Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Pendant with Aphrodite Anadyomene
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    Despite the Byzantine Empire’s conversion to Christianity, the visual language of the classical world – its gods,heroes, and myths – was still used metaphorically to represent secular subject matter during the early Byzantine period.

    Standing in a shell-shaped pendant, Aphrodite Anadyomene – “rising from the sea” - wrings water from her hair. Her gesture, the “shell”, and the dark blue color all refer to the myth of the birth of the goddess from the ocean’s depths. Aphrodite tilts her head coquettishly, and her stance displays her ideal body. Although drapery covers her left leg, the right one advances in such a way that it appears naked. This posturing causes her body to be read as a series of sensual curves. The pendant also features Aphrodite wearing a necklace and pendant, thereby forming a parallel between Aphrodite and the wearer.

    The magical properties of this image may have added to its allure. Amulets and charms, both expensive and cheap, had been worn for centuries as an effective means of personal protection or for controlling the actions and emotions of others. This pendant may have been used either as an amulet against malicious spirits or as a charm for granting an erotic wish. However, the existence of a number of Coptic charms and amulets featuring the same motif, some of which include inscriptions asking Aphrodite to help attract the attention of a lover, imply that this pendant was designed to celebrate the goddess’s sexuality and, by extension, the sexuality of the female wearer.

    Although Aphrodite may seem like an inappropriate figure to represent on an object in Christian society, she had a place within the realm of medieval Christian marriage. A couple's consummation was essential to the legality and the functioning (i.e. procreation) of both pagan and Christian marriages. Furthermore, both ancient and medieval physiological treatises defined pleasure in intercouse as essential for conception. Therefore, Aphrodite’s erotic naked form and unbound hair should be understood as acceptable within a Christian framework as they encouraged the act of consummation and the sexual desire between partners that were necessary for the conception of a child.

  • Source: Dumbarton Oaks Collection,Washington, D.C.
  • Rights: Reproduced with the permission of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.
  • Subject (See Also): Amulets Byzantium Jewelry Pagan Influences Sexuality Venus (Mythological Figure)
  • Geographic Area: Eastern Mediterranean
  • Century: 7
  • Date: Early 7th century
  • Related Work: For other art from this period with a pagan motif, see this dish with Silenus and a maenad: http://www.courtauld.ac.uk/newsletter/spring_2006/p14byzantium.shtml
  • Current Location: Washington, D.C., Dumbarton Oaks Collection, BZ.1928.6
  • Original Location:
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Metalwork; Jewelry;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Gold; Lapis Lazuli; Pearls;
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 43.2/20.3/1.9
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Evans, Helen C. with Randie Ratliff. Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition 7th-9th Century. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. 193.;
    Kalavrezou, Ioli. Byzantine Women and Their World. Harvard University Art Museums, 2003. 16-18.;
    Long, Jane C. "The Survival and Reception of the Classical Nude: Venus in the Middle Ages." in The Meanings of Nudity in Medieval Art edited by Sherry C.M. Lindquist. Ashgate, 2012. 47-64.;
    Zwirn, S. "Necklace with Pendant of Aphrodite Anadyomene." Dumbarton Oaks: Research Library and Collection. January 1, 2012. http://museum.doaks.org/Obj27003?sid=3307&x=261588&port=2607.