The Bearded Woman of Abruzzi: a 17th-century hero of gender fluidity

By Jonathan Jones

When Neapolitan artist Jusepe de Ribera painted local celebrity Magdalena Ventura, he turned her from a freak into an almost supernaturally powerful assertion of individuality

Gender is a fluid concept in the 21st century. Male and female are ceasing to be conceived as binary opposites. Categories of sexual identity are complex. But when Magdalena Ventura posed to be portrayed by Jusepe de Ribera in 1631, the world was in theory a much simpler and more stable place. In that age men were men and women were women – or were they?

Ribera’s painting Magdalena Ventura, also known as La mujer barbuda – The Bearded Woman – shows its subject breastfeeding her baby. This is Ribera’s none too subtle way of showing us that Ventura is anatomically a woman, for there is no sign of that in her face. Her huge, black beard makes her look like an Old Testament patriarch. Her facial features too are heavy and powerful, in other words they conform to common assumptions of what looks “masculine.” Her body is big and muscular, her hands strong and hairy. Her clothes are finely coloured but gender-neutral – again, they evoke a Biblical prophet.

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