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 a senior lecturer in Renaissance Art History at the University of Edinburgh, and the Associate Editor of the journal Renaissance Studies. 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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10 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. 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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