Men with Breasts (Or Why are Michelangelo’s Women so Muscular?) Part 1

Michelangelo NightWhen I give a talk, or run a class that includes work by Michelangelo, generally at some point someone will suggest that Michelangelo’s female figures look like “men with breasts”. I have to admit, that I sometimes deliberately task students with describing a picture of Michelangelo’s Night (right) just so I can elicit this reaction – it’s a really useful starting point for discussing ideas about what we expect men and women’s bodies to look like, whether renaissance art is naturalistic, differing ideals of beauty and so on. Because this has happened so frequently, my title for yesterday’s masterclass at Glasgow uni was “Men With Breasts: Michelangelo’s Female Nudes and the Historical Context for Body Image”.

An explanation that people often given for the Michelangelo men-with-breasts phenomenon – which we should properly call the aesthetic of androgyny – is that they couldn’t get female nude models in the Renaissance, so artists just juxtaposed the head and breasts of women on men’s bodies. Because of stringent controls over female modesty, the idea goes, it was inappropriate for women to get undressed in front of men. In fact, this is the explanation given in Gill Saunders 1989 book, The Nude: A New Perspective– “female nudes in the painting and sculpture of the [renaissance] period were derived from male models … so they appear unconvincing”.

Now, this is both right and wrong. It’s true of course that for many women, especially women from the upper classes, there was strict control over their dress and comportment in the Renaissance. It’s also true that many of the female figures in renaissance paintings were based on male models – this is common practice, and goes well beyond Michelangelo. There were more men available around a painter’s workshop after all. What’s not true is that it necessarily made for unconvincing women – Raphael’s St Catherine of Alexandria was based on a male model, and I don’t see her as particularly androgynous.

There was also, however, women in this period who would take their clothes off in return for payment or other favours; it’s probably best not to make assumptions about women’s lives in the past based solely on the evidence from a social elite. Although there’s not very many drawings after the female nude still in existence, there’s plenty of evidence for renaissance artists having naked women models, especially after 1500 – there’ll be more about this in a chapter of my nudes book. As a matter of fact, one of the handful of extant renaissance drawings after the female nude is by Michelangelo (to the left, now in the Louvre). This image of a naked kneeling woman, her hair plaited around her head, is a study for Mary Magdalen in his unfinished Entombment panel, which was painted around 1500 for the church of Sant’Agostino in Rome (therein lies a tale about courtesan culture in Rome, but I’ll save that for another post).

If Michelangelo, then, knew what women’s bodies looked like, and was clearly able to draw them (being quite handy at drawing), we have to assume that the appearance of his women was through deliberate choice rather than ignorance. I’ll return to what these choices may have been in the next post – I’m off to the library now to start reading the new edition of The Image of the Black in Western Art.

For more on this, see Men with Breasts 2….

About jillburke

I'm Professor of Renaissance Visual and Material Cultures, in the School of History of Art at the University of Edinburgh. I'm currently writing a book called How to Be A Renaissance Woman, about make up, body care and hygiene in the sixteenth century. My last book, on the Italian Renaissance Nude (Yale University Press) was out in 2018, and I was also involved in the exhibition on The Renaissance Nude at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Royal Academy in London 2018-19. I have a research blog for putting out ideas and research more quickly than traditional publishing allows, and also to include thoughts, material and info that won't fit in an article or book.
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51 Responses to Men with Breasts (Or Why are Michelangelo’s Women so Muscular?) Part 1

  1. Pingback: The Weight of Books | Mid-Atlantic Musings

  2. Melissa Huang says:

    Reblogged this on What is Talent? Musings on Art and Gender and commented:
    Here’s a really interesting piece on why Michelangelo’s female figures appear so masculine to modern day audiences. Although many believe Michelangelo’s figures were influenced by his sexuality or the availability of female models, Jill Burke explains why this is not the case. See part two here:

  3. uocgender says:

    Reblogged this on uocgender and commented:
    “it’s probably best not to make assumptions about women’s lives in the past based solely on the evidence from a social elite.” Jill Burke. this is a really interesting post about the difficulties of judging people retrospectively especially when it comes to gender and class. we only have evidence today that hasn’t been destroyed and it is impossible to know if we have the full picture or not. plus their was no freedom of information act in the Renascence so we cannot know if the picture passed on to us of that period of time is necessarily all the information or even true.

    however we can gain a picture of what those in charge at the time desired gender roles to be weather they were or not. i think its very interesting that most of Michale Angelo’s women were based on men causes people to think he was gay despite the fact that i haven’t seen any other evidence of this. just another example of why sweeping statements and rash judgements of the past can give us the wrong idea about a period of time.


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  5. mmgilchrist says:

    Have you considered the work that’s been one on Night’s health and the symbolism of disease? Oncologists have looked at her breasts and see clear signs that their deformities (swellings and contracted areas) are a result of cancer. Night=Sleep=Death. See:
    New England Journal of Medicine

    • jillburke says:

      Yes, thanks very much for your comment. I have seen this article about potential breast cancer in Night. It’s interesting in terms of her being portrayed as an older woman and I will deal with it in more detail in my book.

      • mmgilchrist says:

        Thanks, Jill! (I’m a Project Assistant in Medical Humanities at Glasgow.) It’s also interesting to compare the oil painting version by Michele Tosini (a contemporary of Michelangelo), in which the contraction of the left side is made even more obvious because it’s a colour image: there’s no ambiguity about her condition at all. What people seem to miss, though, is the right side is also affected: her plait is resting on a lump which has pushed her right breast further right. Please let me know more about your book: I love Michelangelo’s women.

  6. Adam Chandler says:

    Art is inspiration – perhaps women’s bodies simply didn’t inspire Michaelangelo in the way men’s did, and he didn’t want to pretend otherwise?

  7. Ranjita says:

    Michelangelo’s female figures look like “men with breasts”
    Art is inspiration-Here’s a really interesting piece on why Michelangelo’s female figures appear so masculine to modern day audiences and theseHot Female Modelsare different than other.

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  15. Lee says:

    Physical fitness may have much to do with our perception of Michelangelo’s women. Modern views of what is feminine tend away from strong physical form. A woman body builder doesn’t rate as feminine as her desk bound counterpart. Yet in times past both sexes had to be more physically fit. In Michelangelo’s time walking was almost the only form of daily travel. Women especially had to walk to obtain fresh water and food by walking. Women had to carry those back to the home, building upper body strength as well. Michelangelo’s Night shows a very physically fit woman, a woman considered “masculine” in today’s world.

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  17. jc says:

    Wake up people, they were hermaphrodites!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  20. An Established Conoisseur says:

    Sigh. Are you seriously using that sketch from the Entombment as your sole example of Michalengelo’s “ability” to render female forms? As believed by Martin Kemp, Oxford alumni turned art historians and consoisseurs at prestigious universities, Renaissance curators at the Met, curators of Renaissance draughtsmanship at the Morgen, more likely than not, that kneeled figure is a male, although still ambigious in its person.

    Look, the fact of the matter is, however hard it may be for you to swallow, is that Michelangelo was a gay. The dude was in love with Thomaso for crying out loud, and so ashamed was Michelangelo’s grandson, that he changed all the pronouns from “he” to “she” in the love poems he sent to Thomaso. There are even some contemporary accounts of Michelangelo entertaining acts of sodomy, as metioned by Pietro Aretino. Michelangelo loved the male form, unlike Raphael who adored the female form and could capture its grace and sensuality perfectly in painting. I don’t think Michelangelo had ever seen a nude female. And no it’s not anachronistic for me to say he was gay because the man was seriously emotionally in love with men. Genius as he may be, Michelangelo was as gay as Elton John, and it showed in his brilliants works.

    Gotta say, however, his male forms are absolutely sublime, so much so Raphael took notes when he saw the Sistine ceiling.

    • jillburke says:

      I’d never start a post with the word “sigh” because it seems discourteous. I’m happy to disagree with you about the supposed inability of gay men to depict naked women – just as straight men are unable to depict naked men accurately? We are, I hope, not entirely determined by our sexuality. I’d suggest some reading beyond Martin Kemp, wonderful though he may be.

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  24. uhm says:

    im pretty sure he was just gay and thats why he didn’t know what womens naked bodies looked like

    like yall are really trying to erase gays from history when you keep trying to come up with explanations to why your favourite artists or whatever couldn’t make boobs look like boobs

    sometimes it’s just that simple and there doesn’t have to be a deep BS explanation to everything

  25. uhm says:

    i’m just so done with this “straight until proven gay” attitude that some of y’all got going on

    • jillburke says:

      Apologies if I suggested that there was a binary choice here, not my intention. The thing is that it’s not “straight” or “gay”, it’s to accept fluidity in sexual identities and understand that sexuality and attitudes to the body change in different historical circumstances.

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  27. Rana says:

    Maybe he was trying to symbolize women’s strength through drawing their bodies very muscular?

    • jillburke says:

      Yep, very possibly – this is an argument that the art historian Yael Even put forward too; she suggests that Michelangelo wanted the Sibyls to appear “heroic” and thus masculine.

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  30. Julia says:

    Cowards. Just admit it, Michaelangelo was gay and he never saw a woman naked. There’s evidence of him having crushes on men, sketching them. When someone asked Mike the gay boy for a woman on a painting he just did the best he could.

  31. hunter says:

    Maybe it’s because that way it wouldn’t be as erotic in nature when looked at.

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  36. Milena Dunev says:

    Hi there, thank you for this article!
    As a musician that can only draw a house and a tree, I wasn’t sure if I see the masculinity in naked female bodies in some famous painting from the renaissance right or is just me.
    It led me to research and the way I see it is that the artists were documenting the real look of the female body and use that to send a message. It’s a move of empowerment. I’d imagine that a lady back on the days was very physically active due to daily activities and how the world was set up at the time.
    To be a skilled artist that can paint, draw etc that’s just hot so I imagine it wasn’t tricky to get a woman naked especially those who did lots of daily work and were in need of money?

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