|Michelangelo: Moses, 1513-15 (marble, more than 8' tall), from the Tomb for Pope Julius II||Michelangelo: Bound Slave, 1513-16, 6'10", marble|
Although Michelangelo revised his plans
for the tomb more than once, and the final version had far fewer figures
than he originally intended, the figure of Moses does seem to express his
true intentions. Looking at the face of Moses up close, it's hard to
know exactly what emotion to call it: anger? a mixture of fear and awe? something
like the determination we see in the face of David? Standing below the statue,
as Michelangelo originally planned, we might not care about the precise identification
of the emotion so much as the sense that this figure conveys of dynamism
and potential movement. The bound and struggling slaves which may have been
designed for the tomb are a good expression of Michelangelo's neoplatonic
beliefs. Not only did the soul need to struggle to escape from the
mortal body, but in his hands, the act of sculpting was a comparable struggle
to release the scupture from the stone. Michelangelo took the classical
idea of contrapposto, a balanced body position which suggests movement
through the slight imbalance of the hips, and exaggerated it to the point
where the entire body is twisted. It is a much more dynamic body position,
suggesting extreme struggle. [The term which is generally used to describe
the bound slave is figura serpentinata, meaning that body twists in
opposing directions like a serpent.]
|view facing away from the Last Judgment||facing the altar: The Last Judgment|
The different coloration of the two
photos above can give you some sense of the differences in how the chapel
looks before and after the recent cleaning although these examples (see below)
provide a more complete sense of the revelations and process used. The cleaning
forced a reassessment of Michelangelo's fresco and the impact it may have
had on subsequent painters. Not only was he a superb draftsman, but
his use of bright and lyrical colors was much more imaginative than had previously
In the entire ceiling, note how most
of what appears to be architectural formations (cornices, entablatures, partitions)
is actually illusionistic painting. It is important to recognize that
despite the use of illusionistic architecture and statues sitting or standing
on the walls, Michelangelo did not create the type of illusion that Raphael
or Mantegna did in their frescoes. In the works of both of those artists,
the painting on the wall became a stage or window opening onto another scene.
Michelangelo treated each scene in his ceiling as a separate painting,
the way Giotto did. As a result, the illusion, or trompe l'oeil
effect of architecture, is limited to the architectural framework but does
not extend to the actual scenes of genesis painted in the ceiling. Each
scene has its own perspective and independent space. This more effectively
creates the sense that they are taking place in another realm or sphere,
one which is above the viewer and on another plane of existence.
The arrangement of the scenes of genesis
is chronological, alternating in terms of size of the scenes, large and small,
in a regular and rhythmic pattern. The structure is true to Renaissance
beliefs about the shape of Christian history, that it did and would continue
to unfold in an ordered sequence of events, following a divine plan.
The only deviation is that most of the scenes can be read as more than one
event, giving Michelangelo's creation a quality which is similar to that
of Leonardo's Last Supper: the sense of time unfolding in a continuous
and dream-like reality as opposed to a linear, minute-by-minute narrative.
|the Creation of Adam|
The creation of Adam, undoubtedly the most famous element from the ceiling, is also the most significant in terms of the divine moral. Adam, created in the image of God, is listless, earthbound, inert. God has already created him, but now he passes the spark of divine grace onto Adam. The green scarf on God's side of the scene and the green land under Adam suggest the promise of the union. This is further suggested by the woman and child next to God: the woman under his arm is probably the woman who will be Eve while the child is probably Christ; the symbolic suggestion here is that Christ and Adam are the same, a suggestion also made in the creation of Eve. In the scene of the creation of Eve, we see Adam as a sign of the fallen Christ.
|The Last Judgment||[detail]|
Historians have long debated the stylistic
changes which can be seen in the Last Judgment -- in particular, the
fact that Michelangelo ceased to idealize the human body (with the exception
of Christ, St. Bartholomew, and a few other figures surrounding Christ).
In addition to the unusual self-portrait in the flayed skin of Marsyas, it
is a despairing Last Judgment. Located on the altar wall, conveying
a sense of sloping weight which drags down on the side of evil, people have
wondered if the wall represented Michelangelo's disillusionment with the
effects of the Reformation, or conversely, if it represents his continued
hope for the possibility of change. A third possibility is that the wall
should simply be understood as a revision in his style near the end of his
career. What is undeniable, regardless of interpretation, is that the
Sistine Chapel, as a large body of work, gives us Michelangelo's study of
illusionism and beauty in the human body at a degree of perfection that he
could only surpass in his sculpture. In that sense, the ignudi (nude
male figures) and prophets, imitations of scupture which appear to be coming
to life, evoke the bound slaves, the Pietas, and the other sculptural works
which precede and follow the Sistine Chapel.
|one of the ignudi (nude men)||one of the sibyls (prophets who foretold the coming of Christ)|
|David, 1501-4||back view of David||head of David|
After Savonarola was executed, the
republic of Florence needed a new visual language to celebrate its control
over its fate. The image was David, a theme of the weak defeating the giant
(in this case, the republic, protecting itself from tyrannical forces). Eventually,
the city removed the Medici David (by Donatello) and placed it, along
with Verocchio's and Michelangelo's, in the same public square.
Michelangelo's David is realistic and idealized. The size of the figure, over 13 feet high (with the base), made the statue a worthy competitor to the ancient statues of Greece and Rome. The combination of realism in the body and idealism without placing David's traditional attributes (such as the sling shot) in plain sight allows the statue to stand for David and symbolize other heroes at the same time. Hercules, in particular, is suggested by the nudity of the figure and the rocky base and tree stump at the foot of the statue. Hercules had been a symbol of Florence since the 13th century. To Florentine citizens, the fact that this David stood on a base of craggy rock was a connection to Hercules' choice of virtue (the rock) over vice (a landscape of flowers and grass).
|Michelangelo: plan for the new St. Peter's, 1546||engraving of Michelangelo's drawing of the west facade and dome|
It is difficult to judge his work for the new St. Peter's. Although much of the final plan is the work of Michelangelo, the entrance facade, the dome, and the interior space are not. At the same time, we can note that his plan and vision of the relationship of the dome to the building represented a focused, concentrated vision which supports his understanding of the building as an organic "being" in which all the parts must work together. The drawing shows us that Michelangelo wanted the dome to be hemispheric and to rise from a solid base which repeats the forms of the building beneath it. In photographs of the building from the same angle, the relationship of the dome to the base is less fluid and more abrupt, and the dome is slightly pointed, also interrupting the sense of flow which Michelangelo had envisioned.
Vestibule of the Laurentian Library
Although some books treat this as an example of Mannerist architecture, his work for the Laurentian library occupied a long period of his life and probably embodies his changing ideas about art and architecture, making it difficult to ascribe it to a single period. Among the unsettling (and more Mannerist) features of this vestibule are the paired Doric columns which are placed in rectangular niches in the wall. The columns are disproportionately thick. They are placed in the niches in such a way as to look as though they are not weight-bearing, to give them a role similar to that of sculpture. But Michelangelo's columns, which do not appear to be filling a structural role, are in fact structural and support piers which support the roof. Other examples of his manipulation of the rules of antiquity can be found while the stairs themselves are a dramatic departure from Renaissance style. In metaphoric and visual terms, the room communicates animated qualities -- flowing, compressing, pushing, restraining, subverting -- and it follows naturally from his sculpted and painted bodies.
Much as he did in the ceiling of the
Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo created a setting in which each part retains
its individuality even as they work together to create a whole. Recall
that this was an artist who relied less and less on "rules" and proportions
and more and more on inspiration and imagination as his career progressed,
and especially after the reformation.
|Michelangelo: Laurentian Library, Florence, beg. 1524|