A GENUINE MIRACLE OF NATURE * La Mujer Barbuda by Jusepe de Ribera

Since returning from our fabulous four day SpainLifestyle Renaissance Road Trip, lots of my friends and colleagues have been asking me as to what was the highlight of this trip?

While there were lots of personally funny highlights, from an artistic and academic point of view, I suppose it was finally being able to get up close and personal to the painting La Mujer Barbuda by Jusepe de Ribera at the Prado Museum in Madrid. It had recently been moved to the Prado from the Museo Fundación Lerma at the Hospital de Tavera in Toledo.

Essay by Karla Darocas, Hons.B.A. for SpainLifestyle.com  
Copyright KarlaDarocas.com

Ribera created this work in 1631, as a commission for the Viceroy of Naples, Fernando Afán de Ribera y Enríquez (1583-1637), who was a collector of academic and scientific wonders. This painting was part of his personal inventory but was sold in Genoa upon his death.

Eventually, the painting passed by inheritance to the Duke of Medinaceli's collection. Then in 1808, at the beginning of the Napoleonic war, it was taken and exhibited at the Napoleon Museum in Paris.

Five years later, by order of Louis XVIII, the painting was returned to Spain, although it was not until 1829 when it was recovered by its rightful owners and once again became the property of Medinacile collection.

Full painting


The Viceroy of Naples, upon learning of the existence of a bearded woman living not too far away, personally invited her to his palace in Naples to be portrayed by his favourite painter -  Ribera.

This painting actually tells its own story engraved on the face of the tombstones that can be seen on the right of the frame. The long inscription written in Latin gives us many details and insights.

It is entitled "The great miracle of nature".

It goes on to say that this bearded woman was named Magdalena Ventura and she was born in Accumoli in the Italian region of Abruzzo. At the time of posing for this painting (1631) she was age of 52 and she is with her husband, Felici di Amici, and the youngest of their three children.

The text also reads that Magdalena moved to Naples at age 37 and it was at this time that her beard and body hair began to grow. She also accumulated other symptoms of masculinization such as baldness and a deep voice.

Many scholars and scientists have classified this woman as having a hormonal imbalance called hirsutism.


For those of you who have studied Ribera with me, will know that he was a stickler for reproducing nature to its purest form. This painting thus demonstrates the artist's concern to offer a truthful record of Magdalena as a phenomenon of nature, which was undoubtedly what the client wanted. Ribera’s alternate goal at the same time was also to create a work of art that would bring him some extra notoriety.

Ribera's effort to pursue a naturalistic form of super realism must have been quite awesome to the viewers of that era. Today, we are so accustomed to seeing closeups in films and photographs, but for 17th century citizens, Ribera's paintings must have really shocked their sensibilities. Heck, Ribera's paintings are still quite shocking to the senses to this day!

The technical details are of course fascinating, especially when you think about the quality of the paint brushes in this era were just horse tail hair wrapped onto a stick.

In keeping with the current Baroque trend to showcase the subject in dramatic lighting, the background is kept dark and shallow, almost neutral except for the bit of depth at the bottom.

Ribera highlights Magdalena's manliness to perfection with her long full beard, black and course and bushy eyebrows. She is as tall as her husband, who stands behind her in half shadow.

Her hands are strong as she holds her child to her breast.  On first glance, you don’t actually notice her breast, but there it is popping out of her blouse. Unlike other mothers who sit down while breastfeeding, Ribera has Magdalena standing perhaps to showcase her strength or masculine qualities.

However, Ribera does wish to reinforce to us, the viewers, that Magdalena is indeed a woman and a mother. She is portrayed in a long dress with an apron that has a trim, which is finely crocheted. She has a wedding band, worn on the index finger, which was not unusual at this time.

Finally, on the top of the tombstone on her left, our right, is a spindle with wool wrapped on it and this can only be interpreted as an emblem of feminine domesticity. However, the curiosity about this spindle is that it is placed inside a large shell.

Some critics feel that it was Ribera's way of alluding to a Greek mythological god called  Hermaphroditos, son of Hermes and Aphrodite. Perhaps it is because Magdalena reminds us of a hermaphrodite, which is an organism that has complete or partial reproductive organs and produces sex cells normally associated with both male and female sexes, like a snail, hence the shell.


Since the Renaissance, a new social strada took an interest in science and Greek and Roman mythology however by the time of the Baroque era, that viewpoint had developed a convex len that saw the world and all of its wonders of nature through the Catholic reformist mindset; hence special people were more than just scientific or mythical curiosities, they were special cases whom God had touched with a gift.

Teratology, the study of abnormalities of physiological development became fashionable and prestigious among the nobles in the 17th century. The trend was to patronize people with deviations, not on the basis of kindness from the heart, but for the status that they would bring socially. We know from the artworks of Diego Velázquez, that his royal patron Philip IV took in a lot of dwarfs.

Hence, Magdalena would have taken advantage of this trend to make money. Ribera hints at her elevated status over her husbands perhaps because she is the breadwinner of the family. Her husband is portrayed with humility and a meek smile while shadowed in a subordinate position behind her. His beard is smaller, his physique slighter. Ribera captures the fact that Magdalena’s strange style of womanhood made her a celebrity in Italy.

Not just nobles and royals, but the people of the street would pay good money to be seen with the odd and amorphous people and for a number of reasons.

Firstly, people would be thrilled by their feelings of attraction and rejection, which would come simultaneously once in the presence of a special person.

Secondly, odd people were symbolic representations of the supernatural and some were considered to be good luck charms. Dwarfs for example would allow themselves to be carried and paraded through taverns where they would charge money to drunk patrons who would kiss their feet for good fortune.

Thirdly, and the saddest fact is that the nobles and royals would seek a paid audience with a special person like Magdalena, as an ostentatious way to make a public proclamation showcasing themselves as being better, more beautiful, richer and healthier by comparison.


While standing in the Prado, and after explaining the painting La Mujer Barbuda by Jusepe de Ribera to my students, I had an extra good look at it and tried to put myself into Ribera's mindset.

At this point in his career, Ribera was considered a gifted artist by his peers and patrons, however his social status was not much different than any of the hundreds of talented craftsmen and labourers that filled Naples. He too was also classified by his special gifts from God!

Magdalena was a real person and here she stands before me, in all of her absolute originality. Ribera gave great detail to Magdalena's eyes, which are looking directly and daringly out at me. She has a demure of great dignity. She knows she is special and that she is a proud mother and wife. Her humanity rises above her oddity.

Understanding Ribera's determination to replicate nature to its truest form, I can also observe that Magdalena was a wonderful and marvelous subject for Ribera to replicate. They needed to spend time together, as this is the relationship between painter and subject and Ribera would have gotten to know her personally.

In an era of art where women were either goddesses, saints or martyrs, Ribera sees beyond the artistic and social conventions of his time. His portrait of Magdalena elevates a truth of humanism that even if someone does not fit our expectations, their uniqueness has to be recognised for what it is.

Ribera makes Magdalena immortal.