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Venus of Willendorf

Essay by Dr. Bryan Zygmont
Venus of Willendorf, c. 24,000-22,000 B.C.E., limestone 11.1 cm high (Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Venus of Willendorf, c. 24,000-22,000 B.C.E., limestone 11.1 cm high (Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Can a 25,000-year-old object be a work of art?

The artifact known as the Venus of Willendorf dates to between 24,000-22,000 B.C.E., making it one of the oldest and most famous surviving works of art. But what does it mean to be a work of art?
The Oxford English Dictionary, perhaps the authority on the English language, defines the word "art" as
the application of skill to the arts of imitation and design, painting, engraving, sculpture, architecture; the cultivation of these in its principles, practice, and results; the skillful production of the beautiful in visible forms.
Some of the words and phrases that stand out within this definition include “application of skill,” “imitation,” and “beautiful.” By this definition, the concept of “art” involves the use of skill to create an object that contains some appreciation of aesthetics. The object is not only made, it is made with an attempt of creating something that contains elements of beauty.
In contrast, the same Oxford English Dictionary defines the word "artifact" as, “anything made by human art and workmanship; an artificial product. In Archaeology applied to the rude products of aboriginal workmanship as distinguished from natural remains.” Again, some key words and phrases are important: “anything made by human art,” and “rude products.” Clearly, an artifact is any object created by humankind regardless of the "skill" of its creator or the absence of "beauty."
Venus of Willendorf, c. 24,000-22,000 B.C.E., limestone 11.1 cm high (Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Venus of Willendorf, c. 24,000-22,000 B.C.E., limestone 11.1 cm high (Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna)
Artifact, then, is anything created by humankind, and art is a particular kind of artifact, a group of objects under the broad umbrella of artifact, in which beauty has been achieved through the application of skills. Think of the average plastic spoon: a uniform white color, mass produced, and unremarkable in just about every way. While it serves a function—say, for example, to stir your hot chocolate—the person who designed it likely did so without any real dedication or commitment to making this utilitarian object beautiful. You have likely never lovingly gazed at a plastic spoon and remarked, “Wow! Now that’s a beautiful spoon!” This is in contrast to a silver spoon you might purchase at Tiffany & Co. While their spoon could just as well stir cream into your morning coffee, it was skillfully designed by a person who attempted to make it aesthetically pleasing; note the elegant bend of the handle, the gentle luster of the metal, the graceful slope of the bowl.
These terms are important to bear in mind when analyzing prehistoric art. While it is unlikely people from the Upper Paleolithic period cared to conceptualize what it meant to make art or to be an artist, it cannot be denied that the objects they created were made with skill, were often made as a way of imitating the world around them, and were made with a particular care to create something beautiful. They likely represent, for the Paleolithic peoples who created them, objects made with great competence and with a particular interest in aesthetics.

Caves and pockets

Two main types of Upper Paleolithic art have survived. The first we can classify as permanently located works found on the walls within caves. Mostly unknown prior to the final decades of the nineteenth century, many such sites have now been discovered throughout much of southern Europe and have provided historians and archaeologists new insights into humankind millennia prior to the creation of writing. The subjects of these works vary: we may observe a variety of geometric motifs, many types of flora and fauna, and the occasional human figure. They also fluctuate in size; ranging from several inches to large-scale compositions that span many feet in length.
The second category of Paleolithic art may be called portable since these works are generally of a small-scale—a logical size given the nomadic nature of Paleolithic peoples. Despite their often diminutive size, the creation of these portable objects signifies a remarkable allocation of time and effort. As such, these figurines were significant enough to take along during the nomadic wanderings of their Paleolithic creators.
Venus of Willendorf, c. 24,000-22,000 B.C.E., limestone 11.1 cm high (Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Venus of Willendorf, c. 24,000-22,000 B.C.E., limestone 11.1 cm high (Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The Venus of Willendorf is a perfect example of this. Josef Szombathy, an Austro-Hungarian archaeologist, discovered this work in 1908 outside the small Austrian village of Willendorf. Although generally projected in art history classrooms to be several feet tall, this limestone figurine is petite in size. She measures just under 4½” high, and could fit comfortably in the palm of your hand. This small scale was very deliberate and allowed whoever carved (or, perhaps owned) this figurine to carry it during their nearly daily nomadic travels in search of food.

Naming and dating

Clearly, the Paleolithic sculptor who made this small figurine would never have named it the Venus of Willendorf. Venus was the name of the Roman goddess of love and ideal beauty. When discovered outside the Austrian village of Willendorf, scholars mistakenly assumed that this figure was likewise a goddess of love and beauty. There is absolutely no evidence though that the Venus of Willendorf shared a function similar to its classically inspired namesake. However incorrect the name may be, it has endured, and tells us more about those who found her than those who made her.
Dating too can be a problem, especially since Prehistoric art, by definition, has no written record. In fact, the definition of the word prehistoric is that written language did not yet exist, so the creator of the Venus of Willendorf could not have incised “Bob made this in the year 24,000 B.C.E.” on the back. In addition, stone artifacts present a special problem since we are interested in the date that the stone was carved, not the date of the material itself. Despite these hurdles, art historians and archaeologist attempt to establish dates for prehistoric finds through two processes. The first is called relative dating and the second involves an examination of the stratification of an object’s discovery.
Relative dating is an easily understood process that involves stylistically comparing an object whose date is uncertain to other objects whose dates have been firmly established. By correctly fitting the unknown object into this stylistic chronology, scholars can find a very general chronological date for an object. A simple example can illustrate this method. The first Chevrolet Corvette was sold during the 1953 model year, and this particular car has gone through numerous iterations up to its most recent version. If presented with pictures of the Corvette’s development from every five years to establish the stylistic development from its earliest model to the most recent (for example, images from the 1953, 1958, 1963, and all the way to the current model), you would have a general idea of the changes the car underwent over time. If then given a picture of a Corvette from an unknown year, you could, on the basis of stylistic analysis, generally place it within the visual chronology of this car with some accuracy. The Corvette is a convenient example, but the same exercise could be applied to iPods, Coca-Cola bottles, suits, or any other object that changes over time.
Plan of the excavation at Willendorf I in 1908 with the position of the figurine.
Plan of the excavation at Willendorf I in 1908 with the position of the figurine.
The second way scholars that date the Venus of Willendorf is through an analysis of where it was found. Generally, the deeper an object is recovered from the earth, the longer that object has been buried. Imagine a penny jar that has had coins added to it for hundreds of years. It is a good bet that the coins at the bottom of that jar are the oldest whereas those at the top are the newest. The same applies to Paleolithic objects. Because of the depth at which these objects are found, we can infer that they are very old indeed.

What did it mean?

In the absence of writing, art historians rely on the objects themselves to learn about ancient peoples. The form of the Venus of Willendorf—that is, what it looks like—may very well inform what it originally meant. The most conspicuous elements of her anatomy are those that deal with the process of reproduction and child rearing. The artist took particular care to emphasize her breasts, which some scholars suggest indicates that she is able to nurse a child. The artist also brought deliberate attention to her pubic region. Traces of a pigment—red ochre—can still be seen on parts of the figurine.
Detail, Venus of Willendorf, c. 24,000-22,000 B.C.E., limestone 11.1 cm high (Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Detail, Venus of Willendorf, c. 24,000-22,000 B.C.E., limestone 11.1 cm high (Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
In contrast, the sculptor placed scant attention on the non-reproductive parts of her body. This is particularly noticeable in the figure's limbs, where there is little emphasis placed on musculature or anatomical accuracy. We may infer from the small size of her feet that she was not meant to be free standing, and was either meant to be carried or placed lying down. The artist carved the figure’s upper arms along her upper torso, and her lower arms are only barely visible resting upon the top of her breasts. As enigmatic as the lack of attention to her limbs is, the absence of attention to the face is even more striking. No eyes, nose, ears, or mouth remain visible. Instead, our attention is drawn to seven horizontal bands that wrap in concentric circles from the crown of her head. Some scholars have suggested her head is obscured by a knit cap pulled downward, others suggest that these forms may represent braided or beaded hair and that her face, perhaps once painted, is angled downward.
If the face was purposefully obscured, the Paleolithic sculptor may have created, not a portrait of a particular person, but rather a representation of the reproductive and child rearing aspects of a woman. In combination with the emphasis on the breasts and pubic area, it seems likely that the Venus of Willendorf had a function that related to fertility.
Without doubt, we can learn much more from the Venus of Willendorf than its diminutive size might at first suggest. We learn about relative dating and stratification. We learn that these nomadic people living almost 25,000 years ago cared about making objects beautiful. And we can learn that these Paleolithic people had an awareness of the importance of the women.
The Venus of Willendorf is only one example of dozens of paleolithic figures we believe may have been associated with fertility. Nevertheless, it retains a place of prominence within the history of human art.
Essay by Dr. Bryan Zygmont

Want to join the conversation?

  • winston baby style avatar for user Sandra Mayer
    Here's a thought... could the Venus of Willendorf's odd head be a simple calendar--the rings representing the months & tick marks representing the days, to indicate the nine months of pregnancy?
    (15 votes)
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    • leafers seed style avatar for user Julia Francesca Day
      That sounds pretty plausible, it would depend on how well Paleolithic people understood pregnancy. Though of course, it wouldn't be months and days in the way we see it since they didn't have a calendar. Perhaps the rings are symbolic of the cycles of the moon. Then again, the size of each ring is not equal, given the shape of the figure, so that also offers a problem.
      (6 votes)
  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user danielcastro.tint
    What role would carbon dating play if any with finding this artififacts age?
    (4 votes)
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  • mr pink red style avatar for user Shelby McElwain
    I'm currently reading a book about early civilizations, and I thought this piece of text was interesting/relevant.
    "Early farmers were naturally much concerned with fertility. When people feared that their own efforts might not solve life's problems, they turned to divine powers for help. These societies therefore sought to communicate with goddesses in the form of statuettes of unmistakable earth-mothers with large buttocks and breasts, whose fertile bodies, it was hoped, would make the soil productive. Such figures also signify the importance of human mothers, for villages flourished only if women produced and sustained each new generation."
    I realize humans didn't begin to work the land until around 11,000 BCE, and the Venus of Willendorf was created between 24,000 and 22,000 BCE. I just thought this was interesting insight on what the intent of the figure might have been -- possibly a large harvest as well as a women's fertility.
    Also, much like the laughing Chinese Buddha's fat belly represents happiness, do you think the same could be said for this figure? Just throwing thoughts out there.
    (11 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Matthew DeWard
      Interesting! A bit of a hypothesis, but maybe the earlier civilizations noticed the similarities in the reproduction of plants and animals and sought to make a connection by worshiping idols of fertility in the hopes that crop harvests would be more plentiful or abundant. This in turn would still classify it as a goddess of fertility, but also a new classification as a goddess of Agriculture as well. Maybe we are looking at it as having one purpose when in fact it has a dual representation. However, it doesn't make sense given that the figurine was found within a cave and not around other objects of agricultural significance. If we found out that the cave did contain some significance with agriculture, that hypothesis would be strengthened.
      (4 votes)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user zuzqaa
    Maybe this belongs to another topic, but in the beginning there is Oxford English Dictionary's definition of art. I think this definition is no longer valid since last century. Because what about, for example, conceptual art? Artists no longer create art works to be beautiful, but on the contrary, they emphasize more ugliness or to cause shock to perceivers.
    (8 votes)
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  • aqualine sapling style avatar for user Lauren
    With the lady's hands resting on her breasts, it almost looks like there was a humorous intent! Would this be possible in any way or am I using my own socialised sense of humour to apply false meaning?
    (3 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Sara Hailu
      I think it has do with present day's slightly immature humor: up until a few centuries ago, breasts were not viewed as sexual objects or anything other than a part of human anatomy, essential only to breastfeeding. Therefore resting hands on breasts would not have been viewed as humorous in any way because there would have been absolutely no other connotation.
      (7 votes)
  • old spice man green style avatar for user Carlye Mahler
    Is there a more accurate professional name for the figurine?
    (3 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user Elmari
    What if it was a toy or a doll for a child? Is it possible that the effort it took to make it was a parents attempt to make their child (or children) happy?
    (2 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Catherine McCoid and LeRoy McDermott hypothesised that the figurines may have been created as self-portraits by women. They speculated that the complete lack of facial features could be accounted for by the fact that sculptors did not own mirrors, though Michael S. Bisson responded that water pools and puddles served as readily available natural mirrors for Paleolithic humans
      Self-Representation in Upper Paleolithic Female Figurines
      LeRoy McDermott
      Current Anthropology
      Vol. 37, No. 2 (Apr., 1996), pp. 227-275
      (3 votes)
  • piceratops seed style avatar for user a.sannoYL2014
    when was this published?
    (2 votes)
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  • leafers tree style avatar for user Lugos
    I have two questions:
    1. How long did it probably take to make this sculpture, like days, weeks or even months?
    2. Was this sculpture found next to some kind of grave or other remains of prehistoric civilization or was it found all alone?
    (2 votes)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Mayank Bansal
    where venus of willendorf found?
    (1 vote)
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