The Morality of Women During the Renaissance

By Amy B

Venus of Urbino depicts Renaissance concerns about women’s moral transformations in conjunction with their pets. At first glance the painting reads as a seductive work of art, with Venus’s hand gesturing towards her genitalia and her eyes piercing into the viewers. What is intriguing about this picture is the fact that there is also a small dog lying with her at the end of the bed. Her servants are turned away from Venus, as if her lying with the dog is something that should not be observed. During the Renaissance, having a dog or any other toy pet  was deemed as dangerous for women. Pets were only used for pleasure, the company that you got from having it around. Men were afraid of this because they felt like the animals were taking their place sexually.

Renaissance gender dialogues positioned women as sexual and sinful.  Looking further into the sinful nature, and at the same time drawing closer to a transformational conclusion, I sought to learn about how views on women such as Venus might inform the role witches played in the morality of the relationship between women and animals. During the witch trials in the 16th and 17th centuries, it was thought that women who were in the company of cats, dogs, or reptiles were deemed witches. When women “consorted with the devil” they became more animalistic and were treated as such.

Luke Mastin’s work discusses witchcraft, and it goes into great detail as to the torture that communities would perform on these poor women. Mastin’s article says that a “common witch-hunting method was “swimming” or “ducking” (based on the ancient “ordeal by water”) whereby the accused was tied hand and foot and immersed in deep water. If the accused witch floated, the water (God’s creature) had rejected her and she was deemed guilty; if she sank (and drowned), she was deemed innocent.”

We can see that women, though held on a pedestal of perfection, are also easily tipped and thrown into an abyss of hate and provocation. At one moment they are the epitome of perfection and the next they are scorned and thought to consort with the devil. By interacting with animals women were thought to be pleasuring themselves and in extreme cases to be having sinful relations.


Image: Vecelli, Tiziano. Venus of Urbino, 1538.

Brown, David Alan. “Virtue And Beauty: Renaissance Portraits Of Women.” USA Today Magazine 130.2678 (2001): 36.

Mastin, Luke. 13 December 2010. Web. 13 December 2010

Schiesari, Juliana. Beasts and Beauties. Toronto: University of Toronto Incorporated, 2010.


About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

One response to “The Morality of Women During the Renaissance

  • MGNesler

    I wonder — were the dogs themselves sexed in these dialogues? Either way, it might suggest something interesting about renaissance preoccupations with certain types of sexual acts and the human-gendered bodies who were (un)allowed to perform them….

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