Creating the Perfect Woman (Part 3) -Viewing and Touching Venus

Today we will be looking at another example of a Greek artist creating a sculpture of his perfect woman. Praxiteles is believed to have been a real Athenian sculptor working in the 4th century BCE. He is referred to in various ancient works, most notably he was described by Pliny the Elder as an artist whose work acquired a glorified reputation. While Pygmalion fell in love with a statue created in the image of a goddess, Praxiteles did the opposite: he created a statue of a goddess in the image of his lover, Phryne.  The Aphrodite of Knidos became the most famous of Praxiteles’ statues and was supposedly the first fully naked female sculpture.


Late 1st century BCE Roman copy of a 4th century Greek original by Praxiteles, Aphrodite of Knidos [marble], Munich, (available at Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Carole Raddato).

According to Pliny the Elder, this statue caused quite a stir. Praxiteles created two versions of Aphrodite: one clothed and one shockingly naked! He first offered the statues to Kos who bought the draped version thinking it to be more modest and proper. The Knidians bought the rejected statue and were soon happy they did, as the statue was celebrated as the superior of the two and became something of a tourist attraction. When King Nicomedes wished to purchase the statue, offering to pay off the whole of Knidos’ public debt, they refused saying the statue brought great fame and glory to the island. Apparently everyone wanted to see Aphrodite naked!

While Pygmalion rejected real women because he was disgusted by the stories of the Propoetides selling their bodies for money, Praxiteles, by contrast, is said to have modelled his statue on a famous courtesan called Phryne. The source of this information comes from the Greek writer Athenaeus, writing around 500-600 years later in the early 3rd century CE. The Deipnosophistae is a humorous, gossipy narrative, written to entertain, and as such the content should be treated as a rumour rather than absolute fact. Athenaeus tells us that Phryne liked to dress modestly with a tunic that covered her whole body and she never bathed naked at the public baths. However, during the Eleusinian festival and the Feast of Posidonia she would strip in front of all the assembled Greeks, let down her hair and bathe in the sea. This spectacle was said to be so iconic that it inspired various works of art: the painting Venus Anadyomene by the renowned Greek artist Apelles; the Aphrodite of Knidos by Praxiteles; and an inscription on his statue of Cupid (below).  Phryne’s naked body provoked such passionate desires in these men that they used her as a model for the goddess of sexual love.


‘Praxiteles has devoted earnest care
To representing all the love he felt,
Drawing his model from his inmost heart:
I gave myself to Phryne for her wages,
And now I no more charms employ, nor arrows,
Save those of earnest glances at my love.

(Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae)



Titian, [circa 1520], Venus Anadyomene [oil on canvass], Edinburgh, Scottish national Gallery, available at Wikimedia Commons courtesy of the Google Art Project.

Phryne was said to be a strong character, proud of her job and exceedingly rich, even offering to rebuild the walls of Thebes if they put up an inscription that read, ‘Alexander [the Great] destroyed this wall, but Phryne the courtesan restored it’. And she was not a pushover, Athenaeus’ story is littered with tales of how she snappily answered back to her admirers. On one occasion, she asked a lover for a mina (a unit of currency) and he replied, ‘It is a mighty sum! Did you not yesterday charge a foreigner two little pieces of gold?’ and Phryne answered back, ‘Wait till I desire you and then I will charge you the same’.

A statue cannot answer back. And a statue is more tactile than a painting. In capturing Phryne’s beauty in a sculpture, Praxiteles keeps the ‘good’ part of a woman, the physical parts, while silencing the ‘bad’ part of a woman, her voice and identity. As a statue, Phryne has been reduced to something that can be admired and touched without any risk of refusal or mockery. In a BBC radio show about Phryne, comedian Katy Brand comments:

‘I think humour is the ultimate sign of being human. It’s one of the most sophisticated signals that you can give off as a human: to be funny and find something funny. And I think that if you objectify women because you want to sleep with women who are [like] statues and silent, or just beautiful queens who say nothing and never challenge you […], if that’s the sort of woman you want, what you are really looking for is an object.’

(Katy Brand on Natalie Haynes Stands up for the Classics [series 4] ‘Phryne’, BBC Radio 4, [2018])

In this twist on the Pygmalion myth, Phryne is a prostitute whose sexuality is controlled by turning her into stone. We do not have the original statue but many copies, images and descriptions exist. In most versions the goddess is naked. She has supposedly been caught in the moment when she emerges from the sea and has not yet covered herself.  In one hand she holds a piece of fabric, the other hand hovers over her breast or private parts, supposedly attempting to cover them but conversely drawing attention to them. Like Burne-Jones image of Pygmalion’s statue, the woman cannot hide nudity and cannot prevent the viewer’s eyes from roaming over her body. The Roman emperor Hadrian had a copy of the Aphrodite of Knidos in his villa in Tivoli. It was discovered in the centre of a circular temple, allowing for a 360 degree view of her body.


Raddato, C, [2014], The circular temple dedicated to the Venus of Cnidus, Hadrian’s Villa Trivoli, available at Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Carole Raddato.

A rather raunchy Roman story exists about the Aphrodite of Knidos, purported to be by the 2nd century poet Lucian but now thought to be by a later writer. In this tale, a group of men travel to the temple at Knidos to view the famous statue, at first they view her from the front, overcome by her beauty one man rushes over to kiss her. After this they go to view the statue from behind ‘so that no part of her be left unadmired’, suddenly they notice a stain on her upper thigh and presume it to be an unsightly mark on the otherwise perfect marble ‘hidden in the parts less able to be examined closely’. The female attendant corrects them, explaining that a man from a respectable family became so besotted with the statue that he would visit the temple regularly, appearing to be respecting the goddess with dutiful piety. This man became increasingly frustrated by his desires and one evening he slipped into the temple unnoticed, spending the night locked inside the temple alone with the statue. The next morning the stain was found.


The Capitoline Venus [marble], [From an original by Praxiteles (4th century BC)], Rome, Capitoline Museums, available at Wikimedia Commons courtesy of José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro.

Historian Mary Beard got a bit of stick for claiming that ‘Aphrodite never consented’ in her book ‘The Eye of Faith’ (p.90).  It’s just a statue, right?  It’s not an actual woman, how can it possibly be rape?  Well, the original story actually does indicate that the goddess does not give her consent.  In the ancient world it was believed that images of people were actually connected to the spirit of that person.  The Romans had funerary busts of their dead ancestors that they would take to important events as though their family members were there, and praying at a temple or statue of a god was like making a direct call to the deity.  In the story, the lovesick man throws dice, believing a good hand indicated the goddess’ favour and he would prostrate himself before the statue begging for his desires to be satisfied.  However, the goddess did not grant his wish and he usually threw a bad hand.  The goddess’ denial further inflamed the man’s emotions.  In the ancient world, a statue of a goddess was the embodiment of that goddess and in this story, Aphrodite truly never gives her consent.


Bernini, [1661-62], The Rape of Proserpina [marble], Rome, Galleria Borghese, available at Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Alvesgaspar.

Images and statues of the female body may be designed to excite the viewer, but there is a danger in looking. The Aphrodite statue of Knidos was said to be so good that the goddess asked ‘When did Praxiteles see me naked?’. On the surface this may appear to be a compliment, however viewing a goddess naked can have severe consequences, as anyone familiar with the story of Artemis and Actaeon will be aware! When Actaeon accidentally saw Artemis bathing, she punished him by turning him into a stag and he was torn apart by his own hounds.  And so Aphrodite’s comment here could actually be read as a veiled threat. If you dare to look upon an image of the goddess naked, then there could be severe consequences, as the man from the stain story found out.  After his night with the statue, the young man went mad and hurled himself from the cliffs, presumably he drowned as he was never seen again. The implication here is that the goddess drove him mad as punishment for his indiscretion.

Brunelli, A.M., Persico, P. and Solari, T., [circa 1770-80] The Fountain of Diana and Actaeon, Caserta, Royal Palace of Caserta, available at Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Twice25 and Rinina5.

Surely Praxiteles also risked offending the goddess by modelling her image on that of a prostitute? Comparing mortals to goddesses was also a risky move according to classical mythology. However, Aphrodite/Venus was said to be the patron of prostitutes so perhaps she approved of Phryne’s bold nature. Maybe she would have liked the idea that her sculpture drove men mad with desire. However, the moral of this story is that when you encounter an image of a naked goddess you should look with caution.  I probably should have warned you at the start!

Francis Derwent Wood, [circa 1907], Atalanta [marble], Manchester, Manchester Art Gallery, image my own.

Finally, I’ll end with an anecdote. While researching for this article in the Manchester Art Gallery, I was closely inspecting a description of a painting of the poet Sappho when I became aware of a presence next to me. I turned my head to find I was face to face with a sculpture of Atalanta. I had caught Atalanta ‘viewing’ me! Of course, she was the one who was naked in the gallery, not me (thankfully)!  I asked the attendant if it would be ok if I took a photo of myself touching the statue and explained I was writing this blog about men creating images of women and how statues were more tactile than paintings. She gave me a funny look and said flatly that I was not allowed to touch Atalanta. It’s actually quite reassuring to know that the naked statues at Manchester Art Gallery are somewhat protected from eager fingers by this disapproving female custodian!

Francis Derwent Wood, [circa 1907], Atalanta [marble], Manchester, Manchester Art Gallery, image my own.

Further Information:

  • Pliny the Elder, Natural History (Book 36, Chapter 4) available online at Perseus Digital Library.
  • Plutarch, De Pythiae Oraculis (Section 14) [Goodwin, ed.] available online at Perseus Digital Library.
  • Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists (Book 13) [Yonge, C.D. ed.] available online at Perseus Digital Library.
  • Pseudo-Lucian, Amores (Sections 11-16) Loeb edition available online at Born Eunachs Library.
  • Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics: Phryne available at BBC radio 4.
  • Mary Beard, [2008], The Eye of Faith, London, Profile Books Ltd.
  • Civilisations Series 1.2 ‘How Do We Look’, [2018], BBC iplayer, 1st March available online at BBC iplayer.
  • The Partial Historians, [2013] Sex and Prostitutes [podcast], available at The Partial Historians.
  • For more information on Hadrian’s villa see Following Hadrian.

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