Venus of Willendorf

Venus of Willendorf. Photo by Jemima Moody.
Venus of Willendorf. Photo by Jemima Moody.

In a small room at the Naturhistorisches Museum Vienna crowds from around the world come to see the most famous early image of a human and a primitive Mother Goddess – the Venus of Willendorf.

The tiny 11.1-centimetre high statuette of a female figure chiseled from limestone and painted with red ochre is estimated to be 29,500 years old. Discovered in 1908 by Austrian archaeologist, Josef Szombathy, Venus of Willendorf is of enormous historical and anthropological significance. But she is also important symbolically –representing the Earth, fertility and continuation of all life – she is the ultimate ‘Mother’.

In ‘Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson’, Camille Paglia explores the connections between art and pagan ritual from ancient Egypt through to the nineteenth century.

She writes:

Venus of Willendorf carries her cave with her. She is blind, masked. Her ropes of corn-row hair look forward to the invention agriculture. She has a furrowed brow. Her facelessness is the impersonality of primitive sex and religion. There is no psychology or identity yet, because there is no society, no cohesion. Men cower and scatter at the blast of the elements. Venus of Willendorf is eyeless because nature can be seen but not known. She is remote even as she kills and creates. The statuette, so overflowing and protuberant, is ritually invisible. She stifles the eye. She is the cloud of archaic night.

But it is not just in ancient contexts that the Venus of Willendorf has meaning. She is also frequently referenced in popular culture and as inspiration for modern art. American artist, Jeff Koons, spoke about how the ancient figurine was the inspiration for his famous work, Balloon Venus (Magenta, 2008-2012):

If you walk around the piece, you can look inside the Venus and everything is revealed; so there’s a little aspect of violence, nothing is held back of her inner being . . . It’s kind of a view of the cosmos. You have two crescent moons and you realize that it’s somebody having sex, there’s kind of a masculine-feminine presence, but it is only one person and they’re actually having sex with themselves. The Venus of Willendorf is truly a symbol of fertility because it can procreate on its own. The Venus’s breasts are full, they’re voluptuous, her stomach, a real symbol of fertility. But if you look and you let your mind start to go, you realize that the breasts could actually be testicles and that the stomach could actually be a phallus and that it’s actually going in on itself, and procreating.1)

Mysterious, confronting, powerful – her meaning is eternal as the embodiment of the divine Feminine.

1)artnet News, Tuesday, June 24, 2014



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