Attempts at demolishing Michelangelo’s
masterpiece over its nudes
Sixteenth century condemnations of the Sistine Chapel paintings
Long before Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, about 35,000 years ago the first images of human beings were carved in the nude. Today, 11 billion miles away in the immensity of space, Pioneer 10 spacecraft travels the universe carrying a plaque illustrating what humans look like : one naked man and one naked woman. From the earliest days of sculpting and painting, the nude has been one of the defining features of mankind’s creativity.
During the Renaissance, artists rediscovered the art of ancient Greece and Rome, when gods looked human, and the athlete incarnated human perfection. But why the need for nudity? According to Plato, “it is not long since the Greeks thought it disgraceful and ridiculous, as most of the barbarians do now, for men to be seen naked”. In Ancient Greece nudity meant civilisation while considering the nude “disgraceful and ridiculous” was for barbarians. Athletic and intellectual achievements were related, as the gymnasium -the very word comes from ‘nude’- also had a library, to exercise both mind and body.
Nudity expressed the harmony between inner and outer excellence, while clothing revealed one’s status in life, as a general, a magistrate or a matron. Being in the nude was like taking on a costume, becoming a hero returning from battle or a victorious athlete. Since gods looked human, heroic nudity also meant hoping to benefit from the god’s immortality.
Such was the world Renaissance artists were trying to revive. Ambitious, they were pushing the boundaries between artistic freedom and the moral, social and religious norms of their day. One of them, Raphael, even wrote to Pope Leo X to remind him where the responsibility of the loss of ancient statues lay : “How many Pontiffs allowed ancient temples, statues, arches to fall prey to ruin and spoliation? How much mortar was made from the statues and other ornaments of the ancients? I would go so far as to say that all this new Rome that can be seen today is built using mortar made from ancient marbles”. He invited the Pope to “seek to equal and better the ancients, by supporting and favouring the virtues, reawakening genius, rewarding virtuous endeavours”.
One of those geniuses was Michelangelo, whose talents meant he spent most of his career as the sculptor, painter and architect of the Papacy. When the Sistine Chapel ceiling was revealed “the whole world came running, and the sight of it was enough to reduce them to stunned silence”. But not everyone was taken by the power of Michelangelo’s painting, as some were instead offended by the nudity. This is how, for the first time, a Pope contemplated destroying the Sistine Chapel ceiling, as Hadrian VI “had started to talk of wanting to cast down to the ground the Chapel of the divine Michelangelo, for the reason it was a stew of nudes; he looked with distaste even upon paintings and statues of good quality, and called them sinful, worldly, shameful and abominable”.
Twenty-five years after having painted the ceiling, Michelangelo returned to the Sistine Chapel to paint an immense wall with the Last Judgment. While he was working, a church official complained that “it was a most unseemly thing in such a venerable place to have painted so many nudes that so indecently display their shame” and deemed the work a better fit “for baths or taverns”.
But Michelangelo did not take criticism lightly. When he was painting the ceiling, he wanted no one to see it, so when the Pope sneaked in for a look, Michelangelo “dropped some planks when the pope entered the chapel … forcing the pope to leave in anger”. On another occasion, the painter dared to tell the Pope, to his face, that his work would only be done “when it satisfies me in its artistic details”.
How did a man who was “difficult” even with Popes and Kings respond to being told his art was only good for taverns? With his brush, painting the impudent critic in Hell, with donkey ears and a snake biting the very part meant to be hidden. Being painted by Michelangelo meant gaining eternity, forever looking like a fool.
But the nudity was still problematic to several Popes, so when a messenger told Michelangelo the Pope asked him to “tidy up” the painting, meaning remove or hide the nudity, the artist’s reply was dismissive, “tell the Pope this is a small thing and can be very easily tidied up; in the meantime he should tidy up the world”.
Michelangelo could tell Popes off as much as he pleased, his Last Judgment nevertheless became the most criticised artwork of the Renaissance. The religious climate had changed, as the Church was being threatened by the Reform, and the role of art and nudity was questioned. Critics complained that it was “most indecent”, of the “so many nudes that indecently reveal their front and back sides”, that it was “dirty and revolting” and “more suitable in a theatre or in a setting for a comedy where something obscene were performed”. Michelangelo was creating a religious image in the heart of the Vatican, in an age of religious turmoil, which led to the dangerous argument that it contained “a thousand heresies”.
With both the nudity and religious message under attack, calls to “cast down to the ground” the paintings grew stronger. One critic called Michelangelo an “inventor of filth”, another called the painting “a sight to which eyes would be shut tight even in a brothel. What you have done would be appropriate in a voluptuous whorehouse, not in a supreme choir”. Both critics called for its destruction, wishing that “one day God will send his Saints to throw down such idolatries”.
Some tried to defend Michelangelo as “the work is of such beauty, there is nonetheless no lack of those who condemn it” and temper the criticism “that the nudes are not fitting in such a place, showing their parts, even though Michelangelo has exercised considerable tact in this, as there are scarcely ten in the whole multitude where you can see sexual organs”. Another called the critics “ignorant agitators” who only focus on nudity “out of shame”.
While the critics complained, Michelangelo kept on working. At 75 years of age he was still painting for the Vatican. As an architect he also had a major influence on the design of Saint Peter’s Basilica, but refused to be paid for this work.
Yet, just before he died at 88 years of age, his reward for having produced not only some of the most powerful Christian images ever created, but a universal masterpiece, was the order to cover his figures : “the pictures in the Apostolic Chapel should be covered over, and those in other churches should be destroyed, if they display anything obscene or clearly false”.
The order followed the Church decision that “every superstition shall be removed, all filthy lucre be abolished; finally, all lasciviousness be avoided; in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust”, meaning nudity had either to be hidden or destroyed.
Michelangelo did not live to see the ignominy of his work being modified by others, those who painted loincloths over his nudes, thus earning them the nickname “breeches painters”. But concealing nudity was not enough to ward off the threat of destruction, as several Popes were receptive to the idea of either destroying the paintings or covering them entirely. For example Paul IV “wished to throw it to the ground, saying it was not right that in St Peter’s there should be such wicked exhibition of nakedness and buffooneries”.
The talk of destruction of the Sistine Chapel paintings was seen as an opportunity for ambitious artists. El Greco heard that Pope Gregory XIII complained of the “obscenities and low-class figures”, so proposed that “if the entire work were demolished”, he would gladly offer to “remake it with honesty and modesty”.
The last serious attempt at demolishing the paintings was done by Clement VIII, as “the Pope wished that Michelangelo’s painting be scrapped off, as it was dishonest” and was only stopped when the director of the Arts Academy “threw himself at the Pope’s feet and passionately begged so that Rome would not be deprived of such marvel”.
The masterpiece with the power to “move the hearts of all those who know nothing about painting, as well as the hearts of those who understand” fortunately survived the repeated calls to destroy it. Two nude figures were destroyed, the others painted over. Eventually the vibrant colours disappeared under the grey veil of centuries of accumulated candle soot.
When the major cleaning of the frescoes was revealed, Pope John Paul II called the paintings “a priceless cultural and universal heritage”. He addressed the reasons to paint human figures “Adam was created in the image and likeness of God” and lauded Michelangelo’s approach “we are probably witnesses to an extraordinary piece of artistic audacity”. He stated that “in the artistic representation of the divine mysteries the great humility of the body must be expressed so that what is divine can be revealed, it is also true that God is the source of the integral beauty of the body”.
Then he addressed the nakedness of the figures “It seems that Michelangelo, in his own way, allowed himself to be guided by the evocative words of the Book of Genesis which, as regards the creation of the human being, male and female, reveals: ‘The man and his wife were both naked, yet they felt no shame’. The Sistine Chapel is precisely — if one may say so — the sanctuary of the theology of the human body”.
Another admirer, Auguste Rodin, made a fairly similar point “the form and the attitude of a human being reveal the emotions of its soul. The body always expresses the spirit whose envelope it is”. As to nudity “for him who can see, the nude offers the richest meaning… Man’s naked form belongs to no particular moment in history; it is eternal, and can be looked upon with joy by the people of all ages”.
This is an extract of the chapter “Cover up that bosom which I can’t endure to look on — the destruction of nudes” from the forthcoming book ‘Lost Treasures, the destruction of works of human genius by intolerance and greed’, an engaging journey through 5,000 years of creation and destruction.
Sources : all quotes are 16th century sources, Vasari, Aretino, from Raphael and Baldassare Castiglione letter to Leo X, the Council of Trent, and others. The words about saving the Sistine Chapel from Clement VIII are translated, for the first time, from Melchiorre Missirini’s 1823 history of Rome’s Accademia di San Luca. Plus of course Rodin and then John Paul II homily of the 8th April 1994.