Venus of Willendorf
Description, Dating, Interpretation of Austrian Prehistoric Figurine.

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Venus of Willendorf
(c.25,000 BCE) A masterpiece
of prehistoric mobiliary art.

PREHISTORIC ART in IRELAND
For details of arts & culture
during the Pleistocene and
Holocene epochs, see:
Irish Stone Age Art
Mainly megalithic architecture.

The Venus of Willendorf (25,000 BCE)

Contents

Introduction
Discovery
Description
Date
Interpretation
Other Venus Figurines

Introduction

One of the most famous items of prehistoric sculpture, the Venus of Willendorf was sculpted from oolitic limestone, and is one of three such figurines unearthed at Paleolithic archeological sites at Willendorf in Austria. The sites have yielded numerous artifacts dating to Gravettian culture (26-20,000 BCE). The Venus of Willendorf is one of many similar female carvings - known as "Venus Figurines" - which appeared across Europe during the period of Gravettian art (c.25-20,000 BCE). See also its older Austrian 'sister', found in nearby Stratzing, and known as the Venus of Galgenberg (c.30,000 BCE).

Other similar examples of prehistoric art include: the German carving known as the Venus of Hohle Fels (35,500 BCE), the steatopygous Venus of Monpazier (c.25,000 BCE) and the French Venus of Brassempouy (c.23,000 BCE).

To see how the Venus of Willendorf fits into the development of cave paintings, petroglyphs and other parietal art during the Upper Paleolithic era, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.

CHRONOLOGY OF
LATE STONE AGE ART

Dates are approximate
Mesolithic Art

(c.10,000-6,000 BCE)
Neolithic Art
(c.6,000-2,000 BCE)

 

Discovery

The carving was discovered in 1908 by Austrian archeologist Josef Szombathy during systematic investigations of the local Gravettian settlements in lower Austria, near Krems.

Description and Characteristics

The figurine is roughly 11 centimetres in height and a maximum of 4 centimetres in width. Sculpted from yellowish limestone, tinted red by traces of ochre, the stumpy female figure features pendulous breasts, an obese middle and belly, and pronounced buttocks. In all, a realistic representation of a severely overweight woman. There is no facial detail - the head being almost completely covered by a braided pattern - and the feet appear to be broken off, while the belly button and vulva are clearly defined.

Date

The Venus of Willendorf has been classified as belonging to to the Gravettian or Upper Perigordian culture of the Upper Paleolithic period - the final period of the old Stone Age, and dated to approximately 25,000 BCE. It is part of the permanent collection of rock art in the Natural History Museum in Vienna.

For the 100 most ancient artworks, see: Oldest Stone Age Art.

 

Interpretation

What makes the Willendof statuette so compelling is its graphic portrayal of obesity. One feels that, despite the scarcity of food and the unlikely prevalence of overweight females, the sculptor must have worked from a model. If so, this "celebration" of what would have been rare corpulence, might be a factor in the work's interpretation. In other words, such a body shape might have been worth ritualization. The fact that no equivalent male figures have been unearthed need not undermine this theory. First because few male Stone Age figures of any description have been discovered, second because female bodies have traditionally been hallowed as fertility symbols, not unlike the Virgin Mary of modern Christianity.

Other Venus Figurines

The Venus of Willendorf was created during the same period as several other famous Stone Age statuettes, including the bas-relief Venus of Laussel (France), the ceramic Venus of Dolni Vestonice (Czech Republic), the ivory Venus of Lespugue (France), the steatite Venus of Savignano (Italy), the stone Venus of Gagarino (Russia), the Venus of Kostenky, and the ivory Venus of Mal'ta (Russia). As yet, little is known about the origin or cultural significance of these early statuettes.

Note that these Upper Paleolithic Venus figurines are not connected with the two earlier humanoid effigies - the Venus of Berekhat Ram and the Venus of Tan-Tan - dating back to the Early Acheulian period (at least 500,000 BCE).

• For the earliest art of the Stone Age, see: Bhimbetka Petroglyphs.
• For the origins of painting and sculpture, see: Homepage.


ENCYCLOPEDIA OF STONE AGE ART
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