Goddesses, queens and courtesans – the Role of Women in Renaissance Art

When someone says the words ‘Renaissance art’ to you, you may begin to think of names such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo or Raphael, or if you watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in your early days then maybe Donatello too. But when you type in ‘Renaissance Artists’ into Google, you will find a list of 51 artists, with only one being female, Sofonisba Anguissola. Who, in all honesty, I had never heard of prior to researching her after 3 years of studying art history. So, from this, how did women fit into art during the Renaissance period? How were they portrayed in certain works? From goddesses, to queens, to courtesans.

With women’s artistic input on the Renaissance art scene being somewhat limited due to the social structures of the time, women found themselves featuring as models and used as tools of inspiration for male artists trying to capture the beauty and grace of the female form. Artists as young men and boys would train in workshops to observe and study the female form in detail, creating sketches and working alongside other artists to capture the curvature of the female body. It is key to realise how women’s appearances change with the time period and how different artists portrayed them. Take Botticelli’s iconic The Birth of Venus (1485). An early Renaissance painting that went against the popular trend of realism, Botticelli idealises Venus’ body, with her anatomy being more pronounced than other female nudes. Considering that her naked form came as a shock at the time, with Christian inspiration dominating the Middle Ages causing nudity to be a rarity, it’s clear how empowering this painting really was. The scene which is similarly told by Ovid’s Metamorphoses presents the Roman goddess of love on a clam shell that is being propelled by Zephyrus, the wind god. Flowers, robes and beautiful lighting creates the perfect snapshot with inspiration stemming from classical forms (search up the Capitoline Venus (3/2BCE) and compare the two).

The shape of a woman’s body was like a trademark in Renaissance art. The positioning of the hands, feet and curvature of the torso all make a depiction of a beautiful woman, personal to the artist painting them. Arguably the most iconic instance of this is Leonardo da Vinci’s Leda and the Swan (1505-10). As the story goes, Leda, an Aetolian princess, was seduced and bedded by Zeus who disguised himself as a swan. As aforementioned, Leda’s body shape here was so emblematic and new. It’s also incredibly hard to stand exactly as she is. The poignant curve of her hip might even match the artificial bodily augmentations favoured by the aesthetically plastic celebrities of today, as it is outlined by the swan’s wing to symbolise his eagerness and physicality. Note the thickness in the outlining on her right leg and hip area. Drawing one’s eye up and down and accentuating the sleek posture and beauty of the princess.

Finally, we take a sharp turn to place Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598/99) under the spotlight. Caravaggio was the master of the macabre. Depicting gruesome scenes, filled with gore and horror. Caravaggio depicts Judith, a courtesan who seduces Holofernes and slits his throat as he lay drunk. Put it this way, you wouldn’t get a noble woman being depicted like this – the story just wouldn’t fit or be accepted. A prostitute has to do the dirty work, but she is presented with abundant conviction and concentration. The chiaroscuro, the sharp dark black behind Judith, places emphasis on this gruesome snapshot. Unlike the other two, Judith is presented as powerful, manly almost. Look at her forearms, she could definitely lift more than me. The strain in her muscles as she physically clutches Holofernes’ hair, mixed with the lack of remorse on her face allows Caravaggio to reveal that Judith is a cold-hearted killer, with looks that can literally kill.

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