-The lady with the beard-
La mujer barbuda (Magdalena Ventura con su marido)- José de Ribera
This painting done by Spanish painter José de Ribera, also know as “El Españoleto”, as he lived quite some time in Italy and was known there as the Spanish painter, was made in the year 1631 and is a rather peculiar work.
The Italian woman portrayed on the work, named Magdalena Ventura does not really look like a woman, as she has a beard and her face is also not particular feminine either. The painting was ordered at the time by Fernando Afán de Ribera, duke of Alcalá de los Gazules and viceroy of Naples, who was a habitual patron of Ribera, and truly intrigued by the woman’s condition.
At the time it was quite fashionable to collect images and paintings of extraordinary or strange people under Kings and aristocrats, and when the Duke heard about the woman’s strange condition he invited her and her husband to his palace in Naples where he asked Ribera to portrait this strange family for him.
Besides painting the woman very serious and realistically, Ribera also added a few hints to the painting that refers to woman’s strange condition. On the stone tablet on the right of the painting there is a large inscription titled “The great miracle of Mother Nature” which gives more details about the life of Magdalena Ventura. On the tablet can be red that Magdalena was born in Accumoli, a small place in the region of Abruzzo, about 80 kilometres west of Rome, and was 52 years old at the time the painting was painted.
She is posing with her husband Felici di Amici, and the youngest of her three children. It also says she moved at the age of 37 years old to Naples once she started growing a beard, and also started to suffer from other signs of masculinisation, such as a deeper voice and becoming bold.
Two further clues to the mixed gender of Magdalena on the painting are the small objects on top of the stone tablets; a spindle—a symbol of womanhood, and the shell of a snail, a symbol of a hermaphrodite. Magdalena Ventura probably suffered from a condition called hirsutism also known as the werewolf syndrome, which consists in a superfluity of testosterone in females which causes beard grow and other masculine symptoms. As Magdalena was already 52 its not very likely that she was really breastfeeding her baby at the time but this detail probably has been added by Ribera to emphasise her strange condition, although it is not utterly impossible that she still could conceive at this age, regarding her condition it is not very likely.
The Bearded Woman
The Bearded Woman is a unique painting and one of the most curious works in European art of this time period. It demonstrates Ribera’s skills in taking the unusual and unknown and transforming it into a masterpiece of suggestiveness. Ribera added a deep psychological undertone of drama and emotion in this painting which has a fascinating intensity. The lighting used by Ribera who was clearly influenced by Caravaggio at the time and also adds to the deepness of the image.
You definitely cannot miss this extraordinary painting on your next visit to the Prado Museum in Madrid.