The Enigmatic Beauty of Venus de Milo; in adoration of the imperfect

Words: Courtney Boag
Images: Anthroprospective

January 12, 2020

“There are many symbols of femininity today and this diversity is something to truly celebrate. For many women today, we are fortunate to relish in the fruits of our forebearers.There is a void, a missing limb from our history – a space for new possibilities. ”

Courtney Boag

The Venus de Milo is widely acclaimed as one of the most celebrated examples of Ancient Greek sculpture. The statue was unearthed on the Greek island of Melos by a young farmer named Yorgos Kentrotas who found her buried in the ruins of the ancient city of Milos. The sculpture was discovered in two main parts; the upper torso and the legs which are concealed by fine drapery. Smaller fragments of the sculpture were found close by, importantly, her estranged left arm and hand was found holding an apple with an inscribed plinth referencing her creator as “…Sandros from Anchiochia on the Meander”.

Olivier Voutier, a French naval officer, assisted Yorgos Kentrotas to recover the statue. However, as news spread of the discovery, Jules Dumont d’Urville, a French officer from the same fleet as Voutier, notified the French Consul to the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople Charles-Francois de Riffardeau, Marquis de Riviere. This correspondence prompted the French Consul to take possession of the statue and ship it to France, where it was presented as a gift to Louis XVII, who donated the masterpiece to the Louvre.

The acquisition of the Venus de Milo was seen as symbolic political compensation by the French to recompense the loss of the Medici Venus- an eminent ancient sculpture that had been returned to Italy in 1815 after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. To accentuate the value of the Venus de Milo to that of the Medici Venus, the inscription identifying Alexandros of Antioch as the original creator was disregarded, and undue recognition was given to Praxiteles-one of the most revered sculptors of the Classical era. The fabricated propaganda campaign that followed promoted the significance of Venus de Milo as one of Praxiteles most beloved classical pieces, thus delaying any critical scholarly assessment of the sculpture.

While the Venus de Milo is influenced by elements from the high classical Greek sculpture period (c. 450-400 BCE) as well as the late classical period (c. 400- 323 BCE) the goddess’s air of detachment, the subtle harmony of her visage and her impassivity are characteristic of 5th century BC sculpture work. While, some believe that her hair and the delicate modelling of her flesh evoke the works of 4th century sculptor Praxiteles, it is widely accepted that the sculpture reflects the innovations that arose in the Hellenistic period during the 3rd and 1st century BCE. Her spiral composition coupled with her slight turn from the hips to the shoulder and the outward thrust of her right hip expose an elongated S shaped pose that is widely distinctive of this period. The inescapable hint of erotic tension from her slipping drapery as her hips fail to hold the finely detailed cloth are also iconic features of the Hellenistic period.

According to many experts, the Venus de Milo depicts the mythological Greek goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite, who is featured in the fable of the Judgment of Paris. A folklore that tells of a young Trojan prince, Paris, who receives a golden apple from the goddess of Discord and is probed to award it to the most beautiful of the three entrants: Aphrodite, Athena and Hera. In bribing Paris with the love of the most beautiful mortal woman, Helen of Sparta, Aphrodite is gifted with the golden apple. However, while Aphrodite is able to grant Paris the undying love of Helen, it was not her love to offer as Helen was married to King Menelaus of Sparta. The unfolding of this love affair is poetically captured in Homer’s novel Lliad which depicts the devastating repercussions of this taboo relationship. Tensions that grew from this forbidden love led to the Trojan War, a bloody conflict that besieged the city of Troy for 10 years and eventually saw it conquered by a coalition of Greek kingdoms – the ‘Achaeans’ – led by King Agamemnon.

It is the enduring and mysterious beauty and complexity of Venus de Milo that saw her become an epitome of female beauty and grace – at least artistically. Importantly, it is her imperfections that have created a source of intrigue even to this day. The absence of her arms has become an invitation to imagine how they might have once been positioned, what they would have held and, subsequently, how this would have changed her as a symbol of feminine beauty. This absence has opened up options and questions. She has become a symbol of possibility. In this way, the Venus de Milo is timeless – her movement always ambivalent, yet decisively hopeful. Whether she is indeed holding an apple to represent her as the temptress, Aphrodite, or a book to exemplify an entitlement to knowledge, the Venus de Milo stands to defy gendered stereotypes.

One can only marvel over the self-entitled control that the numerous male French officers and Greek officials felt towards the Venus de Milo. A bitter and false claim to a masterpiece that was never created to be used as colleterial for political wars. The irony of Venus de Milo and the ways in which she has been handled in vein amongst the hands of many men in power, is that she speaks to the fable of Helen of Sparta. The alleged persona of Helen, like the Venus de Milo, was glorified for her beauty but her inability to control her fate saw her become the subject of another mans agenda. She wasn’t seen equal in the eyes of men and her decisions weren’t hers to make. Her beauty was considered a prize to be attained much like the Venus de Milo.

When gleaning qualities from both these women’s stories, it becomes patent that women have always been engaged in a subtle mêlée for their equality in an omnipresent men’s world. The threads that weave these women’s stories together illustrate the strong ties that exist within the sisterhood. The sense of enigmatic incompleteness and ‘imperfection’ of the Venus de Milo has served to transform an ancient work of art into a modern-day symbol of female possibility. While it is a testament to Helen that her enduring beauty continues to hold greater prominence in history’s pages than the destructive rhetoric written by man to disenable her integrity by posing her as temptress and idly ignorant perpetrator of war.

There are many symbols of femininity today and this diversity is something to truly celebrate. For many women today, we are fortunate to relish in the fruits of our forebearers. We are able to carve out a place for ourselves in society, a niche not materialised or subjugated by our fellow men. We can hold dear these stories and allow them to serve as powerful reminders of how women before us have worked to shift the spectrum of stereotypes throughout history. Indeed, each day we live is like a new page in humanities history book. It is paramount that in taking back control of how we are represented, we act in accordance with the stories, values, aspirations, philosophies and morals that we wish for ourselves and that we wish for the future of womenkind. There is a void, a missing limb from our history – a space for new possibilities.

Anthrōprospective is Australia’s first independent anthropology journal of it’s kind. Based in Naarm (Melbourne).

We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri and Bunurong people.