Michelangelo, Dying Slave, 1513-15 (Louvre)

The Superiority of Sculpture
Michelangelo and Leonard were contemporaries –and they were also rivals!  Their rivalry stemmed from professional competition, as well as their respective views on the superiority of painting versus sculpture.  Leonardo claimed that painting was superior to sculpture, because the painter can create entire worlds, much like God:

“If the painter wishes to see beauties that would enrapture him, he is master of their production,…And if he wishes to produce places or deserts, or shady or cool spots in hot weather, he can depict them…If he seeks valleys, if he wants to disclose great expanses of countryside from the summits of mountains, and if he subsequently wishes to see the horizon of the sea, he is lord of all of them.”
Universal Leonardo 

Michelangelo also likened artistic creation to God.  In his poems, he extolled the virtues of sculpture, and likened the act of creating a figure out of stone to God’s creation of man:

“Sculpture, the first of arts, delights a taste
Still strong and sound: each act, each limb, each bone
Are given life and, lo, man’s body is raised,
Breathing alive, in wax or clay or stone.
But oh, if time’s inclement rage should waste,
Or maim, the statue that man builds alone,
Its beauty still remains, and can be traced Back to the source that claims it as its own.”

But Michelangelo had little interest in the mountains and valleys that fascinated Leonardo.  His sole interest was the human body — and sculpture allowed him to focus on the figure, rather than the background setting.

Belvedere Torso, 1st century

Michelangelo, Study for Adam, c. 1510-11

Anatomy and the Intentions of the Soul
Like Leonardo as well, Michelangelo was preoccupied with expressing the “intentions of the soul.”  While Leonardo accomplished this through facial expression and gesture, Michelangelo considered the whole body, with its rippling muscles and sinews, capable of expressing inner states of being.  He probably learned this from Hellenistic statues like The Apollo Belvedere, which was unearthed in Rome during Michelangelo’s lifetime.  Greatly damaged, the statue has no head or limbs, yet the emotional expression of the torso’s musculature is powerful.  This is also why Michelangelo dedicated himself to the study of anatomy (like Leonardo, he dissected cadavers, in spite of sanction by the Church).  To make the body expressive of the soul, he needed to know everything he possibly could about how the body works.

Michelangelo, Study for the Battle of Cascina, 1505

Michelangelo, Study for the Libyan Sibyl, 1508-12

The Figura Serpentinata
Michelangelo’s figures are never at rest.  They twist and turn in a spiraling motion that art historians call the figura serpentinata, or the “serpentine figure.”  This dynamic pose invests his figures with dynamism and motion, and creates an emotional tension that expresses psychological states of being.  The coiling motion of his figures can be read as an outward manifestation of the inner struggles of the human soul.

The Pieta
After the fall of the Medici in 1494, Michelangelo traveled to Rome where he was commissioned to sculpt the Pieta for a French Cardinal.  One of his earliest works, the statue depicts Mary seated with her dead son across her lap.  A common theme in French and German art, the image was supposed to cue up memories of the Virgin with the Christ Child on her lap, enhancing the emotional pathos of the scene, and reminding viewers of the coming resurrection and promise of salvation.

Michelangelo, Pieta, 1498-1500

The anatomical accuracy of Christ’s body is astonishing, and indicates that Michelangelo was able to surpass ancient Greek sculptors through his study of human anatomy.  But like his Greek predecessors, Michelangelo was deeply committed to representing the “ideal,” rather than reality, and his figures have been suitably “perfected” to express a higher, and more God-like state of being.

Artistic License
When Michelangelo’s statue was completed, he was criticized for portraying Mary as a young girl, rather than the mature mother of a 33-year-old man.  The artist defended himself by appealing to “artistic license.”  He explained that he portrayed Mary as youthful and beautiful, because it more truthfully expressed her inner purity and perfection.  In this way, Michelangelo defended the artist’s right to depart from accepted “rules” (and, in this case, official church doctrine), in order to express a deeper artistic truth.

Michelangelo, Pietà, marble, 1498-1500 (Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker.

A copy of Michelangelo’s David that now stands in front of the Florentine Town Hall, where it was originally placed

When democracy was restored in Florence, Michelangelo was called home to create a statue of David for the cathedral.  The block of marble he was given had been started by a previous artist, and the dimensions presented considerable challenges.  But when the statue was completed, it was so widely regarded as a masterpiece that it was placed in front of the Palazzo Vecchio (instead of on the cathedral, as originally planned), where David was called upon once again to be a rousing symbol of Florentine political freedom.

Michelangelo, David, marble, 1501-04 (Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence)

Standing over 14 feet tall, Michelangelo’s David is an imposing figure.  Like the Greek statues that inspired it, the figure is completely nude, and is standing in the classical contraposto pose.  While Donatello’s David had depicted the calm moment after the battle, Michelangelo chose to depict the tense moment before David’s encounter with the giant.  With the sling thrown over his shoulder, and the rock clutched in his right hand, David scans the horizon anticipating the arrival of his enemy.  Tension can be read in his concentrated gaze, and in the contractions of the muscles of his otherwise relaxed body.  Outwardly calm, we sense the inward feeling of tension and gathering strength.

Michelangelo, David, marble, 1501-04 (Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence) A conversation with Khan Academy’s Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris.

Artistic License
Michelangelo took great liberties with his statue of David.  While the biblical account describes David as an adolescent boy (which Donatello adhered to faithfully), Michelangelo chose to show him as a full-grown man.  It is as if he wanted to show the inner soul of the hero, rather than his physical appearance – for although David may have been a boy, he had the courage of a giant!

Michelangelo also took liberties with the proportions of the body.  While David looks perfect, the anatomy is all wrong:  his arms are too long, and his hands and feet are too large.  In spite of his scientific study of anatomy, Michelangelo believed that the artist should not just “copy” reality (indeed, he did not like Van Eyck’s work because of its realism).  Instead, he believed that the artist should improve upon nature to achieve ideal perfection, and that the ultimate judge of beauty was the eye of the artist.  As Michelangelo explained, measure and proportion should be “kept in the eyes,” and true beauty can only come from the concette, or “idea” in the mind of the artist, rather than from nature alone.

Raphael, Pope Julius II, c. 1512

Michelangelo in Rome
Michelangelo was called to Rome to by Pope Julius II, who modeled himself on the emperors of Rome (he chose the name “Julius” to emulate Julius Caesar).  He was nicknamed the “Warrior-Pope” because he often led his papal armies into battle, and he was criticized for being more “worldly” than was desired for the spiritual leader of Christendom.  His progressive tastes can be seen in his many artistic commissions:  he commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine ceiling, and he hired Bramante to rebuild Saint Peter’s basilica on the model of the Roman Pantheon.  He also hired Raphael to pay homage to the wisdom of the ancients in his School of Athens in the Vatican. It was these lavish and costly projects that Martin Luther saw when he visited Rome in 1510, so Pope Julius II in many ways precipitated the Reformation, and the end of the church’s dominance in Europe.

Raphael, Portrait of Pope Julius II, 1511, oil on poplar, 108.7 x 81 cm (National Gallery, London) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

Michelangelo, Tomb of Julius II

Michelangelo’s first project in Rome was a magnificent tomb for the Pope.  The original design consisted of more than 20 over life-size figures, and should have kept the artist busy for decades.  But funding for the project ran low (marble is very expensive), and the final tomb was a much scaled-down version of the original design.

Michelangelo, Moses, c. 1513-1515

The most impressive figure from the tomb is Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, who measures 8 feet tall while sitting down.  A massive and imposing figure, Moses twists his body in a coiling motion (the figura serpentinata) that suggests he is about to rise in an explosive burst of anger at his fellow Israelites, who were worshipping the Golden Calf while he went up the mountain to receive the tablets of the 10 Commandments (which are tucked underneath his arm).  His long flowing beard ripples with energy, while his muscular arms and legs communicate super-human strength.  Like a Marvel comic super-hero, Moses exemplifies the terribilitá (the sublime, shadowed by the awesome and the fearful) that Michelangelo’s contemporaries attributed to both the artist and his works.

Michelangelo, Moses, marble, ca. 1513-15 (San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker.

Michelangelo, Slaves, Louvre Museum
Michelangelo, Slaves, Louvre Museum

Several unfinished statues that were part of the original design for Julius’ tomb survive, and they are amongst Michelangelo’s most expressive works.  The so-called Dying and Rebellious slaves remain unfinished, yet they embody all the pathos of the human struggle for divine redemption.

Michelangelo, The Slaves (commonly referred to as the Dying Slave and the Rebellious Slave), marble, 2.09 m high, 1513-15 (Musée du Louvre, Paris) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

Michelangelo, Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, fresco, 1508-1512 (Vatican City, Rome)

As funding for his tomb ran out, Pope Julius II asked Michelangelo to work on a less expensive project:  the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  Michelangelo initially turned the offer down, claiming he was a sculptor not a painter, but the Pope prevailed and convinced him to take on the job.

The ceiling depicts the epic story of the Creation and Fall of humankind.  It begins with the separation of light and dark, and ends with the Drunkenness of Noah.  The ancestors of Christ are depicted in the triangular compartments above the windows, and the ancient Prophets and Sybils who foretold the Coming of Christ (and hence humanity’s redemption) are pictured on either side of the panels depicting the scenes from Genesis.

Click here for a virtual look at the Sistine Chapel:  http://www.stumbleupon.com/su/1kpcQm/www.vatican.va/various/cappelle/sistina_vr/index.html/

Michelangelo, Creation of Adam, Sistine Ceiling, 1511-1512

The centerpiece of the ceiling is the Creation of Adam.  Reclining on the ground like an ancient river god, Adam is a magnificent nude figure, with a muscular physique that recalls Greek sculptures such as the Apollo Belvedere.  His gestures are slow and lugubrious, as if he is waking from sleep, while God descends from the heavens beneath a billowing mantle that explodes with energy and movement.  As he reaches out to touch Adam’s finger, we witness the dramatic moment when the “spark” of divine spirit passes between them, bringing Adam to life.

Divine Beauty

Expulsion of Adam and Eve, Hunterian Psalter, c. 1170
Expulsion of Adam and Eve, Hunterian Psalter, c. 1170

While Medieval images of Adam and Eve emphasized shame and sin, Michelangelo’s painting proclaims that man is God’s most perfect creation — and that it is God’s spirit that animates his soul.  According to the Bible, “God made man in the image of himself,” and Michelangelo visualizes this idea by showing Adam as a mirror image of his Creator.  As Michelangelo explained, the human body is beautiful precisely because it is a reflection of God’s beauty on earth:

“Nowhere does God, in his grace, reveal himself to me more clearly than in some lovely human form, which I love solely because it is a mirrored image of himself.”

Divine Creation
Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam also seems to express the artist’s unique ideas about artistic creation.  He argued that the sculptor gave life to the block of stone in much the same way that God created life.  In this view, God was the “first” artist — and his greatest masterpiece was mankind!

The Ignudi
Framing the scenes along the central vault of the Sistine ceiling are nude figures called ignudi.  They have no source in the biblical account (i.e. they are a pure invention by the artist), and scholars remain uncertain about their meaning.  Their nudity led some critics to denounce the work as “pagan,” complaining that the figures were unsuitable for a chapel dedicated to important papal ceremonies, including the election of the Pope.

The ignudi exemplify Michelangelo’s restless energy and pent-up emotion.  They twist and turn in poses that express agitation and intense inner emotions.  It is as if they are acting out the human experience of the story that unfolds across the ceiling, dramatizing the struggle of the human soul as it confronts the consequences of the Fall.

Click here for a panoramic view of the Sistine Chapel:  http://www.vatican.va/various/cappelle/sistina_vr/index.html

Michelangelo, Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, 1508-12, fresco (Vatican, Rome) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker

Web Resources:

Michelangelo’s Drawings, British Museum

Michelangelo, Smarthistory

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