Large and small scale marvels on show at French museum

A rare Vénus statue is to be showcased at the Musée de Picardie, just reopened after a €26million refit

21 March 2020
The 4cm tall Gravettian ‘Vénus’ going on display
By Samatha David

This tiny but amazing statuette is going on display in Amiens this March.

Just 4cm tall, this Gravettian ‘Vénus’ figure was excavated last year during an archaeological dig at Renancourt (Somme) and carbon dating has established that it is around 23,000 years old.

The excavation site is thought to have been a hunting camp; weapons and blades have been discovered as well as a large number of equine bones suggesting the consumption of horse meat. 

The site has yielded 15 similar statuettes, and other examples have been found across France, Western Europe, Israel, Morocco, Siberia and Eurasia: the breasts, buttocks and stomach are exceptionally pronounced in comparison with the arms and the head has been formed without features.

The oldest ones found so far date as far back as 300-500,000 years BC.

Worldwide, around 200 of these statues have been found, dating from a period covering hundreds of thousands of years of prehistory.

Although it is clear that these ‘Venus figurines’ existed in many parts of the world over an extremely long period, their function and significance is unknown.

The name Venus comes from the Marquis de Vibraye who, in 1864, discovered the first one, in the Dordogne Valley and called it La Vénus Impudique (Immodest Venus).

This was in reference to the classic, well-known and very decorous Greco-Roman marble sculpture of Venus covering her naked body with her hands. There is no other connection with Venus.

It has been variously suggested that the figures are female goddesses, fertility symbols, and/or religious artefacts, and others have even theorised that the figurines were self-portrait sculptures made by women who did not have mirrors so did not realise they had feet.

It is probable that mirrors did not exist but women must have been able to see each other and therefore realise that they did indeed have legs and feet. Whatever the explanation, for the moment there is no absolute proof, and so the debate continues.  

The Vénus de Renancourt will, once analysis has finished, go on display at the Musée de Picardie in Amiens, which reopens on March 1 after a €26 million refit.

Views of the Rotonde de l’Impératrice

The museum building, modelled on the Louvre and constructed in 1867, has long been considered one of the most beautiful outside Paris, and was the first ever purpose-built museum. “It was designed to be a palace to glorify education, learning and knowledge,” says Hélène Lefevre, the museum’s director of communications.

Les Voix du Tocsin by Albert Maignan; and view of the Rotonde de l’Impératrice

It was closed in July 2017 to renovate the first floor which had been closed for 10 years due to water leaks. “In the past we had around 40,000 visitors a year because the museum was half closed but we hope to receive at least 80,000 visitors this year.”

The new extension, designed to mirror the proportions of the main building, contains an 80-seat auditorium for conferences and debates, plus a teaching workshop for adults and children.

There is a shop and a corner with comfortable sofas for visitors to relax, read the books provided, and enjoy a free tea or coffee.

The museum’s collections are eclectic, including fine arts, Medieval history, archaeology covering Egypt, and Greece as well as local digs.

It has fine exhibitions of sculpture, modern art, photography and occidental history. The must-see painting, Les Voix du Tocsin (Voices of the Warning Bell) by Albert Maignan, measuring a massive 5.5m by 4.5m, has also been painstakingly restored to its former glory, and never has a warning about the state of humanity been as timely as today.

Entrance to the museum is free on the first Sunday of every month.

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