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Venus Figurines

20 Famous Gravettian Venuses
Characteristics & Chronology

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Venus of Willendorf, the most famous of all the Gravettian venus statuettes
Venus of Willendorf. The poster-child of venus figurines. Image by MatthiasKabel. (CC BY 2.5)

What Are Venus Figurines?

In prehistoric sculpture, the term 'venus figurines' refers to an iconic form of Upper Paleolithic art which spread across Europe from France to Siberia, during the Gravettian culture, between 30,000 and 20,000 BC.

Not all venuses share these characteristics, but most do.

Origins

The carvings first appeared during the Aurignacian culture of the late Stone Age, around 38,000 BC, shortly after the arrival of modern Homo sapiens into Europe around 40,000 BC.

Experts believe that modern humans possessed a superior cognitive toolkit to that of the indigenous Neanderthals, which might explain why the figurines emerged when they did (moderns are more creative), and also why the idiom spread so quickly during the Gravettian (moderns developed extensive trade networks).

While there is no consensus today, as to the meaning or purpose of these figures, a number of paleoanthropologists and other prehistorians believe they are fertility symbols of some description.

For more about the chronology of Stone Age sculpture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

Why Are They Called Venuses?

Well, the first nude female figurine to be discovered was an 8 cm ivory statue of a shapely young woman, which was unearthed around 1864, at the archaeological site of Laugerie-Basse in the French Dordogne.

It was found by the Marquis de Vibraye, an amateur archaeologist, who christened it 'Venus' in reference to the Roman goddess of beauty.

But he added the term 'Impudique', to distinguish his venus from the nude Roman statue known as Venus Pudica, who covers up her nudity with her right hand in the style of The Aphrodite of Knidos.

The name 'Venus' became adopted by other archaeologists when describing other statuettes - like the Venus of Willendorf - despite their distorted appearance and gross obesity.

Indeed, several early-20th century prehistorians felt that this type of obese image represented a prehistoric ideal of beauty. Since then, new interpretations have taken hold.

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Characteristics of Venus Figurines

Russian Venuses

There are two regional centres of venus carving in Russia:

Venus figurines created in both these centres follow a different format to those made in the West. They are less obese, with less emphasis on female body parts.

The Buret figurines are especially different. They are clothed, they have facial features and their genitalia are mostly left undefined.

The reasons behind this stylistic difference are not clear. However, the fact that most Russian figurines do generally adhere to the Western format - despite their geographical remoteness - remains extraordinary.

The Venus of Eliseevichi, dated to 13,000 BC, is characterized more by Magdalenian than Russian influence. It is a far more naturalistic sculpture and depicts the shapely figure of a young woman, though still without head, hands and feet. There is no obesity or noticeable focus on female characteristics. It is a completely new style of prehistoric art - a Magdalenian style.

Meaning & Interpretation

What do these strange carvings mean? How should we interpret them? What was their significance in Stone Age culture?

Given the focus on reproduction, an obvious hypothesis adopted by a number of paleoanthropologists is that Venus figures are fertility symbols.

Fertility was critical for hunter gatherers who struggled constantly to grow communities large enough to be self-supporting.

The fertility theory is echoed by similarly designed Neolithic figurines, such as the Female figure from Mehrgarh, Indus Valley (3,000 BC, Barbier-Mueller Museum, Geneva).

Other experts disagree. Some scholars even challenge the desirability of fertility itself, for hunter gatherer communities who moved frequently and had irregular food supplies.

Meantime, André Leroi-Gourhan interpreted venus figurines as religious symbols, while the British archaeologist Grahame Clark saw them primarily as sensual objects.

Other scientists believe the purpose of venus figurines was to champion over-eating and obesity, as a strategy to boost survival when food was short.

Yet another theory proposes they were created by female artists as a form of self-representation.

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Lower Paleolithic Venus Figurines

There are two venus figures which date to the final stage of the Lower Paleolithic. They are the Venus of Berekhat Ram (230,000 BC), found in Israel, and the Venus of Tan-Tan (200,000 BC), discovered in Morocco.

These Acheulean objects are not man-made carvings: they are naturally produced rocks with a humanoid shape, which were altered by humans to make them more humanoid in appearance.

In any event, they share no characteristics with, and have no connection with, Upper Paleolithic venuses.

Venus Relief Sculpture

There is one venus which isn't portable, because it's a relief sculpture attached to rock at the Abri de Laussel in the Dordogne. This carving (aka "Venus with the Horn") displays most of the standard features of a regular venus figure, except it lacks portability!

The same can be said of the three other relief sculptures in the Abri de Laussel: the "Venus of Berlin", the "Venus with the checkered head", and the "Double Venus head to tail" (aka "Mirror Venus").

20 Famous Venuses

Here is a chronological list of the most famous specimens:

  • Venus of Hohle Fels
    Date: 38,000 BC
    Discovered: 2008
    Material: Mammoth ivory
    Also called the Venus of Schelklingen, the Hohle Fells figurine is the oldest known figurative carving of a female in the history of art. Found close to the Hohlenstein mountain in the Swabian Jura - where a number of similar finds have been made. Examples include: the Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel and the ivory animal carvings in the Vogelherd cave.

  • Venus of Willendorf
    Date: 28,000 BC
    Discovered: 1908
    Material: Oolitic limestone
    The Venus of Willendorf was discovered near the Danube in Lower Austria. It is the archetypal obese venus figurine and the iconic model for this category of mobiliary art.

  • Venus of Galgenberg
    Date: 28,000 BC
    Discovered: 1988
    Material: Serpentine stone
    Also known as the Stratzing Figurine, it was found in the deposits of a Gravettian hunter-gatherer settlement. It is usually displayed alongside her sister sculpture the Venus of Willendorf at the Museum of Natural History in Vienna.

  • Venus of Dolní Věstonice
    Date: 27,000 BC
    Discovered: 1925
    Material: Clay and bone ash
    One of the oldest known items of ceramic art, it was unearthed at a Paleolithic settlement site near Brno. Dating from the Gravettian culture, it is now in the collection of the Moravské zemské muzeum, Brno, Czech Rep.

  • Venus of Savignano
    Date: 26,000 BC
    Discovered: 1929
    Material: Serpentine stone
    The Venus of Savignano is the Italy's most famous prehistoric female sculpture. Twice the height of other venuses, it has traces of red ochre on the head, right arm and buttocks.

  • Grimaldi Venuses
    Date: 25,000 BC
    Discovered: 1883-95
    Material: Ivory, soft stone
    The Grimaldi figures, made from a variety of materials, include: the "Venus Abrachiale", "Woman with Perforated Neck", the "Nun Venus", the "Woman with Goitre", the "Venus of Menton", "Bust", "Venus el Rombo", "Venus of Polichinelle", "Red Ochre Venus", "Double Venus", "Two-Headed Woman", "Hermaphrodite Venus". The oldest dates to 25,000 BC.

  • Venus of Monpazier
    Date: 23,000 BC
    Discovered: 1970
    Material: Quartz-limonite stone
    Discovered in a clod of earth sitting in a ploughed field, the Venus of Monpazier is noted for its grossly over-sized vulva. It is one of the oldest known examples of prehistoric sculpture to be found in France.

  • Venus of Laussel
    Date: 23,000 BC
    Discovered: 1911
    Material: Limestone
    Still faintly coloured with red ochre, this figure is a limestone bas-relief sculpture - one of several occupying a ceremonial area of the Abri de Laussel rock shelter. It is currently held at the Musée d'Aquitaine, in Bordeaux.

  • Venus of Brassempouy
    Date: 23,000 BC
    Discovered: 1892
    Material: Mammoth Ivory
    This fragment of a venus, found in the Landes department in SW France, is the oldest known prehistoric carving of a human face after the Dolní Vestonice Portrait Head (25,000 BC).

  • Venus of Lespugue
    Date: 23,000 BC
    Discovered: 1922
    Material: Mammoth ivory
    Discovered in the cave of Les Rideaux in the Haute Garonne, this venus is the ultimate highly stylized version of this class of sculpture, with all the classic features taken to extremes. It is housed at the anthropological Musée de l'Homme in Paris.

  • Venuses of Kostenki
    Date: 22,500 BC
    Discovered: 1920s Material: Mammoth bone
    Material: Mammoth ivory
    Excavated from the large archeological site of Kostenki in Voronezh Oblast, Russia, this venus is the oldest known example of prehistoric sculpture in Russia.

  • Venus of Moravany
    Date: 21,000 BC
    Discovered: 1938
    Material: Mammoth tusk ivory
    Found in a ploughed field close to the village of Moravany nad Vahom in Western Slovakia, it is held by the Slovak National Museum at the Bratislava Castle.

  • Venus of Gagarino
    Date: 20,000 BC
    Discovered: 1926
    Material: Volcanic rock
    Discovered to the north of the well known Kostienki sites, on the right bank of the Don River near its junction with the Sosna this venus is carved in caricature-style, with a golf ball head and massive breasts and belly.

  • Venuses of Avdeevo
    Date: 20,000 BC
    Discovered: 1946-9
    Material: Mammoth ivory
    Discovered along with numerous carved woolly mammoths, these venuses exemplify a less obese and less exaggerated style of venus carving.

  • Venuses of Mal'ta
    Date: 20,000 BC
    Discovered: 1928-58
    Material: Ivory, reindeer antler
    Discovered at Usol'ye in Irkutsk Oblast, Siberia, these venuses - like those at Avdeevo in central Russia - belong to a less obese and less exaggerated style of carving. Now housed at the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

  • Venuses of Buret
    Date: 20,000 BC
    Discovered: 1936-40
    Material: Ivory and serpentine
    Discovered northwest of Irkutsk, in Siberia, these five figures are significantly different from the standard venus format. Now displayed alongside the Mal'ta figurines in the Hermitage Museum.

  • Venuses of Zaraysk
    Date: 20,000 BC
    Discovered: 2005
    Material: Mammoth ivory
    Unearthed outside the walls of Zaraysk's medieval fortress in Moscow Oblast, these two venuses share characteristics from both the Kostenki and Avdeevo styles of sculpture.

  • Venus of Eliseevichi
    Date: 14,000 BC
    Discovered: 1930
    Material: Ivory
    Completely different from the Kostenky-Avdeevo style, this Magdalenian venus from Bryansk is closer to the Venus Impudique (see above).

  • Venuses of Petersfels
    Date: 13,000 BC
    Discovered: 1927
    Material: Jet lignite
    Made from reindeer antler and limestone as well as lignite, this group of tiny figurines includes one larger figure known as the Venus of Engen ("Frauenidol von Engen").

  • Venus of Monruz/Neuchatel
    Date: 10,000 BC
    Discovered: 1990
    Material: Black Jet
    This tiny Swiss pendant is very similar to the Engen figure, which was found only 130 kms away, across the border in Germany.

  • References & Resources

    (1) "Perspective: Upper Paleolithic Figurines Showing Women with Obesity may Represent Survival Symbols of Climatic Change." Richard J. Johnson, Miguel A Lanaspa, and John W. Fox. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2021 Jan; 29(1): 11–15.
    (2) "Upper Paleolithic Venus Figurines and Interpretations of Prehistoric Gender Representations." Kaylea R. Vandewettering. Pure Insights. Volume 4. Article 7.
    (3) "Imagerie féminine du Paléolithique : l'apport des nouvelles statuettes de Grimaldi." (Paleolithic female imagery: the contribution of Grimaldi's new statuettes) White, R., Bisson M., 1998: Gallia préhistoire. Tome 40, 1998. pp. 95-132.
    (4) "The Mythology of Venus: Ancient Calendars and Archaeoastronony." Helen Benigni. University Press of America, 2013.
    (5) "Venus Figurines of the European Paleolithic: Symbols of Fertility or Attractiveness?" Dixson, Alan F.; Dixson, Barnaby J. (2011). Journal of Anthropology. 2011: 1–11.

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