The Woman or Mother of Willendorf


Painting by Paula Kuitenbrouwer


The Venus of Willendorf was created circa 28.000-25.000 BCE, in Lower Austria. I have drawn it from 3 sides. It is an 11.1-centimetre-tall (4.4 in) and I made sure that the Venus of my drawing is exactly 11.1 centimetres tall. What do you see?

You see a faceless woman with large breasts, big hips, missing feet, and two tiny arms resting on the Venus’s breasts. Such unevenly distributed body fat is rare unless a disease is featured. But even if a diseased woman is shown, we can not function without a face and it is much better to have feet. This selective and exaggerated expression of features has lead to the speculation that this figurine is expressing an idea and not a person (selfies become fashionable much later).

Is the Venus expressing fertility? It is hard to dismiss this assumption. Upon seeing this cute but impressive female figurine, my first reaction is ‘This woman can feed many babies’. Like my grandmother, who at WWII gave breastfeeding to her own baby and to three babies born to mothers who suffered under the food-shortages or war trauma. Having said this, a big breast-size doesn’t guarantee breastfeeding. Nursing a baby sufficiently is about milk-glands, not about fat. Still, the Venus of Willendorf has two skinny arms positioned on her large breasts. One could say, proudly resting on her breasts, as if to show that her breasts are her biggest treasure.

This Venus is, in our eyes, related to fertility and not to sexiness, so many refer to this figurine as ‘The Woman of Willendorf’. Christopher Witcombe criticizes: “The ironic identification of these figurines as ‘Venus’ pleasantly satisfied certain assumptions at the time about the primitive, about women, and about taste”. I agree despite the possibilities that how a good-looking woman looked like could have been differently defined 30.000 years ago, if such definition or feeling was lingering in the mind of prehistoric people at all. Certainly, maximising the survival of babies was hugely important and with that in mind, the Venus of Willendorf would indeed be better named as the Woman or even Mother of Willendorf.\

LIONMAN

Lion-man, 40.000 years old, from Hohlenstein Stadel, Germany. ‘Man’ stands here for human, because its gender of this statutes is uncertain. This statute is 11 cm height, 3 times taller than Venus. Lion-man is half man- half animal. Both Venus and Lion-man are shown against a Lascaux themed background that shows the stick topped by a bird of the shamanistic scene of Lascaux ‘Prostrate man with bison’, hand prints as found in many prehistoric caves, ‘Engraved deer’ and ‘Large black cow’, both Lascaux paintings.

Paula Kuitenbrouwer

Paula Kuitenbrouwer lives with my husband and daughter in the Netherlands. Her art teachers were Charito Crahay, a Spanish-Dutch artist, and the Dutch artist Johan Kolman. Paula holds an MA degree in Philosophy (University of Utrecht & Amsterdam) and is owner of mindfuldrawing.com. Her pen and pencils are always fighting for her attention nevertheless they are best friends; she likes her art to be brainy and her essays to be artistic.

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7 Comments

  1. I doubt we can ever really know what the sculptor was thinking when this was made, but I enjoy your explanation of it. Maybe the emphasized parts are what someone liked to touch? I’d think that a fat woman represented a wealthy society where she had enough to get fat.

    1. We will never know, indeed. But we can study it in relation to other prehistoric art and enjoy doing thorough research. Being well fed must have been priceless during cold and harsh prehistoric times. And making sure that babies were well fed was hugely important too. But your touch hypotheses might be interesting too. I remember being a child and being hugged by my (nowadays you would say obese but then just ‘big’) aunt and goodness she was so soft and she made you feel disappearing in her bosom. She was so sweet and the fact that I still remember her, says it all. Maybe she was a modern Woman of Willendorf.

  2. Judy says:

    Your drawing is beautiful, Paula! I have to say, I love the exaggeration of the female form.

    1. Such nice comment. I do too. I love the cuteness of the Woman of Willendorf. And just because she isn’t a Venus of Milo, I like it that she is named a Venus too.

  3. Dewi says:

    Hi Paula, Can you tell me te connection with the lion man in the drawing?

  4. Dear Dewi,
    Both the Venus or Woman of Willendorf and Lionman are famous prehistoric statues. There is a lot of speculation about their meaning and use. Lionman is not a man per-se. Lionman can be a woman (shaman) too. Lionman could be a shapehifting shaman. But we will never know for sure because we can’t ask its maker. We can only enjoy our endless admiration and speculations, and exercise being very careful with our modern projections on this very ancient statute. I have edited my post and added some extra text on Lionman. I welcome you back to the post to read a bit more.

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