As Europe starts opening up to travelers again, it’s more exciting than ever to think about the cultural treasures that await. For me, one of the great joys of travel is having in-person encounters with great art and architecture — which I’ve collected in a book called Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces. Here’s one of my favorites:
Beauty can take many forms. But since the very beginnings of the human species, the most popular subject for artists has always been the female body. Long before the end of the Ice Age, Europeans were fashioning small statues of women.
The chubby Venus of Willendorf (c. 25,000 BC), found in modern-day Austria, is shown resting her spindly arms on her ample breasts. At just 4.4 inches high, this statue is like many such statues of the day. Most are no bigger than a smartphone. They’re carved out of stone or bone, or molded from clay. They’re generic females, with no face or feet. The hips are wide, and the breasts and butt are exaggerated, with a prominent vaginal slit. This focus on women’s life-giving attributes has led scholars to suggest they’re symbols of fertility. Living at the mercy of the elements, the early Europeans who created these may have worshipped Mother Nature. Scholars have dubbed them “Venus figurines.”
During the long journey from Paleo- to Neo-lithic times, statuettes of Stone Age women shed some 20,000 years of fat to become so-called “Cycladic figures” (c. 3,000 BC). These ladies from the Greek Isles are skinny. They’re always naked, with stylized breasts and folded arms. Because they lack distinct features, it’s suggested that they may represent the Everywoman. But no one knows the exact purpose: Was she a fertility goddess, funereal figure, good-luck charm, spirit guide, prehistoric Barbie doll, caveman Playboy Bunny . . . or just art?
These “Venuses” were only the start of a 25,000-year tradition of using the beauty of women — yes, you could say objectifying women — to express society’s deepest-held values.
The word “beauty” can apply to harmonious concepts as well as physical beauty. During the days of classical Greece and Rome, a statue of a perfectly-proportioned person — like the Venus de Milo — epitomized the harmony and geometrical order they found in the divine cosmos.
In Christian times, “Venus” became “Mary.” Just as Venus represented earthly love to pagans, the Madonna was venerated by Christians as a symbol of divine love. Images of Mary welcomed worshippers into the church, promising love and forgiveness. Because medieval art was rather rudimentary, artists used symbolism to communicate this. A vase of lilies might represent Mary’s chastity, and Baby Jesus might hold a symbol of his prophesied death. By Renaissance times, artists could portray Mary with such human realism that she radiated her spirituality through her physical beauty.
And so it went, as each era created images of beautiful women to express abstract concepts. Mona Lisa is not merely a portrait of a businessman’s wife; it’s a visual treatise on a geometrically perfect universe. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus embodied the Platonic ideal of the quest for enlightenment. In more modern times, a secular Venus nicknamed “Marianne” (in Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People) carried the torch of France’s revolutionary spirit.
Throughout art history, artists have used beautiful women as a way to convey deeper meanings. The women of art, which you’ll see featured throughout “Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces” — whether in their role as life-givers, warriors, sensuous vixens, perfect models, symbols of an era, or forthright workers — have always represented the “beauty” of humanity’s greatest ideals.