Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The "Venus of Willendorf"

           The “Venus” of Willendorf is a carved statuette of a female figurine, carved out of limestone, and discovered around 1908.  The figurine has very prominent breasts, a prominent stomach, full thighs and buttocks, and shows details of the pubic area.  The first person to label the statue “Venus” of Willendorf was Josef Szombathy in an article he published in 1909.  It was then followed a year later by a reference from MacCurdy in a Smithsonian report.   They were the first ones to label the Willendorf figurine but not the first ones to label such prehistoric female statuettes.

 Prior to the find of the “Venus” of Willendorf there had been others.   Examples include the “Venus impudique”, a headless, armless, footless ivory statuette found in Laugerie-Basse by the Marquis Paul de Vibraye, and the statuette found by Edouard Piette.  Piette’s statue, which was originally called “the pear”, is a torso which gives attention to the figures vulva’s labia and the protruding pubic area. 
Szombathy and MacCurdy seem to associate the Willendorf figure as a “Venus” because of the prior associations that were made with the other similar prehistoric statuettes mentioned.  They all share common characteristics of a female figure, with details given to the sexual areas, the pubic area and to the breasts.  They are all unclothed and give no hint that there were any attempts made on the original sculptor’s part to cover the statuette’s nudity.  They seem to be all adult women, some at different stages womanhood.  The three statuettes also seem to share a feeling that seems very primal in their nudity and give off an aura of sexuality, especially the Venus of Willendorf.
When we think of the connotation of the name Venus, most would associate her with the Roman goddess of love and beauty.  And most would then associate her with the classical portrayals of the goddess done by Praxiteles, the “Venus pudica” during the 4th century BCE, the Capitoline Venus, the Medici Venus, and the painting done by Botticelli in his painting “The Birth of the Venus”, all portray a very Classical and Renaissance style to the Venuses.  It is of a young nude woman who is tall, with a proportioned body that is neither fat nor thin.  The breasts are small and are usually partially concealed.  The pubic area is not defined and, like the breasts, they are usually concealed. She is usually considered beautiful and graceful, and almost demure in the way she conceals parts of her sexuality. 
This is very different from the “Venus” of Willendorf.  She has very enlarged hanging breasts that are in no way concealed, they are almost emphasized by her small arms that seem to frame her breasts and her protruding body.  She is very noticeably fat and this is seen in the roll of fat around her body, her large breasts and large thighs.  Unlike the Classical Venuses, there is no attempt to conceal her body.  Again she seems primitive in her unadorned nakedness.  The lines used to define and shape her are sometimes simple grooves made into the limestone and the lack of detail given to the face and feet,  lend more of a primitive feel to the statuette, compared to the all correct anatomical details and proportion given to the statue of the “Venus Pudica”.
It seems ironic then that Szombathy, would name the statuette from Willendorf “Venus” when they were so noticeably different.  But then that seems to be the point for him and the other archaeologists.  In naming the statuette “Venus”, he instead draws the viewer’s attention to the differences in the Willendorf Venus from the more Classical and Renaissance Venuses.  The connotation of the Venus of classical beauty and demure sexuality, a goddess to be worshipped from afar.   And yet for how different they are in detail and form, they still share the characteristics of a sexual woman, who could have been as highly regarded as a work of art and beauty, and revered and desired by men as much as the Classical statues of Venus were during their time.  Maybe then our view of what a Venus should be, could incorporate this more primitive and very sexual woman of Willendorf, and no longer hold onto the rigid ideals of what she has been, of a classical demure goddess.


  1. Great summary, Sarah. I like that you highlighted how the term "Venus" forces the viewer to make comparisons between the prehistoric figurines and those produced by the ancient Greeks. I don't think it seems quite fair that the prehistoric figurines should always be judged on a basis of comparison to the Greeks, do you? I think we should try to understand the prehistoric figurines on their own terms, at least as much as possible.

    If you're interested in seeing the "armless, headless" figurine that Vibraye first nicknamed "Venus" (as a tongue-in-cheek comment), you can see it here.

    -Prof. Bowen

  2. I loved your post!! Very good descriptions and the last paragraph was my favorite part. The idea you brought up that Venus of Willendorf shouldn't be held to the ideals of Venus, but instead incorporate this uncivilized statue into the idea of Venus, Goddess of beauty. I do believe that she was made to be appreciated for her beauty, it just is not the same beauty that we all think we know. I agree with what you mentioned about how Venus of Willendorf should be seen as the same status of classical Venus, after all, they both were desired by men in their time right? (From what we know) Then who is to say that Venus of Willendorf cannot be held to the same level of beauty. I enjoyed you blog as it gave me a new insight I hadn't thought of before, thank you!

  3. Great job at telling us about the history of the Venuses leading up to the naming of the V of W, and that this Venus could be put in the same category with the other Venuses, as a monument of beauty.

  4. As you pointed out, it isn't fair to judge the "V of W" (thanks, Liz!) in terms of Greek sculpture. Not only because they are different cultures but also in regards to the tools which were available at the time. Presumably, the Greeks had more advanced tools and techniques than the Prehistoric artisan, priest, mother, shaman, with, matron, or midwife that may have carved this statuette.

  5. I really enjoy how you end your post by stating that perhaps it is time that we acknowledge this type of woman, a large prosperous woman, should be seen as a thing of beauty instead of a thing of ridicule. This is the body type that some women have naturally, and it's something that should be praised, as should all women.
    This is something I completely agree with, but perhaps I am biased, being a large woman myself!

  6. Hi!
    Great post! Its interesting how the author made the Venus of Classical era be compared to the Venus of Willendorf. The later one is also beautiful and sexual in her own way, and it shifts the standards of what was perceived as beautiful back in the day and what can be called beauty today. The ideal goddess of beauty is no longer the only thing that we can look up to, but the Woman of Willendorf is also a picture of beauty in its own way.