Altar to a broken heart.

The Persistence of Venus since the Renaissance

Fallen Divinity

Helena Eribenne


What could be worse than that of being a fallen angel and becoming human? Who would do that? Who would choose to forgo their divinity, a secure place in heaven (never to return) to become a mere being of flesh and blood? It is written in the Bible that angels did indeed fall from heaven, come to earth so that they could fall once more – in love. The angels wanted to marry humans. Venus is the Roman goddess of love, but the 19th century imagination brought her straight down to earth by naming any woman who appealed to the erotic in men Venus. In those days, Venus became a generic term given to female performers who assumed an aura of the exotic, which was fundamentally an openness of sexuality. Legendary American dancer and spy for the allies during the second world war, Josephine Baker was dubbed The Black Venus. Never mind that she crossed her eyes and pulled faces for the camera, Venus it had to be for the one-time participant of New York’s Harlem Renaissance. Taken from her homeland in South Africa bound for Great Britain and later France, Sara Baartman was put in the circus as a freakshow. She was forced to perform nearly nude so that her African figure could be gawped at and was derogatively named The Hottentot Venus. Greta Garbo, being from Sweden had a different brand of the exotic that lit up Hollywood’s silver screens with her divine aura radiating a cool aloofness rather than a warming nimbus and was therefore called The Stockholm Venus. It appears that since then, any depiction of a nude woman was simply referred to as Venus.

The unearthed figurine that was retrieved in Galgenberg, also known as The Venus of Galgenberg has been nicknamed the Fanny of Galgenberg after the 19th century Austrian dancer Fanny Elssler. She could be compared with the 20th century popstar Madonna because both were equally famous as well as notorious for their outrageous stage shows. Fanny Elssler was once described by literary critic, Theophile Gautier in the following manner:

Venus must have been dancing at the Opera under the form and the name of Fanny Elssler, a wholly appropriate activity for a fallen divinity of ancient Olympus.[1]

‘How sordid!’ They cried, ‘but wasn’t it fun!’ Venus has come crashing down to earth and is a term misused, particularly because the exhumed figurine in Galgenberg predates the Roman goddess of love by thousands of years. Nevertheless, the excavated idol found in Galgenberg, Lower Austria has become a popular cultural icon. She is virtually a pop star and is worshipped in the culture of our times, as the vision of a fallen angel. She appears to pose like a dancer although her raised arm can easily be misconstrued for an angel’s wing as it has been severed off at the elbow from “the fall”. She is not en pointe though, because she has no feet nor had she any to begin with (2). Though she was discovered in pieces, she has been carefully glued back together to generate the thing we worship more than love and fertility – power and money.

The majority of females in the public eye who are performers, singers, actresses and dancers seem to need to embody Venus and her attributes, at least those that want to become stars or indeed sex symbols as they are also known. If she takes to the stage for fame, she is somehow groomed in the spirit of Venus; and the public expects to be privy to her private life duties such as getting married, having a family, getting divorced, taking lovers; but most importantly she should offend patriarchy by becoming hugely successful. She is worshipped as an idol, but then it is discovered that she is really one of us – only human. This type of Venus becomes a sacrifice at the altar of popular culture for being like us – only human., frail and longing for love and acceptance. We mourn when she dies tragically young, but we soon find another Venus-type figure to take her place, and the whole cycle begins again. Is our human Venus, the famed figure who becomes a celestial being before and after her fallen idol period, not unlike Icarus who flew too close to the sun and fell from the heavens to his death? They are like supernovas – self-destructive stars that burn brightly, intensely and rapidly. Amy Winehouse is one such type of Venus. She was adored and worshipped and found global fame and respect for her talent. Unfortunately, her multitude of problems weighed so heavily on her that a public role became a beast of burden. Winehouse (like several others including Whitney Houston) immolated herself on the altar of celebrity culture whilst the press photographers snapped merrily away. But is it the public that build their pyres?

Another type of Venus flourishes under the public gaze, her star rockets to the moon and most importantly it stays there shining brightly and burning evenly. Take pop singer and actress Beyoncé for example. She is a veritable pop icon and is considered a goddess by her fans. So much so that when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge – Prince William and Kate Middleton – made the happy announcement on the 4th September 2017 that they were expecting their third child, Beyoncé fans took to twitter in hubris. They complained that it was rude of them to reveal their news on such an important day. ‘How inappropriate!’ Their outrage lay in the fact that the couple should have been more circumspect and found another occasion rather than Beyoncé’s birthday to share their joy! Beyoncé is alive and thriving and moreover, worshipped by her fans. Her star shines brightly, or should I say, glows steadily on a medium flame.

Seeing Stars

Henri Matisse’s “Icarus” from his 1947 book of cut-outs called “Jazz”, complements the prehistoric figurine from Galgenberg. Like the Galgenberg, Icarus has one arm raised whilst the other arm is lowered. The head, likewise tilts slightly to one side. The torso is loose and floaty in manner, which like the Galgenberg, alludes to dancing and is also at an angle. Again, both the Galgenberg figurine and the depiction of Icarus by Matisse hold one leg straight whilst the other is slightly bent. This also alludes to movement The image of Icarus appears to billow downwards and the falling stars surrounding him function symbolically. Icarus performs a mid-air dance of death. Like the Galgenberg figurine, Icarus is footless. Both figures are without feet yet they are dancers.

Profane or Sacred?

Venus represents sacred love, sex, beauty, desire, fertility, prosperity and victory and she is also the goddess of prostitution. Venus was created from the image of men as their ideal woman who was sexy but a bit scary too. But she was the woman of men’s dreams. Nevertheless, this created a dilemma in the minds of the 19th century bourgeois Frenchman, because wives were for delivering their heirs whilst mistresses were purely for pleasure. That meant that love had to be split into two categories, as either sacred or profane, and divided between two women. Marriage, stability and children for the respectable middle-class wife and desire, sex and pleasure for the fallen woman.

The latter could possibly best be described as a woman from the working classes and due to the enormous difficulty to earn a living wage from the narrow options presented to her, many found that working in prostitution a viable way to make ends meet. Although the policing body that was responsible for making sure that the women were registered sex workers and had regular health check-ups, at the same time, they were vilified by the so-called ‘respectable’ classes, members from which also used their services.[3]

Working class and prostitute ended up coming to equate deviancy as though turning to vice was a matter of nature for a proletarian woman. However, the same peasant woman could become the love of the life of a high-ranking civilian or even royalty; it was just a question of proper textiles, accommodation and social skills. This poorer sister of the courtesan had a much harder time making a living, as she could only offer her services inconspicuously. The courtesan, however, could actually find herself married to the highest bidder or as the mother of his illegitimate child.

Heavenly Body

The planet Venus was named after the Roman goddess of love because with the naked eye it appears to bear the characteristics of beauty and loveliness much like the goddess herself. It shines brightly and was once thought to be two separate planets – the morning star, which shone before dawn and also the evening star, which appeared after sunset. The Greeks finally realised at around 350 B.C. that they were one and the same planet although Venus is still referred to as the evening star today. On much closer inspection, the planet Venus is a totally different star than it appears to be. The reality is that it is enveloped by thick clouds that constantly rain sulphuric acid. This acid rain does not manage to hit its surface before it is evaporated back into its dense atmosphere due to 467 degrees Celsius mantle. Venus is literally a ball of fire and some have correctly compared it to hell because it can melt lead within seconds of contact. If a human being somehow ever managed to land there, the atmosphere would be so heavy it would break that person’s bones. So much for judging a book by its cover or a star by its beautiful light.

Venus as Mother

Venus has also been worshipped as a mother and not just as a goddess of beauty, an exotic, sexualised performer or doomed female. It was Julius Caesar who introduced the worship of Venus as mother, marriage and domesticity and she was called Venus Genetrix (meaning mother). This seems rather odd at first because Roman mythology already had Vesta, the goddess of hearth and marriage, until we look at Caesar’s reasons. He built a temple for the worship of Venus Genetrix the goddess of domesticity in 46 BCE because he wanted to create a mythology about himself and become ancestrally linked to the gods. He threaded together tall tales and legends, entwined his heritage with that of Venus’ son Aenaes and claimed to be a descendant from this mythical hero. The temple still stands today although it is a beautiful ruin.


From heaven to earth and back again, Venus has become a conspicuous figure in our culture both past and present. Embodied as a sexualised woman from men’s fantasies, yet embedded in their dreams and nightmares. Venus could well be synonymous for female. But what has the Venus of Galgenberg or indeed the Venus of Willendorf actually to do with the Venuses if not simply an extension of the perpetuation of the cult of Venus? Is that why almost every fertility figurine is presumed to be a depiction of Venus? The cult of Venus worship may have been swept away at the dawn of Christianity in Europe, but her influence is pervasive and persistent. No, she won’t go away quietly.

[1] – sourced 24th November, 2019

[2] Sie wurde mit Hilfe eines Stiels in der Erde befestigt.

[3] Painted Love: Prostitution in French Art of the Impressionist Era – Holly Clayson. Page 13