Renaissance Chicks vs. Modern Models

The Parnassus (detail 3) by Raphael

The Parnassus (detail 3) by Raphael

We’ve been studying the Renaissance lately in our homeschool, and the thought occurred to me: Why are women in Renaissance paintings so chubby?

If you google that exact question, you’ll get some interesting responses–and pictures.

I thought perhaps one response might be that in the beginnings of the Renaissance there was a resurgence in all areas of learning, including art. Renaissance artists were still experimenting and learning how to be realistic, and so perhaps they made a mistake in their amply fleshed-out women.

But aren’t the Renaissance painters the epoch, the standard of art? Everyone knows the names of Da Vinci and Michelangelo as The Greats of art. So…they couldn’t paint realistic women?

In his book How Should We Then Live?, Francis Schaeffer discusses the sculpture of “David” by Michelangelo. David‘s physique is perfect, and Schaeffer says something to the effect of, if women waited for that kind of man before they married, they’d be single forever. Why then would we think that Michelangelo wouldn’t paint the ideal woman with that kind of attention to detail?

(About now is when someone will say that So-and-So famous artist from the past was a homosexual and thus painted women in a masculine way–as I said, a google search yields various answers, and the conversation can get derailed. It’s really terrible how famous works of art and artists have been misrepresented and plundered by modern sensibilities and interpretations, as Roger Kimball argues.)

Perhaps you’ve caught a glimpse somewhere in your past of one of these kinds of Renaissance paintings, in which the women sometimes look 4-5 months pregnant, have “thunder thighs” or “hippo hips,” and fall under today’s politer terms of well-endowed, curvaceous, or matronly. You probably didn’t think of them as beautiful.

The Madonna of the Chair by Raphael

The Madonna of the Chair by Raphael

But I don’t think that the people of those times would have thought them ugly. They saw beauty in the health and fertility of women–the ability of women to fulfill their roles as mothers. Probably most people at the time lacked the money to live in a style that would pertain to the full-figured Renaissance models. An extra layer of fat around the hips might point to health and wealth rather than disgust.

Also, beauty doesn’t lie only in the eye of the beholder. Although fashions change through the years, all times have valued a beauty in women that is distinctly feminine–not too masculine in its thinness nor heaviness.

Nevertheless, today’s standards of beauty are impossible for the average matron to meet. Probably at no time in history have the standards been so manipulated. Today’s average lady has to compete in an image-controlled society with a flood of images of seemingly anorexic and implanted “women” who have been stretched, brushed, colored, improved, staged, lighted, tanned, glossed, posed, painted, dyed, and measured.  You feel like you’d have to starve yourself to “measure” up. Maybe have a couple of plastic surgeries as well.

I wonder how badly we’ve ruined the definition of beauty. The 60’s introduced a fufill-your-passions sentiment into our culture in a way that had not been there previously. Pop culture, enabled by ever-changing technology, has given us more of what we want as a society: sensuality–which means thinner and thinner role models for the average woman.

I’m not necessarily defending that people in Renaissance times thought that fat people were beautiful, nor am I defending that we should be fat today, since the Bible doesn’t defend gluttony. But I do wonder if people from those times saw pictures of beautiful women today if they’d gasp in horror and ask, “Poor creature! Has she been ill?”

Can our idea of feminine beauty be repaired, or have we so completely bought into today’s definitions of beauty that we cannot see a size 12 woman as beautiful because she’s just too full-figured? I don’t think that would be the viewpoint at any time in past history. I doubt Eve was as thin as Barbie after her seventh (or 37th?) child.

Christian women, how can we not conform to a modern definition of beauty? We do need to protect ourselves from gluttony and solacing ourselves with the tastes and pleasures of food instead of Christ, but we also need to protect ourselves from chasing after vain deceptions of the world. Don’t allow magazines’ images of beauty to cause discontent, jealousy, or wrong priorities to take over your hearts. Then encourage your daughters to prize inner beauty and a sweet, cheerful smile and bright eyes as beautiful–not a non-poochy size 0 waistline teamed with a poochy lower lip.


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About Amy

I'm Amy, a missionary wife and mother of four children, blogging about our lives and perspectives on culture in South Africa.
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3 Responses to Renaissance Chicks vs. Modern Models

  1. Pingback: Typical Homeschooling: Drop Stuff Off Your Roof | Ita Vita

  2. I never thought about that! I guess your thoughtful post made me think ;). And it made me think what a great job you are doing in teaching. I probably wouldn’t even touch Renaissance art! I need to focus on this more with my girls as my 3 oldest are already concerned if they are ‘fat’, and it’s not like they even have that health-conscious of parents!

    • Amy says:

      Thanks, Tammy! 🙂 Based on the photos I’ve seen, you can reassure your girls that they’re aren’t fat! And if you touched the Renaissance in history, you’d kinda have to touch the art, since it’s a great example of the change in thinking at that time. If you touch art appreciation at all, you’d touch Renaissance artists, because they’re the most famous–Raphael, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, etc. But thanks for the encouragement!

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