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The Survival and Rhetoric of Aphrodite in Byzantine Art

Mati Meyer

The Open University of Israel

The Survival and Rhetoric of Aphrodite in Byzantine Art

From its earliest formulations in antiquity, rhetoric was a tool of persuasion, “a process,” as Mary Carruthers defines it, “of bringing someone to consent to believe something with confidence in its truth.”[1] Taking Carruther’s dictum as an ideological springboard, in the present paper I examine and analyze representations of Aphrodite and related images in medieval Byzantine art and offer some insights into the social and cultural motifs that fostered their visual survival.

The appearances of the Classical goddess not only in late antiquity (sculptures, mosaics, feminine adornments), but also in post-iconoclastic works, primarily illuminated manuscripts, belie the traditional art-historical premise that Aphrodite/Venus was reborn only in the Renaissance. Owing to her natural beauty and sexual nature, Byzantine artists often depicted the goddess in the nude. She was aesthetically beautiful, not only in the Classical philosophical sense, but also in the understanding that unlike her depictions in Western medieval art that depart from late antique imagery, she was presented in a classicizing, albeit archaizing style.

Expanding the meager research that has already been done on the figure of Aphrodite in late antiquity, in the present study I turn to the medium of illuminated manuscripts, which has been largely ignored. Moreover, I broaden the analysis to include not only the different representations of the Classical model, but also various figures that take after some of its iconographic types, most of them following  the Knidian model or Venus Pudica, and to a lesser extent Venus at her toilette and Aphrodite Anadyomene.

Central ideas associated with the pagan goddess in Greek and Roman lore – love, sex, beauty, and fertility – were maintained and rearticulated in Byzantine culture and literature. The principal argument in the present paper is that these ideas are equally evoked in the presentation of the Classical figure in medieval illuminated manuscripts. The model’s visual appropriation and reception served to articulate and reflect such accepted social ideals associated with women as chastity and motherhood side by side with gendered notions of femininity, masculinity, and gender-slippage. Related questions may be condensed as follows: In what ways has Graeco-Roman art impacted female aesthetic visuals? What are the main aesthetic values framing the goddess’ body and other figures taking after it in Byzantine art and how can these be ascertained? Did the aesthetic-rhetoric of Aphrodite in Byzantine culture and literature carry any weight in connection with the visual renditions?

The visual permutations of Aphrodite in medieval Byzantine art did not exist in isolation, but were wrought from ideas of antiquity, Neoplatonist formulations, and cultural notions as voiced in patristic, hagiographical, rhetoric, imperial, and literary sources. Their exploitation for ideological – religious and imperial – ends, their employment as a visual means expanded to both biblical and Christian female figures, fostering primarily male identity, and the cultural heritage of the Classical goddess have been cultivated as  platforms for constructing gendered notions of the woman in Byzantium, notions not necessarily related to her realia.


[1]  Mary Carruthers, The Experience of Beauty in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 14.

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Goddess Worship...and the Female Gender

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