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Work Aphrodite Anadyomene

Department of Egyptian Antiquities: Christian Egypt (fourth - twelfth centuries AD)

Birth of Aphrodite

© 1988 RMN / Béatrice Hatala

Egyptian Antiquities
Christian Egypt (fourth - twelfth centuries AD)

Author(s):
Lyon-Caen Christiane

The Greek goddess Aphrodite was born of the foam created when the severed genitals of Uranus were cast into the sea. She is portrayed here in a large shell, upheld by two proud-looking sea monsters. Like the other Olympian gods introduced by Alexander the Great, Aphrodite was worshipped both by the Greeks of Egypt and by the Egyptians themselves. She was adopted and adapted by the Christian world, and came to symbolize the purified soul emerging from the baptismal waters.

The birth of the Goddess of Love

Aphrodite stands naked in her shell, vigorously wringing the seawater out of her long hair (a representation created by Doidalses, a Greek artist of the 3rd century BC who portrayed Aphrodite crouching after her bath and wringing her hair). The goddess's only adornment is a necklace with a hollow round pendant (used to contain protective spells). Holes drilled into the wide-open eyes represent the pupils. The goddess is flanked by two sea monsters with horns and claws, whose facial expressions resemble her own. They hold the shell (symbol of the sea), their heavy, scaled tails curling up behind them. These creatures are Tritons, followers of Poseidon. Next to the female Triton, a caprid leaping through an acanthus bush indicates that this frieze fragment occupied a corner position.

The Coptic style

Although the Copts continued to represent Greco-Roman mythology until a very late date, in every artistic field, each work presented at least one characteristic that was purely Coptic in inspiration - a phenomenon which is well exemplified by this bas-relief. The Tritons, members of the sea god's entourage, were essentially male - but a female Triton is represented here, wearing a necklace identical to that of her goddess. The Tritons usually had crabs' claws or antennae in their hair; here, they have horns. Did this result from an inaccurate interpretation of the models, or was it the sculptor's choice? Despite the enduring Hellenistic aesthetic, the constant modification of images by Coptic artists leaves little doubt as to their desire to use this legacy in their own way.

The attachment to Hellenistic culture

Greek art was the principal source of pictorial decoration in the Coptic world, until after the Arab invasion. Coptic iconography was deeply rooted in Greco-Roman mythology and literature. The art of Rome (mistress of Egypt after the victory at Actium) was also indebted to Greek genius.

Bibliography

- Egyptes…L’Egyptien et le copte, Catalogue d'exposition au musée Henri Prades de Lattes, Lattes, 1999, n°129, p.302

Technical description

  • Birth of Aphrodite

    5th-6th century AD

    style d'Ahnas-el-Médineh

  • Limestone

  • E 14280

  • Egyptian Antiquities

    Denon wing
    Lower ground floor
    Gallery of Coptic art
    Room B
    Display case C6: The myth of Aphrodite

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