Art historian explores Michelangelo’s ‘masculine’ women

| October 2, 2015 | 0 Comments

Strong shoulders, thick legs, defined muscles. The attributes were true of Michelangelo’s depictions of men, but also many of his women. In the past century, art historians have theorized that Michelangelo — creator of the world’s most famous Pieta, the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling and Last Judgment frescoes, and Florence’s David — masculinized the female form because he was a product of a patriarchal society that denigrated women, or because he found men more beautiful.

Liz Lev

Liz Lev

These theories never resonated with Elizabeth Lev, an art historian and American living in Rome. A sought-after teacher and tour guide, Lev regularly encounters Michelangelo’s numerous works throughout the Vatican, Rome and greater Italy. Recent lighting improvements in the Sistine Chapel have added extra weight to her argument that the Renaissance artist had theological — not just aesthetic — ideas in mind when he gave some of his women athletic builds. Variety within his canon of women is much greater than widely perceived, she said, especially in his treatment of mothers.

Lev shared her research at the University of St. Thomas Sept. 14 before a large audience that included many former students from the university’s Catholic Studies program in Rome. In her lecture, she focused on Michelangelo’s women in the Sistine Chapel — anything broader would be a semester class, she quipped.

The artist, who lived 1475-1564, is known for his “colossal” men, Lev said, pointing to his depictions of larger-than-life David, Adam and the Jesus of the Sistine Chapel’s Last Judgment.

Liz dispelled portraits of Michelangelo as a misogynist with his words and paintings. Although his mother died when he was a child, he grew up in a household of women and began his dictated biography by exalting his family’s ancestral matriarch. He wrote admiringly of other women in his life, and later in life he joined the Third Order Franciscans, known for their Marian esteem. His first and last works — and many in between — were of Mary, Lev noted.

She pointed to several of his works where he gave his women soft, delicate features — including in the mothers symbolizing Jesus’ genealogy on the sides of Sistine Chapel’s vaulted ceiling, where Michelangelo painted families, not just the patriarchs.

“The Sistine Chapel is a repository of an exceptional variety of female figures,” Lev said. “He had a particular interest in painting mothers in general . . . When you look at Michelangelo’s representation of mothers, you see a painter who is very different than the man who does those iconic symbols, very different than the sculptor who did the Pieta — a man who has a remarkably fresh, original view of motherhood that looks like he’s standing in a street of Florence.”

A lighting system installed a year ago revealed that these women were painted with careful attention to detail, despite being painted quickly — a necessity of the fresco method, where paint is applied to wet plaster. They’re in fashionable attire and are interacting with their young children — one is breastfeeding and rocking a cradle with her foot, and another juggles three children, including one who has climbed on her back. Most of the men, by contrast, are engaged in leisure activities — reading, reclining or sleeping.

Other women in the chapel include sibyls, Old Testament heroines, Eve in the ceiling’s creation sequences and martyrs in the Last Judgment. Rather than being monolithically athletic, their features and builds vary, as do their expressions and characteristics, Lev showed.

Lev highlighted the contrast between Michelangelo’s depictions of the biblical heroines Judith and Esther. Michelangelo places Judith in the center of the image with strong arms and shoulders. Esther, on the other hand, is tucked in the background, demure with a childlike face. Both women were equally influential in their times, but demonstrated different virtues, Lev said, which is what she thinks the artist conveyed.

In the Last Judgment, which occupies the wall behind the chapel’s altar, women do have athletic, masculine builds. This was a symbolic choice, Lev argued; the artist was trying to convey character and religious strength through powerful physiques.

Lev noted that attention and variety in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel women point to the complementarity he understood existed between the sexes and strove to convey in his art.

Lev anticipates her research will culminate in a book, her fourth since 2011. She’s also authored “The Tigress of Forli: The Remarkable Story of Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici” (2011), “Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches” with George Weigel (2013) and “A Body for Glory: Theology of the Body in the Papal Collections” (2014).

Her love of art history has roots in her childhood, she told The Catholic Spirit in an interview the day after her lecture. She was captivated by the stories, and as a teacher, she narrates the art in its context, which, she said, includes theology.

She remembers one of her graduate school instructors telling her cohort that art historians have the hardest job; they have to know everything — what artists ate, what music they listened to, what the crops were like in a certain year. Lev said that she didn’t like astrophysics as an undergraduate, but said it would be useful for some of her research.

“Art by its very nature is interdisciplinary, and my biggest beef with art history is that anytime you try to close it off from any other discipline, especially theology [or] Church history, you’ve hobbled it,” she said. “There is no subject that will not, in some way or another, become useful in understanding the visual expression of the human experience of the world, and its spirituality and creative genius that is art.”

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Category: Faith and Culture