“Why the tiny nips?” I thought to myself as I gazed upon the painting of The Virgin and Child by Dieric Bouts. I was attending the current exhibition at the York art Gallery, which features some of the most prominent Netherlandish painters of the last 500 years. The Virgin herself seemed suitably beatific and was depicted gazing adoringly at her son whom she is about to breastfeed. There is nothing particularly unusual about this, however in this painting the Virgin has both very small nipples and a lack of areolas. Having visible nipples and areolas is an essential part of female identity in modern times, that women who have had mastectomies and have scars etc. often choose to have tattoos to replace them. Why then are they excluded in an icon supposedly depicting an ideal?
This seems out of line with the idea of the Virgin being hyper feminine and a paragon of female beauty. My argument is not that there should have been accuracy in terms of discolouration, stretch marks or imperfections- to present the Virgin Mary as anything other than an ideal at the time would have been heretical. My argument is that it’s strange to not include an exclusively female feature when presenting an ideal of female beauty. The almost masculine nipples that have been placed upon her breast seems to imply that having small nipples was a preference of the artist. It seems rather absurd that they’re missing, as they are uniquely relevant to (cisgendered) women, just as much as breasts are.
The answer for this, which I found after doing a quick google search, is the fact that (as Adam Eaker states in his article on Van Dyck between master and model): “young men… were coveted models for figures of both sexes” (Eaker). This means that the artists originally used a man’s torso as the model for the basis for their paintings. This may explain the case of the missing areolas. Bouts is not the only offender of this particular crime against the depiction of the female anatomy. It was the norm for many medieval and renaissance painters when depicting the naked female form to be inaccurate.
Reuben in his paintings does something similar, where the woman has a breast and a nipple, however there is no evidence of areolas in his paintings of the female form either. In his Bathsheba painting for example, where particular things that are not ideal like dimpling and thickening are present, an areola is still not there. This is a conundrum as Bathsheba was supposedly so beautiful that she seduced King David without ever having met him, and therefore it would be presumed that she would be depicted as hyper-feminine. This also highlights how even in the more anatomically correct depictions of female figures; the women are left without areolas.
Whilst all these the pieces of art do have inherent value, we as spectators can’t ignore the implications of their women being depicted as an ideal that it ultimately unachievable. Sure, free the nips, just don’t forget about the areolas.