Michelangelo's Idea of Ideal Beauty

The notion of the “ideal beauty” has often been a topic of controversy in art throughout the ages as all different time periods have their own unique version of what they considered the apotheosized definition of beauty. Despite this ever changing notion, an ideal beauty has always been an entity that has been admired and seemingly yearned to be possessed by whatever culture it comes from. For example, in Italy during the Gothic period, the concept of ideal beauty avowedly was that of seeing the body through a Christianized religious lens ( i.e, elongation of the human features to further highlight one’s relation with God, the two dimensional style to deemphasize corporeality which highlights the value of the soul over the body ). But, by the 15th and 16th century during the time of the Renaissance, a clear shift seems to become more relevant. This shift is often seen as one that seems to over exemplify the heroic side of human nature straying away from the over characterized heavenly figures and landing somewhere in between realism and an almost unachievable standard of virtue.

One pioneer of the Renaissance concept of ideal beauty was none other than Michelangelo. His idea of the ideal beauty became the standard at the time, conceptualizing all the attributes that the contemporary and modern world still consider society’s paradigm of the “ideal beauty” to this day. He cemented himself as a trailblazer and father of idealism, taking frameworks from earlier, Classical Greek and Roman works of art and adopting them into his own. Michelangelo’s impression of the ideal body is highlighted through many of his works especially that of the David. This concept is that of a strong, typically muscular male figure who often symbolizes and exemplifies something gallant, protective, and almost “God like” in nature even if the true subject of the piece often differs in comparison to Michelangelo’s portrayal. While many of his works are of male figures, even his works of art featuring women or young children seem to depict a more masculine figure, further illuminating the impression of the male body as the standard and most sought out among individuals at the time. Regardless of what Michelangelo is depicting, all his works represent this idealistic and perfectionist nude inspired image.

The Beauty behind Michelangelo’s David

Since the ancient Greeks there has been no man or woman more keen on illuminating the perfection of the ideal beauty than that of Michelangelo. Through The David, Michelangelo has seemingly personified this God like character of the male figure. Standing at a colossal height, roughly 15 feet tall, Michelangelo’s most coveted statue towers over all his adoring spectators, watching over them and dominating the center of the Galleria dell’Accademia. Still to this day, many art historians and commoners alike revel in his heavenliness as even modern interpretations of the ideal beauty stem from Michelangelo’s David. However, to understand the true masterpiece that is this statue one must understand the biblical story of David and Michelangelo’s idealized interpretation of it’s protagonist. This story speaks of the king of Israel, once a young shepherd boy, who managed to defeat a gargantuan Philistine warrior  Goliath only with the help of a mere slingshot. In this story the young boy David portrays the characteristics of bravery, courage, and heroism. These characteristics are often highlighted and exemplified throughout the various works of David e.g, Donatello’s David and Verrochio’s David. However, while these portrayals of him were also completed during the Renaissance and contain clear examples of Renaissance attributes such as contrapposto poses and clear adherence to correct anatomical structure, they also often portray the David in a form that is more “canonical” to the written description of David in the bible. Because David is written as a boy in his early adolescence during the time in which he slays Goliath, many artists did not take upon themselves the liberation to diverge from the Biblical word whether this be due to the commisioners’ request or the artists' desire to not stray far from the Holy text, is typically not strictly said. Instead, the statued depictions of David are often seen as a feeble, young boy as his courageousness was supposed to be highlighted through his mind rather than his might.

Unlike many of the other artists of his time, Michelangelo took it upon himself to slightly alter the stereotypical feeble framed and boyish figure of the bible’s David; instead aiming for a more muscular and post pubescent figure. Note the pulsing veins on his hands, the strong jaw, and his concentrative stare into the distance. None of these attributes are common of a child in his adolescence and especially not common attributes of the Biblical version of the David as even Saul, the first king of Israel, does not view the young boy as a threat towards the Goliath: “There’s no way you can fight this Philistine and possibly win! You’re only a boy, and he’s been a man of war since his youth.” Despite this, Michelangelo opts for a more chiseled and warrior esque portrayal. These traits ,combined with a psychically strong body, are all representative of Michelangelo’s notion of idealism. These aspects are almost Apollo like in nature as they seem to stem from the old, classical styles of the Romans and thus the Greeks before them in which the ideal human figure was often represented as a nude, warrior male. As Edward John Poynter states in Lectures on Art:

The Greeks aimed at the perfection of decorative design, and in so much as the study of the human form helped them to arrive at that perfection, they carried it further and to a more consummate point than has ever been done before or since. But they gave themselves small scope for the display of human passion ; when they represented it, it was in a cold and dignified manner, which fails to awaken our sympathies. The figures of fighting warriors on the pediment of the temple of Aegina receive and inflict wounds, and meet their death with a fixed smile, which shows that the artist intended to avoid the expression of pain or passion. Artists have the supreme right to the title of Idealists ; they are the true worshippers of the Ideal; the ideal of beauty once achieved, they cared not to vary it.

Much like the Greeks, Michelangelo strived for this ideal perfection, which he seems to have achieved through The David himself. Michelangelo often took inspiration from the classical period when perfecting his sculptures and his David is no exception. Traditional Greek attributes can be seen through the attention to detail in David’s anatomical structure as well as the traditional use of the contrapposto pose a classical pose in which the object of the statue is seen shifting the majority of his weight onto one leg or side of the body, often giving the figure a more dynamic and almost relaxed appearance.

Although seen as the embodiment of “perfection”, the proportions of The David are not completely anatomically correct, but, although slightly atypical of Michelangelo’s other works, they still highlight his own opinions on the definition of ideal beauty. While some art historians believe this to solely be because the statue was meant to be viewed from a slightly awkward angle as the original statue was meant to be placed atop the Duomo’s roofline while this may be partly true it is clear that many of these “mistakes”, in retrospect, are not actually mistakes at all. Because Michelangelo often wanted to exemplify the male’s muscular figure, it is not strange that he decided to exacerbate the size of David’s hands or the size of his head. In fact, the over proportionalized hand only seems to further highlight Michelangelo’s desire for the ideal as big and strong hands could symbolize the David’s role as a defender over the Italian republic as big hands are often in connotation with a sense of protectiveness. In the same light, the over proportioned head may be made to amplify the David’s current state of concentration and thought as this symbolizes the Italian republic’s need to be concentrated and ready to defend their city through not only brawn but strategy as well. Whatever the reason may be, the sensuous movement of Michelangelo’s David has not yet been completely replicated; nor has any even grazed close to equal the idealism personified in this work, or any master been able to put one’s feet, torso, hands and head so well in accord with one another one, in harmony, design, and artistic excellence as Michelangelo did with The David.

Michelangelo’s ideal beauty in female figures

The most true test of artistry is an artist’s ability to accurately depict the natural form of the world around them, but, while looking at many of Michelangelo’s depictions of the female body, a phenomenon arises in which seemingly none of his females look stereotypically feminine (i.e, softer waist, curved figures, and an ample bosom). While some attribute this to the idea that Michelangelo was a homosexual, it is ignorant to believe that because of Michelangelo’s perceived sexual orientation that he was unfamiliar with the female body. Nonetheless, one must take into account the vast amount of works Michelangelo has made depicting women in a less stereotypically “feminine form”, instead it’s more appropriate to view his works in the lens of his notion of ideal beauty. What is necessary to do when looking at Michelangelo’s depiction of a female, renaissance nude is to disassociate ourselves from expectations of naturalism and to recalibrate our understanding of what Michelangelo considered to be the ideals of the human body. In these cases, one must also take into account the history of the art itself; considering the story of what is being depicted and then associating this story with Michelangelo's standards.

Examining Michelangelo’s females in the Sistine Chapel, it becomes quite obvious that Michelangelo takes inspiration from the male body when depicting his female heroine counterparts. Much like in the story of his David, Michelangelo utilizes his notion of the ideal beauty to tell a narrative within these paintings often revolving around some type of tragic hero or backstory. Taking women from myths and religion, he defies sexual stereotypes to express the female heroine as a masculine yet powerful figure. As seen in the sibyls illustrated within the chapel, clearly women that sport of a more muscular figure, none seem to be painted with the intention of youth or lithe limp. Instead, these women seem to be wise and plagued by the knowledge they bestowed upon the world, and weathered by time and experience. It’s as though the Sibyls have all given up their feminine beauty to appear more godly in nature.

This is most obvious through the Cumean Sibyl, in which Michelangelo seems to have completely sacrificed her outwardly feminine features to further highlight her heroism. The most masculine looking of the sibyls, this sibyl is depicted as an eldery woman whose arms , while sitting on a bench and reading a book, seems outwardly stretched with pulsing and sharply defined triceps and biceps. Had Michelangelo not actualized this sibyl as a muscular, stereotypically masculine figure, her heroism and connection with the holy realm would not have been obvious. This is because, despite her frame, she is clearly an elderly woman. Had this Sibyl not been endowed with massive limbs and an oversized body, her sole redeeming feature would have been her age; this would have depicted her as a fragile elderly woman rather than a vivacious elderly woman whose strength is not only through her wisdom but through her brute as well.

The Delphic Sibyl and the The Libyan Sibyl , although both more youthful in nature than their Cumean counterpart,are products of Michelangelo’s personal vision of masculine female beauty. The Delphi Sibyl, whose left arm juts out at the viewer in a sharp and poised angle, has only one main feminine attribute and that is her flowing hair and rounded jawline. The rest of her exemplifies a more masculine figure which Michelangelo highlights through her flexed arm and sharp, angular elbow. On the other hand, The Libyan Sibyl boasts a more feminine pose, but continues to have the structural anatomy of a male. This anatomy is found in Michelangelo’s sketches of the same figure, in which it becomes quite apparent that a male’s anatomy was used solely for the purpose of this sibyl. To interpret these pieces, one must remember Michelangelo’s ideals because the sibyl’s male aspects, existing side by side with their female soul and story, is solely used for the purpose of emphasizing the strength, power, and valiance of these ancient oracles.

Michelangelo also utilizes a masculine form when depicting Night and Dawn of the Medicean Sacristy. While both are female in the way they are anatomically modeled, neither are feminine in their visible character or attitude. Night, who Michelangelo describes in his sonnets as a mysterious, foreboding, yet almost healing creature, is depicted as a woman drained of energy, barely able to keep her head up:

Shadow of death that brings to quiet close

all miseries that plague the heart and soul,

for those in pain the last and best of cures;

you heal the flesh of its infirmities,

dry and our tears and shut away our toil,

and free the good from wrath and fretting cares.

While Michelangelo does not accentuate her more beautiful form, despite looking depleted and drained of energy, she still has the common male characteristics that Michelangelo is known to integrate into his artworks: sharp and angular joints, accentuated muscles, strong pectorals, and a trunk like waist. Dawn on the other hand, who looks as though she has just woken from a long slumber, seems to have a slightly more feminine structure, but it still becomes clear that his base ideal of a beautiful woman is not overtly beautifully feminine; this is because without the use of over exemplifying a characters muscular anatomy, trying to convey spiritual strength and resoluteness characteristics typically associated with men at the time can be difficult to display within an artwork.

Michelangelo’s muscular children

During Michelangelo’s almost 90 years of life, he created many models of children many of which happen to depict the Madonna and Child. Having made at least twenty or more in total, these drawings, paintings, or sculptures always feature the Virgin cradling or in adjunction with the Baby Jesus himself. While the Madonna often resembles a less, masculine and more feminine appearance something odd for many of Michelangelo’s subjects whether they’re male or female this may be due to Michelangelo’s yearn to not over masculine the Madonna’s symbol of virginity and purity. However, Jesus is often depicted as a rather muscular baby.

The first example, found in one of Michelangelo’s sketches called Madonna and Child, depicting an unfinished sketching of the Virgin nursing the baby Jesus while she stares off into the distance. The Madonna is very loosely sketched, just serving as secondary importance as Michelangelo did most of the details of this drawing on the torso the Jesus and his outstretched arm towards the Madonna’s breast. His style was to incorporate muscle, even on a young baby to accentuate and foreshadow Jesus’ soon to be discovered strength and power. Rippling muscles may not have been a realistic attribute, but the use for them has become commonplace for this time period of Michelangelo’s works.

Again this ideal is represented in his Children’s Bacchanal, in which many muscular children run around the painting, spreading wreak and havoc onto the masses. These muscular children can be seen as a nod to or inspiration from the artists of past, such as Donatello, who often depicted cherubs (or Roman putti) in a similar form. In this piece, Michelangelo utilizes the muscular ideal figure to depict a scene of dishonorable and ungodly nature quite the opposite of what he typically represents within the themes of his many overflowing works of art. However, one thing still remains, and that is his ability to incorporate the nude and muscular attributes of a male in his twenties or thirties. The children depicted here represent the more bestial and animalistic souls found in the absence of reason or intellect. Unlike many of Michelangelo’s works that employ the muscular frame to symbolize the heroism and might found in his artistic interpretations, The Children’s Bacchanal seems to be stylized in a more masculine and powerful frame to highlight the natural urges that the children of the sketching are exhibiting.


Michelangelo’s works are still today seen at the most impactful and defining works of idealism in art. Their beauty is overpowering; it is masterful, commanding, robust, and transcendent; it is also deeply strange and seems to lack any sense of real femininity or adolescence. Unlike many of the masters at the time, Michelangelo strived to dissociate himself from all things petite and blithely femine. However, this lack of femininity and adolescence is not done out of pure want, but rather a necessity to bring to light the heroic, courageous, or even barbarous attribute of the characters in which he depicted. In Michelangelo’s eyes, the masculine body was the template for all things devine and inspiring. In muscled masculinity, Michelangelo brought to the Renaissance and the world of art something new, something powerful, something still utilized today when depicting the ideal perfection; Michelangelo brought to art an overwhelming sense of male power divine, unsexualized, heroic, and brave. This male power bled into each and everyone one of his pieces, whether that be from the smallest child (like the new born Jesus) or the most cunning of heroes (like The David). He strived to shower the world in what can only be described by me as “Idealized might”. Michelangelo praised the mighty and the mighty praised him back.  

07 July 2022
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