Throughout history female figures have played an important role as subject matter. The female figure is very subjective, as peered through the different lenses of varying cultures. The status and functions of women in these cultures are the primary factors that influence how they are portrayed in art of a certain culture. However, the female figure itself through its natural and inherent iconography represents fertility and the importance of women in society. This natural iconography creates certain parallels in content between all works that use the female figure as subject matter.
This varying subjectivity of a female’s status based on an artist’s culture will create differences in content and themes; however some aspects remain similar to most art with a female subject. Parallels, content inconsistencies, and how culture affects these, is visible in the Shango Shrine Figure, Athena Parthenos, and Venus of Willendorf. In the Shango shrine figure created by Abogunde of Ede of the Yoruba culture, the female subject is used to represent a variety of cultural beliefs. The choice to use a female figure is important because of the inherent themes it represents; fertility and culturally portrayed status.
The Shango Shrine Figure is a female figure adorned by two other adolescents. All three figures appear to have transformed into the shango staff itself. The double blade axe that balances on the head of the female figure and her children represents an authoritative status that cannot be abused; hence the double blade. This shows that women of this culture were able to wield power, perhaps even in government. The Yoruba culture is a matrilineal society and this aspect of the art reflects the status of women perfectly. In this statue, the female figure has been inhabited by the god, Shango.
The figure also wears a white and red bead necklace to symbolize the power that she has been granted is devastating yet just. The two adolescent figures that adorn the primary female figure have also become Shango Staves. They too wield the power of Shango. This transference of power to offspring relates perfectly to the matrilineal society of the Yoruba, this and large breasts also represent the fertility of the primary female figure. This statue has played an important role in representing the religious and political culture of the Yoruba using themes of the female figure.
In the Athena Parthenos created by Phidias and housed in the Parthenon of Athens, the female subject primarily exhibits the power of a goddess and various idiosyncrasies of the Ancient Greek culture. The picture that emerges is a standing, fully armed, and elaborately dresses Athena, holding a small statue of Nike in her outstretched right hand and cradling her spear with he left. The Statue of Athena is very representative of fertility not because of any particular content but because of the subject. In Greek mythology, Athena was supposedly born from the mind of Zeus.
She represents a symbol of life and birth without any particular styles of the art that agree. Undeniably, she is also a goddess. She is capable of great power and her size commands respect. Her armor and weapons, phallic symbols, show that even as a female she can be revered as a goddess of power. Greek culture reveres its gods and goddesses and her power is derived from the status that she has gained from her wisdom and birthright. The fact that she, and all other female figures of Greece were clothed, while men were often nude, shows that women did not have as high a social status as men did.
Nudes were created to express the perfection of bodies and the nude themselves. Athena was not nude, and while she may have wielded power as a god, a female in Greek society was still inferior enough to not be considered perfect. In the Venus of Willendorf created in the paleolithic period the female subject is primarily a symbol of fertility and life. This subject was obviously important culturally because hundreds were made and at such an early time in human history, life and fertility was treasured beyond any kind of current standard. The sculpture is of a woman with a large stomach that overhangs but does not hide her pubic area.
She has large breasts, emphasized female genitalia, and lot of fat. All of these are symbols of fertility and life. In these early hunter-gatherer societies, the role of women was to gather or supply a large amount of the food supply. This cultural institution parallels the fat of the Venus as she is obviously comfortable with her sustenance situation. Food being one of the most important facets of life is a necessity for this statue that is meant to represent life. Her emphasized genitalia and breasts are also symbols of life and fertility as they are used for procreation and child rearing, another role performed exclusively by the women.
The Venus was used as subject matter to show the function and importance of women in paleolithic culture. All three of these artworks happen to be statues of very important revered and religious figures. They all reflect their cultures in the idiosyncrasies of the content in each. They represent their cultures primarily in capturing the position and function of women in a society. Because of the common theme of fertility and social status, each has a variety of status and fertility symbols that reflect their own cultures.