Instead of doing a biography, we’re talking androgyny today. Documentation on Michelangelo Buonarroti’s life and work is plentiful (seriously good reading), so we’re going to look at one of my favorite topics: Why do his women look so masculine?
Three Examples of Michelangelo’s Women
Michelangelo was commissioned to create sculptures for the Medici Chapel, which included Night. Night is often referenced as being very manly. The body is muscular with odd-shaped breasts, but a soft, feminine face. It does seem to be a strange representation, but were the design choices intentional? Some historians have pointed to this particular sculpture as evidence that Michelangelo didn’t know how to portray a the female body. The sculpture has even been called outright bad!
Dawn is another sculpture in the Medici Chapel with a muscular body and feminine features, although she is a bit softer than Night.
Sistine Ceiling Sybils
Sibyls are female oracles from ancient mythology. There are five of them on the Sistine Ceiling, said to have foretold the birth of Christ. They all have imposing physiques, despite being mostly covered in robes. But in the case of the Libyan Sibyl, her twisted pose puts her broad back and muscular form on full display.
Were the Manly Women Intentional?
Once upon a time in art history class, I remember learning about how Michelangelo only sketched from male models and that’s why his women looked like men. Case closed, next topic. Still, I found it interesting and tried it myself, gender swapping references here and there and enjoying the androgyny it often created. It seems that the end results will be more feminine if I draw from a female model and more masculine if I draw from a male model, but switching them always lands me somewhere in between. It’s a fun mix of intent with unintentional results.
So how much of Michelangelo’s androgyny was intentional? There are three general arguments you’ll find on the subject.
Michelangelo Didn’t Like Women
Some art historians have argued that Michelangelo’s sexual preferences played a role in how he portrayed women. He’s been described both as having an aversion to the female form and an “inclination” toward the male form due his homosexuality.
Others argue that he wasn’t gay because he had a lover. He wrote poetry for his lover Vittoria Colonna. While it’s unclear whether they had a physical relationship, there was likely a romance there. It’s also said that Michelangelo was close to his mother, so why would he hate women? (That’s a rabbit hole for another time…)
Regardless of Michelangelo’s sexual orientation, it’s unlikely that he had any aversion toward women. It’s also incredibly short-sighted to assume that this is the reason his women are rendered the way they are. I find the whole “his women look manly because he liked men” argument to be the weakest and I’m happy to toss this one aside first!
There Were Only Male Models
Did Michelangelo even know how to draw women?
I’ve already mentioned the point that female models weren’t readily available (it was considered inappropriate for women) and so artists would draw from the male form and use that for their female figures. There are surviving sketches that prove Michelangelo drew the Libyan Sibyl from a male model, but this isn’t the whole story.
There are two issues with this. First, to say that women didn’t pose because of cultural norms is only half the story. Those norms, largely an application of the upper class, would just as easily have been disregarded by a woman willing to pose nude in return for payment or favors. Even today you can make a few quick bucks posing for art classes.
Second, if turning drawings of men into finished artworks of women were an issue for Renaissance artists, we wouldn’t only be talking about Michelangelo right now. There would be many other artists to reference, but his contemporaries painted their women soft and feminine just the same.
Third, Michelangelo knew the human anatomy very well. His sketches number in the hundreds. He even went as far as participating in human dissections to study the musculature of the body. Given his ability to represent the human anatomy with such accuracy and beauty, it seems ridiculous to suggest that he was incapable of doing the same for the female body.
In fact, it’s been suggested that Michelangelo’s ability to render anatomy was so good that he represented Night with breast cancer. Her left breast has features of cancer that are recognizable by modern doctors and it was a disease that would have been known at the time the statue was carved. These abnormalities are not present in the right breast or in Dawn. If he intentionally included a recognizable illness, it adds not only symbolism to sculptures representing life and death, but lends further credibility to the idea that his androgynous depictions of women were deliberate.
While there may not have been sketches of women from Michelangelo, there are plenty from other artists. There’s no reason to believe that he didn’t know what a woman’s body looks like or that he wasn’t able to render one.
Renaissance Beauty Standards
During the Renaissance, it was believed that the female form was an inferior version of the male form. A woman’s body was seen as an “inverted” man’s body, and therefore men were superior. Further support of this belief came from the Bible, where man was created by God, but woman was created from a man’s rib, and therefore the male form was closer to God.
However, that didn’t mean that men were seen as more beautiful. Androgyny was seen as beautiful during the Renaissance. You will often see depictions of effeminate males and masculine females in art from this period as these were the most “attractive states for both men and women.”
Not only was androgyny the beauty standard, it was considered godly. According to some interpretations of the book of Matthew, there is no gender or sexuality in Heaven. Also, the concept of God being androgynous was popular in the intellectual circles of the Renaissance that Michelangelo was a part of.
Now we know that women
arewere seen as inferior, but a mix of male and female traits was considered beautiful and godly. Since women of the Renaissance were not supposed to perform strenuous activities, a muscular woman like the Libyan Sibyl should not make sense as a representation of a woman.
BUT, the Sibyl is not just a representation of a woman, she is a divine being. Because of this, she was depicted with more masculine traits to reflect her godly powers. Therefore, thanks to his deep studies of anatomy and his participation in scholarly circles, the Michelangelo’s masculine depictions of women are most certainly intentional and meant to add to the symbolism of his works.