She was the patroness of brides, seafarers and warriors; agent of political harmony; adulterous seductress; and mother to mischievous Eros. Known to the Romans as Venus, the goddess Aphrodite is the epitome of female desirability — and she's in Texas.
Aphrodite and the Gods of Love is a current exhibit at the San Antonio Museum of Art, showcasing 125 iconic works on loan from the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, as well as a few very special pieces from from the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples, Italy.
Known today as the goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite was one of the most powerful Greek divinities and a favorite subject in ancient art. This groundbreaking exhibition reveals this most popular goddess in her various roles, including that of instigator of the Trojan War. Walking through the exhibit on tour with curator Jessica Powers, the ancient stories of lust, love and betrayal sound as if they were born of the latest reality television show or a soap opera.
"Nothing much has changed. All the same things were going on in ancient Greece and Rome. The only difference is they didn't have iPhones to talk about it." - Curator Jessica Powers
"Nothing much has changed," agrees Powers, who is the Gilbert M. Denman, Jr. Curator of Art of the Ancient Mediterranean World. "All the same things were going on in ancient Greece and Rome. The only difference is they didn't have iPhones to talk about it."
Powers adds that the exhibit is not the coffee-table-book version of the goddess of love and sex.
"The Greeks had a much more complex view. The show speaks to her different roles in mythology as goddess of political unity and harmony, as an armed victory goddess and civic patron goddess, and a patroness of brides. And you learn something about the Greek way of life—what objects they used and how they lived."
In fact, as you come to the end of the exhibit there is a small room with a warning sign about sexually explicit content. "It's material that Americans might perceive as pornographic, but for the Greeks (and Romans) such explicit, erotic images were neither taboo, nor were they limited to certain audiences or occasions," Powers says.
Many of the items on display had very specific, practical uses during their time as serving vessels, mirrors or votive offerings. It was only later, in the Hellenistic period, that purely decorative aesthetic objects began to appear; art for art's sake.
Powers believes that works of art can express the values and customs of a people. "I think visual arts from any culture stimulate us to think about the human experience. And, of course, they can make us think about ourselves and reconsider why we do the things we do. We're still thinking and worrying about the same things that concerned the ancient Greeks — government and politics, wars in the Middle East, religion, sickness and health."
Powers likes the way this exhibition shows Aphrodite in many aspects and through different media, and the loans from MFA Boston include many kinds of objects not found at SAMA: elaborate bronze mirrors, statuettes and some remarkable terra cotta pieces.
And of course, the exquisite pieces rescued from Pompeii and on loan from Museo Archeologico Nazionale are inherently exciting. "I believe it's the first time SAMA has had loans from an Italian museum — certainly the first time we've borrowed antiquities from Italy."
Aphrodite and the Gods of Love runs through February 17, 2013 with plenty of associated events along the way. Gallery talks, lectures, educator workshops, performances and sketching classes are scheduled throughout the upcoming months; and the first Sunday of each month is free for families.
200 West Jones Avenue; San Antonio, Texas 78215; (210) 978-8100; For more information, visit the SAMA website.