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Gender Portrayals in Classical Greek Statuary

I’m writing a series of papers for my Western Survey of Art and Architecture course focusing on representations of gender in different eras of art (Doing it for the honors credits; damn you RIT for trying to make me a more educated person!). For my first quarter paper I decided to focus on Classical Greek gender ideals as seen in Praxiteles’s Knidian Aphrodite and Polykleitos’s Doryphoros (Coming at the end of this quarter: Portrayals of Adam, Eve, and the often feminized serpent in Renaissance artwork). I don’t want to explain it when I can just let you read the paper, so here it is. It was actually pretty fun to learn more about this subject, I hope you guys enjoy!

Classical Greek artwork is generally recognized as a depiction of the real and the ideal; an attempt at mimesis that also reflects the qualities found most desirable during the time period. While one might imagine that this would lead to work focused entirely on aesthetic appeal, the artwork is also heavily conceptual. Classical Greek statuary not only reflected the rigid gender roles seen in Ancient Greek culture, it contributed to the culture’s development and enforcement. By viewing works embodying the perceived otherness and shy sensuality of women, such as Praxiteles’s Knidian Aphrodite, and the presented powerful norm of men, as seen in Polykleitos’s Doryphoros, Greek audiences internalized and then performed kyriarchal gender roles. Analysis of the subject and style of these two statues will enable understanding of the gender divide in Greek culture and how that divide manifests itself in Classical artwork.

Left: Praxiteles's Knidian Aphrodite Right: Polykleitos's Doryphoros

While the subject of Doryphoros followed the traditional Classical model, the Knidian Aphrodite revolutionized Greek statuary. Previous sculptures showed women clothed without exception, and while a number of artists used wet drapery to display women’s bodies in an acceptable manner none had made the leap to establishing a female nude the equivalent of the common Greek male nude. Praxiteles’s method of bridging the gap and depicting an unclothed woman—without causing too much of an outrage—is considered inspired. By choosing Aphrodite, the goddess of love and sexuality, as his subject, he had found a way to justify female nudity. By toeing the line between sensual and modest, dignified yet welcoming, Praxiteles depicted the nude in a way considered inoffensive to his audience.

The need to justify female nudity while male nudity was considered commonplace already reflects Greek ideas about gender. For a man to appear naked conferred his power, his strong body and equally strong mind, while for a woman to appear naked would be indecent and confer immodesty. It is important to remember that the ancient Greeks viewed man and woman as dichotomies. One was defined as being the opposite of the other. As men were considered the dominant members of society women were the ones being defined as opposite; yet, interestingly enough, still defined as the “other”. In the words of Nanette Salomon, “the culturally constructed terms of femininity and masculinity in the ancient world were mutually dependent and reflexive fabrications whose definition depended upon their socially assigned differences, one from the other”.[1] Salomon’s statement offers an explanation for why activities deemed as masculine were off limits for women. As the opposite of men, women were viewed as incapable of participating in the male sphere.

One of the most notable aspects of the Knidian Aphrodite is her pose. Considered the first of its type, this sculpture established the positioning of the hand over the pubis, now referred to as the pudica—or modest—pose. This offered a way for sculptors to depict female nudity in a way considered chaste. Women in this pose were thought to be unwilling participants, and any sensuality found in the pose was considered somewhat unintentional.[2] This pose also has the unspoken yet obvious side effect of directing attention towards a woman’s pubis; a pubis that was often curiously devoid of both hair and any indication of a vulva. Lack of pubic hair can be explained by the common Greek practice of depilation, but the lack of visible genitalia is much more telling. In a culture known for carefully sculpting male genitals, all while imbuing them with deep reasoning, why shy away from a simple indication of a cleft? Most scholars shun the idea that a realistic pubis was seen as aesthetically unappealing, and the most prominent theories today center around female genitalia being viewed as sexually aggressive. Women being aggressive, let alone sexually aggressive, was heavily discouraged and punished in Greek society.[3]

Botticelli's The Birth of Venus is one of the most well known examples of the pudica pose.

This is another great example of how artwork both influenced and reflected Greek behavior of the time period. Women were treated as vessels for children, not as human beings capable of aggressive sexuality. In fact, the common practice of pederasty was often used as a venue of sexual release for Greek men, while the nonsexual realm of childbearing and rearing was relegated to their wives.

The vessel in the Knidian Aphrodite serves many purposes; an excuse for nudity, an allusion to the goddess’s watery origins, and possibly as a reference to woman’s role as a vessel.[4] While the statue certainly reflects these values it also encourages and enforces them. Similar to the gender affirmations contemporary audiences are fed through magazines, movies, and other forms of media, artwork and literature of the time were enforcers of traditional roles of the ideal citizen and the “other”. In the words of Beth Cohen describing the ideal citizen, “this human male’s beauty and goodness, indeed his Greekness, both in life and art, was defined in opposition to that which was neither ‘beautiful’, nor ‘good’, nor free, nor Greek, nor male, nor human, and so on”.[5] Artwork was one of many tools used to define what was good, and from what we view in the ideal figures of Classical Greek statuary, good was defined strictly along the lines of traditional gender roles.

While the pudica pose is one of the most obvious indicators of Greek kyriarchal gender ideals, every carefully placed limb, cocked hip, and bent shoulder of the Knidian Aphrodite contributes to the sense of modesty and sensuality, and to a sort of protective fear. For example, the figure has a hunched gesture. The slight droop of her right shoulder and the upward shift of the left, paired with the frontward tilt of her head all create the sense of a woman shying away from the gaze of the viewer.

Although the Knidian Aphrodite depicts a goddess the statue is, in many aspects, humanized. While Praxiteles is known for creating natural, more relatable sculptures, Aphrodite’s transformation is pushed further than most. The naturalistic technique, the attainable pose, and the stories surrounding the statue’s creation and existence all serve to bring Aphrodite down from her powerful status as a goddess to the realm of a human woman. According to basic mythology, if a human should ever glimpse the goddess Aphrodite unclothed he would be struck with impotency. Yet this statue allows the audience to view a nude Aphrodite with impunity. In fact, the protective pose of the goddess bathing and the circular columns of its original temple created a sense of voyeurism. One could glimpse the nude Aphrodite from between the columns and feel as though, as the voyeur, the viewer is the one with power.[6] We do not see a similar effect with nude male sculptures. In the case of Doryphoros, although the viewer is clothed and the sculpture is unclothed, the voyeuristic feeling is not present. The statue is imbued with a sense of strength, confidence, and power. Rather than the curving, slightly hunched posture of the Knidian Aphrodite, Doryphoros stands with sturdy shoulders and a non-protective stance. Although Doryphoros is nude it is not for the viewer’s benefit; it is to show the subject’s ideal form and to profess heroism. Even if one were to find the image erotic, one could hardly find the subject powerless.[7]

This is the temple set up which allowed for a voyeuristic viewing of Aphrodite.

The actions portrayed contribute to the widely varying messages of the two sculptures. While the male figure poses with a spear the female figure bathes. One could be considered an aggressive, public act while one is meant to be private and personal. While the Doryphoros intrudes into the viewer’s space, the viewer intrudes into the space of the Knidian Aphrodite. Additionally, the Doryphoros is presented with an expression that is lively and portrays a sense of active thought. This contrasts with the Knidian Aphrodite’s serene and unthinking face. According to Salomon, “The male figure is portrayed as coherent and rational from within; the female figure is portrayed as attractive from without; the male body is dynamically explored as an internally logical, organic unity; the female body is treated as an external surface for decoration”.[8] While the value of Doryphoros is largely inward, in the figure’s thoughts and emotions, the value of Knidian Aphrodite is outward, in appearance and in the thoughts and emotions of the viewer.

The stories surrounding Knidian Aphrodite’s conception support the notion of a humanized Aphrodite created to cater towards the male gaze. The most well known of these tales is that of a young man who became obsessed with the sculpture; he would sit rapturously before the figure “whispering indistinctly and carrying on a lover’s complaints in secret conversation”.[9] The young man, eventually overcome with lust, snuck into the temple during the night and attempted to make love to Knidian Aphrodite, following which he flung his body off of a cliff, never to be seen again, with the only remains of their tryst being in stories and a telling stain on the sculpture’s leg. One would imagine that this sort of tale would be nothing to celebrate; yet this story became widespread as a way of proclaiming the irresistibility of the Aphrodite. In this fictional tale, not only has the goddess been lowered down to an object of the gaze, she has become subject to the unwanted sexual embrace of man. Despite her status as a powerful goddess, Aphrodite has become the object of male desire, treated as a typical Greek woman of the time. Other tales support this theory; including one of the caretaker who accepted bribes from viewers wishing to admire the statues buttocks, and one rumor that Praxiteles used his lover Phryne, a courtesan famous for her beautiful breasts, as the model for the statue. Both of these tales contribute to the perception of the Knidian Aphrodite not as a goddess but as a sexual object. The goddess is not depicted as an all-powerful being, but as a humanized prostitute.[10]

It is important to keep in mind that the working members of Classical Greek society were men, meaning that the artists were men as well. While there are one or two women who are noted as painters or sculptors from this time period these women were exceptions and should not be taken as the norm. Because the sculptors of this time period were overwhelmingly men the subjects of their work tended to skew towards a male portrayal of gender. In fact, it is unfortunate that the history of women in ancient Greece has been cobbled together from a variety of sources that are largely male in perspective and origin. We have records of women as wives, daughters, and mothers, from the perspective of husbands, fathers, and sons, we have literary and visual portrayals of women created by male artists. In the words of Sue Blundell, “Both as a group and as individuals, the women of Ancient Greece are to a large extent creatures who have been invented by men”.[11] Even in feminist research of Classical Greek women the researcher must largely rely upon the perspective of men rather than women.[12]

While the Knidian Aphrodite portrays a goddess and the Doryphoros portrays a human male, one could say the mortal holds more power than the immortal. The overwhelming acceptance of the Greek male as the norm and the female as the other created and reflected the kyriarchal tone of Classical Greek statuary. Factors such as the modest yet sensual pose of the Knidian Aphrodite and the powerful feeling of the Doryphoros provide an illustration of the gender divide of the time and display how that divide manifested itself through artwork.


[1] Ostrow, Ann Olga, and Claire L. Lyons. “Making a World of Difference: Gender, asymmetry, and the Greek nude.” In Naked truths: women, sexuality, and gender in classical art and archaeology. New York: Routledge, 1997. 200.

[2] Ibid., 197-199.

[3] Stewart, Andrew F.. “Of War and Love.” In Art, desire, and the body in ancient Greece. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. 99.

[4] Havelock, Christine Mitchell. The Aphrodite of Knidos and her successors: a historical review of the female nude in Greek art. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. 36.

[5] Cohen, Beth. Not the classical ideal: Athens and the construction of the other in Greek art. Leiden: BRILL, 2000. 4.

[6] Squire, Michael. “Looking at Aphrodite.” In The art of the body: antiquity and its legacy. London: Oxford University Press, 2011. 88-93.

[7] Moon, Warren G.. Polykleitos, the Doryphoros, and tradition. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995. 65.

[8] Pollock, Griselda, and Nanette Salomon. “The Venus Pudica.” In Generations & geographies in the visual arts: feminist readings. London: Psychology Press, 1996. 90.

[9] Stewart, Andrew F.. “Of War and Love.” In Art, desire, and the body in ancient Greece. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. 101.

[10] Pollock, Griselda, and Nanette Salomon. “The Venus Pudica.” In Generations & geographies in the visual arts: feminist readings. London: Psychology Press, 1996. 95-97.

[11] Blundell, Sue. Women in ancient Greece. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. 10-11.

[12] Ridgway, Brunilde. “Ancient Greek Women and Art: The Material Evidence.” JSTOR 91, no. 3 (1987): 399. http://www.jstor.org/pss/505361 (accessed October 15, 2011).

8 Comments

  1. SeteSois

    Fascinating piece but this:

    “Women were treated as vessels for children, not as human beings capable of aggressive sexuality.”

    seems to contradict what you say later about Aphrodite’s status as a powerful goddess. In Hesiod’s Theogeny, a lot of her power (over Zeus even) comes from her hyper-aggressive sexuality.
    Of course, she’s divine and not strictly a human but the myth of Pandora and a lot of the Hippocratics’ medical texts show that Greek men (or the Greek men who wrote this stuff) could well conceive of women as aggressively and dangerously sexual and perhaps even as more so than men, as they lacked male self-restraint.
    All this makes Praxiteles’ modest yet titillating sculpture, as you identify, even more of a ‘coup’… for the male observers.

    Reply
    • Thanks for commenting! I believe that the ancient Greeks viewed women’s sexuality as dangerous even while they viewed women as mere vessels for children. The idea is that women’s sexuality, if “unleashed” would be a powerful, harmful thing, but Greek societal norms prevented said unleashing. So while women were potentially dangerous, imposed norms (for example, being treated as a child-bearing vessel) would lessen that danger.

      Aphrodite was not the norm for women, but was a potential role model. Because of this Praxiteles imposed his culture’s gender norms upon her, as a way to lessen her power. So her sexuality is a threat, but a contained threat. I agree with you that this makes the experience more of a victory for the male gaze.

      I think it’s even possible for the Greeks to have believed these things at the same time. It happens all the time when dealing with stereotypes. For example, a common stereotype of, say, teenage girls is that they’re vapid airheads. At the same time, there’s a stereotype that teenage girls are cleverly manipulative. Trust me, I’ve heard all of the seventh grade drama; people will apply multiple, conflicting stereotypes to one person. It’s not because they necessarily believe them, it’s just another tool used to oppress a person or group.

      The wording I used in the paper wasn’t ideal, sorry for the confusion! I Hope that this helped explain my thought process.

      Reply
  2. Briznecko

    Sculptues of Aphrodite need to be seen in comparison to the Kore sculptures that pre-date the Classical era. As SteteSois mentioned above, her power is derived from her hypersexuality. Women were treated as property and kept under strict modesty codes due to men’s fear of their sexual power over them…after all, the Trojan War was started by men’s lust over a woman. Aphrodite is highly a-typical for the depiction of women in Greece and indeed inspired more for the vouyerristic pleasure of male viewers. (It is also important to note this sculpture is Roman copy and may have been altered from the original…those Romans LOVED their nudes) The Kore, on the other hand, is the representative of the idea Greek woman-clothed, chaste, and modest. It is especially highlighted in Greek vases in the Classical era where women do not look men in the eye (sign of disrespect) and marriage scenes are depicted as a man grabbing her arm and pulling her away. The only instances a woman does look a man in the eye in these vases is if she is a prostitute.

    So, I would argue Knidian Aphrodite is more about visual stimulation for male viewers than a representation of women’s role in Greek society. After the Archaic period, gravemarkers and vases paintings seem to have been the main source for depicting the role of women in society.

    Reply
    • It’s definitely very interesting to look at Kore statues, particularly in comparison to the Kouros type, that’s a good bit of information to bring up. Men were denuded long before the women. It’s part of what makes the Aphrodite of Knidos so important art historically.

      I think that even if the point of the Knidian Aphrodite wasn’t to police female viewers it’s what happened. It’s a classic case of intent versus impact. By viewing this statue women took in information about their societal roles. While it may not seem like a big deal, many small encounters of this sort really shape ones perception of ones self. It’s like how we grow up with romantic comedy after romantic comedy effectively policing our behavior. I doubt that the people making romcoms go into them with the intent to enforce heteronormative and gendernormative behavior, but it’s what ends up happening.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Reply
  3. Briznecko

    Damn…messed up my italics. Sorry ’bout that.

    Reply
  4. Thanks for this it helped me a lot!

    Reply
  5. No one-is more or less important than the other in both men and women

    Reply

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