Aphrodite (Venus), Pan and Eros: A sculpture in the National Archaelogical Museum of Athens

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A sculpture of Aphrodite, Pan and Eros, exhibited in the National Archaelogical Museum of Athens, in Greece, is the subject of this post.

The sculpture was made at about 100 BC of Parian marble, and was found on the island of Delos, in the House of the Poseidoniasts of Beirut. On the low base of the group an inscription is carved: ‘Dionysos, son of Zenon who was son Theodoros, from Beirut dedicated [this offering] to the ancestral gods for his own benefit and that of his children’.

Aphrodite, Pan and Eros; Parian marble  100 BC. National Archaelogical Museum of Athens, Greece.
Aphrodite, Pan and Eros; Parian marble 100 BC. National Archaelogical Museum of Athens, Greece.

A few introductory words about who is who are in order.

Aphrodite (Venus for the Romans) is the goddess of love and beauty. A victim of her own success and beauty, Aphrodite has never lost her sense of earthy pleasure.

Eros (Cupid for the Romans) is the god of love, son of Aphrodite. Somethies he is innocent, with rosy cheeks and beautiful smile, other times he is totally vicious, tormenting humans with his arrows.

Pan is the god of the Wild, half goat half man, and a very very notty old fart!

Aphrodite, Pan and Eros; Parian marble  100 BC. National Archaelogical Museum of Athens, Greece.
Aphrodite, Pan and Eros; Parian marble 100 BC. National Archaelogical Museum of Athens, Greece.

What is the story in the sculpture?

Aphrodite, is stark naked. She appears to be trying to fend off an overwhelming expression of affinity by Pan.

Aphrodite, Pan and Eros; Parian marble  100 BC. National Archaelogical Museum of Athens, Greece.
Aphrodite, Pan and Eros; Parian marble 100 BC. National Archaelogical Museum of Athens, Greece.

Her right hand is slightly raised and holds a sandal.

Is she ready to strike Pan?

It appears to be so.

Aphrodite, Pan and Eros; Parian marble  100 BC. National Archaelogical Museum of Athens, Greece.
Aphrodite, Pan and Eros; Parian marble 100 BC. National Archaelogical Museum of Athens, Greece.

But it isn’t.

For one, a closer look at ther muscles will show us that is very relaxed.

For another, her face is almost smiling. A veiled smile emerges. And the angle of her head is such that she is not directly looking at Pan.

The last unmistakable signal that Aphrodite sends to the observer of the scene is the position of her left hand. A woman under attack would almost by instinct try to cover her most exposed nudity, touching the puberty area using her palm. But Aphrodite is not doing that. Her palm is relaxed and at some distance from her flesh.

Aphrodite, Pan and Eros; Parian marble  100 BC. National Archaelogical Museum of Athens, Greece.
Aphrodite, Pan and Eros; Parian marble 100 BC. National Archaelogical Museum of Athens, Greece.

Pan is in a hopeless state. He cannot help himself and is totally at a loss.

He is trying to embrace Aphrodite in the most awkward of ways. Look at his right hand, how high it is in Aphrodite’s back. Not exactly a gesture of aggression. More a gesture of creeping affinity.

It is like he is lusting for her but at the same time he is shying away from expressing his lust.

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Aphrodite, Pan and Eros; Parian marble 100 BC. National Archaelogical Museum of Athens, Greece.

Eros (I would have preferred to call him “Putto” like the Italians do, but being Greek I have to stick to my mother tongue) is a little devil in the middle of the two protagonists of this subdued ensemble action. His apparently tries to separate them, in a sense protecting Aphrodite.

But is he?

Aphrodite, Pan and Eros; Parian marble 100 BC. National Archaelogical Museum of Athens, Greece.
Aphrodite, Pan and Eros; Parian marble 100 BC. National Archaelogical Museum of Athens, Greece.

His smiling face, his posture (look at the angle of the head) is more like saying “I want to be part of this”.

His bodily posture is a posture of palying. He pushes Pan’s right horn ever so gently, more touching than pushing, smiling all the time.

And the old boy returns the smile.

Aphrodite, Pan and Eros; Parian marble 100 BC. National Archaelogical Museum of Athens, Greece.
Aphrodite, Pan and Eros; Parian marble 100 BC. National Archaelogical Museum of Athens, Greece.

As a final observation before my conclusion, I offer the angle of Aphrodite’s left ankle. How gentle and relaxed and playful! Restrained and at the same time powerful, but not aggressive!

And this brings me to the supreme feature of the sculpture. Its ambivalence.

All three protagonists are doing something and at the same time they are not.

And in the process, being totally submerged into this ambivalence, they have a hell of a good time!

Ancient Greece at her best!