Identity and Culture of Female Figures

Categories: Art

Ancient art history signifies the various forms of art produced by the extremely advanced cultures of primordial societies. Such societies include those of ancient China, India, Mesopotamia, Persia, Israel, Greece and Rome. Specifically, however, two of these progressive eras include the Paleolithic Period near Austria and the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt. Though these are two exceptionally dissimilar times in history, both are periods where a sense of significant art making emerged. In fact, out of such contrasting ages in history arose two extremely famous works of arts: The Woman from Willendorf, from the prehistoric period, and Khafre Enthroned, from Ancient Egypt.

In this essay I will be comparing and contrasting these two ancient sculptures in depth, including evidence of their identity, style, function, and cultural context. The Woman from Willendorf, also called The Venus of Willendorf, is one of the earliest known images of the body, as made by humankind. Crafted from carved limestone, this small statue sits at about four and a half inches high and illustrates a standing nude figure.

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Originally created about 25,000 years ago, The Woman from Willendorf dates back to 24,000 BCE. It was first discovered on the banks of the Danube River in Austria, and archeologists believe that it was most likely made by hunter-gathers who lived in the area. During this age in time, the environment was much colder than we see present-day. This is of course a remnant of Europe's last ice age and helps provide an explanation for the intended message of the piece.

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The Venus is most likely a votive figure, which can literally be defined as, "an image created as a devotional offering to a deity” (Stokstad 571). She is depicted as rather abundant, perhaps pregnant, and thus was probably created to symbolize fertility. The Woman from Willendorf could have also been created to bring good fortune in the fields and in human reproduction.

Although very little is known for certain about this statue, we have deducted that she also represents the core cycle of life during this period of time. Because the people that created this sculpture had to endure a very harsh ice-age environment, the Venus's features of fertility and plumpness would have purely been extremely desirable qualities. In neurological terms, "these features amounted to hyper normal stimuli that activate neuron responses in the brain.” (PBS 1) Thus, in Paleolithic times, most people were concerned with fruitful and successful reproduction, the breasts, and the pelvic girdle, which were all isolated features amplified by the artist's brain. Next, rather conversely, is the Egyptian statue titled, Khafre Enthroned. This life-sized statue sits at five feet and an eighth of an inch tall and depicts the ruler Khafre seated in a chair. Like most Egyptian art, the statue of Khafre focuses on permanence and the afterlife. It is part of a series of similar statues originally carved for the pharaoh's valley temple, which is located in Giza near the Great Sphinx.

Khafre Enthroned dates back to approximately 2520-2494 BCE, which was during Egypt's Old Kingdom and fourth dynasty. This was a time of “social and political stability, despite increasingly common military excursions to defend the borders,” (Stokstad 68). The statue is made of an exceptionally dark hard stone called diorite. Diorite would have had to have been transported from royal quarries in the south and brought some four hundred miles down the Nile River. The statue of Khafre sits upright on a throne formed of two stylized lions' bodies and wearing a simple kilt. Between the throne's legs appears intertwined papyrus and lotus plants, which symbolize the united Egypt. Khafre wears a royal linen nemes headdress and the false royal beard. Khafre is also depicted as somewhat perfect, with a flawless body and impeccable face.

Khafre Enthroned is classified as a "Ka" statue, which can be defined as “a type of ancient Egyptian statue intended to provide a resting place for the ka, or spirit, of the person after death,” (Stokstad 565). It was meant to be buried with the mummified body to allow his soul to travel to and from the afterlife. This would explain his stiff stature, for the artist suppressed all movement to create an aura of eternal stillness. Overall however, the purpose of pharanoic portraiture was to proclaim the divine nature of Egyptian kingship. When looking at both the Woman from Willendorf and Khafre Enthroned, there are numerous similarities. Primarily, both are ancient sculptures. As opposed to other mediums, sculpture is unique because it is three-dimensional. Paintings, frescos, and other wall art are simply two-dimensional, for with sculptures, you have the ability to see the piece from numerous angles.

Also, both of these pieces are made from a stone-like material and depict human figures. This means that on a very general basis, the compositions and mediums of both the Woman from Willendorf and Khafre Enthroned are similar. These two sculptures become even more relatable because they both contain supernatural or magical symbolism. Correspondingly, both pieces address the concept of life and death. Conversely, the Woman from Willendorf and Khafre Enthroned are extremely different in style. Style, defined as, “a particular manner, form or character of representation, construction, or expression that is typical of an individual artist or of a certain place or period,” (Stokstad 570). This makes sense seeing as these sculptures are taken from two very different time periods. The Woman from Willendorf demonstrates an amalgamation of stylistic elements. It is both naturalistic and abstract. We can see its sense of naturalism by the way the body is depicted. The plump legs, round stomach, pubic triangle, and large breasts, exhibit this sense of naturalism.

On the other hand however, The Venus is abstract because she is faceless. This perhaps represents the ideal of womanhood at the time. A true idealized portrait nonetheless is seen in Khafre Enthroned. Khafre is shown with a perfect face and flawless body, regardless of his true appearance and age. This is characteristic of Egyptian art, for they considered ideal proportions appropriate when representing their kings. Khafre Enthroned is thus not a realistic sculpture, nor was it intended to be. The purpose of such an idealized, blocky, and dark form was to proclaim the divine nature of Egyptian kingship. As far as function is concerned, these two pieces are very dissimilar. The Woman from Willendorf was most likely a symbol of life to an entire culture as well as an offering to the gods. Conversely, Khafre Enthroned is meant to preserve the soul of Khafre and assist him in traveling to and from the afterlife.

To conclude, the advanced cultures of primordial societies are signified by ancient art. Out of two extremely contrasting times in history arose two extremely famous works of arts: The Woman from Willendorf, from the prehistoric period, and Khafre Enthroned, from Ancient Egypt. Both of these sculptures reflect the cultures and life styles of which they were made. Though one focuses on a type of figure and the other an individual, both demonstrate elements of idealism and naturalism. The Woman from Willendorf utilizes more organic and free flowing shapes where as Khafre Enthroned is more stiff and rigid. As a whole, both of these pieces have similar yet different identity, style, function, and cultural context.


  1. Gardner, Helen, Fred S. Kleiner, Christin J. Mamiya, and Richard G. Tansey. Gardner's art through the ages: the western perspective. 11th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2003.
  2. PBS. "Venus of Willendorf: Exaggerated Beauty." PBS. Id/episodes/human/venus/ (accessed March 4, 2014).
  3. Stokstad, Marilyn, Marion Spears Grayson, and Stephen Addiss. Art history. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1995.
Updated: May 03, 2023
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Identity and Culture of Female Figures. (2021, Sep 28). Retrieved from

Identity and Culture of Female Figures essay
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