Saturday, April 25, 2015

Art History: Venus of Willendorf

 I used to joke that I had the shape of a fertility goddess. Sometimes people would understand and laugh, sometimes people would give me a funny look and scratch their head in confusion. They had no idea what I meant. If you are one who doesn't know what this means, that's okay; let me introduce you to the Venus of Willendorf, a very early piece of art.


The Venus of Willendorf is a small nude sculpture of a very ample woman with exaggerated sexuality. She is 4.4” high and made of limestone. She was discovered in 1908 during an archaeological dig near Willendorf, Austria, and now resides at the Naturohistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria.

This statue is believed to be one of the earliest pieces of art, and one of the earliest nude women in art. Scientists date her at 28,000 BC to 25,000 BC, during the Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, through a study of the stratigraphic sequence of the area. The oolitic limestone used for her carving is not local to the area where she was found, so we don't know exactly where she was made.

The purpose for this figurine, as well as others like this, can only be speculated, but one strong idea is that they were personal fertility gods, used in the home, to guarantee fertility of crops, herds, and growth of families. They symbolized wealth and fertility. If you think about it, thousands of years ago, if you didn't work or grow your own food, you didn't eat---or it would be hard to survive. You would be very lean. Being overweight was a sign of having abundance, and it was believed that the sign of a fertile woman was ample hips, and large, round breasts. She has no face, no personal identity to distract from her purpose, but has an exaggerated shape and sexuality to symbolize fertility.

You might ask why this statue is called Venus? She was created way before the time of the Greek gods, so where did the name come from? In archaeology and art history, the name Venus is given to nude females as well as goddesses. It originates with the Roman Venus, who was the goddess of love, sexuality, and beauty; in art, it pertains to forms of women with a sexual or fertile emphasis. See also the Venus of Urbino, Venus de Milo, Venus with a Mirror, etc.

Until recently in the scope of art history, art was used for spiritual reasons more than for aesthetic reasons. Creating art was a way to embody the unseen, the spiritual. Man started out with a knowledge of the unseen God, who created life, and who causes everything to grow. Somewhere along the way, it became easier to put faith in something that man could see with his eyes, and hope it would have the same results as trusting in something unseen. Artisans would carve idols, gods and goddesses, from wood, stone, clay, and metal, something physical upon which to focus their prayers and spirituality.

Psalm 115:4-8 ESV says, “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.”