Venus of Willendorf and the Aphrodite of Knidos

So, I’m thinking I want to run my own art gallery someday. Because I love art, I love making it, I love looking at it I love talking to people about it. I love researching it. So, if I do open my own gallery, I’m going to really love my job and I’m going to be dealing with art a lot. This is an essay I wrote for my art history prehistoric to 1400 class. I was so mad when I realized my art class didn’t go all the way through the Renaissance. Eventually I’ll get around to writing that comparison between the Doryphoros and Michalengelo’s David anyways (maybe this next semester while I’m taking Renaissance to Present!). I wrote this paper for that class, its a compare/contrast of two of my favorite pieces from before the end of the section.

I’m also planning to at some point write an entire giant paper/dare I say thesis about the Western culture’s view with the female nude because when you think about it, its very strange.


Venus of Willendorf and the Aphrodite of Knidos

Idealism of the Female Figure in Western Culture

Western culture, from the beginning all the way up and to the present with an obsessive fascination with the ideal female figure. Although as human life alters and changes as new advances are made and life becomes more stable the shape of cultures change, so the search for the perfect figure is in truth, never ending. In the beginning of human life, there was the Venus of Willendorf, an incredibly small limestone sculpture of a naked, overweight and probably pregnant woman. It was dated to be part of the final period of the Old Stone Age, the Paleolithic period, about 25,000 BCE. So nothing is known about the sculpture or his/her intentions. Thousands of years later, there’s the Aphrodite of Knidos, the first nude woman sculpted in Greek art history. It was sculpted by Praxiteles around 350 BCE. Pliny once said about the sculpture “superior to all works, not only Praxiteles, but indeed in the whole world” (Aphrodite of Knidos). Aphrodite the goddess of love, who later, is known by the title of Venus. Both pieces take the idealized female form—from two completely different points of view no less—and generalize quite successfully the ideals of the culture with an incredibly beautiful effect and show the human ever changing and growing quest for the perfection of our ideals realized.

The Aphrodite of Knidos was the first monumental female completely nude sculpture. Most of the nudes during the time were male. So this image was seen as very erotic for its time despite the modesty she was expressing by covering herself. However, it is arguable, that by covering herself she’s drawing attention to it. The image itself, whether erotic or not, is so beautiful that Aphrodite herself was thought to have said “when did Praxiteles see me naked?”  The Aphrodite of Knidos is built to stand up on its own, in the in-the-round style. It is highly detailed in the front and the back. It’s meant to stand up and be seen from all angles. It is proportionally perfect, ideal in the figure and in the concept that Greeks had in their philosophy “beauty equals goodness”.

The Aphrodite of Knidos in all of her nudity goes highly against the cultural standards of the time. Sculptures of women before this were always clothed. There is a great deal of social implications put in that, on top of the ancient Greek idea that while men could control themselves women could not. Which simply adds another level of “oh my gosh” to this sculpture by the fact that she is nude.

In fact, in this sculpture Praxiteles takes it a step further, “He has transformed the viewer into a voyeur, a veritable Peeping Tom. We yearn to see that which is withheld.” (Aphrodite of Knidos and the invention of the female nude in greek art). By making the viewer the Peeping Tom it transforms the roles. It turns the viewer―most likely predominately males―into the depraved and uncontrolled one, and Aphrodite―the woman―is the modest one as she covers herself. When Aphrodite supposedly asks “When did Praxiteles see me naked?” and being half-horrified at the invasion of her privacy, this almost scolding of the viewers conscience is amplified.

At the same time it is almost as if Praxiteles makes a point to have her covering herself, with the intent of drawing the viewers attention to it. It appears to take the Aphrodite down to the bases of sexuality. Yet her modest pose keeps the figure represented from being seen as base or crass in her nature. There is, however, a story of a fisherman who had locked himself in Aphrodite’s temple over night with the sculpture. The eroticism involved in this statue doesn’t degrade her, in fact, when compared to the standard philosophy of women at the time, it celebrates her. It celebrates her modesty and her beauty.

She is the ideal in her content as well as in the physical form. The culture that she was sculpted into had very strict view of feminine virtue, the entire explanation coming down to being nothing but chastity. The philosopher Aristotle finds that men can control themselves but women must have control placed on them by society (Aphrodite of Knidos and the Invention of the Female Nude in Greek Art).This is why nude sculptures of men they seem completely unaware of their own nudity. Control for women must come from outside sources. In this case, Aphrodite’s hand is the outside source in this case. She is the ideal because she is able to take the external control that is required of women and make it internal by applying it herself.

The Aphrodite of Knidos inspired generations of artists of Greece and Rome to make copies and further celebrate the beauty of goddess of love, sexuality, and the ideals that Praxiteles expresses in this piece. Much like the Venus of Willendorf, that celebrates its cultures ideals with the same level of detail and care that can be seen in Praxiteles’s Aphrodite.

For example, on the Venus of Willendorf, her face is entirely covered, either by woven hair or a basket. The detail and time spent meticulously carving the details on the seven circles that surrounds her head is matched by Praxiteles’s attention to Aphrodite’s braids. While the presence of the weaving is more significant on the Venus of Willendorf it shows a great amount of care from the artists in both accounts. “Such elaborate treatment of hair is extremely rare in Paleolithic figurines, and the considerable attention paid to it by the sculptor must mean it had some significance.” (Woman from Willendorf). There is some indication that the Venus of Willendorf is a fertility idol. Aphrodite on the other hand is not a fertility goddess, but a goddess of beauty. The fact that she is somewhat modestly covering herself detracts from the thought of fertility and instead the viewer is drawn to sexuality, where in the Venus the reproductive organs are emphasized, adding a sense of fertility to the what we see, she might be identified as simply a Stone-Age doll for a child.

The Venus of Willendorf is only about four and a half inches tall. The figure is so small it can fit in the palm of a hand. “seen under these conditions, she is utterly transformed as a piece of sculpture. As fingers are imagined gripping her rounded adipose masses, she becomes a remarkably sensuous object, her flesh seemingly soft and yielding to the touch” (Woman of Willendorf). Holding it like this the viewer almost cradles the sculpture, holding it near and dear. Because of the shape, the emphasis placed on the reproductive organs, and it’s complete lack of facial features it is possible that it was made to exault the mother earth, or mother goddess. Yet, one would think the worship images would have been larger, not designed to be small enough to fit perfectly in the palm of a hand. This almost implies that it is a fertility idol.


“Her genital area would appear to have been deliberately emphasized with the labia of the vulva carefully detailed and made clearly visible, perhaps unnaturally so, and as if she had no pubic hair. This, combined with her large breasts and the roundness of her stomach, suggests that the “subject” of the sculpture is female procreativity and nurture and the piece has long been identified as some sort of fertility idol” (Venus of Willendorf).

Paleolithic “society” valued the ability to keep the species going. The Venus of Willendorf’s ideal is the ideal inspired by the slightly starving. She is overweight, and if everything that the artist implied with her form does in fact mean that she is a fertility idol, this tiny sculpture would have been incredibly powerful to women looking to engage in sympathetic magic.

The Venus of Willendorf and the Aphrodite of Knidos are two completely different sculptures from two completely different moments in time and cultures. Each culture dealing with their own struggles and enjoying the pleasures they could find. The Aphrodite of Knidos is life sized, while the Venus of Willendorf is small enough to be held in the palm of a hand. In comparison to the Venus the Aphrodite is an incredibly thin and by modern standards, fit woman. The Aphrodite was sculpted to be in a temple, to exalt the goddess of love and praise her for her self control and modesty. The Venus was carved to exalt the mother goddess, to praise motherhood, and give the powers of the little idol to whoever carried it in her palm. Both works of art are beautiful, and both were the ideal to the people who had created it. They show the never ending, ever changing, ever growing search for the ideal figure.


Works Cited

“Aphrodite of Knidos and the Invention of the Female Nude in Greek Art.” SUNY Oneonta | Home. Web. 12 Dec. 2011. <;.

“An Examination of Aphrodite of Knidos: Cnidian Aphrodite Done By or In The Style Of Praxiteles |” Jessica Gleason | Web. 12 Dec. 2011. <;.

“Praxiteles Aphrodite.” Sir Thomas Browne. Web. 12 Dec. 2011. <;.

“The Venus of Willendorf.” Don’s Maps – Palaeolithic / Paleolithic European, Russian and Australian Archaeology / Archeology. Web. 12 Dec. 2011. <;.

“Woman from Willendorf.” Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe. Web. 12 Dec. 2011. <;.


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