The most famous early image of a human, a woman, is the so-called “Venus” of Willendorf, found in 1908 by the archaeologist Josef Szombathy in a terrace about 30 meters above the Danube river near the town of Willendorf, Austria.
The statue, which measures about 11.1 centimeters in length, is now in a muse. It was carved from a fine porous limestone not found in the region and so must have been brought to the area from another location. It must have travelled a great distance before hibernating for centuries.
When first discovered the Venus of Willendorf was thought to date to approximately 15,000 to 10,000 BCE. In the 1970s the date was revised back to 25,000-20,000 BCE, and then in the 1980s it was revised again to 30,000-25,000 BCE. In 1990 a study of the amount of layers of deposit on her indicates a date for the Venus of Willendorf of around 24,000-22,000 BCE.
Being both female and nude, she fit perfectly into the patriarchal construction of the history of art. She became the “first woman,” acquiring an ironic Eve identity that focused suitably, from a patriarchal point of view, on the fascinating reality of the female body. She was originally nicknamed la poire – “the pear” – on account of her shape .Larger woman used to be identified with wealth, health and suitable for child bearing.Her size, at one point, probably was a point of envy with woman all over the world.
In the 15th century, the Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli revived this same pose in his painting The Birth of Venus and initiated a renewed interest in the Classical Venus. The female again is very curvy, however her hair is natural and free flowing. She seems to be looked upon with ease, by the gods; envied by the human. The inspired painting is printed below:
She also exhibits, in ways that are at once appealing (to most women, perhaps) and threatening (to most men, perhaps), a physical and sexual self that seems unrestrained, unphased by cultural taboos and social convictions.She is an image of “natural” femaleness, of uninhibited female power, which “civilization,” in the figure of the Classical Venus, later sought to curtail and bring under control.
The sculpture shows a woman with a large stomach that overhangs but does not hide her pubic area. A roll of fat extends around her middle, joining with large but rather flat buttocks. Her thighs are also large and pressed together down to the knees. Her forearms, however, are thin, and are shown draped over and holding, with cursorily indicated fingers, the upper part of her large breasts. Small markings on her wrists seem to indicate the presence of bracelets. Her breasts are full and appear soft, but they are not sagging and pendulous. The nipples are not indicated. Her genital area has been deliberately emphasized with the details made clearly visible. This, combined with her large breasts and the roundness of her stomach, suggests that the “subject” of the sculpture is female procreativity and nurture and the piece has long been identified as some sort of fertility idol.
Treatment of hair is rare in Paleolithic figurines, and the attention paid to it must mean it had some significance. In later cultures, hair has been considered a source of strength, and as the seat of the soul.
Another characteristic of the statue is she has no feet. Possibly the intention was to curtail the figurine’s power to leave wherever she had been placed. A more common explanation is that because the statue served as a fertility idol, the sculptor included only those parts of the female body needed for the conception and nurture of children.
The most satisfying, position is being held in the palm of the hand. When seen under these conditions, she transformed as a piece of sculpture. As fingers are imagined gripping her round masses, she becomes a remarkably sensuous object, her flesh seemingly soft and yielding to the touch.
A roll of fat extends around her middle, joining with large but rather flat buttocks. Piette had been the first to regard it as a racial feature that he related to the appearance of women in African tribes. Another factor contributing to this fact is her hair. Some have interpreted her head as wearing braids while others have said she may be wearing a sort of headdress.
From the front, the place where her face should be seems to be largely concealed by what are generally described as rows of plaited hair wrapped around her head.
A characteristic of all the Paleolithic “Venus” figurines is the lack of a face, which for some, arguing that the face is a key feature in human identity, means that she is to be regarded as an anonymous sexual object rather than a person; it is her physical body and what it represents that is important.
When seen in profile, the impression is that the figure is looking down with her chin sunk to her chest, and her hair looks more like hair; longer at back and falling and gathering like real hair might on her upper back. Some find it significant that the number of full circles is seven; many thousands of years later seven was regarded as a magic number.
What her identity and purpose may have been, why and for what reason she was carved, becomes an even more pressing question. If we dismiss all associations with goddesses and fertility figures, and assume an objective response to what we see, she might be identified as simply a Stone-Age doll.
Venus of Willendorf
c. 24,000-22,000 BCE
43/8 inches (11.1 cm) high
(Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna)
Chrisopher L. C. E. Witcombe