for the majority of the statue, and only used marble for her head and extremities. (Importing enough marble to create an entire statue from would have been prohibitively expensive.) Statues created using two types of stone like this are called acrolithic sculptures, and were rarely found in Greece--there was no need for them to use two types of stone because they had plenty of quality marble.

The sculptural style of the clinging clothes allow curators to date the statue to the late 400's BCE, which was when that style was popular in Athens. It's sometimes called the "wet drapery" style, although it's possible the effect is meant to suggest the goddess's clothes blowing in the wind. Personally, I like the "wet drapery" idea--perhaps this statue is supposed to be Aphrodite rising from the foam of the sea, as Greek tradition describes her birth. Some people ask why she even has clothes on, since as the goddess of love and sexuality we're used to seeing nude images of her. Interestingly, the nude female didn't appear in Classical art until the Hellenistic period (ca. 323 BCE - 146 BCE), a time well after this statue was created, so our goddess is fully clothed.

This statue was likely a cult image, and would have been put up in a sanctuary in honor of the goddess. This sanctuary, or temple as we might call it, was the "house" of the goddess on earth. Now, I'm not as familiar with the intricacies of ancient Greek religion as I am with ancient Egyptian religion, but I know the Egyptians saw their cult statues as capable of receiving the deity, thus providing the god or goddess with an earthly vessel. Whether the Greeks saw their statues as having the same capability, I'm not sure, but it certainly would have been an image worshipers prayed to and addressed as the goddess. No doubt the remarkably excellent condition of the statue is due to the fact it once stood indoors. In fact, this statue is the only known cult image from its time that is preserved from head to foot. It's also the only acrolithic statue from its time that still has both its body and extremities (well, most of them anyway).

When she arrived at the Getty, the goddess's body was in three pieces. Her marble arm and foot were broken off, as were other pieces like the fingers on her remaining arm. When conservators first assembled her for public viewing, using epoxy to glue her body back together, there were still cracks that interrupted the flow of the clothing. This visual effect is one of the most admirable aspects of the statue, so the cracks prevented the viewer from a more complete appreciation of the "wet drapery" effect. Conservators ended up filling the cracks in the drapery with a paper pulp solution and painted it so it blended with the color of the stone. Not to worry, the epoxy and the paper pulp solution are reversible, so it's not like they used super glue. Current conservation policy in the museum world holds that any conservation effort needs to be completely reversible in case future scholarship sheds new light on our interpretations or in the case of some unforeseen chemical reaction between the conservation materials and the antiquity.

Earlier this week my fellow educators and I were gathered around the goddess, reviewing what we know about her and discussing all of the things I've mentioned above as well as how we think visitors might react to the statue. At one point someone asked about some damage visible at the goddess's knees--what caused it, she wondered?

"Well," I replied, "if this is the goddess of love--she's probably spent some time on her knees."


  1. You cheeky girl! I'm sure you got a laugh out of the crowd on that one! Makes sense, though, doesn't it?

  2. Oh, yes--my comment inspired some side-splitting laughter and a high-five from one of my fellow educators.