True Feminine Beauty in the Arts

Vatican Museum to host Mother-Daughter Pilgrimage

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, May 31, 2012 ( As the Marian month of May draws to a close, Rome is starting to prepare for its beach season. Everywhere women are prompted to enhance their looks for the beach — diets, grooming, new clothes — all exalt female beauty.

But somewhere between the lettuce leaf lunch, the poking, dyeing and tweaking at the salon and the persistent dissatisfaction with one’s wardrobe, one might wonder, “Is this what beauty is all about?” Is a woman a sum of her tan, nails and ideal weight?  Is this the only aesthetic standard that matters in our world?

Over at the Vatican Museums, they have acquired (over the course of five centuries) a bit of wisdom about feminine beauty; from the most celebrated sculptures of antiquity, to the elegant virtues of Raphael or the sibyls of Michelangelo, the Church has long praised the unique beauty of women.

With 2,500 years of history and art at her disposal, Rome is the ideal place to explore beauty then and now, and what makes for lasting pulchritude versus a brief flash of gloss. For this reason, the Patrons of the Vatican Museums have started an annual mother-daughter pilgrimage on Feminine Beauty and the Arts in the Vatican and in Rome.

This pilgrimage gives mothers and daughters of all ages a chance to reflect on the Christian ideal of beauty and what it has been through the ages.

The Chaplain of the pilgrimage will be Fr. Mark Haydu, International Director of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, who not only holds the keys to the kingdom of artistic treasures of the Vatican Museums, but also offers wise perspectives on the fleeting nature of surface beauty versus the lasting nature of human and spiritual splendor.  

Catholic Radio Personality Teresa Tomeo gives real life lessons on the dangers of overvaluing superficial attraction and becoming blind to true beauty. Other lecturers and guests will include Anna Mitchell, News Director for the Son Rise Morning Show on Sacred Heart Radio, Janet Morana, Executive Director of Priests for Life, and yours truly for a little artistic perspective.

The true star of the show will of course be the Eternal City, home to some of the greatest examples of Christian feminine beauty. For instance, the race track where St Agnes, a fifteen-year old girl whose good looks got her more attention than she wanted and was subsequently martyred, along with the stunning church built in her honor, are a lesson in true loveliness.

All roads have indeed led extraordinary women to Rome, from the time-honored martyrs such as Cecelia, Susanna and Martina, to the heroines of the Middle Ages, such as Saints Catherine of Siena, Frances of Rome and Bridget of Sweden (among others).

Here one can trace the footprints of the feistiest women of faith (Queen Christina of Sweden or Countess Caterina Sforza), or meditate on motherhood in the glorious Santa Maria Maggiore or by the quiet tomb of St. Monica. The dense history of Rome makes for a fertile soil to sow one’s own seeds of holiness.

This pilgrimage helps to put into perspective the modern world’s obsession with the exterior  by revealing a deeper legacy to physical beauty and proportion. Standing in the Forum we admire the ancient pagan temples. They are captivating, still basking in the limelight after two millennia. Some of their faces are perfectly preserved. The facades maintain the smooth Travertine finish; few lines furrow those high brows. The marble columns glow in the spring sunshine, sleekest stones in the most fashionable colors richly cloaked the structures. The buildings themselves boasted perfect proportions — height, width and diameter — all perfectly matched.

The proportions of the favored Corinthian order were based on those of a tall and slender young girl, much like the modern fashion aesthetic today. But despite its fine figure, smooth skin and great clothes, the pagan temple always was and still is empty on the inside. Most of the temples were lost over the years, the empty cells fallen away, a few pretty porches left as vestiges of this ancient belief.

The few temples that survived did so because they became Christian churches. Their vacant cells were filled with the spirit of the living God and their ponderous platforms became repositories for the relics of the martyrs. Chapels proclaimed the heroism of men and women who had defied the false gods and died as witnesses to Christ.
In contrast to the pagan works of old, today, while we may stop and appreciate the exterior of a church building, it is always the interior that will draw our greatest interest.


It seems pretty amazing that modern women can walk into the Sistine Chapel every day and feel so at home in a space painted for a group of men five hundred years ago.  
The Sistine Chapel was built to welcome the papal court, which numbered about 500 prelates and princes. Women were the rarest of occurrences in the chapel until the 18th century. Although the chapel is dedicated to the Assumption, the Blessed Virgin appears only once in the chapel; the rest of the room is dominated by Moses, Christ, Noah and God the Father in the opening scenes of Genesis.

A shallow view of the chapel may see it as a stronghold of patriarchalism, and a superficial glance at the frescoes can incite some to claim that Michelangelo’s art was informed by his supposed misogyny, painting women to resemble men.
But closer study will reveal a pattern of female presences in the chapel, continuous and complementary to the male figures; indeed the chapel tells a tale of cooperation between men and women in the history of salvation.

Three elements show us how Michelangelo exalted the female figure in the chapel.

1. Everywhere Adam is, Eve is. Although the opening scenes of the chapel show God acting alone as He creates the setting for humanity, even at the moment Adam is being touched by God, Eve is nestled in the crook of the Lord’s elbow, already part of the plan. Furthermore, the image of the Creation of Woman is the center of the ceiling. Adam and Eve are intertwined in the Temptation and Fall; where in Eden they are depicted with the grace of dancers, and their bodies fit together with ease. They remain together even after the Fall, with Eve cowering under the arm of her husband.

2. Beside every great man… there is a great woman. The four corner spandrels of the ceiling each show a famous hero of the Jewish people. Two saved Israel by the sword — David and Judith — and while the favor Moses found with God allowed him to fashion the brazen serpent, the interior and exterior beauty of Esther saved her people. Heroes and heroines, each risking his or her own life to save others, prefigured Christ’s own sacrifice. Alongside the great prophets of the Old Testament, the chapel presents surprising female figures in the sibyls. These were the pagan prophetesses who spoke for the idols, yet a few of their predictions seemed to reveal God’s plan for the gentiles. In Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, the Cumean Sybil announces:

“With a new breed of men sent down from heaven. 
…at the boy’s birth in whom 
The iron shall cease, the golden race arise, “

The medieval years saw as a prediction, as the coming of Christ hypothesized, that the sibyls had, in a veiled way, prepared the gentiles for the advent of the Messiah. Finally, in the arches and spandrels Michelangelo painted family groups, comprised of mother, father and child. Not content with the simple list of fathers from the Gospel of Matthew, the artist portrayed each child as watched over, embraced or tended to by his mother. The unity
of men and women is knit through the ceiling from the cooperation of parenthood, the witness of divine will and the heroic gestures of salvation.

3. The last striking element of Michelangelo’s women is their strength. The Renaissance tended to paint women as languid and/or voluptuous; the artists admired female beauty, but also feared the temptation that came with it. Michelangelo painted women far closer to our modern ideal than any other artist of his age. His women are strong. They can flank men rather than hang behind in the history of salvation. Their bodies are not soft and yielding (an invitation to temptation); they are toned, able to battle with evil as well as any David or Joshua. They do not remain at rest, but turn, look and ponder. The Sistine women are self-aware and perceive the coming events of salvation history. But mostly they are beautiful – the Libyan Sybil’s strong shoulders taper to an elegant waist wrapped in flame-colored robes. Her graceful gestures and powerful posture would make her a poster child for a pilates studio. The Delphic Sybil, youthful and rounder in form, turns dynamically in space, her taut arm leading our eyes to the altar. Michelangelo’s beauty however, is not intended to provoke desire, or to focus the mind only on physical attractiveness. They are guides. Their beauty serves to elevate the spirit, while their heroic poses and strong gestures are meant to bring us closer to the source of all beauty: Christ.

No one has understood the Sistine Chapel and feminine beauty better than Blessed John Paul II, under whose direction the chapel was restored to the magnificent colors we see today. While celebrating the inauguration of the restored frescoes he spoke on the revealed beauty of men and women and its meaning.

The Sistine Chapel is precisely – if one may say so – the sanctuary of the theology of the human body. In witnessing to the beauty of man created by God as male and female, it also expresses in a certain way, the hope of a world transfigured, the world inaugurated by the Risen Christ, and even before by Christ on Mount Tabor.”

Human beings are called by beauty and called to beauty. In the Sistine Chapel Michelangelo gave us the greatest visual understanding of what it meant to be made in the image and likeness of God, who is beauty itself. 

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She is author of The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici.She can be reached at

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