Gender Maneuvers from Michelangelo

Don’t mess with a prophetess. At least not the ones portrayed by Michelangelo because you might get your ass kicked. One of the many highlights of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is his depiction of the Libyan Sibyl, female prophet of classical mythology. Let’s take a look at it:

Now let’s take a look at Michelangelo’s preparatory sketch for the Libyan Sibyl:

Ok, what’s wrong with this picture? Anybody? Yeah, it’s pretty obvious. The model for the sketch was clearly a male. One of Michelangelo’s studio assistants to be exact.

Before I get to my main theme, I just want to point out that the pose of the Libyan Sibyl, especially as it’s represented in the final painting, really rocks. Amazing. The strength and movement just jumps right out at you, and the contrapposto twist in the shoulders oozes motion. It showcases the human body in a truly extraordinary way. Active, assertive, but still beautiful and elegant. Throw in the the pivot and pressure coming from the left big toe (also practiced in the drawing as you can see) and you have a stunning image. Look at the angles and the architecture. Great, great pose.

Michelangelo’s attraction to the male form, both aesthetically and emotionally, is fairly common knowledge. But even if we put aside Michelangelo’s homosexuality, we know that the male figure was widely regarded as the height of beauty during the Renaissance period, far superior to that of the female. Michelangelo was certainly not the only artist of the age to employ only male models, but we can infer that he derived extra special pleasure from the experience.

With all due respect for art history, the great masterpieces, and gifted genuises like Michelangelo, I’m going to segue into a terribly superficial mindset, so please forgive me in advance. Maybe it’s because I’m female AND an art model. Or maybe I was swayed by a bawdy remark made by one of my artist friends a couple of years ago, who said that female figures in Renaissance art “all look like male stone masons in the nude with a pair of tits slapped on”. Yes, that provoked many a chuckle when it was uttered, and I was one of several people who were in earshot. When artists express opinions, they can be pretty blunt! But still his basic premise was accurate. Let’s face it. That old practice of using men as models for female figures produced a lot of art in which the women look, well, let’s just say “butch”. Somewhat “estrogen-deprived”. A little “gender dysmorphic”. You get the idea.

Michelangelo painted a total of five Sibyls in the fresco. Here is the Erythraean Sibyl. Remember, the Sibyls are female:

The Delphic Sibyl:

The Cumaean Sibyl:

No, no, no, I’m sorry. That last one is way over the top. That shit ain’t right. Michelangelo is just messing with our heads with the Cumaean. That’s just . . . just . . . wrong! What the hell is going on there?? That IS a stone mason!

Now I have had many unorthodox things done with my body – and then I became an art model. (naughty joke alert! HAHAHAHA!). No really, I’ve seen myself depicted in less than realistic ways, with artists’ hands taking freestyle liberties with my body parts. But I always appear female. Also, I’ve seen beginning artists toil away, trying to learn the differences between male and female anatomy, and reflect them in their drawings – those key places which hold the physical characteristics of the genders: shoulders, waist, hips. And then here’s Michelangelo scoffing at all of it, paying no mind to those characteristics and distinctions. He says to us, “Even though I used a male model from life this is a female, and you will accept it! Case closed”.

In concluding this post I will faithfully stay within my superficial mindset, and assert that while probably no artist in history depicted the male figure better than Michelangelo, females not so much. But when Michelangelo’s males are supposed to be male, they are sublime. And his own intimate love and admiration for the male form can be profoundly felt by all who view his masculine creations. There are so many amazing male figures in the Sistine Chapel, but my personal favorite has always been Adam:

Study for Adam:

17 thoughts on “Gender Maneuvers from Michelangelo

  1. Jeff says:

    It’s funny, I’ve made the same comments about Renaissance female nudes myself, but never thought of them as having breasts slapped on so much as handle-less teacups. They don’t respect gravity, and they are clearly not masses that are affected by gravity the way breasts are.

    But I don’t think you can go so far as to say that Michelangelo couldn’t do the female form justice. The Madonna of his pietá, though you can’t see much of the body, is clearly female and a very attractive female. There’s no way you would confuse her for a male.

    Dawn and Night in the Tomb of the Medici are, though not as sublime as the Pietá, clearly female, though the breasts are still wrong for the poses, and there are parts that appear more masculine, like the muscle tone in the thighs of dawn, but they are clearly more feminine than masculine.

    I think your point is well made, and there’s no doubt that Michelangelo was very much smitten with the male form, but there’s another factor to be taken into account: Artists in the 16th century in this part of Europe generally didn’t have access to female models at all. For faces and portraits, yes, but not for figures. There’s a whole lot of sociological issues you could go into there, but it’s not fair to hold those against Michelangelo. For an artist, like Michelangelo, without much first hand exposure to the female form or much interest in the subject, it’s not surprising that his female creations were often somewhat masculine.

  2. artmodel says:


    I love “handle-less teacups”! That’s funny. And it describes them so much better.

    You raised an interesting point about Michelangelo’s female forms in SCULPTURE. I wonder why he was able to create them better in stone than in drawings and paintings?

    I am aware that female figure models were not widely available during the Renaissance. I mentioned it briefly in the post. But honestly, I’m not convinced that Michelangelo would have used them even if they were available and accepted. He had, unfortunately, a real contempt for women. Some quotes from him about women are pretty harsh, so I’m not sure if Michelangelo deserves a pass for his female figure drawing skills just because he didn’t have access to a female model. Having nothing to do with him being homosexual, Michelangelo was a plain old sexist. Who knows if he lost much sleep over whether his female nudes looked authentic. His opinion of women was quite low.

    Michelangelo’s contemporary, Raphael, did begin to use female models in his later years. So it was possible, albeit not common.

    The whole topic of this post made me giggle a little bit because I wondered how most men would feel if some female artist repeatedly portrayed them looking like women? Of the men I know, I can tell you it wouldn’t go over very well! And no amount of explanation as to the artist’s reason or circumstances would assuage their discomfort. Imagine male figures with feminine hips, breasts, etc? And imagine everyone being forced to perceive them as male, regardless of how jarring it is? And like I mentioned in my post, as an art model who puts her nude body on display constantly, I do expect that, at the very least, my GENDER be acknowledged. It’s not something about me that is up for modification.

    Thanks for commenting, Jeff! Hope you’re getting back to your sculpting.


  3. Claudia, you are right Michelangelo could have got it right if he had wanted to. I’ve had my say about this over on 100swallows.

  4. Jeff says:


    I’m not going to argue that Michelangelo was fond of women or had a progressive attitude about them. Very few men of the day were what we would call feminists. I think he was more disinterested in women than anything, I don’t think he actively disliked them and I don’t see his attitude as particularly noteworthy for the time. There may be some seemingly misogynistic statements from him, but if you’ve read any of his correspondence with Vittoria Colonna, it’s clear that there were some (possibly very few, but some) women whom he admired and respected.

    Personally, I’ll gladly acknowledge your gender – I’m rather fond of your gender, to be completely honest and I also understand your point, I’m just hesitant to judge historical figures too harshly about topics on which their opinion is fairly representative of contemporary values. Women were not, generally speaking, given much in the way of rights, nor were they widely respected at the time. The male figure was considered to have more value at the time, and was even considered more beautiful even by men, something I find completely strange and hard to fathom since even the most beautifully rendered male figure is less beautiful to me than a female figure (but that’s just my bias showing, probably). There were always, of course, artists who adored the female form; but they weren’t necessarily any more progressive, and you could argue that some of them were worse in their actual treatment of women – real women who existed at their time, not women who would exist a half millennium in the future.

    Honestly, even through the end of the nineteenth century, female figures were often done with some masculine traits, especially broader shoulders. Teacup breasts can be found even in some of Rodin’s sculptures. His early females were nowhere near as impressive as his early male sculptures. Later in life, he became much better at the female form. There’s no evidence that Rodin disliked women. In fact, he had a problem in that he seemed to like them too much, yet his early female figures are reminiscent of Michelangelo’s (though that was probably partially due to the fact that Rodin adored Michelangelo’s work and traveled to Italy to study his sculptures).

    As for your final point, I wouldn’t be particularly offended if someone tried to represent me with feminine traits, although I honest think I’d make a very ugly woman. It might make an interesting experiment, but I’m skeptical that it would result in an aesthetically appealing final product.

    I don’t find Michelangelo’s females, especially those on the Sistine Chapel ceiling to be particularly attractive, and I agree that he certainly had the ability to make them more feminine if he had wanted to, I’m just not sure it’s fair to judge someone based on social standards from 500 years after he lived.

    As for your final comment, no I haven’t returned to sculpting yet, but thanks for asking. My book is almost done – I’m working on the last chapter now. When it’s done, I’ll hopefully return to a normal schedule that allows time for sculpting.

  5. artmodel says:

    Robert, thanks! Agreed. And I remember your comments over at Best Artists. Always good discussion over there.

    What bothers me also about this whole thing is that in a case like the Sistine Chapel where Michelangelo is depicting Biblical stories, many of which contain women, he creates plain old confusion with his male/female figures. In some scenes you can’t even tell who’s who! It looks like a bunch of macho bodies all thrown together, and that compromises the narrative a bit.


  6. artmodel says:


    I love all your comments and I take them seriously, always. But I must confess you have me cracking up laughing about you being depicted with feminine traits, and how you’d make a “very ugly woman”! I bet you’d still look more attractive than Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in “Some Like it Hot”. Or Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie”!


  7. Please forgive me over this but I have not changed my opinion of ‘Mich’ since my first sighting of his works when my parents returned from Italy in 1961. I just can’t see why he is so revered and as a man I do not find the male figure that beautiful. From the point of ‘form’ yes, interesting, wonderful, may be.

    The almost ‘God Like’ adoration given to Michelangelo is in my view misplaced and many sculptors out stripped his skill. I acknowledge only that he was a great sculptor and painter of his time.

    Half of humanity he left out completely.

    Jeff said above

    “Artists in the 16th century in this part of Europe generally didn’t have access to female models at all. For faces and portraits, yes, but not for figures”.

    Is that strictly true? Probably not completely.

    “There’s a whole lot of sociological issues you could go into there, but it’s not fair to hold those against Michelangelo. For an artist, like Michelangelo, without much first hand exposure to the female form or much interest in the subject, it’s not surprising that his female creations were often somewhat masculine”.

    There may be some truth in what Jeff says here, but I am not convinced; if Michelangelo had wanted to do a good female form he would have found away, from the little I know about him he was not too afraid of doing his own thing despite powerful opposition and conventions.

    (I do sympathise however with the many young men who went to their deaths in the Great War of 1914-18 having seen nothing more that what was on show in the Nation Gallery and a naughty French post card or two. Such is the puritanical society.)

    The Virgin Mary in Michelangelo’s Pieta is an acceptable female face (much too young but that’s another issue) not to my mind especially beautiful, so as Jeff says he could do it.

    There are plenty of paintings by other Artists of the time, Leonardo, Raphael and others were able to produce passable female forms which vary in actuate femininity. (See my post for examples on my blog)

    For what it is worth I do not believe ‘Mich’ wanted to paint or sculpt women.

    (If you were to look at my little library of sculpture/Art books, Mich and Rodin are over represented with 8 and 6 respectively, such is the misplaced adoration for these two sculptors!)

  8. Bill says:

    Not all Renaissance artists portrayed female figures in a masculine way. For example, look at Raphael or Van Eyck. However, there is a tendency throughout the history of art to regard the male form as the norm in anatomy, and the female form as a variation. You can even see this in some contemporary art anatomy texts. I’m not sure why this is – perhaps it comes from the prominence of male figures in history painting.

  9. artmodel says:


    Nice to hear from you. Yes, I mentioned Raphael in one of my comments. Unlike Michelangelo he used actual female models for female figures. What a concept!

    I have no doubt that the male form was chauvinistically considered superior, or the “norm”. But it’s the “norm” for the male figure! There is no “norm” when there are two different sexes. The male can’t be the “norm” for ALL human bodies. It’s difficult for me to keep making excuses for Renaissance artists who flagrantly disregarded anything female, and made such a distinct and emphatic point that everything male is superior, and women are beneath their acknowledgement.

    I think that Michelangelo was just unwilling – or unable- to paint a figure unless he was sexually attracted to it. And that’s fine for subjects of his choosing. But in the case of the Sistine Chapel, he was obligated to depict Bible stories which contain women. And throughout, you can barely distinguish the females from the males. It’s confusing.

    It’s hard to rationalize an artist who ignores, or holds with disdain, an entire half of the human race, especially since I am a member of that half. Just my humble opinion.

    Thanks for commenting, Bill.



    From my sense I never seen this type of artist work in this century of artisture! The great artist has not require any comments. masterpieces !
    Thanks to your all of your stuffs.


  11. J.Randall says:

    Consider this; if he could’ve depicted believable women, wouldn’t he? Also recognize the fact that he did not consider himself a painter, but a sculptor. He did not deviate from the familiar.

    • artmodel says:

      J. Randall,

      I like to think that if he could have then he would have. Why not, right? But it seems odd that he was able to do it so well with one gender and not even adequately with the other. Unless it was a deliberate act on his part, and a reflection of his dismissive and disdainful attitude toward women, who, by his own admission, were an inferior life form for art. Artists have been known, after all, to reveal their own personal bigotries and biases through their art.

      But an important point about Michelangelo’s firm belief that he was, first and foremost, a sculptor. Many people forget that.

      Thank you so much for commenting! I hope you do again.


  12. Annahh says:

    This is great!
    I am doing a doc on many types of jobs people commonly don’t know much about, working title is “odd jobs”, I am starting with interviewing art models which is very accessible to me since I am one. Would you be willing be involved? I am based in Philly but starting with audio recordings only so if you are far off we could do a phone thing-



  13. Gary says:

    I am surprised nobody mentioned the Church in this discussion. The Catholic Church has historically favoured men over women in every way. There is always lust in the air, but lust for women was seen as divisive and something to avoid.

  14. Zulu Lala says:

    You should read this:
    In short: it was fashion at the time, masculine females were seen as better looking.
    But I have to argue against sculpture looking better.. I mean, Night has the same body as David!

  15. In Shakespeare’s time, not long after Michealangelo’s time, men played women on stage. A rather pervasive predilection for men over women.

    As a male life model, I’ve said that I was probably born 400-500 years too late. But if I was just going to be rendered as a woman, perhaps now is a really better time. Though not as much work. Perhaps in another 500 years, the pendulum will swing the other way. Or, better yet, just stop in the middle and let everyone model!

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