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Beyond the Male Gaze: The Power of the Knidian Aphrodite in Her Narrative Context

Rachel H. Lesser

In the mid-4th century BCE, Praxiteles broke with previous tradition to sculpt the first monumental nude of Aphrodite, which became the cult statue of Aphrodite Euploia in Knidos. This paper argues that the mythological narratives the Knidian Aphrodite evokes invite the identification of female viewers and the reverence of worshippers by suggesting her divine power to dominate, unite, and protect mortals. At the same time, I contend that her sideways gaze constructs her as an unattainable erotic object for all spectators.

The Knidian Aphrodite did not feature prominently in Natalie Kampen’s Sexuality in Ancient Art, but has since become a nexus for scholarly investigation of nudity, the gaze, desire, and sexuality in Greek sculpture (e.g. Stewart 1996, 2010, 2014, Beard and Henderson 2001, Seaman 2004, Zanker 2004, Corso 2007). In fact, Kampen herself took up the Knidia as a case study in her 2000 article “Gender Studies.” There she observed that modern critics, influenced by ancient views of the statue as an object of male voyeurism and sexual violation, have focused on the male spectator’s gaze and desire, and mostly treated the Knidia as a famous work of art, eliding her religious function as a cult statue. Kampen called on scholars to consider the experience of female worshippers visiting the Knidia, and of men whose reaction may have differed from the voyeuristic norm. This paper takes up Kampen’s challenge by excavating from some male receptions of the statue potential modes of female and religious response.

Greek epigrams, perhaps dating from the 4th century BCE, comment on the Knidia’s surprising accessibility to the male gaze with reference to the times that Aphrodite was seen naked by Ares, Ankhises, Paris, or Adonis (Anthologia Graeca 16.160, 165, 168). These ancient (male) authors connect the Knidia with mythological narratives of Aphrodite’s exposure, drawing on these myths to inform their perception of the Knidia’s visual and sexual availability.

Yet these same myths invite an alternative reception of the Knidia. Seaman’s reconstruction of the lost original statue, which posits that Praxiteles depicted the nude Aphrodite picking up drapery from a small pot, allows for more specific identification of the statue’s narrative moment as a bathing and adornment type scene that Aphrodite twice enacts in preserved Greek epic (Od. 8.362-366, HymnAphr. 58-65; cf. Il. 14.166-223). This female type scene—in analogy to the male arming type scene—accrues power to the subject (Smith 1981, 41; Sowa 1984, 75-76; Janko 1992, 173-74).

Following Seaman, I argue that the Knidia’s ritual cleansing and dressing invokes Aphrodite’s power, especially sexual power. In Greek epic poetry, the beautified Aphrodite dominates and manipulates the mortals who see her. She causes others to experience desire (for herself, for each other) and also guarantees the safety of her favorites. The female spectator may have identified positively with the Knidian Aphrodite’s controlling subjectivity, including her ability to attract men. Worshippers may also have associated the Euploia cult statue with the goddess’s tutelary epic role as protectress for Trojans on the high seas and in battle.

But what of the Knidia’s desirability, insisted upon by ancient men? I argue that this reception can belong to the female as much as the male subject, and that Sappho’s lyric persona in fragment 31 provides a model for the interaction between spectator and statue. As Stewart has observed, the Knidia’s own gaze, which is directed away from the spectator towards an unknown third party, both arouses and denies the viewer’s desire with the intimation of a rival standing in the way. Like Sappho’s persona, who watches an inaccessible female beloved give her attention to another, a spectator of any gender may experience debilitating desire when viewing this erotically independent and impenetrable marble representation of an immortal. The Knidia ultimately resists possession by the viewer, and this is what makes her so irresistibly alluring.

Session/Panel Title:

Sexuality in Ancient Art

Session/Paper Number

55.5

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