For those who think that ancient Greece was all philosophy and marathons, a scintillating exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston proves otherwise.
Just in time for Valentine's Day, Aphrodite and the Gods of Love features everything from Grecian vases depicting various coital embraces to statues of Aphrodite pleasuring herself. But the exhibit goes beyond the erotic. Featuring some 160 objects—13 pieces flown in from Italy, the rest sourced from the museum’s collection—it presents the goddess in all of her many roles: wife, mother, adulterer, seductress, and patroness. She promoted peace among mortals, yet she also provoked wars. Yes, she was beautiful and sexual, but also calculating, powerful, and even violent.
Given her tumultuous origins, it’s no wonder she was such a complex character. According to Greek legend, the goddess was born from the sea after her father, Kronos, cut off his father’s genitals and threw them in the ocean. Aphrodite emerged from the frothy mix of sperm and blood in a giant scallop shell. This happy myth is depicted in one of several small statuettes, the first from 400 B.C., which would later be echoed in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.
The West swooned over Botticelli’s idealized Venus (her Roman name), but the ancient Greeks didn’t see Aphrodite in such a sentimental light. Her duel nature was synonymous with their notion of mixis—the merging of bodies in sex or war.
Aphrodite and the Gods of Love acknowledges her crucial role in the epic Trojan War with The Judgement of Paris. The Roman fresco depicts Paris’s selection of Aphrodite as the most beautiful of three goddesses—a decision he made only after she bribed him with Helen of Troy, the wife of the Spartan king Menelaos.
When she wasn’t inciting men to arms, Aphrodite was seducing every god on Mount Olympus. She cheated on her husband Hephaestus with Ares, Hermes, and Dionysus. Naturally, the fertile goddess bore them all children, who have their own section in the exhibit.
One of the most singular pieces here is a sculpture of a sleeping nude. From behind, we see the sinuous curve of a woman’s hips and breast. In front, something pokes out unexpectedly from between her legs—or is it his legs?
This representation of Hermaphrodite, the androgynous child Aphrodite conceived with Hermes, is all the more subtle when we come face to face with Priapus’ perennial erection. Pulling back his cloak, he shows off his giant phallus bearing forth a bushel of fruit.
Last but not least is a statuette of Eros (known as Cupid to the Romans), in which the winged god of desire dresses up in Herakles’ lion skin to prove that even an alpha-male hero can fall prey to love and lust. As Cupid prepares to wield his arrow on Valentine’s Day, he reminds us that in the end, love conquers all.
*After the exhibition closes at the MFA on Feb. 20, 2012, it will travel to three additional venues: J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, Calif. (March 28–July 9, 2012); San Antonio Museum of Art, San Antonio, Texas (Sept. 15, 2012–Feb 17, 2013); Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, Okla. (March 3–May 26, 2013).