The very first time Helena faces Paris, she brings her hands to her head and adjusts her veil. This we learn from a magnificent Greek vase of the fourth century AD. Paris stops his horse and, surprised, gazes at Helena, who bows a little. Is she taking off her veil, or, on the contrary, will she put it over her head? Either way, love is in the air. On the left, we notice Aphrodite gaze approvingly over the scene. It’s she who arranged the meeting. In his famous ‘judgment’, mortal Paris had elected her – instead of Hera or Athena – the most beautiful among the Olympic goddesses, yet not without having received Aphrodite’s promise that, in return, he would be given the most beautiful among Hellas’s women. Which is happening right now, thanks to Aphrodite’s son, Eros, who sits on the ground and enjoys the success of his arrows.
Ancient Greek art is full of nudes. Yet, it is mostly the men who are naked. And if female nakedness is shown, it is seldom without being veiled. As is the case here on the vase. Yet, as we notice, nudity and veil do not contradict or exclude one another per se; On the contrary, here, the veil even emphasizes the nudity. As if Helena adjusts her veil precisely to acknowledge Paris’s erotic gaze, to allow it, to accept and even to encourage it. What you’re looking for, she seems to say, is here; it is with me, beyond the limit that I wear and put now over (or off) my head. The most remarkable thing, however, is that she does so although her veil is entirely transparent. Even in complete nakedness, when nothing can be hidden, it is the a veil that makes the nudity erotic.
The veil installs a limit, a frontier. Historically, it might be first of all the frontiers of the house, be it in an ambulant version. Antique society – as with many societies still nowadays – knows a strict segregation between men and women. Even in the way the house is divided. The part that gives out onto the street is meant for men. The one in the back giving out onto the paths leading to the washing place, is meant for women. Male is the public sphere, including the part of the house where guests are received. Female is the private sphere (with, for instance, the gynaika). When a women leaves her proper territory and enters the public space, she, as it were, has to take her territory with her. Which is to say she has to wear a veil. Walking on the agora, she still remains separated from it – ambulantly ‘home’ so to say. And this goes for immortal women as well. The oldest pictures of goddesses we know show them mostly veiled. See for example the beautiful wall painting from the pre-Roman Iberian peninsula.
In segregated societies, the veil is an element meant to keep both sexes clearly separated from one another. Which is not to say that, then, the veil stops functioning in a sexual way. Nothing escapes eroticization, certainly not a veil, for it is a sign letting men know that precisely behind the veil is the object their desire strives after. By veiling herself, the woman does not simply exclude her from the world of men, she also turns that exclusion into an appeal addressed to their sexual desire, an appeal inviting them to leave their own male, public sphere and to join women in their private, intimate world.
Western European society, although deeply rooted in antique Mediterranean and (consequently) segregated culture, has lost that strong codified use of the veil centuries ago, certainly in the highly cultivated milieus. But as an erotic garment, it has always kept its function. Look for instance at a painting by Alexander Roslin where this particular use of the veil is difficult to deny. Or at the more recent one painted by Madonna’s favorite painter, Tamara de Lempicka.