Portfolio: Venus de Willendorf

"Venus" of Willendorf
c. 24,000-22,000 BCE
Oolitic limestone
4 3/8 inches (11.1 cm) high
(Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna)


Women in Prehistory
The "Venus" of Willendorf

Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe

       The most famous early image of a human, a woman, is the so-called "Venus" of Willendorf, found in 1908 by the archaeologist Josef Szombathy [see BIBLIOGRAPHY] in an Aurignacian loess deposit near the town of Willendorf in Austria and now in the Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna.
       The statuette was carved from a particular type of oolitic limestone not found in the region and so must have been brought to the area from another location. It may well be the case that the carving, which was presumably done with flint tools, was not done locally.
       When first discovered the "Venus" of Willendorf was thought to date to approximately 15,000 to 10,000 BCE, or more or less to the same period as the cave paintings at Lascaux in France.
       In the 1970s the date was revised back to 25,000-20,000 BCE, and then in the 1980s it was revised again to c. 30,000-25,000 BCE A study of the stratigraphic sequence of the nine superimposed archaeological layers comprising the Willendorf deposit published in 1990, which offers a key for the relative and absolute Carbon 14 chronology of the Central European Upper Palaeolithic, however, now indicates a date for the "Venus" of Willendorf of around 24,000-22,000 BCE (26-24,000 B.P.).
Her great age and exaggerated female forms have established the "Venus" of Willendorf as an icon of prehistoric art. As the discipline of art history underwent a paradigm shift during the 1960s away from discussing art objects that were characteristic of an age to selecting art objects that represented the highest artistic accomplishments of the age, no matter how unique and extraordinary, the "Venus" of Willendorf quickly achieved a singular status.
       Although she was already being included in books devoted to Stone Age art published in the 1920s, it is not until the 1960s that the statuette begins to appear in the introductory art history books where she quickly displaced other previously used examples of Palaeolithic art. Being both female and nude, she fitted perfectly into the patriarchal construction of the history of art that has tended to emphasize the more derogatory depictions of women in art through the ages.
       As the earliest known representation, she became the "first" woman, acquiring an Ur-Eve identity that focused suitably, from a patriarchal point of view, on the fascinating yet grotesque reality of the female body and its bulging vegetable nature; an impersonal composition of sexually-charged swollen shapes; an embodiment of overflowing fertility, of mindless fecundity, of eternal sex, the woman from which all women descend.