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Why were high foreheads once considered a sign of beauty?

This painting portrays Saint Justina of Padua as a Renaissance fashion plate. The pearls, rubies, and emeralds sewn onto her clothing, cap, and hair tie were the mark of an aristocratic lady; her embroidered stomacher (the triangular piece covering chest and stomach) was the height of fashion, as were her elegant green sleeves (as in the song!), separate from her bodice, with the blouse pulled through the gaps in a style called ‘slashing’. Most noticeable to a modern eye is her amazingly high forehead.

High foreheads were considered a sign of beauty, and ladies plucked their hairlines back to achieve the effect. Her flattened chest was also considered stylish. As is visible in Titian’s nudes, the Renaissance preferred small breasts, and the ideal in a dressed woman was a somewhat unisex upper body. To achieve this, women wore a corset that flattened their breasts by pushing them to the side. In short, as is so often the case with the beautiful women in art, this woman’s beauty is the result of great effort; indeed, one might say it is a collaboration between sitter and artist, both of whom strove to make her into her period’s ideal.

Another interesting side of this painting is that it may be a portrait of one of the great women of the Renaissance, Isabella D’Este, marchioness of Mantua. She is difficult to identify, because the existing portraits are inconsistent, but Saint Justina was a major saint in her family’s power base, and the dates are right.

If so, the portrait’s stylishness would make sense, as she was famous precisely for her elegance. For example, when the founder of the French Renaissance, François I, wanted to import the new styles from Italy, she made dolls for him dressed in the latest finery and sent them to him at Fontainebleau. So maybe this is an icon that represents a fashion icon?

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