Erotic Art

The Venus of Willendorf

By Louisa Luigi

Across the world and throughout history, art has reflected society’s relationship to cultural norms, politics and customs, giving us a peek at yesterday’s world.

Erotic art is a portrayal of human sexuality and sensuality through various mediums: drawing, painting, sculpture and literature.  Erotic imagery is stimulating and arousing in nature and often pushes the limits of freedom of speech; whether art was used in commentary toward the Roman Catholic Church, or it came in the form of a statue of a fertility god, erotic art has mingled with religion throughout the ages.

Fertility Statues

Although, idols have been found all over the world, the most common regions are Africa, Mexico and India. Since fertility symbols have an important job: to ensure the survival of the human race, idols often sport exaggerated forms and genitalia, and are one of the earliest forms of erotic art.

The Venus of Willendorf is a statuette of a nude female, discovered by archaeologist, Josef Szombathy in 1908. It is believed to have been carved between 24,000 and 22,000 B.C and found in Willendorf, a village near Lower Austria. Carved of limestone, it sports large breasts and abdomen, with particular detail to the vulva, leading scholars to believe the statuette is a fertility symbol.

Believe it or not? Ripley’s Entertainment acquired two fertility statues from the Ivory Coast of West Africa in 1993 and placed them in their headquarters’ lobby in Orlando, Florida. It was reported that within 13 months, women who had touched the idols, became pregnant. The statues were retired to the Ripley warehouse in 2001, but reinstituted due to high demand.

“For years, we were inundated with requests to make these statues available once again, so we’ve brought them out of retirement and they are proving to be very popular during this world tour,” said Edward Meyer, VP of Archives & Exhibits for Ripley Entertainment.


In 1748 excavators discovered many depictions of erotic art in the mummified city of Pompeii, a Roman municipality which was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. In an online article “Erotic Art of Pompeii,” by The Frances Farmers Revenge Web Portal, the research shows:

Ancient Pompeii was full of erotic or pornographic frescoes, symbols, inscriptions, and even household items. The ancient Roman culture of the time was much more sexually permissive than most present-day cultures and apparently had no concept of obscenity or that such art should be hidden from minors.

When the serious excavation of Pompeii began in the 18th century, a clash of the cultures was the result. A fresco on a wall that showed the ancient god of sex and fertility, Priapus with his extremely enlarged penis, was covered with plaster and only rediscovered because of rainfall in 1998.

So disturbed were the Eighteenth century excavators, they hid much of the erotic artwork in a place called “Secret Cabinet” (Gabinetto Segreto), a secret museum located in Naples.  The work could be viewed for payment, and only men of good standing were permitted a peek.

Art and the Catholic Church

The Catholic Church and sex have always been at opposite ends of the spectrum.  During the Enlightenment, free-thinkers used erotic imagery as a form of social criticism, targeting the Church for its repressive attitude toward sex. The imagery was used as a political commentary, portraying priests, nuns and other clerics, for offensive behavior.

I Modi or The Sixteen Pleasures was a manuscript with engravings, portraying different sexual positions. The original was destroyed by the Vatican, and the publisher, Raimondi, imprisoned by Pope Clement VII.  A second edition was published in 1527, Raimondi prosecuted and jailed once more, he escaped, but the Papacy seized all copies of the I Modi and destroyed them.

Because of I Modi, censorship increased and remained steady for centuries.  Erotic art in the Renaissance was for the amusement of wealthy men. From this time in history, the fig leaf was introduced into major works of religious and erotic art to cover up embarrassing, disagreeable or shameful images.

Paleolithic cave paintings and carvings, Greek and Roman sculptures and Eastern art have survived the ravages of time to show us that interest and curiosity in sex is pervasive and inescapable.  Political or religious censorship throughout the ages have failed to stifle the one thing we all have in common: sexuality.  Long live freedom of speech, art, and erotica.

Contest Question:

Where was the “Secret Cabinet” (Gabinetto Segreto) located? Email the answer to: Please put “Contest” in the subject line.

Good luck and thanks for participating!


The Frances Farmers Revenge Web Portal “Erotic Art of Pompeii” (accessed 09/30/11) “The Real American Idols” (accessed 09/30/11) “History of Erotic Art, Roman Erotica” (accessed 09/30/11)



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