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This paper will discuss relative points and insights relating to sculpture of the Paleolithic era, specifically the Venus of Willendorf, through the essays of Christopher Witcombe.Venus is a term that has long been associated with artwork, most specifically the classical forms of beautiful women. The term Venus has also come to represent female sculptures of the Paleolithic era. The most notable of these female sculptures is the Venus of Willendorf, 24,000-22,000 BCE. The age of the figurine has been changed several times. Originally when found the date was estimated to be 15,000 to 10,000 BCE. During the 1970's the time period was adjusted to 25,000 to 20,000 BCE; the date was again recalculated in the 1980's to 30,000 to 25,000 BCE; the most recent estimate of age was in the 1990's and was placed at 24,000 to 22,000 BCE after scientific research was performed on the rock stratification. This statuette was discovered by Josef Szombathy in 1908 near the town of Willendorf, Austria, in an Aurignacian loess deposit, which loosely defined is a yellow brown loamy geological deposit dating to the Paleolithic period.
The name Venus was first associated with the figurine as a joke. The small, crudely carved statuette of an obese woman contrasts heavily from the graceful classical forms of sculpture such as Aphrodite of Cnidos, Praxiteles, 350 BCE. Although it would be difficult to associate the word beautiful with this statuette, there can be no doubt that it reflects the female form. The statuette has also been known as "la poire" or "the pear" due to its size and shape and more recently was donned the Woman from Willendorf. The removal of the title Venus served to take away the figurine's status of goddess and lower it to the human level, therefore allowing more consideration of the figurine's purpose (Witcombe, sec. 3).The sculpture is small, approximately 4 3/8 inches, and is carved of oolitic stone, a porous limestone.
Since this particular stone is not found in the area, it is believed that the sculpture was brought from another region. The size and shape of the figurine fit comfortably in the hand which suggests the figurine was meant to be carried. (Witcombe, sec. 3) The Venus of Willendorf has achieved renown because the work is believed to be the earliest known sculpture of a human being. The statuette clearly depicts an overweight female with braided hair or a woven hat, large breasts, ample abdomen, prominent pubic area, unproportionately thin arms and no feet. The absence of feet is significant for two reasons. The first reason is that if the statuette is a fertiliy symbol, only body parts needed to bear and rear children would be accentuated; the second reason is the presumption that if the image had no feet it would not be able to move away from its owner (Witcombe, sec.
3). The head shows no face but uncharacteristic care was worked into the hair or headpiece. Witcombe explains that hair, more specifically, the scent associated with hair was very important in attracting a mate. The detail in the sculptural braiding of the hair area may have been considered just as erotic as the breast and pubic areas.Considering the time period the statuette was created, it is difficult to imagine that the Venus of Willendorf represents the typical female. Food was not readily available to allow the human population to grow so rotund, therefore, Witcombe suggests the statuette represents either a woman of significance or possibly a fertility idol . Both assumptions are plausible given that a person of power would most certainly have access to more food and possibly less work resulting in a robust figure. However, modern science has also shown that diet is very important when trying to conceive. An overweight female might have conceived more easily tens of thousands of years ago than an undernourished female. Therefore, being fat would be more desirable if trying to reproduce.
Another factor that supports Witcombe's belief the sculpture was used for fertility purposes is the attention paid to the pubic area. The genital area is deliberately exposed and when the figurine was discovered, it still had a small trace of a red pigment visible. This detail brings Witcombe to suggest that the figurine's fertility role may have also served in a gynecological fashion as a good luck talisman to aid in conception or childbirth. If this assumption is true, then Witcombe believes that the image was carved by a female, since males would have less concern over such matters. The Venus of Willendorf is not the only sculpture from the Paleolithic era to survive the millennia. Other images have survived and many of them are similar to the Venus of Willendorf. The existence of these other sculptures of like design found from France to Siberia is very interesting.
More figurines reflecting the female form have been found than of the male form leading experts to suggest that the Paleolithic societies may have been based on a matriarchal society (Witcombe, sec. 4). Given the accuracy of the representation of the anatomy depicted in the Venus of Willendorf, that is the way the breasts hang and the way the "fat" sags at the knees, it is very possible the image was actually made after a real person (Witcombe, sec. 4) lending credence to the belief the figurine was carved to symbolize a woman of importance. If made after a real person, that female must have had considerable significance within her community to have grown so corpulent which supports the idea of matriarchal society (Witcombe, sec. 4). Witcombe further speculates that these statuettes may have served as a representation of the Mother Goddess, also referred to as Earth Mother and that the deity may have been represented in the form of a leader or matriarch.Whether the Venus of Willendorf was carved in the likeness of an actual woman or was created to act as an aid to perpetuate the species it is obvious her form was considered desirable since someone made such an effort to carve her.
Works CitedWitcombe, Christopher, Women of Pre-history, Venus of Willendorf, revised 2003Sweet Briar College, http://witcombe.sbc.edu/willendorf/willendorfwomen .html.
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