Formal Analysis of “Hermes and the Infant Dionysus” and “Aphrodite of Knidos”

In this analysis, two ancient life-size Greek sculptures from the same period will be studied and described. The first sculpture is Hermes and the Infant Dionysus that is often considered to be made by Praxiteles in the 4th century BC; however, the assumption about its origin is not confirmed. It was found in Olympia and is currently at the Archeological Museum of Olympia. It demonstrates Hermes holding the infant Dionysus in his left hand, with that he is leaning onto a tree branch wrapped in his cloak. The second sculpture is Aphrodite of Knidos, made by Praxiteles from fine marble, although the original has been long lost. The statue depicts the ancient Greek goddess Aphrodite who is nude and is holding her cloak over a jug in her left hand. Today, numerous Roman copies of the authentic statue are exhibited in different museums and galleries. This sculpture is presently at the Vatican Museums, Rome.

The statue of Hermes and the infant Dionysus will be subject to a visual analysis first. The initial standpoint from which both sculptures will be described is space and setting. Space created by the artist for this sculpture can be characterized as relatively narrow, as it only includes the main participants of the scene from the perspective. Therefore, the scene presented with the statue is shallow, not providing a distant view of it and the scenery behind the leading figures.

The next aspect of being closely looked at is the lines, mostly present in the statue. Since the sculpture is attributed to Praxiteles, although his authorship is not confirmed, he is mainly known for a particular type of line in his works. Thus, Hermes’s body demonstrates mostly curved lines, which create a unique sense of balance that became so prominent in Praxiteles’s statues. These lines immediately attract the beholder’s attention upon looking at the sculpture, as they are particularly remarkable. Hermes’s standing body contributes to the lines being mostly vertical, including his sides, hips, and legs. As to the cloth in which the branch is draped, its wrinkles are executed mainly through straight vertical lines. The infant Dionysus’s body has a curve to it, similar to Hermes’s, as his back is slightly bent.

Moreover, the composition of this sculpture presupposes a still scene, as Hermes is merely standing, leaning onto a wooden branch and holding the infant Dionysus on his arm. However, some movement may be implied within Hermes’s outstretched right hand that is currently missing. As to balance, as it has already been mentioned, Praxiteles’s works create a certain sense of balance, but it would be better put as the lack of balance. Hermes’s body is asymmetrically curving to the right in a contrapposto position. In contrast to it, the right side, consisting of the wooden branch and the infant Dionysus, is symmetrical, which creates a general off-balance appearance. For this reason, despite being perceived as a still scene, it does not create an image of something rigid but rather flowing and soft.

Speaking about the sculpture figures, they seem static, as Hermes is holding the infant on his arm, and Dionysus is sitting on his forearm. Hermes’s gaze is directed towards Dionysus, whereas the latter is looking at Hermes’s arm or the object he is holding in his hand. Therefore, the figures do not appear aloof but engaging, as their activities and reactions depend on each other. However, the beholder is not included in the scene. It can only be considered a mere onlooker, as neither the gazes nor the figures’ motions are directed towards the viewer. The symbols are not exactly present in the current version of the sculpture; however, it is often assumed that Hermes was holding a branch of grapes in his missing arm. That might have been a reference to Dionysus’s fate to become the god of wine.

The sculpture has already been established that Praxiteles mostly used fine marble in his works. The color is white, as is most common for marble, and its texture allows an artist to create a figure that looks more realistic since it is smooth and reminds human skin. Aside from that, marble is easy to polish, which allows it to last longer. On the other hand, as can be seen in this sculpture, marble is susceptible to breaking due to which Hermes’s arm is missing from the original scene.

The overall impression created by the sculpture “Hermes and the Infant Dionysus” is that of a peaceful, still scenery. Although the beholder is not included in the events depicted by the statue, it is a welcoming view, overflown with the general effect of calmness. The two figures are communicating with each other. Given the context of the situation, Hermes is taking the infant to the safety provided by mountain nymphs; the scene appears quite emotional.

Moving on to the second sculpture, Aphrodite of Knidos, its analysis, again, should start with the description of space and setting. It is somewhat similar to the previous statue, as it exhibits one standing figure and a tall object near it. Here, however, there is no smaller figure, and the distance between Aphrodite and the jug is more significant than between Hermes and the tree branch. Still, the artist presented the overall scene’s space as relatively narrow, including only the goddess Aphrodite, mantel, and the jug. Nothing in the statute indicates the perspective behind the figure, thus making it shallow.

The next aspect crucial for the analysis is the lines that are predominant in the given sculpture. Although this particular statue is a Roman copy of the original lost one, the viewer can notice his famous curves because Praxiteles made the authentic one. Since Aphrodite is standing upright, curved vertical lines are immediately discernible in such places as her hips, legs, and arms. Whereas her right arm is stretched out along her body, covering her groin, her left arm makes the line more diagonal, as it is slightly bent, holding onto the cloak. Again, the wrinkled cloth of Aphrodite’s mantel is created, utilizing mostly straight vertical lines.

Speaking about the composition, the scene depicted in this sculpture is quite similar to the statue of Hermes and the infant Dionysus, although Aphrodite is the only human figure here. The goddess’s body is in contrapposto, as she is standing upright, but the weight is not distributed equally on both sides. Instead, she is leaning slightly onto the right side, while her left leg is relaxed and bent. The effect created is not that of a still scene but dynamic to a degree. It is implied that the goddess is reaching for the cloth, supposedly to cover her nude body. The overall impression does not make the beholder think that the scene is rigid; on the contrary, it appears soft and flowing due to Aphrodite’s smooth movement as she is taking her mantel.

Further, the following subject of the analysis is the figures present in the sculpture. As it has been pointed out, Aphrodite does not appear static, but her movement’s dynamic aspect is elusive, as she has already reached out and is now holding onto the mantel. Aphrodite’s gaze is averted from the viewer to the left side, making the goddess appear somewhat aloof. Through this gesture, Aphrodite does not engage the beholder in the scene with her. She remains distant, concentrated on the cloth above the jug. As to the symbolism, the goddess’s nude body is an instance of the so-called heroic nudity, which is believed to be a means of demonstrating ideal figures of heroes and deities. However, before Praxiteles created his original Aphrodite of Knidos, heroic nudity was only applied to male bodies, making the sculpture so prominent.

Different copies of Aphrodite of Knidos were carved from other mediums, but this one, currently displayed at the Vatican Museum, was made from marble. Like the previously described sculpture, this one is made of white marble, quite famous but expensive. It can be noticed how the flow of time has impacted the medium, leaving some of the areas slightly yellow or even brown. However, although the medium can be easily damaged, this sculpture is well-preserved, as none of the goddess’s limbs are missing, and the entire composition is mostly intact, apart from some slightly chipped areas.

The general impression created by this sculpture is that of a peaceful scene. It depicts a soft, calm occurrence as nude Aphrodite is stretching out her arm to cover herself with a mantel. The situation it exhibits is rather emotional, demonstrating the goddess as modest about her nudity, which was unusual and controversial when the statue was made. This sentiment is reflected in the sculpture.

Hermes and the Infant Dionysus and Aphrodite of Knidos are the two most famous artworks of the Greek sculptor Praxiteles. The research part of this paper will discuss how similarities and differences between these two pieces of art affected Ancient Greek society and continued to have a lasting effect on Western artworks. Praxiteles, the supposed author of the statues, has created them in the fourth century B.C., which is considered the late classic phase of Greek art that promoted grace and natural beauty of forms. The statues were originally located in the temples related to the deities they depict. Even though none of these two statues are considered to be the originals, his style can be recognized by searching for the characteristic features in the anatomy and themes of the artworks (Honour & Fleming). The subtle movement aspects and similarities of the forms and topics of these two artworks promoted the exploration of the connection between a man and a woman.

The first statue to be analyzed is Hermes and the Infant Dionysus. It has been most likely produced by Praxiteles in approximately 330 B.C., and its last place of exposition before its untimely burial was the Temple of Hera in Olympia (Samartzis & Arnold). Samartzis and Arnold argue that “Hermes of Praxiteles is considered one of the most salient and influential sculptures of classic Greek antiquity and the sole surviving sculpture by the celebrated sculptor Praxiteles” (133). Although the surviving statue might not be the original, its depictions in other sources allowed art historians to prove its closeness to the initial version (Lavach). This work of Praxiteles led to the creation of numerous different pieces that share the subject, such as Stater from Pheneos, Hermes and Dionysus, and The Infant Bacchus Entrusted to the Nymphs (Hanfmann & Moore). Hanfmann and Moore argue that this motif owes its popularity to “the attitude toward myth which dwelled on human and humane relationships” (48). Therefore, the popularity of this artwork can be partially attributed to the combination of humanistic traits in characters’ expressions and the mythical setting.

Hermes and the Infant Dionysus depicts a recurrent mythical event, which was also captured by several other artworks of the past. In this myth, Zeus gives birth to Dionysus after adopting the unborn child of his dying mother and entrusts the newborn to Hermes (Hanfmann & Moore). The statue shows Hermes, who is carrying Dionysus with an intent to transfer him to the nymph who will nurse the baby (Hanfmann & Moore). The infant stares at an object in the hand of Hermes, which is, sadly, missing, making it impossible to know the exact intention of the author.

The author’s choice of characters for this artwork adds to its value, as both Hermes and Dionysus were popular deities among Greeks (Lavach). This selection can be partially related to the fact that Greek society has been highly patriarchal and had a prominent love for masculine beauty (Ioannou). It is essential to note that Hermes was often seen as a link between gods and humans, playing the role of a divine messenger, which makes him a perfect choice for a more mundane depiction (Davidson). Therefore, the purpose of the statue is to promote the Greek ideals of natural beauty and realism while inviting the viewer to accept that it is not necessary to depict gods in strictly heroic expositions. Moreover, both gods share similar personality traits, as they can be described as playful, prone to trickery, and present as energetic youth (Hanfmann & Moore). The connection between Hermes and Dionysus is apparent throughout Greek mythology.

The pose of the statue is filled with emotion and animation. The face of Hermes elicits calmness and contentedness while preserving realism (Samartzis & Arnold). It is also worth noting that Hermes looks upon the infant Dionysus with a look of familial love, which implies that he carries his newborn brother not merely out of duty or by Zeus’ orders (Lavach). Samartzis and Arnold argue that this pose represents “a departure from the more stoic designs – and precedes the Hellenistic period of Greek art, which is underlined by realism, emotion, and more humanistic elements” (133). The reposition of body weight partly on one leg allows the sculpture to show the muscular structure in all its variety and increases the feeling of the intended movement, bringing the statue to life (Davidson). All of these details combined work toward the goal of the author – to create an image of lasting masculine beauty with a hint of feminine traits.

The gods in this picture seem to promote the image of physical fitness and health. In Ancient Greece, clearly outlined physical beauty is a direct representation of the presence of a strong spirit (Davidson). In Davidson’s words, “the broad shoulders and vigorous, well-expanded chest, the round, muscular arms, the slight and gradual narrowing toward the firm loins, the light, graceful, strong, but not overdeveloped thighs” create an idyllic form (27). Praxiteles made it obvious to any viewer that Hermes – and gods in general – is capable of human emotions. The statue shows that as human behavior is not unfamiliar to deities, a god-like physique is not out of reach for a mortal.

The second artwork to be studied is the statue of Aphrodite of Knidos. This statue is considered the most popular artwork by this author (Buell). The figure contains female nudity, which was a bold move in that century, as the goddess herself, when adopted from Syrian deity Astarte, was immediately clothed, even though Astarte practically never wore clothes (Honour & Fleming). The statue is considered one of the first statues in Ancient Greece that displayed female nudity, and it sparked a revolution in art, allowing artists to depict female forms without strict limitations imposed by society (Buell). Not only did it remove said limitations, but it also has shown a unique artistic value in female body structure that has been depicted by Praxiteles (Buell). The statue was ordered by the cult temple in Knidos dedicated to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who is also often linked with feminine beauty and sexual desire (Ioannou). The temple in Knidos, while being relatively small, attracted a great deal of attention due to this exhibition.

The pose eventually draws attention to the nudity of the goddess. The gesture of the statue Buell argues that “her hand is not covering up her pubis in modesty, instead, her hand is idly placed while the figure of Aphrodite casually sets aside her drapery” (16). Honour and Fleming argue that “unlike the brazen male nudes, […] she seems slightly shy of her nakedness” (112). Without this gesture, it might have been offensive to create such a bold image of a naked female body. Despite this proclaimed shyness, Buell argues that Aphrodite of Knidos is “proud and contemptuous, […] someone not ashamed of nudity” (21). Praxiteles has shown the natural beauty of the goddess of love, and it is only logical for her to exude the feeling of confidence in her body (Buell). This difference in the attitude of the character to the lack of clothes separated the purpose of male and female nudity while preserving the artist’s right to express both genders in more revealing situations.

The context of the statue of Aphrodite of Knidos is connected to her divine origins, as the character bears the drapery in her arm and has a hydria next to her. In myths, Aphrodite often takes baths, the act that is associated with purity and renewal (Buell). Buell states that Aphrodite’s “frequent bathing relates to her divine birth at sea, and also explains her affinity to water” (16). This innocence of the depicted scene allowed the author to display female nudity without being heavily criticized for this decision while preserving the ability of the viewer to interpret the meaning as they like.

The original statue did not survive to modern days, which makes it harder to pinpoint the exact combination of intricate features that make this artwork so uniquely famous. The current existing copies undervalue the original due to the changes that were introduced to the composition throughout the ages (Michaelis). Due to the sheer popularity of this artwork, it was depicted on numerous reliefs that were unearthed during various archaeological expeditions and allowed a closer reconstruction of the statue’s features (Michaelis). Albeit the loss of the original and the emergence of replicas that were deduced from the statue’s composition, Aphrodite of Knidos was able to convey the message of Praxiteles to modern days.

The statue is recognized for its influence on the depiction of female sexuality. It has gained additional recognition in the Hellenistic period, as the position of women in Greek society began to change (Buell). The viewer was not immediately drawn to the pubis but was gradually led there (Buell). The notion of slowly drawing attention to the sexual parts of the body was explored in later works (Buell). This important attribute of the statue’s functionality has a lasting effect on the depiction of nudity even nowadays.

The initial location of the statue has played a crucial role in its potential to influence both the art forms and people’s minds. The statue was observed in the temple of the goddess and has brought the entire city of Knidos great fame and attracted people from the whole region (Buell). The placing of Aphrodite of Knidos in the temple supposedly allowed viewers to examine the statue from all angles (Buell). This statue accumulated immense attention not only because it was controversial but because the author composed a brilliant situation in which sexuality was not put on a pedestal.

Not only do Hermes and Aphrodite share the trait of physical beauty, but these artworks also have multiple similarities, both in their poses and compositions, as well as their functionality and theme. Both statues have been put on display at the temples to attract visitors and to invite them to explore and accept the evolution of art forms. This part of the paper will discuss what similarities make these two statues a great comparison.

Praxiteles had sculpted both Hermes and Aphrodite nude, with a prominent S-curve to their pose. Both artworks make use of a contrapposto posture, which, according to Samartzis and Arnold, provides “the illusion of movement” and instills “a life-like quality or dynamic characteristics” (133). The stature of both statues resembles the way young athletes were portrayed in Ancient Greece, as this stance allows the display of muscles at their finest performance (Honour & Fleming). One of the most notable similarities is the drape that serves as a support for both statues, as they are inclined on one side and require additional balancing. This type of support is also present in other Praxitelian figures, where it allows greater liberty for curved lines and adds more flow to the composition (Michaelis). The complexity of the stance of the characters adds a great deal of value to these artworks.

Furthermore, these statues put the characters in motion, however subtle it is. Michaelis argues that one of the intentions of Praxiteles in these sculptures was “to transplant the gods into the sphere of purely human situations and feelings” (348). Davidson argues that Praxiteles chose to place gods in regular situations instead of depicting their mythical adventures “to combine in themselves the divine and the human” and to show the relation between them (25). This shared down-to-earth theme allowed Praxiteles to make both gods more relatable and natural to their observers. By bringing gods down to earth, Praxiteles successfully reduced the distance between the viewer and the subject of matter.

Hermes and Aphrodite share more features than their theme and pose, as both artworks have a touch of feminine beauty, despite the gender of the character. Ioannou argues that the statue of Aphrodite has a prototypical Western female naked beauty similar to how “Hermes of Praxiteles may stand for the male nude” (17). The beauty of a nude female body was gradually incorporated into Greek art, as it can be seen in the Hellenistic period (Buell). Ioannou states that both statues bear “the Greek sense for beauty and order, the anthropomorphic logic of religion, and the instinctive quest for naturalism, idealization, and perfection” (17). Both statues succeed at reinforcing and expanding this ideal through the author’s unique creative vision.

The expressions of both Hermes and Aphrodite share similar traits, such as the angle of their heads and the emotions on the characters’ faces. Michaelis writes that Aphrodite’s “eyes afford a striking analogy with those of the Hermes and the infant Dionysos sitting on his arm, especially the lids, the soft and subtle texture forbids any sharp outline” (354). This tenderness in the statues’ eyes might have been put in place to provide a soothing effect on the viewer and to evoke the feeling of serenity and calmness.

Another similarity that these artworks share is the artist’s exploration of underrepresented topics within Greek art society. Praxiteles makes the decision to create an exposition of the myth that was often alluded to yet not directly shown (Davidson). The situation with Aphrodite of Knidos shares this trait with Hermes and the Infant Dionysus. The statue of Aphrodite presented a revolutionary idea to Greeks and lifted the taboo label from female nudity (Buell). This topic has not been directly displayed before this artwork, only hinted at via the wet drapery technique (Buell). Praxiteles and his bold experiments with gods’ physical representation marked the beginning of the Hellenistic era in Greek art.

In conclusion, these masterpieces have served as an inspiration for many generations of artists across the globe, despite the loss of originals and the missing elements. The S-curve that is present in both of these statues allows the artist to depict every muscle of the body performing its function, making it more life-like and realistic (Davidson). Both statues show the perfect body shape that was greatly appreciated and sought after by Greek culture. Moreover, both Hermes and Aphrodite are an ideal choice among deities to display this physique, as both gods are associated with high physical performance. The statues bear a striking similarity in their poses, facial expressions, and the matter of subject. Furthermore, they share the author’s intent to explore forbidden topics, whether it was a societal or religious taboo. In his works, Praxiteles had successfully pushed the boundaries of what was allowed to be shown in Ancient Greek art while preserving the past idealistic standards.

In order to understand the full intent of Praxiteles’ artworks, the viewer is required to investigate each detail and its position concerning an entire composition. With his depiction of female nudity, according to Buell, Praxiteles “showed that women, as well as men, could be idealized” (18). Both artworks share similarities in both their shapes and functionality while praising differences. In his works, Praxiteles has achieved the level of naturalism that was considered perfect, he pushed the boundaries of what was allowed to be depicted and revolutionized the meaning of nudity in Greek art.

Works Cited

Bruell, Krista. Aphrodite of Knidos, Trendsetter: Depictions of the Female Nude and Sexuality in Ancient Greek Sculpture. 2016. Portland State University, MA thesis. University Honors Theses.

Davidson, Thomas. “Praxiteles’ Hermes with the Infant Dionysos.” The American Art Review, vol. 1, no. 1, 1879, p. 24, Web.

Hanfmann, George M., and Charlotte B. Moore. “Hermes and Dionysus: A “Neo-Attic” Relief.” Acquisitions (Fogg Art Museum), vol. 1969/1970, 1969, pp. 41-49, Web.

Honour, Hugh, and John Fleming. The Visual Arts: A History. Pearson Education, 2010.

Ioannou, Nikolaos. A Brief History of The Nude in Art Through Selected Pieces. 2017. University of Kent, MA thesis. Web.

Lavach, Haley. The Evolution of Hermes His Influences and Appearance from the Archaic to Classical Periods Archaic to Classical Periods. 2020. University of Mary Washington, MA thesis. Student Research Submissions.

Michaelis, Ad. “The Cnidian Aphrodite of Praxiteles.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies, vol. 8, 1887, pp. 324-355.

Samartzis, Dino, and Paul M. Arnold. “Spine in the Arts.” The Spine Journal, vol. 7, no. 1, 2007, pp. 133-134.

Appendix A

Hermes and the Infant Dionysus
Hermes and the Infant Dionysus, credited to Praxiteles, copy statues ca. 350 BCE or an original work ca. 330-270 BCE, from Temple of Hera, Olympia, Greece, marble, 7’1″ high. Archaeological Museum, Olympia.

Appendix B

Aphrodite of Knidos
Aphrodite of Knidos; the original creator is Praxiteles of Athens (Roman copy), ca. 350 BCE (original), 2nd century CE (copy), marble. 6’8″ high, Vatican Museums, Rome.