Bearded ladies, from Ribera to Eurovision
As Conchita Wurst swept to victory last week, the art historian Noah Charney was reminded of another famously hirsute woman
By Noah Charney. Web only
Published online: 16 May 2014
The 2014 Eurovision song contest was won last week by Austria’s Tom Neuwirth, performing the song “Rise Like a Phoenix” as his drag alter ego, Conchita Wurst. The most notable feature of Neuwirth’s performance is that he keeps a full beard, even while appearing as a woman. The fact that a “bearded lady” won is what made the headlines but, whether or not the song was to everyone’s taste, it was technically difficult to sing and was performed well. The most impressive aspect of the selection was not the song, but the liberality shown by the 180 million estimated viewers of Eurovision 2014, who voted with remarkable enthusiasm for a transvestite. My cap must be doffed to the European voters, for making a statement for tolerance. But while all the spectacle of Eurovision swirled around me, my inner art historian couldn’t help but recall a particularly striking painting by the under-sung Spanish Baroque master, the only Caravaggesque painter who took Caravaggio’s revolutionary and not only copied it but improved upon it: Jusepe de Ribera.
Copies of Ribera’s 1631 Portrait of Magdalena Ventura and Her Husband, ubiquitously referred to as “La Barbuda, or The Bearded Lady”, hang in Seville and Madrid, and it is entertaining to stand in a corner of the gallery and watch museum-goers stroll past, do a double-take, and turn to examine this striking work. Yes, it is a painting of a bearded woman. But it is not an advertisement for a local circus sideshow act. It is a loving double-portrait, commissioned by the Spanish Viceroy of Naples, Duke Ferdinand II of Alcalá, showing a proud husband and his hairy wife.
Behold Magdalena Ventura, nicknamed “La Barbuda”. The lady was invited to the Royal Palace in Naples, as a special guest of the Viceroy, when he learned of her unusual condition. Ribera was asked to paint a portrait of her to commemorate what was considered a miracle of nature. A long inscription alongside the portrait tells of the Neapolitan Magdalena Ventura, aged 52 who, from the age of 37, began to grow a full and long beard. She is the mother of three children, with her husband, Felici degli Amigi also portrayed.
To underscore the fact that, yes in fact this is a woman, Ribera has chosen to paint her breast-feeding an infant. Without this addition, it would have been easy to think that Mrs Ventura was actually a man in female clothing, rather than a bearded woman. Today, we can diagnose the cause: hirsutism, a superfluity of testosterone in females. Ribera added some symbolic references, including a spool of wool and a shell—a reference to a feminine occupation and anatomy.
Ribera was as fascinated as the Viceroy with “miracles of nature” like Mrs Ventura. In 1603, he had drawn another bearded woman, Juana Cotán Dona Brigida Sanchez del Rio, known as “La Peñaranda Barbuda”. Dwarfs were also of great interest at the Habsburg court, particularly under Philip IV of Spain and, like bearded women, were considered an example of the wonders of which Nature (which at the time was synonymous with the Christian God) was capable. This awe was coupled with a growing interest in better understanding the world and exploring it through scientific study that would reach its peak in the Enlightenment.
The painting passed from the Ferdinand II, the Third Duke of Alcalá, to his grandson, Juan Francisco who also bore the title of the Eighth Duke of Medinaceli. The Third Duke collected images and specimens of natural deviations, including the mounted head of a bull with three horns. But while Mrs. Ventura was considered a natural curiosity around 1631, she was not mocked (as far as we know) but admired, and this portrait was paid for by a powerful patron, who wished to show her, in all her unusual glory, for posterity. While Tom Neuwirth, aka Conchita Wurst, has struck a blow for tolerance that Europe has resoundingly supported he is, aesthetically at least, part of a long tradition of admiration for women with beards.
Noah Charney is a professor of art history and a best-selling author. He recently released an iOS app, Museum Time, in which he leads private guided tours to the best art of the best museums in Madrid, Seville and Barcelona.
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