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The 30.000-year-old Beauty: Venus of Willendorf

Being one of the most famous items of prehistoric sculpture, the Venus of Willendorf dates to between 28.000-30.000 BC, making it one of the oldest and most famous surviving works of art. It was found in 1908 at a paleolithic site near Willendorf, a village in Lower Austria near the town of Krems.

Venus of Willendorf

The Venus of Willendorf was carved from stone. She has hair but no facial features. She measures just under 11.1 cm high (4½”) and could fit comfortably in the palm of her hand. She may have been used in rituals to do with finding food or giving thanks for a successful hunt. Photographer: Matthias Kabel via Wikimedia Commons.

The statuette, carved from limestone and decoratively tinged with red ochre, depicts a female nude. Though without a face, the crown of the figure’s head is decorated with a repeating motif resembling either a braided hairstyle or a patterned headdress. Until about 30.000 years ago, people could spare time from the endless task of hunting for food to express themselves in art. They painted on the walls of caves and produced simple sculptures.

The face of the sculpture is totally abstract, showing no attempt to craft features or different planes. The head and face are represented by a sphere with no neck to speak of. Most of the head of the figurine is covered with a knot-like pattern. The arms and feet of the sculpture are almost non-existent, showing that the artist was not concerned with a realistic depiction of human anatomy. The major emphasis is placed on the breasts, belly, thighs, and genitalia of the statuette.

discovery of venus of willendorf

It is a small statue of a woman with huge breasts and thighs but no real facial features. So, why did the Stone Age artists carve women in such a way? One theory is that these statues represented goddesses of fertility, and their ample figures suggested the richness of the earth, or perhaps women really did look a bit like that in those days.

These statues were carved during the last Ice Age when the winters were so cold that people could not survive unless they developed a large supply of fat in their bodies during the summer.

willendorf venus
Marilyn Willendorf

Today, the Venus Cabinet in Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna houses the famous 29.500-year-old Venus of Willendorf. The Venus Cabinet is bathed in a deep red light designed to recreate the red ochre that would have originally covered the Venus of Willendorf. Furthermore, an animation shows visitors how the area near the Danube where the “Venus” was found looked like 30.000 years ago, in the Ice Age, and how the climate and landscape have changed since then.

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Featured Image Credit & Courtesy of  Nina Paley.

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