StMU Research Scholars

Figurines in Europe and China

Since the early stages of human life and prosperity, art has used by different societies to display their craftsmanship and to demonstrate their beliefs. Two types of artistic creations are the paleolithic Venus figurines from southern France and the bronze age jade figurines of China. These two art pieces contrast in both usage and symbolism. The figurines in the paleolithic, European era were made by hunters and gatherers, while jade figurines during the Bronze Age are part of an advanced civilization. Still, both provide scholars insight into the practices and goals of the people at the time.

The Venus of Laussel on a piece of limestone | Courtesy of Chesterfield Pagans
The Venus of Laussel on a piece of limestone | Courtesy of Chesterfield Pagans

One of the earliest forms of art includes the figurines from the European paleolithic era. Created by homo sapiens about thirty thousand years ago, they were called Venus figurines by scholars after the Roman goddess of love Venus, because they depict the body of a woman. Today, more than one hundred have been found and they all have similar characteristics. The figurines range in height but are on average 150mm tall. They are made from materials such as steatite, calcite, limestone, bone, ivory, and clay.1

Today we wonder about the meaning and purpose behind the faintness of facial features and hands in these figurines, yet we note the emphasis on the woman’s hips and legs. Although we do not yet have definite answers to this question, there are many theories available. One popular theory is that the societies that created these figurines had a deep interest in female fertility. Other theories mention their hope for survival and fear for extinction.2 A less popular and more controversial theory is the possibility that Venus figurines were self portraits.3 Still, different theories are necessary in order to better comprehend the motifs behind the Venus figurines and their crafters.

Jade figurine excavated from the tomb of Fu Hao | Courtesy of the National Museum of China
Jade figurine excavated from the tomb of Fu Hao | Courtesy of the National Museum of China

In contrast to the Venus figurines in Europe, Chinese jade figurines offer a clearer sense of the usage of art in the Bronze Age. Jade figurines were often buried with wealthy individuals along with their former slaves, food, jewels, and many other objects. Although the jade figurines took very long to make and were a process of hard labor, their symbolism of prosperity and luxury in Chinese ceremonial traditions demonstrate the practice of ancestral worship and how important it was to them. Because they believed spirits passed into another realm of existence, from which they had the power to affect future generations, tombs were lavished with tools so that masters might live plentifully along with sacrificed slave bodies that would continue to serve their master. For example, in the tomb of lady Fu Hao, wife of the Shang king Wu Ding, 755 jade carvings, 468 bronze objects, 130 weapons, and 4 mirrors were buried.4

Although prehistoric pieces such as figurines, cave paintings, and carvings are often overlooked because of the ambiguity of their meaning, they convey people’s emotions, ideas, and talents. Creations such as the Venus and jade figurines provide the world insight into the practices of our ancestors and the kinds of resource available to them. They serve as a timeline and teach us about their interests and abilities in eras as diverse as the European Paleolithic and Chinese Bronze Ages.

  1. Kaylea Vandewettering, “Upper Paleolithic Venus Figurines and Interpretations of Prehistoric Gender Representations,” PURE Insights 4, no. 1 (May 29, 2015), http://digitalcommons.wou.edu/pure/vol4/iss1/7.
  2. Jerry H. Bentley, Herbert F. Ziegler, Traditions and Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past Volume 1: From the Beginning to 1500 (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2011), 14.
  3. Kaylea Vandewettering, “Upper Paleolithic Venus Figurines and Interpretations of Prehistoric Gender Representations,” PURE Insights 4, no. 1 (May 29, 2015), http://digitalcommons.wou.edu/pure/vol4/iss1/7.
  4.  Jerry H. Bentley, Herbert F. Ziegler, Traditions and Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past Volume 1: From the Beginning to 1500 (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2011), 92-93.

61 Responses

  1. Very interesting how the artifacts are not only stories of a culture and its beliefs, but also a timeline for the development of human skill, I hadn’t thought of them like that before. I tend to agree with the belief that the artifacts resembling the femenine form are meant as fertility symbols, both for health and for harvest. The harvest theory I think comes more from later research, such as symbols of Persephone or other godesses who had multiple things they represented. Good article, and very informative!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.