Venus De Milo Sculpture: History, Arms & Sculptor

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Venus de Milo is one of the most famous masterpieces in the Western canon, but how much do you really know about it? In this lesson, we'll check out this sculpture and see why so much mystery surrounds it.

The Venus de Milo

Greek mythology is full of stories that either begin or end with someone falling into the waiting arms of Aphrodite, goddess of love. We might expect these scenes to be immortalized in Greek sculpture, but there's just one problem: the most famous statue of Aphrodite doesn't have any arms!

The Venus de Milo is one of the most enduring works of Greek sculpture. It was found on the island of Melos (or Milo), buried in the walls of an ancient ruin, and since then has captured the imagination of people around the world. It's a beautiful work of art, one made all the more intriguing by the immense mystery that surrounds it. In fact, you may even say that it's simply disarming.

Description

The Venus de Milo is a semi-nude female, leaning and partially covered in draped clothing. There is a lot about this statue that is very characteristic of ancient Greek sculpture. For one, that leaning pose was a hallmark of the Greeks, and what allowed them to capture a life-like distribution of weight in their statues.

The Venus de Milo
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Secondly, the Venus de Milo was carved in a very Greek way. While the statue looks to be made of a single block of marble, that's not the case. It was actually carved from two blocks that were set together using vertical pegs (sort of like ancient Greek building blocks). That was very common in ancient Greece. In fact, when the Venus de Milo was rediscovered in the 1820s, it was found in pieces that were reassembled. Some pieces were never found, which is why the goddess is famously armless to this day.

Aside from the fact that the goddess originally had arms, the statue would have looked different in antiquity in other ways as well. Greek statues were generally adorned with jewelry or items that identified them. From small holes in the statue, it seems that the Venus de Milo once proudly sported bracelets, earrings, and a headband. It's also possible that the statue was once painted.

As we can see in other Greek statues, Aphrodite was often depicted with certain jewlery
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Who Is It?

The Venus de Milo is one of the most famous statues from ancient Greece, but who exactly is she? This question may seem silly- it's Venus right? Well, Venus was a Roman goddess, and referring to her as Venus is actually a European custom of labeling any statue of an unknown but beautiful female with this name. So then, she's Aphrodite? This is the common assumption- that the statue represents Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. There are reasons to believe this. Aphrodite was often depicted half-nude and the generally sensual characteristic of the statue also supports this interpretation.

However, we must not be too hasty in assuming that this is Aphrodite. Remember that it was found without the jewelry or items that would have once been used to identify it (heck, she doesn't even have arms). Several scholars believe that she was actually Amphitrite, a sea goddess whose place of worship was in Milos. Depending on what she was originally holding, she could also have been the hunting goddess Artemis or one of the mortal women in mythology known as the Danaids. If it is Aphrodite, we'd expect her to be holding an apple, crown, shield, or mirror but without her arms we may never know for sure who she is.

The Venus de Milo, bottom left, shown with known statues of Aphrodite for comparison
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Who Carved It?

The other enduring mystery surrounding the Venus de Milo is who the artist was. Her facial expression is consistent with Greek trends of the 5th century BCE, the treatment of the marble is more consistent with the 4th century BCE, but the spiraling pose was not popularized until the 3rd century BCE.

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