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The Venus of Willendorf

This essay will compare and contrast the Venus of Willendorf to Sheela-na-gig, to different artistic representations of the Virgin Mary as portrayed Virgin and Child and the gilt statue at the Abbey church of Saint Dennis as well as the Virgin Mary and Child before the 1430 fire screen. The Venus of Willendorf is a small statue that can be handheld that is about 4 3/8” in height. Here body represents a very rotund figure with emphasis on the breasts, and the belly. The tiny statue has not distinguishing physiognomy and her vaginal lips are also pronounced.

Her very tiny arms lie across the top of either breast which adds extra weight to how large the orbs are represented. He shape can best be described as bulbous or egg shaped. Her navel is actually a natural cavity in the stone which is probably why this stone was chosen for the purpose of representing the Venus, “She and like carvings are often considered fertility figures, based on the spiritual beliefs of ‘preliterate’ societies of modern times” (Janson 1997; 54).

With the overtly engorged breasts it may be ascertained that the figure was created to emphasize what that culture during that specific time period held as important. With this Venus of Willendorf it may best be surmised that procreation was the chief activity of the day and the role of women as wombs was their main role in society. The small stone figure is not intended to be obscene in her nudity and her augmented breasts and very visible vaginal lips, but rather each of these characteristics are included in the structure of the figure in a purely artistic, and cultural capacity.

There is truly nothing subtle about this Venus; her very being is an overt call to attention of cultural aspects of a society whose focus was on the progeny of the race. The Sheela-na-gig carving is different from the Venus of Willendorf in that the Sheela-na-gig carving exhibits not prolifically progeny centered art work but rather is very much based in sexual desire. This can be construed in the fact that while the Venus of Willendorf statue is rubenesque in form it does exaggerate anything except what is prevalent in childbirth; that is, large breasts for suckling and a large belly in which the child is kept.

The Sheela-na-gig carving emphasis is on the sexual organs of the woman. The breasts are rather flat and since this is a carving and not a statue their flatness is exuded in a two-dimensional form. The belly is not overtly noticeable but the focal point of the carving resides within the vaginal opening. What further reflects this carving as a symbol of sexual exploit and not of child birth is that the woman has her hands placed behind each thigh as if in offering to the audience; this is slightly pornographic in context.

The vulva is exaggerated in this carving as is typical of Sheela-na-gig carvings. It is with the vulva that the carving may be construed to be sexual. The audiences’ eye is immediately attracted to this large opening since it is the only shape in the carving to offer depth of field; every other feature is in low relief (The Hunt Museum 2005; paragraph 39). The statue at St. Denis in France offers quite a different look at the relationship of mother and child, than these previous statues offered of family life and sexual intercourse. The statue at St.

Denis does not offer the viewer any voyeuristic or otherwise look into the woman’s sexual behavior nor does it make any allusion to the woman as a sexual being other than the fact that Mary is holding the Christ child. The life in the statue is not witnessed in the stoic stance of Mary who is in pillar shape but rather in the outreaching hand of the child. Both of the faces appear to be serene in context and reflect one another; this however does not mean that either face is ebullient with joy but rather just as they are made of stone they are also resembling that element (Conway Collection Online).

Unlike the previous statues that emphasized the procreation qualities of the female body the St. Denis statue offers no peek under Mary’s skirt as it were. Instead, the figure is clothed head to toe and the only flesh that appears is the face and the hands. The hand is in an interesting position as it is extended reflecting the child’s position. This is similar to the stance of the Sheela-na-gig carving, in that both statues are in an offering pose but that is the extent of their similarities.

Since Mary was considered to have given birth to Christ as a virgin any reference to sexuality would have been considered a blasphemy; as such, the Virgin Mary is typically covered in clothing with a very benevolent look on her face that does not lead the viewer to recognize anything human about her but instead merely reiterates that she is the mother of Christ. Thus the difference between this statue and the Sheela-na-gig carving Venus of Willendorf is that this statue has a clear picture of what the face looks like; it is neither broken off nor is it ill defined in its carving.

Thus, the main difference between St. Denis’ Virgin and Child and Sheela-na-gig carving or the Venus of Willendorf is that the artist of the statue at St. Denis chose to place emphasis on the face of Mary instead of her bodily attributes (Conway Collection Online). Another artistic difference between these three statues is that the St. Denis statue pays close attention to the detailing of the clothing; although details were witnessed in Willendorf’s head piece and the circular pattern, that was the extent of the ornamentation.

This statue at St. Denis is very ornate and the clothing itself is reminiscent of an ionic pillar in the straight lines of the skirt and the very upright stance of Mary and especially in her headdress. The top of the Mary column further states that this Mary is not about sexuality but in her stiffness and her straight lines that offer no womanly curves the artist’s message about Mary, or about women really is that they are no longer sexual beings but religious icons; more statuesque and less motherly.

Even though this woman-Mary-holds a child in her arms there is more of a sense of motherhood in the rendering of fertility goddess in Willendorf as her body is carved especially in representation of this fact (Conway Collection Online). With the Virgin Mary and Child before a Fire Screen it is the use of color that is so exquisitely accomplished that is truly different from the other pieces. This is oil on canvas and so the color scheme of Mary who is typically portrayed as being in blue, a pure color, stands out among the rich tones of the painting. It is with this work that the conglomeration of the other pieces may be found.

Neither is Mary denying her motherhood as the Christ child is depicted getting ready to suckle, nor is the Virgin a purely sexual person as can be witnessed in the Sheela-na-gig carving but she is most like the Venus of Willendorf as both play the role of the mother (Campin Gallery Online). It is in this role of the mother as depicted in this oil painting that the other pieces of art were trying to accomplish. Mary is depicted as a mother performing motherly duties in the painting and although her face is benevolent she is also pictured gazing at her child as was not the case in the statue at St.

Denis. This Mary is wholeheartedly a mother. The inclusion of such a private scene in the picture is what is also noticeably different between each art piece discussed. This familial scene failed to achieve the capturing of mother and child as having a relationship in the St. Denis statue, and in the fertility goddess’ there was no child but only a hint of sex with the Sheela-na-gig carving and the open vulva and the rotund body of the Venus that signified either she was pregnant or that she just had a child.

In any case, the Fire Screen Virgin and Child scene is one in which the artistic achievement is realized with the humanistic forms of both mother and child and their very personal contact in the painting. It is in this painting that the image of the fertility goddess is most tangible; the fact that she is bearing her breast for her child and does this without shame but rather anticipation for feeding her child is a joy as can be seen in the look on her face is the apex of each of these representations of the fertility goddess (Campin Gallery Online).

Work Cited

Campin Gallery. Campin Gallery. 2003. (Online). Available: http://www. canvasreplicas. com/Campin. htm. Conway Collection. Statue of Virgin and Child. (Online). Available: http://artandarchitecture. org. uk/images/conway/2b323f9a. html? ixsid=4iSTt6hdNpO. Janson, H. W. & Anthony F. Janson. History of Art. Fifth Edition Revised. Prentice Hall, Inc. , and Harry Abrams, Inc. , Publishers. New York. 1997. The Hunt Museum. The Online Catalogue. 2005. http://test. huntmuseum. com/search_objects2. asp? oSearch=Sculpture.

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