Ribera's 'Bearded Woman'

December 13 2016

Image of Ribera's 'Bearded Woman'

Picture: Web Gallery of Art

I never knew the story of Ribera's painting of Magdalena Ventura. Jonathan Jones has written about it in The Guardian:

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.

Ventura’s husband, standing behind her right shoulder, looks less of a man than she does. His beard is smaller, his physique slighter. Ribera captures the fact that he is overshadowed by his wife’s fame, for Magdalena’s defiance of 17th century images of womanhood made her a celebrity in Italy. She came from Abruzzi where, according to the inscription on a stone slab in Ribera’s painting, she gave birth to three sons before her beard suddenly grew when she was 37 years old. In the painting she is 52.

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