The left breast of Michelangelo's statue of Night

May Allen
Stanford University
February 7, 2001


On a trip to Florence two years ago, James Stark, oncologist and associate professor of medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical school, and Jonathan Nelson, art historian, noticed specific lumps and depressions on the left breast of Night that seemed to correlate with an advanced stage of breast cancer. Said Stark, "There's a bulge on the op of the breast, a swelling in the nipple and a puckering to the side of the nipple. I've been doing this my whole life and just stood there and said, 'That's breast cancer.'"

Stark and Nelson, in an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine, go on to describe the diagnosis, "There is an obvious, large bulge to the breast contour medial to the nipple; a swollen nipple-areola complex; and an area of skin retraction just lateral to the nipple. These features indicate a tumor just medial to the nipple, involving either the nipple itself or the lymphatic just deep to the nipple and causing tethering and retraction of the skin on the opposite side. These findings do not appear in the right breast of Night or in Dawn, another female figure in the Medici Chapel, or in the many other depictions of women in works by Michelangelo."

William Wallace, art historian, comments on Stark's findings saying, "This is obviously a figure he's articulated in a very detailed manner. To say that he didn't care about the breast, or that he just added some old lumps to a male body,k doesn't make sense, This suggestion allows us to think about the idea that he's doing something consciously.

Indeed, with such a hypothesis, Dr. Stark and art historian set out to answer a question that has long puzzled scholars: Why is Night's breast so malformed?

Up until now, some explanations for this anomaly have included Michelangelo's unfamiliarity with the female form, preference for the male form, or sculptural error. Stark and Nelson, further quoting from the New England Journal of Medicine, claim that "there is a strong possibility that Michelangelo intentionally showed a woman with disease and that he may have known that the illness was cancer. If Michelangelo indeed depicted Night as having a consuming disease, this would complement the imagery in the Medici Chapel, help us understand his study of the female body,k and add to our knowledge of the depiction and allegorical associations of illness in the Renaissance."


Now, since I am no oncologist and am not qualified to make a judgment or measurement concerning the size of the lump (I cannot make the distinction between the normal curvature of the breast and the gradual curvature of the lump), the most convincing measurements I could take focused on the length and width of the depressions.

See what you think...

Top views (with different lighting) of depressions and lump.
Dimension across whole breast.

Left depression.

Length of left depression


Width of left depression

Length of right depression.
Normal cliff of areola?
Tethering of areola due to lump?
Tethering of areola due to lump?
Tethering of areola due to lump?
Tethering of areola due to lump?

Dimension across areola
What questions are left unanswered? If it were confirmed that Night did indeed have breast cancer, that knowledge does not add much to our understanding of the history of medicine. We know that breast cancer had been linked to death since 2000 years ago. Michelangelo would have known that the lumps he was depicting did cause death. The data does not seem to imply any reasons why Michelangelo chose to depict Night in such an obviously masculine form
What more could be done? It would be interesting to compare the left breast with the seemingly normal right breast. Another interesting measurement would be to compare the breasts of Night with those of the sister statue, Dawn.
What is the significance of this data? This data has the potential to shed light on the extent to which Michelangelo was familiar with the female form and enhance our understanding of the meaning of the the deformed breast in the overall scheme of Giuliano de' Medici's tomb.

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New England Journal of Medicine

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