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That Man Looks like a Woman

Over the last year, I looked at this image countless times. First I saw it I was in a particularly snoozy lecture - after-lunch classes were not my jam - while the lecturer kept moving through the PowerPoint slides. You know, when you don’t know anything about a particular art topic, everything starts merging into the same thing (after a certain amount of cherubs and naked women, they all look the same) But when you learn how to look, everything starts to make sense. Suddenly, the curves of those naked women are telling you something about the painter, and the use of the brush on the cherubs help you distinguish the period. After that, any slideshow becomes a sort of fun, artistic Where’s Wally. You must think I spent my time in very weird ways, and you’d be right.

Fig. 1 The Young Christ

And I must have been just in the verge of knowledge because as the lecturer was quickly going through the images, one immediately de-snoozed me. This figure with almond-shaped eyes and perfectly articulated curly hair seemed to be looking at an invisible interlocutor as if caught in the middle of a conversation. Something about this image was haunting me. Maybe it was the use of light, or perhaps its closeness, like I was experiencing an intimacy from which I could not escape. It made me feel something that I never thought was possible while watching Renaissance Art: It made me uncomfortable.

It didn’t take long until I looked it up, only to find out that the picture was not of a nubile woman looking away in modesty. The portrait was of a boy. And that boy was Jesus Christ. Only a GIF could convey my surprise at the moment, and I had a million questions straight away. Why is this image so unsettling? Why does he look like a woman? Who painted this? Did they want it to look like a woman? Where was it meant to go?

For me, it a million questions that could reduce to one: At first glance, this picture is of a young woman or man. Everything is in the right place. Two eyes, one nose and locks so shiny and defined that it seems like a whole bottle of hair gel was used in the process of making that painting. Yet, I felt like something in the painting was very wrong. I suspected this feeling was more than a fleeting thought, so for the first time in my life, I researched a work of art trying to reverse-engineer a feeling, rather than a thought.

The Androgynous Youth

The image is The Young Christ, by Marco d’Oggiono. Dates from 1490 and I was very pleased to find out that it is held in Spain at Museo Lázaro Galdiano in Madrid. I’m not always the most vocal promoter of my motherland but little things like those make me happy.

Firstly, the artist. I didn’t have the starter pack of how to research super obscure Renaissance Art and so I was glad to hear that, although the painter was not very well-known, both he and the image were linked to Leonardo da Vinci. That made things easier, there are always lots of literature on Leonardo & company.

Fig. 2 Portrait of Girolamo Casio

The Young Christ dates from the period in which Leonardo set shop in Milan and worked there for several years. As any good Renaissance Master would do, Leonardo had pupils, and the pupils that worked with him in Milan were called the Leonardesque. Marco d’Oggiono the creator of this particular image, was one of them. He wasn’t a fresh-faced 12-year-old at the time, he was already a certified master, probably gaining more training from Leonardo in exchange for his contribution to bigger works.

I also learned that androgynous, young males were the Leonardesque’s speciality. I went through some of the other paintings and also some of Leonardo’s, to find these other images.

The first one is the Portrait of Girolamo Casio (fig 2), by other of Leonardo’s pupils. It has the androgynous touch of a man who very much looks like a woman. The idealised portrait of Girolamo Casio seems to evoke the modesty and sweetness proper for a maiden of certain social status.

Fig 4. Angelo Incarnato
Fig. 3. Saint John the Baptist

The second one, by Leonardo himself, is the well-known Saint John the Baptist, (Fig. 3)in which Saint John looks very much like a woman. He has rounded arms and that softness associated at the time with depictions of a woman’s body, plus, he seems to be covering his breasts. He has long and luscious hair and a beguiling expression directed towards the viewer.

The third image is also confusing because it is drawing, also by Leonardo, looks really similar to Saint John the Baptist, but in this one, the body has both a penis and a protuberant female breast. Yep, check again. That's a penis. Go figure.

Experimenting with the boundaries of male/female body was the Leonardesque’s turf, and they did it so well. Leonardo’s Saint John the Baptist is a man that looks like a woman and a very sexualised one at that. The Young Christ, on the other hand, is a man who looks like a woman in a very subtle, alluring, uncanny and seductive way. And to hell with Kenneth Clark’s opinion that the Leonardesque, and Marco d’Oggiono in particular, has a ‘peculiarly revolting’ style.

There are many theories as to why androgyny was a trend among the Leonardesque. Admittedly, the preference for youthful males was visible not only in art but also in sexual practices in Renaissance Italy.

As I explained in the last post, male homosexuality was fairly common in Renaissance. These unions were usually composed by a younger boy and an older man, taking the latter the active role during the act. The active, older male in this exchange is seen as virile, whereas the passive and younger boy is seen as feminine. This is understandable as the adolescent body had not yet developed the characteristics associated with manhood, such as defined musculature or a beard. Therefore, it was not an unusual association to link youthful males to sexual desire, hence, Saint John the Baptist.

The Uncanny: Representing God

However, The Young Christ is not sexual at all. It still fits with another of the characteristics of Leonardo and his circle, which is the idealised portrait of young men. In idealised portraits, the artist deviates from the sitter’s real appearance to reinforce certain characteristics.

The features in The Young Christ seem to be fairly realistic, and still, the impression that I get from the image is overall unsettling. The detailed care that was taken in the hair, the perfected and flawless white skin and even the symmetry of the painting – worthy of a Wes Anderson movie - render it too perfect to be real. The carefully executed details also contrast with the idea of candidness given by the actions of Christ. Even when he is supposed to be in conversation, he seems to be oddly motionless. Every time I think of this picture, it reminds me of the uncanny as explained by Freud.

The uncanny is a sensation of the unfamiliar. Freud tells a story in which he was walking through the deserted streets of a provincial town in Italy which was strange to him. He ended up by mistake in the red light district, and even if Freud made a career of writing about sexual desire, he hastened to leave the narrow street at the next turning. But after wandering for a while, he kept ending up in the same street. The street was unfamiliar to him, but each time that in his aimless wandering he ended up in the same quarter a feeling of the uncanny overcame him. It was the unfamiliarity of a street that was becoming way too familiar to him.

That feeling of uncanny is also present in The Young Christ. It’s supposed to be familiar, a picture of a young man, and still, there is something profoundly strange and unfamiliar in that image. Christ, in this setting, is depicted as an adolescent, which is an unusual representation. Most of the images of Christ are either on his adulthood or as an infant, but there are not that many at this age. So, the image is not explicitly sexual and it does not function in the same way as other portraits by the Leonardesque, but it has that different quality of the uncanny and unfamiliar. What is this image then?

In my opinion, d’Oggiono takes the portrait into a completely different direction than the rest of his circle. Truth to be told, the painting still partakes in the androgynous quality that was so popular among the Leonardesque, but what I find fascinating in this image is the way of representing divinity.

The artist uses the idealised portrait as a way to convey godly features. Instead of shining a bright light onto the figure, he choses to represent the figure peculiarly. We see here a young man. His looks human, his features look familiar, everything seems to be in place. However, something is off. Something is not quite right. Will it be perhaps that he not, in fact, like any other man? That uncanny quality of the painting, as described by Freud, is intentionally pointing to the fact that we are not seeing a layman here, but the son of God.

But at the same time, it is relatable. A young Christ, with somewhat less of the metaphysical gravitas that he has in adulthood. Even vulnerable. Beautiful. Delicate. Tender. Placed in the chambers of a noblewoman, this pious image would serve to aid the prayer and was likely to become a cherished object for private devotion. The feeling of intimacy towards the image is also enhanced by its small size and the dark background. And as a result, we have a Young Christ that pulls us closer at the same time that it escapes us. We are drawn to the vulnerable and tender boy only to realize his godly and alien nature. A frontier between the divine and the human no less. And then people think that only the Great Masters matter.


  • Brown, Alan ‘Leonardo and the Idealized portrait in Milan’, Arte Lombarda, 67 (1983) pp.102-116

  • Brown, Judith C. and Davis, Robert C. (eds.) Gender and Society in Renaissance Italy (New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1998)

  • Clark, Kenneth. Leonardo da Vinci: an account of his development as an artist. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1959) p. 51, 117. Kenneth hatin’ on the Leonardesque

  • Corry, Maya. “An Ideal Man”. Apollo, Jun 2014, Vol.179(621), pp. 78-83

  • Freud, Sigmund ‘The Uncanny’, in The Penguin Freud Library (London: Penguin, 1990)

  • Mason, Mary Willan. “Leonardo Da Vinci: painter at the court of Milan”. (Cover Story) Catholic Insight, May 2012, Vol. 20(5), p.9(2)


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