In the 4th century BC Praxiteles revealed that marble had qualities which could be used to convey the softness of the flesh and the radiance of skin. While earlier artists had been largely concerned with ‘showing the body as a rational mechanism with bones and muscles held in dynamic equilibrium, Praxiteles was interested in texture and surface as well.’ (Woodford, 1986). Marble was the ideal material from which to craft the ultimate female form in all its soft glory. Most earlier images of Aphrodite had shown her clothed. (Woodford, 1986). From the Early Classical period onwards females in general had rarely appeared nude in reliefs and figurines, in the minor arts such as vase paintings, terracottas and small bronzes. Female nudity was not accepted as a subject for the full-size statues till about the middle of the fourth century BC, influenced, no doubt, by Praxiteles’ masterpiece at Knidos.
Praxiteles’ Aphrodite of Knidos, or the Knidia, was the first large scale Greek representative of the female nude. The original which is known to us through copies, was a marble sculpture of a naked female form of about six feet and eight or nine inches high, designed to be seen primarily from the front and the back. The goddess stands upright, her hair centrally divided and swept back, with thighs together and the slack left leg slightly turned out; the left arm is dropping her clothing onto a water jar. Her nudity is explained by the fact that she appears to be preparing to bathe. Her right hand is brought across in front of the pudenda in a display of modesty which actually serves to draw the viewer’s attention to the area. (Cook, 1976). Aphrodite looks sharply to her left, as if suddenly disturbed. The limp, inert drapery and the rigid water-jar contrast with the soft, living body of the goddess. (Woodford, 1986). This Aphrodite shares some features with Praxiteles’ Hermes: particularly the S-curve rising throughout the body. There is ‘a natural attitude of graceful relaxation’ to be seen in this S-curve, one arm placed casually on a support, sustaining half the weight of the body, and the other with a slight upward movement of the shoulder, balancing it. On the side opposite the support, one leg is tensed to bear the remaining weight, while the other leg, which bears no weight at all, ‘barely touches the ground with its big toe.’ (Conti, 1978). Her stance is a classic example of contrapposto. Literary sources are lavish in their praise for the figure’s beauty, being described by the Roman historian Pliny as the most beautiful sculpture ‘not only of the age of Praxiteles but of any age.’ (Conti, 1978). It exercised the power it did because of the quite human erotic impact of observing this otherworldly goddess figure with her secrets laid almost entirely bare. ‘Praxiteles had finally uncovered the essence of the goddess of love: her body.’ (Pedley, 2012).
Debate continues as to the immediacy of the impact on Hellenistic sculptors and patrons of Praxiteles’ startling Aphrodite of Knidos. If nothing else, his type of female face with triangular forehead remained ‘standard in later Greek and Roman ideal sculpture’ (Cook, 1976).
During the Hellenistic period the nude female theme provoked many variations. Some scholars maintain that the revealed female body ‘ so captivating was its appearance ‘ gave rise to adapted poses in sculpture in the later fourth century BC. Others however think that while Praxiteles’ Aphrodite provided the formal platform for the development of the female nude, it was not until the second half of the second century BC (coinciding with increased Roman presence in Greece) that the type became popular. (Pedley, 2012). A marble group of Aphrodite, Pan and Eros was found in 1904 on the island of Delos in the ruins of an establishment built by the Poseidoniastes of Berytos. It is in original Greek creation, dated to about 100 B.C. and as a group, has no replicas. It is the ‘earliest securely dated and original example of the gesture invented by Praxiteles.’ (Havelock, 1995). Replicas of Aphrodite of Knidos had been found in many Delian houses and on one instance even Praxiteles’ signature was recovered. ‘Surely the sculptor (of the Aphrodite, Pan and Eros group) must have either seen or known of the Knidia,’ argues Havelock (1995).
Eventually, Praxiteles’ great statue was indeed copied many times, in different sizes and media, distributed all over the Mediterranean world. Havelock points out that no known copies existed before the late Hellenistic period, suggesting that before then the statue was more obscure. (1995). She also refers to the ‘Kaufmann’ head discovered in Tralles and now in the Louvre, (dated second century BC) as being Praxitelean and Knidian in appearance. (1995). Two other famed statues known for their Knidian beauty are the Aphrodites of Medici and Capitoline. These differ from the original in a distinct way, giving rise to their Latin status as Veneres pudicae (singular Venus pudica, meaning modest Venus). The newer goddess statues use both hands to gesture, lowering one across the pubic region, a gesture with which we are familiar, but the other arm extends across the breasts. This prompted J.J. Bernoulli to insist that the Capitoline and Medici goddesses ‘exhibit shame and self-consciousness’ as opposed to the ‘na??ve and beautiful rapture’ of the original Knidia. (Havelock 1995). Thus began the basis for a critical misunderstanding of post-Knidian Aphrodites, who from then on appeared to the observer to be aware that their nudity was indecent. This of course had the effect of humanising these deities to the viewer. The original Knidia was seen as unashamedly naked because she was an otherworldly, powerful goddess who was the embodiment of natural feminine grace, however as time passes and copies of her are made and altered, she becomes increasingly humanised, modest and almost ashamed of her own godly form.