The Mythology of Desire
An exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston explores the themes of beauty, love and sexual desire in the ancient world. Many of these classical pieces, with their often overt erotic depictions of playful gods, were collected by the philanthropic gentleman scholar Edward Perry Warren
Christine Kondoleon, Wednesday, 1st February 2012
The exhibition ‘Aphrodite and the Gods of Love’ at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, is the first dedicated exclusively to the goddess of beauty and love (until 20 February). Her offspring express many aspects of her power, and as such form a significant part of the exhibition. Eros was her most famous child, but her other children – Hermaphrodite, Priapos, Peitho and Pothos – also inspired poets and artists.
One of the highlights of the exhibition is the loan of the Sleeping Hermaphrodite from the National Museum of Rome, probably the finest and most intact of the 10 Roman versions that survive, thought to be inspired by a lost Hellenistic original (Fig. 2). Hermaphrodite started life as Hermaphroditos, the male child of Aphrodite and Hermes, but then, according to Ovid, he was fused with his female lover Salmacis to form a bi-gendered being. The sculptor cleverly draws the viewer toward the sensual rear of a restless female sleeper, but then abruptly surprises on the other side with the depiction of male genitalia. This carved marble speaks eloquently of the overlapping spheres of sleep and desire revealed by Greek poets when they describe the limb-loosening effects of Thanatos (the personification of death), Hypnos (sleep) and Eros (love/desire).
Eros was the darling of ancient artists, who represented him far more than Aphrodite’s other offspring. It is mischievous Eros, known to the Romans as Cupid or Amor, who best reflects the complex feelings that Greeks and Romans had for their most popular goddess. Whether Aphrodite – or Venus as she was known to the Romans – was understood as a maternal figure (a guardian of marriage and procreation), or an instigator of seduction and betrayal (as in her dealings with Helen of Troy), ancients lived with her mixed messages, many of which were sent by her winged son. His ability to be everywhere is given eloquent expression by his wings. As one Hellenistic epigram sums it up: ‘You should flee Eros: empty effort! How shall I elude on foot one who chases me on wings?’ (Anthologia Palatina 5.59). No doubt the unavoidable association of Eros with such constants as erotic desire and fertility kept him very much on ancient minds. But more than this, Eros added a poetic – we might now say romantic – dimension to desire, embodying not only sexual drive but also its accompanying passion and longing. While Eros was the subject of two very popular recent exhibitions (in Rome at the Colosseum in 2007, and in Athens at the Museum of Cycladic Art in 2009), new insights are offered by the exhibition in Boston.
Aphrodite always had serious competition from her son. Her greatest artistic champion, Praxiteles, defied convention and created the first female nude in her honour. But he also created a famously seductive statue of Eros who stands in repose after a strike of his fateful arrow. A Roman version (Fig. 3) in Boston offers a tantalising idea of the lost Greek original that was once paired with a bronze by Lysippos, in the sanctuary of Eros in Boeotia. According to Pliny, these statues attracted worshippers and admirers from afar.
While visual images of Eros abound in wide variety, there are remarkably few written references in the ancient sources, epigraphic or literary. Of the major early sources for the Olympian gods, only Hesiod (Theogony, 116–20) writes about Eros, and then only as an attendant at Aphrodite’s birth, where he is joined by Himeros, the personification of desire or longing (depicted in an oil flask from the 4th century BC; Fig. 1). The only mythological account of the birth of Eros is found in Plato’s Symposium (203b2–c1), which states that Eros was conceived by two lesser deities – Poros (plenty) and Penia (poverty) – at the feast celebrating the birth of Aphrodite. Ancient texts refer to many versions of the origins of Eros; he is said to have been born of no parents, cosmic parents or Olympian parents, with potential fathers that included Ares, Ouranos, Hermes and Zeus. One Hellenistic epigram humorously sums up the problem: ‘Eros is such an exhausting child that nobody wants to be his father.’ As for his mother, it was not until the 7th century that the poet Sappho identified Eros as the son of Aphrodite.
Yet Eros as we know him today, youthful and winged, made his earliest artistic and literary appearance in the context of Greek symposia held in Athens. It was the Greek lyric poets who gave Eros a personality and a desirable shape. Seventh-century BC poets such as Sappho and Archilochus applied the epithet ‘limb-loosener’ to describe the over-whelming physical reaction to the power of Eros or desire. This same epithet was applied to Dionysos, and it is indeed in the realm of wine that Eros becomes visually present in Greek art. Appropriately, Eros makes his artistic debut on the painted vases used in male drinking parties, a visual complement to the words sung by poets at those same gatherings. The master Pan Painter depicts Eros in mid-flight, holding a fawn on a vase of the early 5th century BC (Fig. 4). While the meaning of this scene is not clear to the modern viewer, in elite Greek society of the 6th and 7th centuries BC, older men wooed desirable youths with gifts of young animals (hares were also popular). Eros appears on these drinking vessels as a winged youth, perhaps a projection of the desire felt for the handsome youths attending the symposia.
The wings gave Eros power to inflict longing on gods and mortals alike. He is often shown playing children’s games (with balls, hoops, knucklebones and the like) to emphasise his boyish and mischievous character. Many of the drinking vessels are decorated with imagery that corresponds to the riddles (in Greek, griphos) or plays on words or images that were part of the banter of the male drinking parties.
Riddles, word games and double entendres about love were popular throughout antiquity, and are especially evident in the Hellenistic epigrams preserved in The Greek Anthology, a collection of poems dating from the Greek through to the Byzantine periods, and on personal effects such as rings and carved gems. For example, Aphrodite is shown balancing two Erotes on a scale, with a third at her feet, on an exceptionally fine gold ring of the late classical period (Fig. 5). The weighing of love is a rare image in ancient art, but clearly it held personal meaning for the wearer – perhaps it served as a visual pun on the age-old theme of ‘he loves me, he loves me not’.
In the Roman period, Eros is more often characterised as badly behaved. In the 2nd century AD, the writer Apuleius bemoaned: ‘That wicked and headstrong boy goes running around armed with flames and arrows, ruining everyone’s marriages.’ Greek and Roman artists found many creative ways to visualise the troubles with love. An especially grand and pictorial composition is found in a 3rd-century Roman mosaic from Antioch, now in the Baltimore Museum of Art, which was not included in the Boston exhibition because of its large scale (Fig. 6). The main scene on the mosaic depicts an old man, identified by scholars as a pedlar, who grabs an Eros by his arm and pulls him into a cage where another is already caught. There are two Erotes who engage in combat, mimicking the cockfight in front of them, while others fish, hunt or rest.
While these are playful vignettes, they form part of a larger message. The selling of Eros appears in an epigram written by Meleager of Gadara, the Hellenistic poet of around 100 BC, known for his erotic verses. In one of his poems he writes of Eros: ‘Let him be sold, though still he sleeps upon his mother’s breast! Let him be sold! Why should I keep so turbulent a pest? For winged he was born, he leers, sharply with his nails he scratches…an utter monster: and for that reason sold shall he be today: if any trader would buy a boy, this way!’ Other Hellenistic writers, such as Moschus, describe Eros as a little fugitive slave sought by his mother, who warns others of his tricks and to keep him tightly chained. Some of the more humorous ancient scenes, found especially on Hellenistic and Roman mirrors that were the sine qua non of the ancient women’s toilette, involve Aphrodite punishing Eros: often she spanks him with her slipper.
To appreciate fully how the Greeks and Romans perceived the power of Eros, we should consider how he is represented in association with the greatest of ancient heroes, Herakles. Eros came fully into his own as a deity in the 4th century BC, and at about the same time he is also shown wearing the lionskin of Herakles and holding his club. There is an unmistakable playfulness in the presentation of an overgrown child masquerading as the most powerful of mortals, as presented in an exceptional terracotta from Myrina (Fig. 7). Eros wears the Nemean lionskin over his head and shoulders and smirks as he holds his hands behind his back, perhaps to hide the apples of the Hesperides, an allusion to one of Herakles’ labours. The reception of such imagery is poetically captured in a Hellenistic epigram preserved in The Greek Anthology: ‘Herakles, where is thy great club, where thy Nemean cloak and thy quiver full of arrows, where is thy stern glower?…Thou art in distress, stripped of thy arms. Who was it that laid thee low? Winged Love, of a truth one of thy heavy labours.’ Hellenistic artists were creative in their retelling of popular myths, casting them as allegories in order to highlight moral implications – in this case, love is even mightier than Herakles.
Ancient artists had many ways to depict the vulnerability of Herakles to the powers of Eros. On a large marble relief from Rome, the oversized hero lies in a drunken sleep while four Erotes steal his club and drink from his wine cup. The relief was a gift from American collector Edward Perry Warren to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, the site of his family’s paper factory, and is a prominent loan in the Boston exhibition. The scene relates closely to a Pompeian fresco from the Casa del Forno di Ferro that suggests how to reconstruct the fragmentary relief. It is clear from the fresco that Herakles lies sprawled below a seated female figure, Omphale, the Lydian queen to whom he was sold into slavery, and the cupids romp about taking advantage of his drunken state.
The weakness of Herakles and his feminisation might be the underlying theme of a rare relief from Italy acquired by Warren. It shows Herakles in an erotic embrace with a female, possibly Omphale, taking the dominant position (Fig. 8). The young beardless hero reclines on his lion skin in the outdoors, while nearby is a rustic shrine guarded by a statue of Priapos, and a large cloth is draped over a tree to give the couple privacy. This type of relief might have been set on a pedestal in a bedroom or private garden of a Roman house. Similarly, multiple Erotes are shown disarming Mars in prepar-ation for his rendezvous with Venus, in a variety of Roman works playing on the theme that even the god of war must submit to love.
Eros held first place in the hearts and minds of the Greeks and Romans. He might appear either as an adorable or mischievous child or a comely youth. Depending on the object and its context, Eros played many roles. When multiplied he signifies the ability to take on mighty heroes and his wings give him the power to be everywhere at once, allowing no person or god to escape. On a finger ring worn every day, he bore the message between the lover and the person desired. Ancient artists and poets understood and exploited this multifarious god. The challenge to us as modern viewers is to read Eros, as did the ancients, as part of a larger picture of human desire, sex and love.
Christine Kondoleon is the George and Margo Behrakis Senior Curator of Greek and Roman Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
‘Aphrodite and the Gods of Love’ is at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, until 20 February. The exhibition travels to the Getty Villa, Malibu (28 March–9 July); San Antonio Museum of Art (15 September–17 February 2013; and Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa (March 3 2013–26 May 2013).
EDWARD PERRY WARREN (1860–1928)
The collector responsible for more than half of the objects on display in ‘Aphrodite and the Gods of Love’ is the American classicist Edward Perry Warren (1860–1929; Fig. 9), who was a superb connoisseur of Greek and Roman art. Along with his partner, archaeologist John Marshall, Warren acquired some of the finest objects available at the end of the 19th century. Together they were the most active antiquarian collectors in their time. Their acquisitions were sometimes purchased by the MFA and sometimes donated to the museum.
Warren was born into a wealthy paper manufacturing family in Boston and attended Harvard. He went on to read Classics at Oxford and remained in England for the rest of his life. His passion for Greek art informed a lifestyle centred on Greek aesthetics and male companionship. Warren believed that through contact with antiquity, puritanical Boston society could develop a reverence for Greek culture and arts. While his lofty goals met with varying degrees of success, he did manage to direct more than 4,000 objects into the Boston collection.
In the ‘Aphrodite’ show, Warren’s penchant for erotic subjects is highlighted, in stark contrast to the treatment given to many of his acquisitions in the past, which were hidden away from public view. One example is the large-scale garden sculpture of Priapos, the child of Aphrodite and Dionysos, who is in the anasyromenos pose (displaying his genitals) and supporting the fruits of the seasons as protector of gardens and agriculture (Fig. 10).
In collecting erotic art, Warren followed in a long tradition of 18th- and 19th-century gentleman collectors and scholars. Several of the more prominent ones, such as Richard Payne Knight and Sir William Hamilton, actively revived the cult of Priapos and collected works related to the phallus for a ‘Secret Museum’ at the British Museum. These collectors, much like their ancient predecessors, valued Aphrodite and her offspring as a means of exploring human sexuality. Such collections have only recently become visible to the public – it was not until 2000 that the Italian authorities opened up the reserved cabinet of ‘obscene art’ (Gabinetto Segreto) at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.
Warren pursued works that embodied the Greek ideal of beauty. None is more evocative of the seductive qualities of carved Parian marble than the so-called Bartlett Head attributed to the workshop of Praxiteles.
The sculpture depicts Aphrodite and serves as the icon of the Boston exhibition, beguiling visitors at the start with her mysterious expression and fresh, youthful visage (which moved Henry James in his 1907 travelogue The American Scene to ponder whether her new city, Boston, would provide as many admirers as she found in ancient Greece).
Another notable female head, this one from the Greek island of Chios, was purchased by Warren in 1901 for his own collection, but with the intent that it would go to the MFA (Fig. 11). We learn from letters between Warren and Rodin how the French sculptor fell in love with it. Warren had commissioned Rodin to produce a version of The Kiss in 1900 (today the pride of Tate Britain, as the Boston Trustees rejected its acquisition due to its overt sensuality). In one letter Rodin wrote: ‘She incarnates all that is beautiful – her half-open lips, I can feel it, but I cannot find the right words to express what I feel. This is Venus. You cannot imagine how much this Venus interests me!’ Rodin even offered to own the Chios Head only for the period of his lifetime and return it to Warren at his death. The passion inspired by such antiquities is amply reflected in ‘Aphrodite and the Gods of Love’.
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