Why Michaelangelo’s Women Were So Manly?

Deconstructing the reasons behind Michelangelo’s “men with breasts”

Night by Michelangelo. Her sturdy contoured legs and her left breast looks misshapen and stiff. Source-Public Domain

Michelangelo wrote in one of his poems, “I’m ugly.” He believed he did not meet societal beauty standards.

Despite this, he spent his entire life in pursuit of sublime perfection.

Michelangelo’s David is indeed the most perfect statue in the world. It exudes the aesthetics of high Renaissance art and the technical prowess of Greek sculpture.

Giorgio Vasari, described the statue’s perfection in an essay in 1550 — “For in it may be seen most beautiful contours of legs, with attachments of limbs and slender outlines of flanks that are divine; nor has there ever been seen a pose so easy, or any grace to equal that in this work, or feet, hands and head so well in accord, one member with another, in harmony, design, and excellence of artistry.”

But when it comes to Michelangelo’s women — why do they seem to be imperfect and apparently masculine? Why does the female anatomy seem unladylike?

Let’s deconstruct the possible reasons behind Michelangelo’s “men with breasts.”

Night (Left) and Dawn (Right). Source-Public Domain

Consider Michelangelo’s Night. A nude reclining on the sarcophagus at Giuliano di Lorenzo de Medici’s feet. The woman has an angelic aura but as we slide down, her body looks muscular. For instance, her left breast looks misshapen and stiff.

As we move further down, she has sturdy contoured legs.

Definitely, a mismatch between her divine face and the rest of her body.

On the other hand, Dawn, Michelangelo’s other masterpiece seems to have curvy bosoms but she has a muscular physique too.

Erwin Panofsky, a contemporary art historian said, “Dawn was a young woman’s easily life — softened yet firm, full of vigor and energy, not yet hardened by life. Panofsky even uses the word virginal to describe her. In direct opposition, then, there’s Night.

Panofsky says that Night’s body has been distorted by childbirth and lactation.”

Similarly, if we take a closer look at the Sistine Chapel and analyze female prophets from the twelve apostles, you might be convinced that Michelangelo represented women with androgynous attributes.

Imagine Cumaean Sibyl with her gigantic body and hefty biceps. Although Libyan Sibyl’s face looks ethereal, her physique resembles an Olympian.

Cumaean Sibyl (Left) and Libyan Sibyl (Right)

Delphic Sibyl (Left) and Persian Sibyl (Right) in Sistine Chapel

Michelangelo illustrated the female prophets as monumental as their male prophets but something was clearly off with the female bodies.

Why Michelangelo’s women were so unwomanly?

Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Raphael
  • Jill Burke, a lecturer in Italian Renaissance art history at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, says that during the Renaissance period, nude female models were not readily available. It wasn’t considered appropriate for a female to be nude in front of an unknown painter.

And so, a painter like Michelangelo who literally witnessed anatomical dissections first hand might not have imagined a woman’s figure very well. While this is the most accepted theory, Burke contradicts herself.

Raphael, Michelangelo’s contemporary counterpart painted St. Catherine of Alexandria with a curvy body, supple bosoms, and a sensual aura. How did Raphael know how to paint a woman?

  • Another theory that seems relevant is the patriarchal nature of the Renaissance period. Historian Thomas Lacquer has written, “there was only one canonical body and that body was male.” This means that a male prototype was the most superior and everything else was considered imperfect.
  • Historians have argued at length that Michelangelo was naturally inclined to male bodies. So, in response, to portray a beautiful woman, he’d simply design her to appear as close to a man as possible. This does not mean he was misogynistic. In fact, Ascanio Condivi, Michelangelo’s official biographer, wrote that he had a close relationship with his mother and a devoted relation with a widow named Vittoria Colonna. He might not have been sexually attracted to women but it’s highly unlikely that he despised them.

Medical justification of the sculpture ‘Night’

In November of 2000, a letter was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine by a physician named James Stark. He visited Medici Chapel in Florence with an art historian Jonathan Katz Nelson. And just like others, he was drawn to the weird appearance of Night, especially her left breast.

The excerpts from Stark’s letter.

“I found three abnormalities associated with locally advanced cancer in the left breast. There is an obvious, large bulge to the breast contour medial to the nipple; a swollen nipple-areola complex; and an area of skin retraction just lateral to the nipple… These features indicate a tumor.

These findings do not appear in the right breast of “Night” or in “Dawn,” another female figure in the Medici Chapel, or in the many other depictions of women in works by Michelangelo.

We suggest that Michelangelo carefully inspected a woman with advanced breast cancer and accurately reproduced the physical signs in stone. Even if he did not see the disease in a model, he could have studied the corpse of a woman; moreover, autopsies were legal at that time.

Given that Michelangelo depicted a lump in only one breast, he presumably recognized this as an anomaly. Many doctors in his day could probably diagnose this condition in a woman.

Historians of breast cancer agree that the disease and its treatment were discussed, often at length, and described as cancer by the most famous medical authorities of antiquity and by several prominent medieval authors.

For these reasons, there is a strong possibility that Michelangelo intentionally showed a woman with disease and that he may have known that the illness was cancer.

If Michelangelo indeed depicted “Night” as having a consuming disease, this would complement the imagery in the Medici Chapel of life and death, and further help us understand his study of the female body.”

References-
1. The Problem of Michelangelo's Women
2.Men with Breasts (Or Why are Michelangelo’s Women so Muscular?) Part 1
3. Nine times history's greatest artists made bad artworks

Ann Treboux

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