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Work Aphrodite of Modesty

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Hellenistic Art (3rd-1st centuries BC)


© 1999 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Hellenistic Art (3rd-1st centuries BC)

Astier Marie-Bénédicte

This image of Aphrodite, surprised in her ablutions by an unwelcome eye, is a delightful combination of sensuality and modesty. The subject, which lends itself to a sensitive observation of the female body, was familiar to bronze sculptors of the Hellenistic period, inspired by the Classical tradition. Like certain other Roman statuettes, the goddess was once adorned with gold jewelry. Discovered in Syria, she demonstrates the importance of the cult of Aphrodite in the Hellenized Middle East.

The cult of Aphrodite in the Hellenized Middle East

This bronze Aphrodite of Modesty was found in Syria, near Sidon (formerly Sayda). The work entered the Louvre in 1894 after it was purchased from the collector Joseph Durighello. It is one of numerous effigies of the goddess produced in the eastern Greek world, and shows the importance of the cult of Aphrodite from the Hellenistic period onwards, chiefly in Egypt and Syria. The goddess was the protector of women and marriage, and appears as the Hellenized form of the indigenous divinities Isis, Hathor and Astarte. Bronze figurines were often inspired by famous statues showing Aphrodite in various poses: at her toilet, crouching, "modest", rising from the sea, or undoing her sandal. These iconographic types were also used for small terracotta statues, sometimes enriched with attributes based on Hellenistic imagery.

A highly original masterpiece

This figure of Aphrodite is the work of a virtuoso artist: the elegant execution, careful modeling and technical characteristics all testify to its exceptional quality. The statuette is clearly a choice piece, unlike the cheap figurines mass-produced for art lovers of more modest means. The goddess was probably once adorned with gold jewelry: this is suggested by her pierced earlobes, and by comparisons with other Roman statuettes whose jewelry is still intact. It is likely that bracelets concealed the joints of the arms, which were cast separately before being attached to the shoulders. The eyes were originally inlaid with silver (now lost) and probably featured pupils filled with a brilliant, colored material, adding to the lively facial expression. Some commentators have identified the statuette as a small-scale replica of an Aphrodite by Scopas. However, the fullness of the forms and the inventively-arranged hair, tied at the nape of the neck and flowing in thick twists down her back, suggest a Hellenistic artist of the early third century BC.

Modesty and sensuality combined

Aphrodite is shown completely nude, surprised in her ablutions by an unwelcome eye: she is trying to hide her breasts and pubic area with her hands, in a gesture of modesty tinged with great sensuality. In profane art of the Hellenistic period, this theme serves as a pretext for a sensitive observation of the female body. The subject is a legacy of the Classical tradition and eastern cults alike. The work is in the tradition of statues by the Athenian sculptor Praxiteles, who made the famous Aphrodite of Cnidus in the Vatican, towards the middle of the fourth century BC (probably the first monumental female nude in Greek statuary). The figure is also inspired by Middle-Eastern divinities with sexual connotations, such as Astarte.


R. Thomas, Griechische Bronzestatuetten, 1992, p. 136, 184, fig. 137. A. Pasquier, L'Aphrodite de Milo et les Aphrodites du Louvre, Paris, 1985, p. 62-63.C. Rolley, Les Bronzes grecs, Fribourg, 1983, p. 203-204, 222, fig. 199.E. Michon, "Trois Aphrodites ayant appartenu à Joseph Durighello", Syria VI, 1925, p. 306-309, pl. 28.P. Jamot, "Vénus pudique, statuette de bronze", Monuments et Mémoires. Fondation Piot I, 1894, p. 150-164, pl. 21-22.

Technical description

  • Aphrodite

    First half of 3rd century BC

    Provenance: Sidon (Syria)

  • Bronze
    Silver inlays for the eyes

    H. 23.2 cm

  • Durighello collection, 1893 , 1893

    Br 413

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

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