michelangelos sexuality

The Devil is a Woman

Michelangelo’s Sexuality

...painting does not consist entirely in creating naked men....


If you want to know what young male body builders would look like if they got breast implants, just look at the sculpture and painting of Michelangelo. As Botticelli could be regarded as feminizing the males he painted, so Michelangelo’s females are in fact men in drag – a not inconsiderable accomplishment since they are nude. Michelangelo brought this off by simply attaching breasts to men’s bodies (He drew most of his female figures using male anatomical models) - uncomfortable bocci balls sitting on top of the chest muscle like a bad boob job. From a representational standpoint, Michelangelo painted and sculpted the same massive body builder over and over again in various poses and states of action and repose.

In depicting the characters of the Bible and classical antiquity that his commissions and subjects required, he did not use distinct originals to represent d’après nature. Rather Michelangelo resorted to visual signs as a form of identification and individuation. Individuating signs were already in common use by artists. The most familiar such signs were the instruments of torture of various Xtian martyrs and conventional symbols associated with early Gospel writers and theologians. But, as Michelangelo chose not to represent women or even use a female type distinct from the type of the muscular youth, he used similar sorts of signs to indicate that what he was representing was a woman. Two signs, which he rarely used together, are the distinctly adolescent feminine face and exaggerated breasts. On very rare occasions, Michelangelo employed as an icon the sweetly feminine facial features and reflective expression that Raphael had made into his trademark. But instead of representing the faces of different individuals in a way as to express individual physical features and states of mind (like Raphael), Michelangelo took the form of the adolescent female face as a sign, a signifier, so to speak, that this individual was a woman. He used the face icon in the Pietà where Mary’s heavy drapery hides her breasts (By the way, even in this work, Mary’s broad shoulders and much greater mass than that of the limp Jesus, should tip us off to the fact that Michelangelo imagined the familiar body builder beneath all those folds). In many of his other Madonnas as well as in the female sculptures of the Tomb of Julius II and some of the characters on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo used what might be called the Roman matron face, a slightly fuller, harder version with the characteristic aquiline nose. The Delphic Sybil might be regarded as transitional. Wherever drapery hid the body, the face was the woman icon. In depicting older women or female nudes, Michelangelo’s woman icon was a pair of large rounded breasts with thick pointed nipples. These breasts lay as a pendant above the chest muscle like a cheap boob job, rather than growing naturally as part of the woman’s fatty tissue.

The most distinctive and original Michelangelasque female nudes are the Medici Chapel statues Night and Dawn, and the female nudes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Night and Dawn in particular are somewhat androgynous. The female identity is marked most strongly by the conventional classical heads that Michelangelo has individualized by the hairstyles. The other female sign is Dawn’s lack of a penis, (Although the space is left blank, the penis not having been replaced either by cunt hair or by a pussy despite the accurate rise and roundness of the mons veneris). The remaining body parts are definite signs of masculinity. Night’s disproportionate thighs and feet, while possible matronly characteristics, have male associations in the Western sculptural tradition. Also, her abs show a certain amount of definition overlaid with fat. Night’s impressive traps and delts, however, could only have been attained with lots of exercise and the right genetics. Dawn’s body is slimmer and nominally more feminine than Night’s. And Dawn has the broad hips and swelling lower abs associated by most artists with the female body. But Dawn also has impressive delts and visibly powerful biceps. The most complex and interesting visual image on both figures, however, is the structure made up of their chests and breasts. Night and Dawn have powerful male chests. Dawn’s right pecs in particular form a unit with her delts and biceps that can only be the result of serious exercise. But both figures have been given breast implants, geometrically rounded and separated by unaesthetically wide cleavage. Night’s breasts are highlighted by thick, tactile nipples, while Dawn lacks nipples altogether. Michelangelo set the breasts on top of the chest muscle for both figures producing an effect of ambiguity and separation, and oddly enough very much like the implants  favored by some female body builders. (Unless Michelangelo was remarkably prescient, he did not intend this structure as an example of possible purely female anatomy. His fantasy is androgyny rather than a sexual admiration of powerful feminine physiques.)

The effect can be disconcerting, as if these two allegorical figured were young men wearing masks (and boobs). Day’s rough, unfinished face has in fact a mask-like quality. And Night has her mask to the ready not far from her pussy-concealing owl. Since these are mortuary sculptures, Michelangelo may have intended something of the Unheimlichkeit of Picasso’s demoiselles.

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is structured as a grotto of dangling penises, supported by the armature of the remarkably feminine featured Ignudi scattered at architectonically significant loci like poppies in a Raphael landscape. Aside from their features, the twenty Ignudi are represented as disconcertingly feminine. Michelangelo pays great attention to their hairstyles and details like cute little hair bands are cunningly placed. Their faces almost invariably have puckered, pouty lips and some of the poses suggest self-examination in front of a mirror, while others among the young men curl up like girls are prone to do after they have administered a particularly exhausting blow job. Penises are coyly revealed and half hidden in a play of suggestive, dangling thighs. A strange counterpoint to the Ignudi comes in the form of the shadowy, often hairless male nudes in various suggestive poses that occupy the niches above the pendentives. The male nudes structure the ceiling of the chapel. They give it an armature in which to hang the various Biblical scenes on the central ceiling, framing the action and responding to the larger frame of the lunettes and pendentives. They also constitute a homosexual’s Garden of Eden with their twisting and cuddly poses redolent of pursuit and intercourse.

The genii and putti constitute an important complement to the Ignudi. It is as if these children are sexual partners in training. Michelangelo elsewhere expressed his homosexual pedophilia in the remarkable drawing, Bacchanal of Children, and he explores some of the same themes in the rectangular colonnade. Many of the infants support the architrave in the manner of mythical giants, a function that itself has sexual overtones in the contrast between the weakness of their bodies and the massiveness of the weight they support. Other poses are more explicit. Some of the genii are adorned with flowing cowls like their older counterparts. Others, particularly the genii surrounding Daniel and the Libyan and Erythraean Sybils, fondle each other and rub their penises together. Those around the Prophet Jeremiah engage in a dance of bumping butts.

The older Sibyls are what Night and Day would look like after a couple of decades of childbearing and pumping iron. Given the frame of the Ignudi and genii, it is not surprising that the Sibyls should recall the sexual inversion of the Medici chapel girl-boys, even though the aged body of the Cumaean Sibyl appears to be modeled more on Moses than Night and Day. Her massive biceps and forearms are matched by the gigantic swelling of her chest and shoulders. Her impressive, pendulous breasts are distinguished by an exaggerated left nipple nestling in a forearm. The relative size of her feet are matched by those of the Libyan Sibyl, the turn of whose toe, along with the graceful Ignudi-like dance pose, excites an undeniable sexual frisson. The Delphic Sibyl is the youngest of the lot and clearly the steroids have not yet had a chance to work their full effect on her body. Similarly, her regular features are not modeled on classical statuary like those of the Libyan Sybil, nor the bulbous-nosed, pouty lipped boy-girls of the Ignudi and the Erythraean Sybil. Rather, they strongly resemble the features of the Rome Pietà.

The Biblical scenes are the centerpiece of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, although they are enclosed and somewhat dwarfed by the much more massive framing elements as if they were in a jewel case. And Michelangelo confided some of his more daring sexual ambiguities to these scenes.  Their purpose is not largely decorative as is the case with the framing figures or even the Medici Chapel sculpture. Rather a parabolic intent is clear, whether it be allegorical or simply ironic. Michelangelo is making unmistakable comments in these scenes. For example, God’s burst drawers and dangling butt in the scene entitled The Creation of Plants gives humorous meaning to the vision of delightful boys that surrounds him. God is ready for a good gravity-free ass-fucking. No doubt he’s looking forward to that seventh day when, having created the universe, he can now sit back and bugger all.

The point is not quite so obvious in one of the more mysterious renderings of the ceiling, namely the divine embrace of an at least partially nude female. This complex icon must be read together with the better known portion of the group, viz. the moment of Adam’s Creation. Adam’s languid pose is charged with a sort of feminine sexuality as if he were awaiting penetration by God’s seed (as if indeed something like sex caused the creation of Eve). Reposing on one elbow and timidly bending a single knee, Adam’s compositional counterpart is not David but the Venetian odalisque. His tiny penis also has a feminizing effect. In this light, the meeting of the two index fingers is not a Creation (Adam is fully formed) so much as a sort of sexual caress. But pan right and you also see God’s arm around a topless blonde. The identity of the blonde is unclear (Cf. Wallace p. 45). She could be Eve or she could be Mary. If she were Eve, then the composition would have an iconic unity. Conventional attitudes gravitate against identifying her as Mary. This would most likely be the first sexualized representation of Mary (Other depictions of her exposed breast show her lactating). If she were Mary, on the other hand, the identity of the child to her left would also be explained. In the end there’s not much in favor of identifying her as Mary except the sexual thrill we feel at finally seeing her shadowy nipples properly identified instead of, say, analogically as in Botticelli’s Venus.

Adam is indistinguishable from the choir of Ignudi.  He reaches out to offer God his sexual favors. In response God turns away from the woman while she remains in his embrace. The Creation of Adam is merged in meaning with a pre-coital touching of the fingertips. Adam’s drowsy stretching has can be read as either the newborn – though fully formed – human, and the cute just awakened and still drowsy athlete, ready for the embraces of the bearded older male. Those videos and detail photos, which force us to begin with the moment of God and Adam touching figures and work back to discover the woman, actually go against the grain of the action which is outward from the woman towards Adam. It is a turning away from the woman, still locked in an absent-minded embrace, and towards the young male.

Assuming the blonde is Eve, then her hideous physical transformations weave a fascinating symbolic theme through Michelangelo’s parabolic representation of the Bible stories. The Eve in God’s arms is one of the few Michelangelesque women who does not have bulging biceps (even though one would certainty not describe her as willowy). Also her hair is done up neatly in a chignon, her eyes are alert and her make-up is fresh. When we turn to the scene of her emergence from Adam’s flank, we see that Eve has put on a few pounds and several layers of muscle. The only thing that distinguishes her from an Ignudo is her bulging lower belly and giant butt that reaches right up to her rib cage. The once neat hair is now frayed and disheveled and her nose has grown mysteriously aquiline. In the temptation scene Eve has changed again. Eve is now more buff than ever, but to compensate for that, her hair is back in place and her nipples are large and juicy. (By the way, Eve’s pose in reaching toward the serpent is a beautiful mirror image of the finger touching scene from the creation of Adam.) Adam’s penis, while still laughably small, is at least erect and disturbingly close to Eve’s right ear. The final gray Eve, cast forth from the Garden, is again disheveled and aquiline with a look of low cunning to accompany Adam’s more seemly pained expression. The muscles are still there but the torso is more thickset, particularly around the abdomen. There is something strange about this fallen figure, however. The head, depicted in nearly complete left profile, is twisted almost completely around in extreme counterpoise to the direction the rest of her body is facing. In addition, it is sunk much too low; it is as if her neck were attached part way down her chest. Her arms and thighs are nearly as large as Adam’s (Her wrists are larger). What we see is the headless and penis-less body of a faded middle-aged boxer. Hovering in front of it is the profile of a scheming crone. Picasso would have been proud.

In this sequence Michelangelo seems to express a kind of delight in the degradation of the female body. His reciprocal delight in the flowering youths mirrors his triumph at the corruption Eve’s beauty, as if he thereby disposed of a threatening rival. There is not in fact much misogyny in Michelangelo’s other works, just a delight in disguising even female characters as luscious young men. The Genesis sequence, however, comes closest to betraying a misogynistic pleasure. The companion icon to Eve’s physical degradation is Michelangelo’s representation of the devil as a woman with flowing hair and dangling breast who reaches out in a gesture that replays God’s creation gesture. It is almost too obvious, but nevertheless quite likely that the devil’s flowing tail is a fantasy of the female penis. Depicting the devil/serpent endowed with a tail/penis as a woman rises to the level of concetto and is clearly meant to shock and amuse.

The Genesis sequence murmurs Michelangelo’s otherwise repressed negative feelings towards women: Women are threatening rivals for the favors of beautiful young men. Michelangelo’s visual fantasy consists not only in the creation of an image of the perfectly lovely young man, but also in the representation of the corruption and wasting away of female flesh. Hideous and aged, she is no longer a rival and no longer a threat. As if to underscore his fantasy victory Michelangelo depicts the devil as a woman, emphasizing thereby that the victory over the devil is likewise a victory of over the feminine.

There is the same sort of representational awkwardness in two of the three recognizably female nudes in The Deluge. The body of the woman on the little rocky outcrop to the right is twisted in a sort of right-left counterpoise while her head faces straight at the viewer like a sort of anguished Medusa.  Indeed, even though the light shines strongly on the right side, her face maintains a curious flatness and frontality, a sort of mask-like quality. The other two women on the bit of dry land are the by now familiar body builders in drag. One has exhausted breasts, presumably signifying age. The only signs that Michelangelo intended the other one to be a woman at all are the curious hairdo and the clinging children. This character also has her head twisted around and lowered onto her pecs. The twist in this case is in the opposite direction from that of the aged Eve.

The Catherine of Alexandria figure from The Last Judgment is of the same ilk. She is so muscular that the spiked wheel she is readying to hurl at Jesus must have snapped in two in the course of her torture. Michelangelo does not feel obliged to make even a passing attempt to depict Catherine as a woman, outside of her hair and soccer ball boobs. She has the thoroughly masculine face of a petulant Ignudo and outrageously defined delts and biceps. (Catherine is one of several figures re-painted by Danielle da Volterra when puritanism became fashionable after the Council of Trent. He covered her hulking body with a sort of green chastity garment. Unfortunately Blaise, standing behind her was also repainted to look at Jesus instead of Catherine. The result is that Catherine’s hostile glance is aimed straight at the anointed one instead of Blaise. Incidentally da Volterra also gave Bartholomew a breakaway thong bikini to hide his penis thereby confusing the sexual symbolism of Michelangelo’s self-portrait, a potent icon of the way any man would have felt who had masturbated as much as Michelangelo must have – almost as potent as the image of Minos’ penis chewed off by that resurrected snake.)

While Michelangelo depicted a profusion of penises, he hardly ever showed cunt even in an abstracted way. Phalluses hang down like stalactites from the Sistine Chapel ceiling (particularly those of the Ignudi) almost demanding a stalagmitic response from the assembled Cardinals below. The Windsor Fall of Phaeton is one of the few works where Michelangelo may have drawn full frontal pussy, though even that is unclear; the pussies are either swollen with great emotion or covered with something. Notwithstanding both this drawing and the British Museum version exhibit really bad boob jobs and a continuing obsession with muscular biceps. It is curious that most artists from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century showed what today we would consider to be shaved vaginas. Biologically the pussy is often located so low that even in photographs we do not see the slit unless the model is angled upwards. So the plain non-hairy vaginal area could just as well be a realistic representation as a pudicious abstraction. Our experience of shaved pussy is that it is a recent innovation. But could women have shaved their pussies in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as well? Indeed outrageous hairiness – beards, mutton chop whiskers, butt-length tresses – was something of a nineteenth century phenomenon. If the view that Renaissance artists did not show the pussy, but rather abstracted it is correct, then why did Michelangelo, just like other artists, so often bend the leg of his females to hide their pussies? And why should realistic representations of the penis be OK? (One occasion where the representation of a penis – in this case Jesus’ penis – was not OK is The Risen Christ in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome. The loincloth is a later addition and the unhidden penis is almost never shown even today. The principal reason of course is that representations of Jesus’ penis was blasphematory, while representations of mere mortals’ penises - or God’s butt – was not. Digging a little deeper, we find that there was a mediaeval practice that depicted penises on devils. Their members were hidden by a cloth skirt placed on statues in many English churches. If you lift the same skirt on statues of God, angels and saints, you will find a shaved pussy. Michelangelo’s blasphemy in The Risen Christ defies this convention)

Some of Michelangelo’s sexual imagery plays with what today would be considered perversion, but the visual evidence, most notably the manner of representation, suggests that Michelangelo did not consider these fantasies as perversions so much as sexual variations. For example, God’s exposed rear in the Creation of Plants scene from the Sistine Chapel, with its allusion to anal penetration, was likely not intended nor read by his contemporaries as blasphemy (Indeed, if it were, da Volterra would certainly have had an extra commission). I would speculate that it represents no more than Michelangelo’s identification of homosexual and religious ecstasy. Likewise the Bacchanal of Children may be paedophilic but paedophilia may not have been considered a perversion in Italian society as late as Plüschow. Certainly the relief-like assemblage of intertwining bodies recalls The Battle of the Centaurs as does the tone of festive violence. The striking images of the dead horses and the aged female satyr place this remarkable drawing on a level with the heterosexual pornography of I Modi.

Superficially Michelangelo’s iconography consists in scenes from Xtian mythology. At a somewhat more sophisticated level it realizes Biblical stories visually by means of the image of the body inherited from the Hellenistic tradition and transformed by Michelangelo’s personal taste for massiveness. In the end, however, what is important about Michelangelo’s iconography is not the narrative portion, but the representations themselves. At a level that Michelangelo – good papist that he was – may not have intended, the Biblical tales were an excuse for the real story which was simply the male body in various forms of sexual attractiveness. Michelangelo’s male nude fantasy is not a story or a narrative and certainly not an allegory. It is simply an image, or a structured assemblage of images. But it has as much iconographic coherence as the Xtian scenes that are his ostensible subject. The iconography of the male nude fantasy is not a subtext or a metalinguistic message. It is not a text that uses the units of the primary story as a way of communicating a non-explicit message. Nor is it a hidden meaning not obvious to the viewer that has to be teased out by scholarship and ingenuity. Rather, it is the most obvious meaning; it undergoes a process whereby it is veiled by the Biblical narrative. An individual who did not know the Biblical stories would see the male nude fantasy without hermeneutic or critical help. In this way seeing the male nude fantasy recalls the phenomenological injunction of zu den Sachen selbst, which may be roughly translated as “Just look.”

Certainly Michelangelo’s overt iconography is almost exclusively Xtian, differing in this respect significantly from Botticelli, Titian and even Raphael who all devoted major works to classical subjects. Michelangelo was almost unique among High Renaissance and later artists in concentrating on religious subjects. This was not entirely due to the nature of his commissions since Raphael was also a favorite of the Popes and Michelangelo received numerous commissions from secular sources. Michelangelo did very few Classical scenes and almost no portraits (The portraits he did do were of historical figures, such as the bust of Brutus.) The commonplace is that Michelangelo made Biblical figures into Greek gods. It is more accurate to say that he made them nudes. In this sense he treated Biblical figures in a Hellenistic manner; but the comparison stops at the nudity. The source of his focus on Biblical subject matter is much more likely to lie in religious faith, as attested in his Sonnets. How does that work together with the male nude fantasy? Is it that Michelangelo could interpret (and give imageistic flesh to) male homosexuality as a kind of sublimated sexuality in a way reminiscent of Florentine Neoplatonism? Perhaps he identified spiritual ecstasy with the non-earthly, non-breeding nature of homosexuality.

As far as painting and sculpture was concerned at least, the Florentine-Roman Renaissance was very little different from the Dark Ages. Nearly everything they touched was sullied by the filth of Xtian myth. Noble male nudes and invitingly sexual female nudes were abased as Biblical figures. (In contrast Titian picked up on Botticelli’s promise of the sweet excuse of classical allegory, an excuse that pretty much had to do until the invention of photography.)

Michelangelo was not the first artist to create a personal iconography in work apparently about public and non-personal subjects. His project was not only to infuse the Xtian myth with classical visual imagery, he overlay both with a personal fantasy of Edenesque fleshy delights populated by athletic young men. Hell, as his purported self-portrait from the Last Judgment seems to imply, is the exhaustion of the flesh post coitum. As with most artists from the Xtian era, we need to tease out the real iconography from behind the façade of Xtian symbols.

Michelangelo’s preferred physical type is also integral to the sexual narrative. His image of the nude and the personages he applied it to represents a notable departure from previous traditions. He veered sharply away from the Gothicizing tendencies of the early Renaissance. Botticelli’s figures and Donatello’s men were slim and willowy, a vision that, in Botticelli’s case, worked particularly well with his sinuously linear style of painting. They also carried forward an image of the human body and of humanity. The sickly pale nudes of the Middle Ages were most likely symbols of the mortified flesh and the pre-eminence of a realm of pure thought over the sensible world. They also look like they have been trapped all their lives in heavy folds of nunnish clothing. Nudity is not their natural state. They long to re-don the gown and wimple. The nudes of the early Renaissance carry forward this physical state but with a new feeling that nudity is a natural state. They look like they have been freed from their clothing, not caught in an unusual state of undress. The slim bodies of the early Renaissance are awakening adolescents, not matrons shriveled by years of wearing heavy drapery. The Greco-Roman nude was obviously more robust. But the bodily type represented was a more true to life type of Olympic athletes and Athenian hookers. The exaggeratedly bulky torso was reserved for depictions of Hercules, as a sort of icon of his unnatural strength. Michelangelo’s source for the nude is the classical Hercules. He made a significant iconic change, however, in that he depicted all his subjects (or nearly all), women and men, with giant Herculean bodies. This corresponded, I think, with his personal vision of sublimity. It was not the mediaeval sublimity of mind liberated from a shriveled body. Rather it was a physical sublimity or religiosity represented by superhuman, nearly impossible, bulk and musculature. (It is intellectually interesting that we can now produce Michelangelo’s fantasy images in real people with advances in exercise, diet and even the use of steroids.)

Nevertheless Michelangelo largely ignores the Hellenic examples of the female form. He also pretty much trashes the classical model of the nude athlete. His men – even David and the Ignudi - are much more massive. They not only have additional bulk, their muscles are also much more fully bloated and articulated. (Michelangelo’s exceptionalism gives us reason to suspect Clark’s reasoning that post classical artists distorted the nude because of a too-close adherence to classical and Vitruvian canons of the human form. One might say that the Vitruvian architectural canon is itself an intentional distortion.)

Style issues in Michelangelo’s art, I believe, are rather subordinate to the iconological reading I just sketched. It is a commonplace that Michelangelo’s style is a prime example of the linear Italianate or Florentine style vs. the painterly Northern or coloristic Venetian styles. Whatever may be the implications for how Florentine painters and Michelangelo in particular viewed the world from their stylistic choices alone, there are clear practical consequences for Michelangelo’s art from his illustrational, almost cartoon-like linearity. Michelangelo’s extreme linearity in particular renders him virtually incomparable to any painter who used more shading or sfumato than he did. The linearity serves Michelangelo’s role as an illustrator on a grand scale. The result is that the depicted narrative is unequivocal. Bodies, actions and events are clearly delineated for more immediate comprehension by the viewer. The style serves the centrality of the narrative in a way that it does not in, say Titian or Rubens.

Various faggoty art historians have come up with elaborate theories to explain Michelangelo’s cross dressed nudes in terms more acceptable over high tea at the faculty club: he was suppressing sensual for Platonic love, he wanted to create a positive lesbo-lefty image of Renaissance women etc. They all pretty much ignore the fact that Michelangelo was probably masturbating like a maniac while he was painting and sculpting both men and women.  I suspect that a chemical analysis of the Sistine Chapel ceiling might yet find traces of his sperm.

Homosexual art and literature is admirable in that it slashes through convention and brings raw sexuality bluntly to the fore as the central theme in culture. Michelangelo pioneered this vigorous and ruthless sexuality. Heterosexuals can learn from homosexual daring and dare to make heterosexuality as powerful a sexual theme as its counterpart. Some of Michelangelo’s heterosexual contemporaries made gestures in that direction. His innovations in representational techniques of homosexual pornography, viz. the feeling of athleticism and vigorous motion, were readily adapted by Raphael in his Galatea, a painting that takes its place along with Botticelli’s Venus as one of the signal achievements of Renaissance heterosexual pornography. In the current cultural malaise where heterosexuality has been effectively driven out of high culture, an intense and blasphemous heterosexual counterattack would be much welcome.