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.