Overlooked No More: Elisabetta Sirani, Story of a Mastermind

Elisabetta Sirani, one of the great female painters of Baroque who still remain unknown to many. But what is her story & why is she crucial?

Elisabetta Sirani

Contemplating the artistry of the Baroque period makes me sometimes wonder how our legendary painters quickly articulated their compositions with a dramatic influence of light and shadows. We often enter the lighter part of the painting faster than the dimmer and darker part. Think of the same composition and visualise it as two connected versions of art where on one hand, amidst the light, there existed painters like Caravaggio, and Johannes Vermeer, whom we love to read about and on the other, there lived a few hidden painters in the shadow, we are still unaware of. Amidst those, one of the most extraordinary female painters of the seventeenth century was Elisabetta Sirani. Died at the young age of 27, and she managed to become a professional artist with more than 200 artworks in her lifetime. Today in this article, we will reflect on her life and famous artworks.

Artist Abstract: Elisabetta Sirani.

Elisabetta Sirani Self Portrait
Self-Portrait, Elisabetta Sirani | Source: National Museum Of Women In The Arts

In the post-reformation Bologna, an unprecedented number of women became professional artists and among them, one of the most significant, talented and internationally recognisable artists is Elisabetta Sirani. Often regarded as the mere imitator of her father’s master, Guido Reni, she had produced more than 200 artworks in the timespan of just 13 years and served as a full-time member of the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, though she never left her hometown, Bologna. Sirani was a master at nineteen, running her own workshop, including her siblings Anna Maria and Barabara. Her pupil includes names of famous artists like Lucrezia Bianchi, Antonia Pinellii, Maria Oriana Galli Bibiena Veronica Fontana and Giovann Battista.

Birth8th January, 1638
Death28th August, 1665 (Age 27)
FatherGiovanni Andrea Sirani
SpecialitiesQuadri da stanza, Portraits, Religious Paintings, Allegories, etc.
Number of Paintings150
StyleContrasts of light and shade, artificial illumination

Briefly Discussing the Life of the Artist.

Born on 8 January 1638, she was the oldest daughter of Giovanni Andrea Sirani, the pupil of the leading Italian baroque artist Guido Reni. She had two sisters, Anna Maria and Barbara and one brother sibling, Antonio Maria. At a young age, she lost her mother, and the responsibility of a breadmaker surrounded her during that time. After her father was incapacitated by gout and became chronically invalid, she managed her entire family, even taking care of finances through various commissions. At 17, she started her first commission, and in her lifetime, she described around 200 paintings in her diary with dates and motives written. It made it easier for historians to trace her work and helped us to read it thoroughly. As per Otto Kurz, 

“The list of paintings to be found under her name in museums and private collections and the list of those paintings which she herself considered as her own work, coincide only in rare instances.”

The literature about Eilsabetta is extensive, however, the most significant sources of her life and work are the writings of the critic and historian Conte Carlo Cesare Malvasia, one of her close friends, known as Felsina pittrice: Vite de pittori bolognesi (1678). As the “glory of the female sex”, she is praised for her exceptional moral virtue, modesty, and inimitable goodness. In addition to being a professional painter, unmarried and childless, she also embodied the ideal of the virtuous noble artist described by Leon Battista Alberti and Giorgio Vasari and epitomized by Raphael. It was believed that her works represented the beauty of her character, just as Raphael’s did. Sirani was capable of representing both the beauty of womanhood and the perfection of art as she was both the muse of painting and its allegorical personification.

Elisabetta Sirani artworks Timoclea Kills the Captain of Alexander the Great
Timoclea Kills the Captain of Alexander the Great by Elisabetta Sirani | Source: Sartle

Achievements the Artist Claimed.

In addition to fine drawing and painting, Elisabetta Sirani wrote poetry, played the harp and etched with religious subjects. She was a master artist who worked with speedy skill. In 1652, Sirani opened a school for young artists in Bologna and taught them to paint. During her brief yet productive life, she was the star of the community and society. Furthermore, the excellent relations she had with noblemen and the wealthy class enabled her to earn a good income.

Her Ending Days.

Elisabetta Sirani felt and complained of stomach pains during Lent in 1665, but they passed quickly. On 28th August, she died suddenly after feeling those symptoms again. The reason was unknown at that time, even after the post-mortem. But in 1898, the Bolognese medical journal took the case to find the cause of her death and concluded that due to peptic ulcers, she died. By virtue of her membership in Academia di sa Luca in Rome, she received a civic funeral in Bologna after her death. Her premature death did nothing to impair her fame.

Looking at Some of the Elisabetta Sirani’s Paintings.

Elisabetta handled numerous range of subjects like religion, allegories, and portraits. Considering her figures, she was fond of giving them a look as elegant heads with slightly larger eyes, long noses and small, rose-bud mouths. Although she painted sentimental Madonna following Reni, she also drew inspiration from her bolognese contemporaries, Lorenzo Pasinelli, Flaminio Torze, and Fleming Michele Desubleo. Her first worthy public commission that took attention was Study for the Baptism of Christ, 1658. She decorated the two sides of chapels at the entrance and central position of the Carthusian Church with this composition. Here, she drew a preliminary sketch with execution with pencil, red chalk and brown watercolour. 

1. Nursing Madonna.

Elisabetta composed this innocent painting of Madonna with Jesus, adoring motherhood with bright colours in Raphael’s style. Wearing the turban favoured by peasant women in Bologna, Madonna gazes towards her plumping baby, who is wriggling on her lap. The embrace of Mary towards Christ’s child as he playfully leans back to crown his mother a garland of roses which she lowers to acquire is a pure love and an innocent act of love between the son and child, which Sirani does not fail to display. The virtuoso brushwork on the Virgin’s white sleeve thickly-painted texture, and her ornaments consist of a blue-patterned headscarf and a gold tassel. With a touch of glitter and floral garlands especially noticeable on the plain dark background of Sirani, there is a profuse brightness through her realistic colours. There is a refined mannerism in the composition, which prominences the closeness of motherhood and maternal love. Furthermore, the mother’s love is the Christian virtue of charity, giving a spiritual dimension to this portraiture.

Nursing Madonna Elisabetta Sirani
Nursing Madonna by Elisabetta Sirani | Source: National Gallery, Prague

2. Anna Maria Ranuzzi as Charity.

 In this composition, Sirani displayed a subtle use of lively touches of red and blue with an illuminance of overall colour schemes of browns and greys in figures and backgrounds. Further, there is richness in Brushstrokes and emphasis on Ranuzzi’s maternity. As Ranuzi stares to the viewer’s left, the little child holds two cherries to give to her brother, resting in the lap of the lady. The innocent act of a play, grandeur mannerism in the artwork, naturalistic depiction of faces while playing, and the use of light and shadows are a few noteworthy points of this work. As Sirani emphasises the closeness of maternal love to her children, it represents a symbolic gesture of Christian spirituality, which one must not forget. 

Elisabetta Sirani paintings Portrait of Anna Maria Ranuzzi as Charity
Portrait of Anna Maria Ranuzzi as Charity by Elisabetta Sirani | Source: Robert SImon Fine Art

3. The Infant Jesus Christ Holding a Crown of Thorns With the Young St. John the Baptist.

Most probably, the painting is one of the examples of Elisabetta’s iconographic style, where she represented Christ and St. John the Baptist in an ordinary children’s play. Here the two toddlers are playing in the purest form of friendship and love between them. As Jesus holds a crown of thorns while seating on a bench, St. John kneels down on his one leg, though not purposefully, holding a stick with peace white bunting. The source of communication, which one can witness, is the holding hand and their gaze on each other. On further notice, the background which Sirani chose has a darker shade with a small trespass of the outer sky. With the realistic colour, blonde and brown hairs, and chubby bodies, Sirani didn’t fail to depict the two children as holy but, at the same time, engaged in some ordinary play.

The Infant Jesus Christ Holding a Crown of Thorns With the Young St. John the Baptist by Elisabetta Sirani
The Infant Jesus Christ Holding a Crown of Thorns With the Young St. John the Baptist by Elisabetta Sirani | Source: Artnet

4. Allegory of Music.

The Allegory of Music is a crucial painting from Sirani that she uses as an element of historical narrative within portraiture. As Sirani depicts herself in this painting, she emphasizes performance through the instrument, an open mouth and a visual representation of music, theory and practice. There is a presence of both aspects of music: sheet music, which stands for textual, and the open mouth showing the practice of singing. As the Renaissance period denoted the importance of an artist’s formation practice or theory, Sirani did not fail to miss this philosophy through this artwork.

The slipping hand to the transcript of sheet music, a diplomatic stare towards the viewer, mystical dark background with the soothing harmonies of the colour scheme are some specialities of Sirani’s artwork. The painting invokes the sacred lines for the artist by depicting the painting as silent poetry, by wearing the poet’s laurel. The artist is not merely a clever craftswoman but is a genius poet, classical scholar and intellectual musician, an exceptionally beautiful combination.

Elisabetta Sirani Paintings Allegory of Music
Allegory of Music by Elisabetta Sirani | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

5. Study for the Baptism of Christ.

One of the most famous and crucial artworks of Sirani, the Baptism of Christ, is a religious history painting. The drawing is entirely conventional with the product of time. Essentially bound to the story of Baptism, Jesus and his cousin, John the Baptist, are engaged in the act of ritual purification. Sirani adds a dramatic appeal to the scene by adding the figures of God, the father, looking down from above, a broader beam of light, and a holy spirit descending in the form of a dove. 

Christ kneeling on the rock, wearing a drapery, with a restful look, and John the Baptist, baptising with one hand on his chest with the soulful expressions is the prime figure of the sketch, whereas the heading of God from the sky and angels surrounding him is the additional appeal of the sketch. According to Luke 3:22 (and there are equivalents in the other synoptic gospels) immediately after the Baptism,

“… the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee, I am well pleased.”

Sirani has well depicted the entire scene.

Study for the Baptism of Christ Elisabetta Sirani Paintings
Study for the Baptism of Christ by Elisabetta Sirani | Source: Dominicana Journal

6. Portia Wounding Her Thigh.

She chose the exact moment where Portia wounded herself to test her strength of character before asking Brutus to confide in her in the composition. Through titillating images of female wounding, she showed sexualised content. As a result of stabbing herself deeply in the thigh, Portia must demonstrate that she is virtuous and worthy of political trust by separating herself from the rest of her sex. With her usage of rich colour and confident brushstrokes, Sirani established her reputation as a phenomenon in Bologna.

Portia Wounding Her Thigh by Elisabetta Sirani
Portia Wounding Her Thigh by Elisabetta Sirani | Source: Obelisk Art History

Final Words.

With a marvellous skilful representation of history paintings, Sirani though a follower of Reni has her own distinctive style and iconography. She transformed her original compositions into a warmer and more intimate way with the addition of a naturalistic form. To own a Sirana was highly prized till the late 19th century, but when the Bolognese school fell out of favour with critics Ruskin and Baudelaire, her works remained less glorious. Though her popularity and fame remain diminishing after the critic’s words on her works, she does represent a great talent. With the sweetness inbound to her canvas, naturalism, refined and erudite elegance and virtuoso brushwork, she showed subtle expressions of her subjects in sensual colours.


Elisabetta Sirani by Adelina Modesti.

Frequently Asked Questions.

What was Elisabetta Sirani known for?

Elisabetta Sirani was the pupil of Guido Reni and one of the famous female Baroque artists who came to attention for the painting Study for the Baptism of Christ. Further, she opened a school for young artists in Bologna and taught them to paint, making her a significant member of the society.

How many paintings did Elisabetta Sirani make?

While Elisabetta Sirani drew 150+ artworks in her lifetime, only 150 of them are known to the historians.

Was Elisabetta Sirani married?

Elisabetta Sirani died at the young age of 27, and though she was one of the leading female artists of Bologna at the time, she never married nor had any known relationships.


(are you paying attention)

We want your e-mail. In return to that, we promise to knock you with great content once a week.


We hate spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Related Reads.

Jusepe de Ribera: The Little Spaniard & His Vastness of…
The seventeenth century beheld some of the greatest masters of painting, as I have explained…
Read more
Suzanne Valadon: A Troubled Life & A Scandalous Career
The first question that arises in almost everyone's mind is why there were no great…
Read more
Frieda and Diego Rivera: The Future of Their Marriage
Frida and Diego are the coins of Mexican national treasure, and their marriage was like…
Read more
Fede Galizia: A Renaissance Master of Still Life & Portraits
Still-life paintings are the most beautiful form of artwork, which was even popular back then….
Read more
Almond Blossoms: Vincent's Gift to His Godson
My eyes opened as the first blush of the sun rose in the valley of…
Read more
Evelyn De Morgan: A Pre-Raphaelite With Renaissance Hand
As Pre-Raphaelitism broke into British Art at the exhibitions of 1849 and 1850, it became…
Read more

Do we have your back?

You might have seen ads on SimplyKalaa, a way that supports most online publications economically. It is only when you learn that these ads perform poorly for many reasons, including the economy, you start looking for more ways to sustain consistency and informative stories without propaganda.

This is a call to seek your support through donations and an announcement of a subscription model starting next year. While the latter will allow us to grow in many ways, we have no plans to make our reads paid.

To remain updated, sign up for our newsletter.

In the meantime, will you buy us time to write for you?

Our goal is to reach 100 donors by the end of 2023.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments