Why is it Famous? – Venus of Willendorf

By: Joanna Wallace

This small statuette is one of the most famous surviving works of art in history, mainly due to its extremely old age.

The Venus of Willendorf is an Upper Paleolithic stone carving depicting a woman with exaggerated features and traces of red ochre pigment, but little else is factually known about the piece.

The facts:

  • Scientists and art historians have dated the artifact to 24,000-22,000 BC.
  • It is made of limestone and has traces of red ochre pigment on it.
  • Particular attention has been spent on the breasts and pubic region, with little or no detail put into the limbs and face.
  • It is about 4-1/2 inches tall with no evidence of having been free-standing.

 

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The interpretations:

  • Because of its small size, the statue would be able to be carried around easily, which would be useful for nomadic lifestyles of around the time of its creation.
  • The accentuated features can suggest a few things, including being a sign of fertility and reproduction; when considering this theory, the portability of the object would also suggest that it was carried around as a totem to bring fertility to the person carrying it. It has also been hypothesized, though, that it is simply a carving of a woman to appreciate women and their form.
  • The limestone it is made out of is not found in the Austrian town of Willendorf where it was discovered, so it is believed that the artifact was carried in hand from somewhere else before ending up in Willendorf.

None of these interpretations can be proven because of the age of the piece and lack of evidence of society during its time to support or deny the hypotheses. Even with that ambiguity, the Venus of Willendorf is still very significant because it is fully intact and shows a little bit of what the culture of that area and time was focusing on.

I personally love this piece! I think it is very interesting to look at, and the mystery behind it makes me enjoy it even more. Over this past summer, I traveled to Austria, and though I spent most of my time in Salzburg, I did have to fly in and out of the Vienna airport. Before doing this research, I did not realize this statue is in the natural history museum of Vienna (in its own area called “The Venus Chamber”) so I am kicking myself now for not tracking it down and seeing it in person!

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Sources: 1, 2

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