Prehistoric Venus Figures: An Art History Valentine's Day!
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! With Valentine’s day right around the corner, I thought it would be interesting to explore the world of prehistoric Venus figures. However, these statues predate the Roman goddess of love by thousands and thousands of years! To explore why they share a name, keep on reading!
As the name would suggest, Venus figures are sculptures that resemble the female form. They are typically small, around a few inches tall, but some of them are over a foot. These figures almost never have faces, but some have what archaeologists classify as elaborate hairstyles.
The most identifying feature of the Venus figures are their exaggerated breasts and hips. Sometimes, there are incised lines representing the pubic region. Their stomachs are large and full, sometimes drooping down.
But, what was the purpose of these figures? Well, without written records, it can be hard to say. But, archaeologists can theorize! The most common theory is that these figures were used as fertility tokens, both for the land and for the people. Their large bellies could indicate both an abundance of food and a woman in pregnancy. Her large breasts could signal the same thing. It’s impossible to tell if they were meant to represent a specific goddess like Venus, but that certainly is a possibility! But, archaeologists saw similarities between the ideas, and the name Venus figure stuck!
Example #1: Venus of Willendorf
Now that we’ve established some background information on Venus figures, let’s examine some examples. The most famous Venus figure is, without a doubt, the Venus of Willendorf. Dating from around 24,000-22,000 B.C.E, this limestone statue stands at about 4 inches or 11 centimeters tall. She certainly fits the “mold” of a Venus figure with her wide hips and large stomach and breasts. What makes the Venus of Willendorf unique is her head. Although she doesn’t have any distinct facial features, this Venus has an elaborately carved top half of her skull. Most art historians and archaeologists believe that this detail was meant to represent a braided hairstyle.
Example #2: Venus of Hohle Fels
In the fall of 2008, archaeologists discovered the world’s oldest known Venus figure. Named after the cave she was discovered in, the Venus of Hohle Fels is made of mammoth ivory and dates from around 40,000 years ago. Her head, arms, and legs are small and therefore not the focus of the piece. Instead, the Venus figure’s breasts are incredibly large as they extend out from her body by a significant amount. Her belly and hips are also quite wide. These details have led archaeologists to theorize that this particular Venus figure was used as a fertility icon or talisman.
Example #3: Venus of Laussel
This next Venus figure is different from the other two featured in the blog post because it is a
carved relief versus a fully fledged figure in the round. It is known as the Venus of Laussel and dates from around 25,000 years ago. She is carved into limestone and painted with red ochre pigment. Like the other two figures mentioned in this post, her face has no distinctive features, but her breasts, body, and hips are pronounced. Some archaeologists believe that she was a representation of a fertility goddess based on her body shape and the cornucopia shaped object in her hand. If you look closely at the horn, there are a number of notches carved into the horn. There are some theories that they correspond to the cycles of the moon which have long been associated with female fertility.
Venus figures are a fascinating and curious element of prehistoric art. Without written records, it is impossible to tell their true function. However, they are a link to a mysterious past that we can still study to this day!
Venus of Willendorf
CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
Venus of Hohle Fels
Fair Use via Wikimedia Commons
Venus of Laussel
CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Gardner's Art through the Ages by Fred S. Kleiner