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Spotlight Artwork: Woman of Willendorf

c. 28,000 - 25,000 BCE

from Willendorf, Austria


approx. 41/4” tall

Naturhistorisches Museum

​Vienna, Austria


(NOTE: This sculpture was originally the "Venus" of Willendorf and you will still see that title used frequently. The term, "Venus," the Roman goddess of love, refers generically to nude female figures. Since Venus came into mythological existence far later in history than this sculpture, it is fairly inaccurate to use this term and so contemporary art historians no longer do)

The Woman of Willendorf is one of the earliest images of the body made by humankind. It stands just over 4 inches tall and was carved approximately 25,000 years ago. It was discovered on the banks of the Danube River, in Austria, and it was most likely made by hunter-gatherers who lived in the area. The environment at that time was much colder and bleaker then present-day, a remnant of Europe's last ice age.

Why were prehistoric humans stimulated by an exaggerated image such as this? The answer, according to neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran and others, lies in the workings of the human brain, in a neurological principle known as the "peak shift."

The people who made this statue lived in a harsh environment where features of fatness and fertility would have been highly desirable. In neurological terms, these features amounted to hyper-normal stimuli that activate neuron responses in the brain. So in Paleolithic-people-terms, the parts that mattered most had to do with successful reproduction. Therefore, these parts were isolated and amplified by the artist's brain.

Many such "Venus" figures have been found in a wide variety of locations. Even when separated by great distances, these sculptures look eerily similar...think about it....that's pretty fascinating.

adapted from:


Essential Questions

  • This sculpture is displayed in a natural history museum, not an art museum. If you are learning about her in art class, shouldn't she be in an "art" museum? Why or why not?

Do you think your initial reaction/thoughts about this sculpture would have differed if you knew what you now know about it - its history, and possible context?Why or why not?


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