Androgyny

While the Renaissance phrase Every painter paints himself uses the masculine to denote both genders, as the English of my youth did too, the artists themselves were under no delusion that their male minds would be sufficient to become like God (see The Divine Artist). They needed a feminine side too (or a masculine one in the case of female artists) because a mind reflecting the cosmos – whether God’s or a visual poet’s – contains both genders as any reasonable thinker since Plato would have known. This is important to grasp because the patriarchal norms of everyday life in the Renaissance, of particular interest to feminist art historians, were markedly different from the intellectual concepts so important to mystical thought. 

Although some historians believe that Marsilio Ficino, the Florentine mystic and translator of Plato's writings, rediscovered the subject of androgyny in the late fifteenth century,1 it had always been present in one form or another, including among the Christian mystics of the Middle Ages. Caroline Walker Bynum has shown, for example, how large numbers of devout people described and thought of Jesus as Mother. Indeed, even more surprisingly, “authors [in the medieval period] found it far easier than we seem to find it to apply characteristics stereotyped as male or female to the opposite sex.”2

Although artists from the Enlightenment onwards may not have been as religious as their earlier colleagues, many remained spiritually-inclined, even mystically-inclined, and continued to present their psychic life as androgynous. In the nineteenth century artists like Edouard Manet, a man not easily linked to mysticism or esotericism, demonstrated with startling clarity that their minds (or at least the mind they imagined) was androgynous, a position which by the twentieth century was receiving outside support from discoveries in analytical psychology.

1. Janusz. Walek, “The Czartoryski Portrait of a Youth by Raphael”, Artibus et Historiae 12, 1991, p. 219

2. Caroline Walker Bynum, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press) 1982, p. 162

All Articles (Alphabetical by Artist, then Title)

© Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.