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Aphrodite in sculpture: from the 4th century BC

The pose developed in Greek sculpture for the male nude, with the weight on one leg resulting in a gentle curve of the entire body, acquires an extra charge of eroticism when adapted to the female body.

The female most obviously deserving such treatment is Aphrodite, the goddess of love. All the most famous Greek female sculptures are of her, though she is usually known in this context by her Roman name, Venus.

It is evident from contemporary accounts that one of the earliest of these life-size nude statues, the Cnidian Venus by Praxitiles (c.350 BC), is seen by people of the time as powerfully erotic.

This particular Venus, in white marble, has her charms enhanced by a subtle tint of flesh, added by the painter Nikias. The visitors to her sanctuary find her in a grove of fruit trees and vines. She has just taken off her only garment, a light shift which she holds in her left hand, and she is about to step into a bath. As with most Greek statues, we only have antique copies of the Cnidian Venus. But they can still suggest her power to excite pilgrims who have never seen anything quite like this.

Later statues of Venus are often less sexually open than the Cnidian Venus. A pose known as Venus pudica ('modest Venus') begins with the Capitoline Venus (c.300 BC). The goddess is shown at a crucial moment later than in the Cnidian version. She has now put down her robe, giving her two free hands to put to the service of modesty.

The same pose is followed in a slightly later but even more famous version, the Medici Venus (c.150 BC).

The last in this series of much reproduced Greek statues is the Venus of Milo (c.100 BC). Found in 1820 on the Greek island of Milo (or Melos), she rapidly becomes established as an ideal of classical beauty.

This is partly because her body is more natural and robust than her predecessors in marble. But she also has the advantage that she is the original sculpture, whereas the others are copies. The heightened sense of physical appeal may even derive partly from the loss of her arms. Here, by force of circumstance, is the extreme opposite of Venus pudica. The beautiful but unprotected torso seems to invite the sensual gaze.