Since returning from our fabulous four-day SpainLifestyle Baroque & Renaissance Road Trip, many of my friends and colleagues have asked me what the highlight of the trip was?
While there were many personal highlights, from an artistic and academic perspective, I think it was the painting La Mujer Barbuda by Jusepe de Ribera at the Prado Museum in Madrid, which I finally got to see up close. It had recently been transferred to the Prado from the Museo Fundación Lerma in the Hospital de Tavera in Toledo.
Report by Karla Ingleton Darocas, Hons.B.A. for SpainLifestyle.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 marvels. The painting was part of his personal inventory, but was sold after his death in Genoa.
Eventually, the painting passed by inheritance into the collection of the Duke of Medinaceli. In 1808, at the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars, it was taken to the Napoleon Museum in Paris and exhibited there.
Five years later, the painting was returned to Spain by order of Louis XVIII, but it was not until 1829 that it was recovered by its rightful owners and once again became part of the Medinacile collection.
THE STORY BEHIND THE PAINTING
When the Viceroy of Naples learned of the existence of a bearded woman who lived not too far away, he personally invited her to his palace in Naples to have her portrayed by his favourite painter, Ribera.
This painting actually tells its own story, which is engraved on the front of the tombstones you can see 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 called Magdalena Ventura and was born in Accumoli in the Abruzzo region of Italy. When she posed for this painting (1631), she was 52 years old. She is shown with her husband Felici di Amici and the youngest of their three children.
The text goes on to say that Magdalena moved to Naples at the age of 37 and that it was at this time that her beard and body hair began to grow. Other symptoms of masculinisation such as baldness and a deep voice also appeared in her.
Many scholars and scientists have classified this woman as having a hormonal imbalance called hirsutism.
Those of you who have studied Ribera with me know that he wanted to reproduce nature in its purest form. So this painting shows the artist's desire to render Magdalena truthfully as a natural phenomenon, which was undoubtedly the client's wish. At the same time, however, Ribera also wanted to create a work of art that would bring him additional fame.
Ribera's ambition to pursue a naturalistic form of super-realism must have been quite impressive to viewers of the time. Today we are used to seeing close-ups in films and photographs, but for the citizens of the 17th century, Ribera's paintings must have been truly shocking. Heck, Ribera's paintings are still shocking to the senses today!
The technical details are fascinating, of course, especially when you consider that the quality of brushes in that era consisted only of ponytail hair wound on a stick.
In keeping with the current Baroque trend of depicting the subject in dramatic lighting, the background is kept dark and flat, almost neutral, except for the slight depth at the bottom.
Ribera perfectly underlines Magdalena's masculinity with her long, black and natural full beard and bushy eyebrows. She is as tall as her husband, who stands in the half-shadow behind her.
Her hands are strong as she holds her child to her breast. At first glance you do not see her breast at all, but it protrudes from her blouse. Unlike other mothers who sit down while breastfeeding, Ribera leaves Magdalena standing, perhaps to show her strength or her masculine qualities.
However, Ribera wants us, the audience, to understand that Magdalena is indeed a woman and a mother. She is depicted in a long dress with an apron that has a finely crocheted border. She wears a wedding ring on her index finger, which was not unusual at that time.
Finally, at the top of the gravestone on her left, our right, is a spindle with wool wrapped in it, which can only be interpreted as a symbol of female domesticity. The curious thing about this spindle, however, is that it is inside a large shell.
Some critics believe that Ribera wanted to allude to a god of Greek mythology called Hermaphroditos, son of Hermes and Aphrodite. Perhaps it is because Magdalena is reminiscent of a hermaphrodite, i.e. an organism that has complete or partial reproductive organs and produces gametes that are normally assigned to both the male and female sex, such as a snail, hence the snail shell.
From the Renaissance onwards, a new social current became interested in science and Greek and Roman mythology. But by the time of the Baroque, this outlook had developed a convex lens that viewed the world and all its natural wonders through the Catholic Reformist mindset; therefore, special people were more than scientific or mythical curiosities, they were special cases that God had touched with a gift.
Teratology, the study of abnormalities in physiological development, became fashionable and prestigious among the nobility in the 17th century. The trend was to patronise people with abnormalities, not out of the goodness of their hearts, but because of the status they would bring to society. We know from the works of Diego Velázquez that his royal patron Felipe IV took in a lot of dwarfs.
Magdalena may therefore have benefited from this trend to make money. Ribera suggests that she has a higher status than her husbands, perhaps because she is the breadwinner of the family. Her husband is depicted with modesty and a gentle smile, while he stands in a subordinate position behind her in the shadows. His beard is smaller, his physique slimmer. Ribera captures the fact that Magdalena's strange style of femininity made her a celebrity in Italy.
Not only nobles and royals, but also people on the street would pay good money to be seen with the strange and amorphous creatures for various reasons.
Firstly, people would be thrilled by the feelings of attraction and rejection that would occur simultaneously in the presence of a special person.
Secondly, strange people were symbolic representations of the supernatural and some were considered lucky charms. Dwarves, for example, had themselves carried and paraded through taverns where they demanded money from drunken patrons who kissed their feet for good luck.
Thirdly, and most sadly, nobles and kings sought a paid audience with a special person like Magdalena so that when presented to the public side by side they would appear to be better, more beautiful, richer and healthier than others.
Standing in the Prado explaining Jusepe de Ribera's painting La Mujer Barbuda to my students, I looked at it particularly closely and tried to put myself in Ribera's mind.
At this point in his career, Ribera was considered a gifted artist by his peers and patrons. His social status, however, was not much different from that of hundreds of talented craftsmen and workers who existed in Naples. He, too, was classified by God according to his special gifts!
Magdalena was a real person and here she is before me, in all her absolute originality. Ribera has portrayed Magdalena's eyes, which look at me directly and bluntly, in great detail. She has a very dignified expression. She knows she is special and that she is a proud mother and wife. Her humanity rises above her strangeness.
Understanding Ribera's determination to portray nature in its truest form, I can also understand that Magdalena was a wonderful and great subject for Ribera. They had to spend time together because that is the relationship between painter and subject and Ribera knew her personally.
In an artistic era where women were either goddesses, saints or martyrs, Ribera sees beyond the artistic and social conventions of his time. His portrait of Magdalena uplifts a truth of humanism that even if someone does not conform to our expectations, their uniqueness must be recognised for what it is.
Ribera makes Magdalena immortal.
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