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Venus of Willendorf

September 29, 2011

The “Venus of Willendorf”, dated to be made between 24,000 BCE and 20,000 BCE, is a stone figurine of a nude woman discovered in Austria in 1908. Though the name Venus may give a connotation of Western idealized female sexuality, the figure itself is anything but that. The woman depicted in the carving is short, chubby, and exposed in a manner unlike the modest/self-conscious Venus of Classical art. It is my belief that the “Venus of Willendorf” either reflects the ideals of a matriarchal society long forgotten or perhaps served as an idol/symbol of female fertility.
The “Venus of Willendorf” is a curious object. Everything about her artistically suggests an emphasis on her sexual organs; her large breasts (on which her arms lay relaxed), her meticulously crafted and distinctly visible labia, and her downward head/eye direction all imply that the focal point of this piece is her ability to reproduce (or perhaps nurture newborn). It has also been noted that at the time of recovery the figurine showed traces of a red ochre, which could suggest the use of red in connection with menstrual blood.
It is no surprise to me that a figure of this time period portrays a woman of a larger set than what we in the West would see as “ideal”. Other figurines from this time period portray this same female figure. “The Woman From Dolni Vestonice” (found in Czech Republic, made in 23,000 BCE) is nearly the same size and depicts a large belly and swollen breasts in a strikingly similar manner. In the days these figures were made, your ability to reproduce (and nurture) literally determined whether or not your clan would survive. The Classical image of a woman with a relatively thin figure and small breasts would hardly represent an ideal in survival for this period.
So if this “Venus of Willendorf” bears very little physical likeness to the Venus of Classical thought, what was the purpose in giving her this name? Christopher L.C.E. Whitcomb, in an online article “What’s In A Name?”, calls the naming of this figure “Venus” a “rich, male joke” that “…served as a reassuring example to the patriarchal culture of the extent to which the female and female sexuality had been overcome and women effectively subjugated by the male-dominated civilizing process”. While I may be a feminist (Hey! Men can be feminists, too!), I would say this is quite an assumption on Whitcomb’s part. Sure, the repeated portrayal of the Goddess of sexual femininity as a modest, nearly shameful woman who seeks to hide her genitals in the presence of others is evidence of an oppressive, chauvinistic outlook on what it is to be a sexual woman. I do not believe the naming of this figure “Venus” is that cynical though. To me, this figure is clearly a strong, female symbol that must have been related in someway to womanhood or fertility… whether or not that matches modern or Classical portrayal of ideal sexual woman is of no consequence to me, and I think anybody that views the sculpture will make that distinction as well.

Venus of Willendorf, 24,000 BCE

Woman of Dolni Vestonice, from 23,000 BCE. Notice the similarities between the two figures..

 

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2 Comments
  1. Hi Tyler. You have some nice thoughts. Using the nickname “Venus” to refer to a strong female symbol is appropriate, if these figurines are interpreted within that context. That is a good point.

    I like that you are drawn to the similarities between the Venus of Willendorf and the Woman of Dolni Vestonice. There are other “Venus” figurines from the prehistoric period, too. You might be interested in looking up images of the Kostenki Venus or the Venus of Lespugue.

    -Prof. Bowen

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