Where Are the Women?

Where are the women in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment? Don’t women rise from the dead on that Day?

The Last Judgment by Michelangelo, on the front wall of the Sistine Chapel        A public domain photo published here

The few in the picture, except for the Virgin, who is only a pretty rack for drapery, look like men with some strange female distortions. What’s the matter—didn’t Michelangelo study women’s bodies with the same care he studied men’s?

Obviously not. They didn’t say much to him. Even with his eyes closed he pictured them dressed. Their forms were without energy—you couldn’t depict them in dynamic poses. He thought a woman was best sitting still with a child on her lap. He had no eye for her delicate softness, as Rafael or Botticelli did, nor was he obsessed with her body and her nature, like Degas or Renoir or Toulouse Lautrec.

Seeing a Michelangelo drawing of a woman, you wonder if he ever really looked long at one. Their anatomy doesn’t look right: it goes blurry in the determining places. It certainly gets graceless. There is something of the old medieval ignorance about his drawings—a shyness, a turning away from the problematical zones. You’d think Middle Ages men, even Middle Ages artists like Giotto, couldn’t even tell you what a naked woman looked like. You might suppose they turned away while she dressed, and only messed around in the dark. Actually, she wasn’t an object so much as a concept; and the concept ruled the mind of the excited or the tormented beholder.

The Last Judgement Detail 2 1304-1306  by Giotto Di Bondone    A public domain photo published here

By Michelangelo’s time artists knew very well how a woman was made: they had all had a good look. Just read your Cellini to see how he used and abused his poor models. “I kept a beautiful woman around to satisfy my sexual desires,” says the straightforward artist, the uniquely unashamed man, “and at the same time I used her as a model for my statues. We made love while I worked….”

Still, if you read Cellini’s Life and see only Michelangelo’s work and Leonardo da Vinci’s you might think that the Italian Renaissance was a thing of men for men. Florence was reputed to be full of homosexuals: the Germans of those days even called their suspected men “Florentines”. Yet homosexual practice was persecuted in Florence as well as elsewhere. It was still punished with hanging or burning only a few years before Michelangelo was born. Cellini himself spent a year in prison for just this crime; and Michelangelo was accused of it by his enemies. Both Condivi and Vasari, his two friends and biographers, felt they had to come to his defence. Homosexual practice was also considered a sin, of course, and denounced by such preachers as Savonarola, whom Vasari says Michelangelo liked to read.

Savonarola monument, Ferrara. photo by ho visto nina volare,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 here

Michelangelo must have considered sexual expression of his love for men impure.


This entry was posted in art, art history, Beauty, fresco painting, great artists, Michelangelo, Renaissance, Sistine Chapel and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Where Are the Women?

  1. kimiam says:

    I knew a few homosexual men today. Incredibly sensitive, creative human beings. Who am I to judge?

    Kimiam: I agree, and it’s time everyone got rid of stereotypes. No two people are alike. And sexual orientation has nothing to do with intelligence or goodness. There are smart and sensitive gay people and dumb and insensitive ones. There are some that walk around like clowns and others, the majority, that are publicly indistinguishable from heteros. The need to dissimulate makes their lives very hard.

    • ivdanu – Quebec – Canadian visual artist of Romanian origin.
      ivdanu says:

      Yes, swallows, you’re right: it’s time to get rid of stereotypes. But you are the exception…Most people, thenm and nowdays, live and swear by those stereotypes…

  2. Aryul says:

    I think Michelangelo could have made his women more beautiful if he chose to, but the male figure was always his true passion whether he was gay or asexual. I suspect that he might have been gay but held back his urges due to fear of diseases and his reputation. Reject my theory if you may, but just look at what happened to Raphael after his secret orgies.
    Aryul: Well, I wonder if Michelangelo could have made more beautiful women. I don’t mean it wasn’t in his hands to do so. But I guess he didn’t feel that beauty. Some men are simply insensitive to a girl’s charms—they don’t work on them. A sexy thing comes into the room and those men not only don’t fall for her beauty, they get suspicious of her intentions. They see her the way other women do. Or then they just don’t notice her.

    Michelangelo did make a few women, after all: look at them. The two reclining on the Medici tombs are incredibly beautiful but they don’t look like women. Beautiful except for those breasts. Those don’t even seem to be part of the muscle network beginning at the shoulder and under the arm but are just stuck on like big tumors. They mean that Michelangelo did not try to get their anatomy right or their curves. When you or I draw a live model, we are fascinated by those shapes and try again and again to get them right in the belief that if they are right our drawing will seduce like the original. Of course it never does. Anyway: I think it is safe to say Michelangelo did not feel that fascination. For a woman.

    That doesn’t mean he wasn’t kind to them or that he couldn’t tell a smart one from a dumb one. He became a very close friend of the Marchioness of Pescara and suffered very much when she died.

    • ivdanu – Quebec – Canadian visual artist of Romanian origin.
      ivdanu says:

      You are both of you right. You know, like in the anecdote – but anecdotes musn’t be untrue either – of the rabbi who approved everybody and was repproaced by one of his friends…and he said, You are right too…

  3. wrjones
    wrjones says:

    Maybe his mom made him pull weeds like mine did. That will put you right off women.

  4. erikatakacs – Canada – I am a figurative sculptor working in paper pulp.
    erikatakacs says:

    Those women are very contemporary, they look like women body builders/wrestlers toay, with silicone breasts.:)
    But seriously, I don’t believe an artist’s sexual orientation is necessarily responsible for preferring to depict one gender over the other. It has to do more with the artist’s sense of absolute beauty. And maybe his character. Someone with a dynamic, unruly, exploding character like his might have been naturally attracted to explore and depict that masculine power.

  5. anagasto – madrid, spain
    cantueso says:

    To WRJones:

    How does pulling weeds put you “off women”? It does not seem to be related. And what would pulling weeds do to women?

    To the 100 swallows:

    But what about the Pietà? I think you’ll say that she is all wrapped up in marble clothes. And she is very young, almost a girl, almost still neutral as it were, in fact a little younger than her famous son.

    The older ladies that he did are indeed hard to take. Did contemporary opinion not have anything to say?

  6. 100swallows says:

    Cantueso: You said it: so young, almost still neutral. She is a beautiful face, one a prepubescent boy or girl might hold up as “pretty”. It is a study in beauty: there is not a sign of character in it. Leonardo also did some girl’s heads with the same aim–to find beautiful proportions.

    Michelangelo’s biographers say nothing about anyone’s objecting to the strange look of his women. And even now–read all the things on the Net about Michelangelo and see if you find even one mention of this. Of course now you might blame piety, which blinds people. But in Michelangelo’s time there must have been a few who said the obvious.

  7. kimiam says:

    Erika, I don’t think sexual orientation is a requirement for sculpting male vs. female figures either. I believe strongly that if you don’t recognize beauty in a figure, awkwardness will be apparent in your work.

    I’ve seen this happen over and over. Sometimes it’s not a male vs. female thing. sometimes it has to do with the individual’s build. I have a friend who sculpts all women exactly alike no matter what the model in front of him looks like.

    These are psychological barriers, imo.

  8. anagasto – madrid, spain
    cantueso says:

    To Kimiam:

    You are right. I have been told that in Madrid there was years ago an elderly stone mason whose work it was to repair public statues when vandals or bad weather had caused some damage.

    This man had very special hands, very strong and broad, with fingers looking each like a shovel. So, as time went by, all over town you’d see statues of women and men with big hands and very broad fingers. —

  9. Rags35 says:

    Well, why would anyone object to his portrayal of women? To the innocent eye it is simply strange. Don’t look twice, that’s the idea, and anyway I don’t know a thing about art and came here because of the 100 swallows. Where are all those swallows? Not even one!

    I am so fed up with this endless winter, and it has just snowed again.

  10. Lisa
    lbtowers says:

    Well, well, well. After reading this, it is surprising that the David was not created with a particular part of his anatomy in a different position.

  11. 100swallows says:

    Don’t be nasty, Lisa. Only that one great Michelangelo could have created the David.

  12. erikatakacs – Canada – I am a figurative sculptor working in paper pulp.
    erikatakacs says:

    Interesting thought, Kim, about the psychological aspect.

  13. zoe2020 – Fine art photographer awarded, published, author, curator gatherer of good people
    Zoe says:

    The women were depicted this way because they were not allowed to pose nude then for fear of death. It was also scary for them to pose clothed, so considering that Michelangelo had no female models I think he did fairly well with what he was able to. So, the only subjects Michelangelo was truly able to observe were men.

    • ivdanu – Quebec – Canadian visual artist of Romanian origin.
      ivdanu says:

      Zoe, you have a beautiful greek name but what you say is not true. during Michelangelo time (except maybe when savanarola was in power…) there was no such thing… Michelangelo could have have all the female models he wanted… It just wasn,t his thing, as 100 swallows very well – ant truthfully – pointed out…

      • 100swallows says:

        Thanks, Danu. Yes, Zoe, look at Rafaello’s many models or read Benvenuto Cellini to see how easy it was for an artist to find a girl to serve him. It wasn’t that Michelangelo lacked models but that he lacked interest–delight–in the female figure.

  14. ivdanu – Quebec – Canadian visual artist of Romanian origin.
    ivdanu says:

    How he did that it’s a (small, little?) mystery to me!

  15. zoe2020 – Fine art photographer awarded, published, author, curator gatherer of good people
    Zoe says:

    http://www.moodbook.com/history/renaissance/sistine-chapel.html This says that Michelangelo lacked female models because they were rare and more expensive… so he used male bodies to depict female models. Which is totally obvious. Either the female models look like blobs or they look like a man with boobs. He didn’t really get the female form. He perfected the male form though.

    Anyway – When I visited the Louvre in the 80s one of the things that I was told was it was a crime for a woman to pose nude for an artist. My information could be wrong, I was just repeating what professors and other individuals have explained to me over the years when I asked why his women looked like men or like blobs.

    Standing in front of David is incredible. It’s unbelievable how perfect he was able to get the form.

    • 100swallows says:

      Zoe: I checked out your link but couldn’t find the part about the rare and more expensive female models. Most artists easily find girls who are willing to pose. Sometimes they are relatives (a sister, a wife), sometimes a lover. A few, like Van Gogh, painted prostitutes. In Michelangelo’s time there were many poor country (and city) girls who would gladly become maids and servants. I never read anywhere that modelling was a crime.

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