Michelangelo, Working for God
Michelangelo is one of the most important artists of the Italian Renaissance. His most accomplished work is showcased in Rome’s Vatican City, famously in St Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel…
The ‘Pietà’ (1499) by Michelangelo (di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni)
This marble statue is considered by many to be the clearest expression of Michelangelo’s genius. It’s a fusion of the Classical style with a much more fluid naturalism. The level of crafting is exceptional as is the atmosphere of peace and serenity it evokes. Mary, far from distraught with grief, is instead shown accepting the sacrifice that she and her dead son have made, consoled by their complete trust in the Resurrection.
Michelangelo explained that the youthful face of the Virgin was based on memories of his own mother, who died when he was five. This, and the intention to show her as eternal and incorruptible, led to the Mary of Pietà appearing far more youthful and serene than most other treatments of this subject.
The technical craft is astonishing, especially when considering the tools and techniques of the time — only hammer and chisel, hand-tools and various grades of grit used to smooth and polish. Yet the carved folds speak of fabric softness and the stone flesh looks as if it would yield to the pressure of touch.
The sculpture is naturalistic, though not realistic. Both figures are anatomically correct, but the proportioning has been adapted for reasons of balance and symbolism. Mary is far too big in comparison with the figure of Jesus. This deliberate distortion allows her to hold the body with apparent ease. It also creates the pyramidal structure of the composition, creating an upward dynamic to indicate the symbolic journey from earth to heaven in the forthcoming Ascension.
In ancient art, the size of a figure often designated their importance and this approach persisted in some medieval examples. Here, though, the artist is manipulating his visual language to different ends. The subtle play on scale helps to elicit the emotional response he intends and also introduces a narrative.
Michelangelo re-casts Christ as a child again and thus brings the story full circle, making the work more about re-birth than about death, whilst emphasising the bond between mother and child. The viewer is reminded of the many other depictions of Mother Mary holding the Baby Jesus at the beginning of his life that would lead to this moment, 33 years later. This is a moment between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection when all Mary has to console her is faith — a core motif in Christianity and central to the religious festival of Easter.
Michelangelo was 24 years old when he received this commission. It would be the funerary monument of Cardinal Jean de Bilhères, but was later moved to its own dedicated chapel within St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City. It’s the only statue he signed. It’s said that he was ashamed of this act, claiming that he had become overemotional when he overheard someone wrongly ascribe the statue to a rival artist. Later he felt guilty of pride. He never again signed any of his work. It has long been applauded as the greatest work of Renaissance sculpture and remains to this day a benchmark against which all figurative statuary is judged — if he could not be allowed to feel proud of this achievement… then let that be a lesson to us all!
The Sistine Chapel Paintings (1508–1541) by Michelangelo
This would have been the most prestigious commission for any artist of the time, to be employed by the Pope (Julius the Second) to decorate a major chapel in the Palace of the Vatican. Michelangelo initially turned it down! He wanted to concentrate on sculptural commissions, one of which was for the Pope’s own tomb.
The Pope, though, would accept no refusal and, after continued negotiations, eventually convinced Michelangelo to take up the commission. It seems the winning factor was that the Pope agreed to allow Michelangelo artistic freedom to decide what he would paint on the ceiling and how he would portray it. The Pope insisted that the images be rich in meaning, but otherwise left the content at the discretion of the artist, subject to continual review and approval, of course.
Another clause of the contract was that Michelangelo be allowed to work exclusively on the project. The writer Vasari tells us that Michelangelo worked solo on the paintings, not even allowing assistants to grind and mix his pigments. This was highly unusual as most Renaissance Masters would’ve drawn full-size ‘cartoons’ for such an undertaking, and then had a team of assistants and students trace the designs and fill-in most of the colours. The Master would only then then step in to work on the ‘important’ details like hands and faces.
The Sistine Chapel Ceiling (1508–1512) is probably the best known of Michelangelo’s work and one of the most famous works of art in the world. To plan the scenes, he went direct to the texts for inspirations and interpreted them in his own way. This was a break with tradition because artists were trained to study other treatments of the same figure or subject in sacred art and base their versions on similar poses and compositions — a ‘hangover’ from icon paintings that followed the template approach to make the meanings more easily ‘read’ by a generally illiterate population. Much religious art of the time was simply technical reproduction that left little room for the creativity of an individual artist.
Instead, Michelangelo shunned this approach and invented a dazzling array of new poses. He painted dynamic figures that were not based on established iconography or Classical postures. The narrative he chose to illustrated was a dramatic re-telling of Genesis from Creation, with a Zeus-like God separating day from the night, to the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, then the story of Noah and the Great Flood, and on to the First Covenant with Moses. Think of it as a great big comic book!
Michelangelo also designed his own scaffold and platform system that could be moved as he painted each section, with suspended sheeting to catch drips of plaster and paint. He worked at close quarters, standing to apply the plaster and paint, though sometimes laying down to view the work. In one of his sketches, he records the physically demanding posture he had to adopt, for hours on end. In this simple sketch, he shows himself painting one of the figures of God. Cleverly, the stance of God, as He divides Light from Darkness and gives Creation its form, echoes the artist’s own as he painted the figure. (Hang on, what was that about pride?)
The fresco technique he employed required fast work as the final layer of plaster had to be freshly smoothed and the paints applied before it dried. This ensured the pigments sunk in and would be less likely to fade, peel or crack. With this technique, any errors couldn’t be erased or corrected. If a mistake was made, the plaster would have to be hacked away and a new layer added before painting again.
After completing the ceiling, there was an interval of twenty-four years before he added The Last Judgment (1536–1541), painted on the wall above the altar. This was commissioned by Pope Paul the Third and again Michelangelo was given artistic freedom.
At the centre of the huge fresco is the muscular and masculine figure of Jesus, surrounded by many saints with sinners being cast back down. This dynamic swirl of floating and falling figures established an accepted template for depicting Last Judgment scenes.
The figures, though dynamic and gravity-defying, are a return to the Classical aesthetics that Michelangelo admired and look almost like paintings of statues, their solidity helping them to stand out against the blue of the sky that surrounds them. The blue is clearly dominant, but he cleverly uses conflicting warm colours, reds and oranges, to make the scene seem brighter and create an illusion of depth— a technique that would be exploited, centuries later, by the Impressionists.
The poses and faces are also very expressive and are a fine example of how the art of the Renaissance followed a similar evolution to the Classical art that it was the ‘rebirth’ of. Both Classical art and its Renaissance began with a static, ‘severe’ style — in which faces and poses generally implied their subjects were unimpressed, bored or vaguely disapproving; before developing ‘classical naturalism’ — imbuing their subjects with an expressive vocabulary to imply dramatic reactions and emotional responses.
Although Michelangelo was allowed to paint according to his own design, he went too far for the sentiments of the day. Another artist was soon sent in with instructions to cover up anything ‘too Greek’. Daniele da Volterra, a pupil of Michelangelo was given the job of painting loincloths and drapery around the figures to cover any nudity. Presumably no one could reach the ceiling, and so many of those figures remain naked and true to the Classical tradition!
A version of this article was first published in my book Evolution of Western Art (questing beast books, 2012)