The Phoenix of America

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Miguel Cabrera

All she wanted was to read, learn and write in peace without being dictated to by the misogynistic Mexican society. Juana Inés de la Cruz lived during Mexico’s colonial period when women were not allowed to attend university. Despite this, Juana educated herself through books and began writing her thoughts about love, feminism and religion. Yet, Juana could not avoid the advances of men who believed she should settle down and marry. She sought the safety of a nunnery, which allowed her to continue writing until her opinions upset (male) members of the clergy. This is the story of the first feminist in the Americas, the “Phoenix of America”, who rose from the ashes of “religious authoritarianism”.

Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana was born on 12th November 1648 in the village of San Miguel Nepantla near Mexico City. Although she had older sisters, Juana was an illegitimate child because her parents never married. Her father, a Spanish captain called Pedro Manuel de Asbaje, abandoned the family shortly after Juana’s birth. Her mother was a Criolla woman called Isabel Ramírez. The Corillo people were Latin Americans with Spanish ancestors, which gave them more authority in Colonial Mexico, which belonged to the Spanish Empire. Juana’s father was Spanish, and her maternal grandparents were Spanish, thus making her a Criolla.

Hacienda Panoaya in Amecameca, Mexico is where Sor Juana lived between 1651 and 1656

Despite the lack of care from her biological father, Juana grew up in relative comfort on her maternal grandfather’s Hacienda, the Spanish equivalent of an estate. Her favourite place was the Hacienda chapel, where Juana hid with books stolen from her grandfather’s library. Girls were forbidden to read for leisure, but this did not prevent Juana from learning to read and write. At the age of three, Juana followed her sister to school and quickly learned how to read Latin. Allegedly, by the age of 5, Juana understood enough mathematics to write accounts, and at 8, wrote her first poem.

By her teens, Juana knew enough to teach other children Latin and could also understand Nahuatl, an Aztec language spoken in central Mexico since the seventh century. It was unusual for those of Spanish descent to speak the native languages. The Spanish aimed to replace the Mexicano tongue with their Latin alphabet, so it was almost with defiance that Juana went out of her way to not only learn Nahuatl but compose poems in the language too.

Juana finished school at 16 but wished to continue her studies at university. Unfortunately, only men could receive higher education. Juana spoke to her mother about her aspirations, suggesting she could disguise herself as a man to attend the university in Mexico City. Despite her pleading, Juana’s mother refused to allow her daughter to attempt such a risky plan. Instead, Isabel sent Juana to the colonial viceroy’s court to work as a lady-in-waiting.

Antonio Sebastián Álvarez de Toledo

Under the guardianship of the viceroy’s wife, Leonor de Carreto (1616-73), Juana continued her studies in private. Yet, she could not keep her ambitions secret from her mistress, who informed the viceroy of Juana’s intelligence. Rather than reprimanding her, the viceroy Antonio Sebastián Álvarez de Toledo (1622-1715) took an interest in Juana’s education. Wishing to test Juana’s intellect, the viceroy arranged a meeting of several theologians, philosophers, and poets and invited them to question the young girl. The men quizzed Juana on many topics, including science and literature, and she managed to impress them with her answers. They also admired how Juana conducted herself, and she remained unphased by the difficult questions they threw at her.

News of the meeting spread throughout the viceregal court. No longer needing to hide her writing skills, Juana produced many poems and other writings that impressed all those who read them. Her literary accomplishments spread across the Kingdom of New Spain, which covered much of North America, northern parts of South America and several islands in the Pacific Ocean. Yet, female scholars and writers were an anomaly at the time, and rather than attract praise, Juana drew the attention of many suitors. After refusing many proposals of marriage, Juana felt desperate to escape from the domineering men. She wanted “to have no fixed occupation which might curtail [her] freedom to study.” The only safe place she could find where she could continue her work was the Monastery of St. Joseph, so she became a nun.

Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana

Juana spent over a year with the Discalced Carmelite nuns as a postulant, then moved to the monastery of the Hieronymite nuns in 1669, preferring their more relaxed rules. The San Jerónimo Convent, which became Juana’s home for the rest of her life, was established in 1585 by Isabel de Barrios. Only four nuns lived in the building at first, but they soon grew in number, becoming one of the first convents of nuns of the Saint Jerome order. They based their role in life on the biblical scholar Saint Jerome (342-420), who translated most of the Bible into Latin. Known for his religious teachings, Jerome favoured women and identified how a woman devoted to Jesus should live her life. During his lifetime, Jerome knew many women who had taken a vow of virginity. He advised them on the clothing they should wear, how to conduct themselves in public, and what and how they should eat and drink.

Sor Juana, by Juan de Miranda (circa 1680)

Despite taking on the title “Sor”, the Spanish equivalent of sister, Sor Juana’s main aim was to focus on her literary pursuits. Whilst she followed the ways of the Hieronymite nuns, she spent all her spare time writing. Juana’s previous employers, the Viceroy and Vicereine of New Spain became her patrons, helping her publish her work in colonial Mexico and Spain. Sor Juana also received support from the intellectual Don Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora (1645-1700), who shared her religious beliefs as well as her passion for literature. Sigüenza, who claimed, “There is no pen that can rise to the eminence … of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz,” also encouraged Juana to explore scientific topics.

Sor Juana dedicated some of her works, particularly her poems, to her patrons. Those written for Vicereine Leonor de Carreto often featured the name Laura, a codename assigned by Juana. Another patron, Marchioness Maria Luisa Manrique de Lara y Gonzaga (1649-1721) was “Lysi”. Juana also wrote a comic play called Los empeños de una casa (House of Desires) for Doña Maria Luisa and her husband in celebration of the birthday of their first child, José.

The first performance of Los empeños de una casa took place on 4th October 1683 and contains three songs in praise of Doña María Luisa Manrique: “Divine Lysi, Let Pass“, “Beautiful María” and “Tender Beautiful Flower Bud”. The protagonist, Doña Ana of Arellano, resembles the marchioness, who Sor Juana held in high regard. The play features two couples who are in love but cannot be together. Mistaken identities cause the characters much distress and the audience much hilarity. By the end of the final scene, everyone pairs up with the right partner, except one man who remains single as a punishment for causing the initial deception. In terms of theme and drama, Los empeños de una casa is a prime example of Mexican baroque theatre.

Another play by Sor Juana premiered on 11th February 1689 to mark the inauguration of the viceroyalty Gaspar de la Cerda y Mendoza (1653-97). Sor Juana based Love is but a Labyrinth on the Greek mythological story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Theseus, the king and founder of Athens, fights against the half-bull, half-human Minotaur to save the Cretan princess Ariadne. Although Theseus resembled the archetypal baroque hero, Sor Juana portrayed him as a humble man rather than proud.

Sor Juana also demonstrated Baroque literature in her poetry. Often full of philosophical ideas, Juana explored themes of the deceptiveness of appearances and female intelligence. In Hombres necios (Foolish Men), for example, the nun reveals the illogical behaviour of men towards women, treating them as objects of passion rather than human beings. In other poems, Juana wrote about the disillusionment of love and the pain it caused.

The first part of Sor Juana’s complete works, Madrid, 1689

Arguably, Sor Juana’s best poem is Primero sueño (First Dream), 975-lines about the torturous quest of the soul for knowledge. As night falls and the body sleeps, the soul separates from the body and dreams. The soul contemplates the world and the existence of everything from flowers to human life, taking into account all the details and mysteries of each object. Yet, it fails to grasp the overwhelming abundance of the universe, and the sun rises once more, forcing the soul back into the body.

Critics interpreted Primero sueño as Sor Juana’s dreams or thoughts, which were highly philosophical compared to the average person. She explored themes of Neoplatonism, the idea that the world is divided into hierarchies, and Scholasticism, which combined Christian theology with classical philosophy, particularly that of Aristotle (384-322 BC). The latter believed every living organism had more than one purpose or cause, which Aristotle split into ten categories: substance; quantity; quality; relatives; somewhere; sometime; being in a position; having; acting; and being acted upon. It is likely Sor Juana came across Aristotle’s Categories during her studies, either in her grandfather’s library or the San Jerónimo Convent.

Sor Juana’s writings, poems and plays covered many of her interests, such as religion, philosophy, mathematics and science. She also enjoyed music and studied the theory of instrumental tuning, on which she wrote a treatise. Sadly, this work is lost, but evidence suggests she wrote some of her poems, intending to set them to music.

The first part of Sor Juana’s complete works, Madrid, 1689

Not all of Sor Juana’s writings were intended for public consumption. In 1690, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz (1637-99), the Bishop of Puebla, published Sor Juana’s critique of a sermon by the Jesuit priest Father António Vieira (1608-97). Titled Carta Atenagórica (Athenagorical Letter or a letter “worthy of Athena’s wisdom”), Juana expressed her dislike of the colonial system and her belief that religious doctrines are the product of human interpretation. She criticised Father António Vieira for his dramatic and philosophical representation of theological topics. Most importantly, Juana called the priest out for his anti-feminist attitude.

Alongside Sor Juana’s critique, the Bishop of Puebla published a letter under the pseudonym Sor Filotea de la Cruz, in which he admonished the nun for her opinions. Ironically, the bishop agreed with many of Sor Juana’s thoughts, but he ended the letter by saying Sor Juana should concentrate on religious rather than secular studies. Whilst the critique focused on a religious sermon, Sor Juana included colonialism and politics in her argument, which the bishop felt were inappropriate topics for a woman, let alone a nun.

Carta Atenagórica

“Sor Filotea expresses the admiration she feels for Sor Juana, but at the same time reproaches her for exercising her talent in profane subjects instead of devotional literature. Although Sister Filotea does not declare herself against the education of women, she does express her dissatisfaction with the lack of obedience that some already educated women might demonstrate. Finally, she recommends Sor Juana to follow the example of other mystical writers who dedicated themselves to theological literature, such as Santa Teresa de Ávila or San Gregorio Nacianceno.”

Sor Juana responded to Sor Filotea, the Bishop of Puebla, in which she defended women’s rights to education and further study. Whilst she agreed that women should not neglect their duties, in her case her obedience to the Church and God, Juana pointed out that “One can perfectly well philosophise while cooking supper.” By this, she meant women could balance their education and everyday tasks. She jokingly followed this with the quip, “If Aristotle had cooked, much more would have been written.”

In her response, Sor Juana quoted the Spanish nun St Teresa of Ávila (1515-82) as well as St Jerome and St Paul to back up her argument that “human arts and sciences” are necessary to understand sacred theology. She suggested if women were elected to positions of authority, they could educate other women, thus alleviating a male tutor’s fears of being in intimate settings with female students.

The nun’s controversial response caused a lot of concern amongst high-ranking (male) officials who criticised her “waywardness”. They were angry with Sor Juana for challenging the patriarchal structure of the Catholic Church, and for claiming her writing was as good as historical and biblical texts. As a result, the San Jerónimo Convent forbade Juana from reading and sold her collection of over 4,000 books and scientific instruments for charity. With no one on her side, Sor Juana relented and agreed to renew her vows. The convent also required Juana to undergo penance, but rather than signing the penitential documents with her name, she wrote: “Yo, la Peor de Todas” (I, the worst of all women).

From 1693 onwards, Sor Juana focused solely on her religious orders. Never again did she pick up a pen to write or a book to read. Instead, Juana spent her time either in prayer or tending the sick, which led to fatal consequences. After nursing other nuns stricken during a plague, Sor Juana fell ill and passed away on 17th April 1695.

Before she was silenced, Sor Juana penned over 100 works, the majority of which went unpublished. Unfortunately, many were lost, and only a handful remain. Those that survived were compiled into an anthology. Several writers, including the Mexican poet and diplomat Octavio Paz (1914-98), have studied Juana’s life and writings, focusing on the difficulties women faced while trying to thrive in academic fields. Several scholars argue that Juana’s advocacy of intellectual authority is one of the first recorded instances of feminism. Some liken her to the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-54), although Juana was ahead of her time – a protofeminist.

Monument of Sor Juana in Chapultepec.

Although Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is almost an unknown entity in the non-Spanish speaking world, her work and reputation live on in Mexico, where she remains a national icon. Her former cloister is now the University of the Cloister of Sor Juana, which the Mexican government founded in 1979. During the renovations, builders discovered bones believed to belong to the nun. Due to a lack of ancestors, tests cannot be carried out on the bones to confirm the identity, but a medallion similar to the one depicted in portraits of Juana found in the same place is enough evidence for some.

Feminist movements of the past and present have adopted Sor Juana as a symbol, along with Frida Kahlo. Some also link both women to LGBT movements, although Sor Juana never disclosed her sexuality. Evidence suggests Sor Juana became a nun to avoid marriage, but others argue she was an “Indigenous lesbian”. As part of her penance, Juana cut her hair, which some interpret as an attempt to masculinise her appearance, likening it to Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940).

Statue of Sor Juana Inés in Madrid, Spain.

Sor Juana is also a religious symbol of Mexican identity, both in relation to Catholicism and Aztec beliefs. The latter is due to Juana’s choice to write some of her poems in the indigenous Nahuatl language. She also wrote a play, El Divino Narciso (Loa to Divine Narcissus), which features two Indigenous people named Occident and America, discussing their religious beliefs with two Spaniards, Religion and Zeal. Yet, her devotion to the Virgin Mary is evident in other work by Sor Juana, as is her decision to take her vows at the San Jerónimo Convent.

Juana Ines de la Cruz in art by Mexican artist Mauricio García Vega.

Sor Juana continued to inspire and influence people in Mexico and Spain in the 20th century. She appears as characters in literature, such as Yo-Yo Boing! by Puerto Rican author Giannina Braschi (b.1953), which debates the greatest women poets, including Sor Juana and Emily Dickinson (1830-86). In 1962, Telesistema Mexicano broadcast a mini-series based on Sor Juana’s life; and in 1990, the film Yo, la peor de todas (I, the Worst of All) premiered, based on Octavio Paz’s book about the Mexican nun.

In the 21st century, Sor Juana’s fame finally made its way into English speaking countries. In 2004, Canadian author Paul Anderson published a novel based on Sor Juana’s life called Hunger’s Brides, which won the Alberta Book Award the following year. In 2007, Margaret Atwood (b.1939) published a book of poems, including Sor Juana Works in the Garden. In the music world, American composer John Adams (b.1947) used two of Sor Juana’s poems in the libretto for the oratorio-opera El Niño (2000). In 2015, the Royal Shakespeare Company performed Helen Edmundson’s (b.1964) play The Heresy of Love as part of the Spanish Golden Age season. Finally, in 2017, Google honoured Sor Juana with a Google Doodle to mark her 366th birthday.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz has yet to earn her place among the greatest women in the world outside of Spanish speaking countries, but her ideas are gradually making their way into contemporary works. Sometimes referred to as the “The Tenth Muse” and “The Phoenix of America”, Sor Juana is an inspiration to everyone who faces adversity, particularly in terms of human rights and education. Fortunately, life for women has drastically improved since Sor Juana’s time, but the necessary changes only began 100 years ago. Sor Juana was not afraid to point out the inequalities in her society. Yet, with no one to back her up, there was nothing she could do to change things during her lifetime. If Sor Juana could see the world today, she would be pleased with our progress.


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The Renaissance Nude

San Sebastian

Saint Sebastian – Agnolo Bronzino, 1533

Today, we live in a censored world where young minds are shielded from the harsh realities of life and people are quick to complain about things that never once crossed previous generation’s minds. The word “nudity” sets alarm bells ringing and is presumed by many to be synonymous with sexual content. Ironically, despite society trying to block nudity from the impressionable minds of under 18-year-olds, anyone can gaze upon the naked body in public in nearly all art galleries.

Once upon a time, nudity was culturally acceptable, as the Royal Academy of Arts showed in their recent exhibition The Renaissance Nude. The 15th and 16th century was a crucial moment in the history of western art with the birth of the Renaissance period and a renewed interest in the human body as represented in ancient Greek and Roman art. The exhibition explored the use of nudity in art from 1400 to the 1530s, exploring works in a variety of media and produced by some of the most famous names in the business: Dürer, Titian, Raphael, Michaelangelo and Leonardo.

Renaissance is a French word meaning “rebirth” and aptly describes the period when Europe was rediscovering the art and values of the classical world after a long, stagnant period of decline during the Middle Ages, or “Dark Ages”. Not only was the art world affected, the Renaissance saw a number of new discoveries including scientific laws, new religious and political ideas, and sightings of new lands, for instance, America. Therefore, the art shown at the Royal Academy’s exhibition was once a welcome change in a world where people’s minds were being opened to endless possibilities.

The nude flourished in Renaissance art, achieving an increasingly dominant role across Europe. Unlike today where nudity often goes hand in hand with pornography and offensive content, the study of the unclothed body was welcomed by sacred and secular communities alike and produced some of the most magnificent works in existence today. It is Pope Pius IV (1499-1565) who takes the blame for the world’s more prudish attitude to nudity after he ordered concealing draperies to be painted over some of the figures in Michelangelo’s (1475-1564) Last Judgement (1541) in the Sistine Chapel.

One of the first artworks in the exhibition was Jan Gossaert’s (1478-1532) Christ on the Cold Stone (1530). Christ is rarely depicted as fully naked in artwork, apart from as a young child, and in this case, a strip of cloth covers his nether regions. Looking anguished and weary, Gossaert imagines Christ’s demeanour as he awaits his physical ordeal and eventual death. His body is based on the Greek sculptures Gossaert would have seen when visiting Rome, hence the exaggerated musculature.

Religion and art had a tight relationship during the Renaissance and Biblical scenes, such as Christ’s death and resurrection, presented artists with plenty of opportunities to work with the naked figure. As a result, religious subjects became much more realistic than they had been during the Middle Ages as well as more accessible.

As well as Biblical narratives, saints and religious heroes or heroines, were also popular subjects for Renaissance artists. Saint Sebastian (d.288 AD) was one of the more prevalent being the saint of the plague-stricken at a time when outbreaks of contagious diseases were common. Saint Sebastian was killed during the Roman emperor Diocletian’s (244-311) persecution of Christians, initially being tied to a post or tree and shot with arrows, although it was not this that eventually killed him.

Cima da Conegliano’s (1459-1517) version of Saint Sebastian (1502) referenced his martyrdom with a single arrow piercing the right thigh of a young man with glossy hair, who stands naked but for a white cloth concealing his genitals. The youth is composed and appears unaware that he had been shot; nor is there any blood spilling from the wound. Cima replicated the physical beauty of Greek gods in his composition, thus making him appear pure, fit and healthy. The artist has achieved what the German painter Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) urged: to use “the most beautiful human shape” which the ancients had used for their “false gods” when drawing the body of Christ or the saints.

The idea of representing the saints or the holy in the beautiful manner of the ancient Greek artists can be explored further in Dirk Bouts’ (1415-75) The Way to Paradise (1469). This shows one of the possible outcomes of the last judgement in which those who are saved ascend to paradise or heaven. Whilst naked, the figures in the painting have their lower bodies wrapped in pure white cloth and their stature and pure facial features emphasise their godliness. On the other hand, the opposite scenario shown in Bouts’ The Fall of the Damned (1469) shows the victims entirely naked, tumbling down into the infernal landscape. In this instance, the nudity references the shame Adam and Eve felt when they realised they were naked after eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.

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Adam and Eve – Albrecht Dürer, 1504

Adam and Eve are undoubtedly the most famous characters of the Bible who allow artists to experiment with nudity. In an engraving by Albrecht Dürer, Eve is about to succumb to temptation and eat the forbidden fruit, as recorded in the Book of Genesis. At this moment, Adam and Eve are unashamed of their nudity, however, Dürer has prudently obscured their genitalia with leaves. Unlike his contemporaries, Dürer tried to avoid using live models, preferring to draw people using a compass and ruler, therefore, creating his nudes geometrically. Although the figures have similar bodies to those in classical art, Dürer was quoted warning his fellow artists, “Your ability is impotent compared with God’s creativity.”

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Bathsheba Bathing – Jean Bourdichon, 1499

Dürer’s Adam and Eve (1504) proves that Renaissance art was not limited to the painted medium. As well as paintings, the Royal Academy displayed book illuminations, sculpture and drawings amongst other media. For instance, a French copy of Book of Hours contains an illustration of Bathsheba bathing naked in the open air. In the background, King David can be seen spying on her from the palace window. It is thought that this and similar images were intended to be erotic, wrongly depicting Bathsheba as a seductress rather than a passive victim.

As described earlier, the Renaissance was a time of discovery, and people were exposed to new and old thoughts and religions. Since artists were inspired by classical sculptures, it is no surprise that their subject matter turned to the mythologies of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In a similar fashion, these stories from classical literature allowed artists to continue exploring the nude.

Piero di Cosimo’s (1462-1522) A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph (1500) is fairly typical of the way classical stories are depicted. Despite the sorrowful scene, the landscape, colours and figures have a beauty about them that make them appear otherworldly. The peacefulness of the painting also relates to the scene inspired by Ovid (43BC-18AD) and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75) in which a nymph has been killed by a wound to her throat. The wound is not gruesome and the nymph appears to have swooned rather than crashed to the ground, almost a graceful death. Yet, nymphs were known for their singing and this nymph will sing no more, hence the peaceful quietude the painting evokes.

The nymph’s nudity links this painting to Bouts’ The Way to Paradise, in which the semi-naked people are portrayed as beautiful and pure. Despite the painful wound to her neck, the nymph’s suffering is nothing like the deaths of those in The Fall of the Damned. The other characters in the painting – a satyr and a dog – are quietly mourning her death, a stark contrast to the hideous characters in Bouts’ painting. A similar, peaceful figure can be seen in Dosso Dossi’s (1486-1542) A Myth of Pan (1524). Unfortunately, the precise meaning remains a mystery and it is not clear whether the naked lady is slumbering or condemned to eternal rest.

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Venus Anadyomene – Titian, 1520

Typically, male nudes were based upon one of the most important Olympian deity, Apollo. The Renaissance artists had more choice for the female nude since all goddesses were beautiful, however, Venus, the Roman goddess of Love, was usually the most represented. The myth surrounding Venus’ birth is a popular subject for artists. In Pliny the Elder’s (AD 23-79) Natural History, written around AD 77, he describes a long lost painting by the Greek artist Apelles (BC 370-06), which depicts the birth of Venus. Born fully formed from the sea, the most famous version of this story can be seen in Sandro Botticelli’s (1445-1510) painting from the 1480s. The painting displayed in the Royal Academy’s exhibition, however, was the less elaborate Venus Anadyomene or Venus Rising from the Sea (1520) by the renowned Titian (1488-1576). In an attempt to rival Botticelli, Titian focuses on the nude Venus standing in the water in a natural, human-like pose. The youthful goddess is wringing her long golden hair and glancing over her shoulder rather than at the audience. Whilst Venus’ isolation makes her seem vulnerable and innocent, Titian wanted her nudity to add to the erotic allure of the painting.

Despite their unearthly beauty, the adventures of the Greek and Roman gods often resulted in adultery, lust, drunkenness, debauchery and deception, which encouraged Renaissance artists to explore impulsive behaviours that had been condemned by the Christian Church. Once, this would have had disastrous effects for the artist’s reputation, however, humanist ideas were beginning to infiltrate society with themes of seduction, powerful women and same-sex relationships.

The woodcut Aristotle and Phyllis (1513) by the German artist Hans Baldung Grien (1484-1545) explored the growing interest in powerful women. Medieval texts claim the Greek philosopher Aristotle (BC 384-22) punished his pupil, Alexander the Great (BC 356-23) for spending too much time with his lover Phyllis. The philosopher blamed Phyllis’ presence for arousing unwanted sexual feelings. Rather than taking the blame for sexually tempting Aristotle, Phyllis sought revenge on the behalf of her lover and demanded to be walked around the garden upon Artistotle’s naked back, while Alexander stood witness to the humiliating scene.

Other artists dealt with themes of temptation, especially the erotic dreams of some men, which due to their religious upbringing, were considered to be impure thoughts. The Flemish artist Hans Memling (1440-94) took these vices and vanities further in his book panels for the Loiani family from Bologna. Memling depicted beauty as vanity and vices as something to be punished for after death, hence the illustration of the devil. The final panel, Memento Mori, reminds us that regardless of our pure or irreligious behaviour, death comes to us all.

As the Royal Academy proved midway through the exhibition, nudity in art was not necessarily either religious, mythological or erotic; there were many more purposes for the naked body. Previous to the Renaissance, paintings of the human body (usually clothed) were unrealistic, often with awry proportions or strangely shaped faces. The introduction of nudity to art allowed artists to start studying the human figure with live models in their studio. It was standard for artists to produce preparatory drawings before starting a painting, therefore, there are a large number of anatomical sketches by famous artists in the possession of art galleries today.

The Three Graces by Raphael (1483-1520) are life studies of the same model in different positions captured in red chalk. By studying the way the body moves in each position, Raphael was confident enough to paint the Three Graces in The Feast of the Roman Gods at the Farnesina in Rome. Likewise, Michelangelo (1475-1564) also produced sketches before putting brush to canvas, wall, etc. The Italian artist concentrated on the musculature of the human body and surrounding his sketches are annotations that may have had instructive purposes.

Cesare Cesariano (1475-1543) was one of a few artists who produced a detailed drawing of The Vitruvian Man. Based on the treatise of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (BC 80-15), which demonstrates the three central themes of architecture and engineering: firmitas (strength), utilitas (functionality), and venustas (beauty); The Vitruvian Man is an anatomically correct drawing of the proportions of the human body. The most famous of these drawings, of course, was by the famous polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519).

Of course, the Royal Academy could not display sketches by Raphael and Michelangelo without showing the detailed drawings of the anatomy fanatic himself, Leonardo. During his busy career as an artist, sculptor, architect, inventor, scientist, mathematician, engineer, astronomist, geologist, botanist, writer, historian and cartographer, Leonardo somehow managed to find the time to dissect numerous bodies and make detailed drawings of human anatomy. The sketches displayed at the Royal Academy were those of the shoulder and neck. Unlike Raphael and Michelangelo, who were preparing for larger paintings, Leonardo was making preparations for his treatise about the human anatomy. Surrounding the illustrations of several views of the shoulders and neck are Leonardo’s tiny annotations. Known as mirror script, this can only be read when held up to a mirror and was probably an attempt by Leonardo to prevent others from stealing his ideas.

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Saint Jerome – Donatello, 1460s

Taking the naked body into consideration allowed artists to considered the vulnerabilities of the human condition. Prior to the Renaissance, artworks of the human figure were based on ideals rather than reality. Even in death, paintings of Christ looked pure and holy, if not regal. After being able to study human anatomy, however, artists learnt to portray suffering in a more realistic manner.

Donatello’s (1386-1466) polychromed wooden sculpture of the naked Saint Jerome (1460s) is a vivid example of the vulnerable human body. Scourging himself with a rock to quell carnal desire, Saint Jerome’s body is gaunt and aged, reflecting his long-term exposure to the elements in the desert. Unlike the paintings of Saint Sebastian seen at the beginning of the exhibition, in which his body remains unaffected by the torture imposed upon him, Saint Jerome is a stark visual reminder of the hardships of religious commitment and the evidence that the body can benefit from material needs.

The final section of the Royal Academy’s exhibition about The Renaissance Nude reveals that paintings involving nudes were readily accepted by society and even commissioned by notable patrons, for instance, Isabella d’Este (1474-1539), Marchioness of Mantua. The Marchioness commissioned a series of allegorical paintings for her distinguished studiolo, which she had designated for studying and contemplation. The themes of these paintings prove that secular subjects were welcome in a once predominantly strict religious country.

Dosso Dossi’s Allegory of Fortune depicts a semi-naked young man clasping a bunch of lottery tickets – apparently, Isabella d’Este’s personal emblem – which in this instance represent Chance. The nude woman opposite with her arms supporting a cornucopia represents Fortune. The latter is seated upon a bubble that could burst at any time, symbolising that fortune or luck can easily disappear. Why, however, did Isabelle D’Este request such a painting? Allegory of Fortune and similar paintings would have been a stark reminder to wealthy ruling families that they may not always be able to rely upon their good fortune.

Other paintings commissioned by Isabella d’Este had mythological connotations. Combat between Love and Chastity painted by Pietro Perugino (1445-1523) was produced from the instructions to paint an allegory representing the duelling forces of libido and restraint. The central female figures represent the Roman goddesses Venus (libido) and Diana (restraint). Diana, or Artemis as she was known in the Greek, was the goddess of chastity amongst other things. The clothed people in the painting represent her followers, whereas, those belonging to Venus are entirely naked. This suggests that nudity was associated with sexual impulses, much like it is today.

Telling people you are going to see an exhibition called The Renaissance Nude is met by mixed reactions: those who concentrate on the word “Renaissance” and those who focus in on “Nude”. The former are unfazed by the nudity aspect, believing that the Renaissance painters could not have painted anything sordid, whilst the latter question your morals and interests. Both, however, are wrong in their presumptions. Whilst Renaissance artwork cannot be considered pornography, they did tackle themes of debauchery, lust and eroticism.

If their aim was to explain how the nude became a common occurrence in Renaissance art, then the Royal Academy can congratulate themselves. Initially, nudes in the 15th and 16th centuries were produced for churches and private collections and it was only the erotic woodcut prints that circulated more widely. Ironically, the latter no longer exude sensuality and desire as they originally intended due to the changing of the times, morals and behaviours of recent generations.

Despite only focusing on artworks featuring nude figures, the exhibition taught visitors a lot about the Renaissance era. By combining artists from both north and south of the Alps, the differing attitudes towards the new ideas can clearly be seen. Whilst the Italians embraced the human body, its beauty and the opportunity for anatomical study, the northern European artists were more severe in their approach. The exhibition The Renaissance Nude included some of the most famous names from the Renaissance era as well as some of the greatest work from this period of momentous change. Most importantly, however, it shows the Renaissance nude to be far more diverse than previously imagined.


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