Michelangelo: The Artist as Divinely Inspired Genius

If we tried to summarize Michelangelo's philosophy in four phrases, it would probably go like this:
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.]

The Sistine Chapel: Ceiling, 1508-12; Last Judgment, 1538-41

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 been thought.

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.

Michelangelo and the Reformation: The Last Judgment

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)

Michelangelo's Sculpture

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.

[Donatello] [Verrocchio] [Michelangelo]

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's Architecture

With Michelangelo we find the beginning of a shift in terms of Renaissance ideals about architecture.  In particular, he begins to introduce the the idea of architecture as embodying movement.  Although we only see hints of this in the statue of David, we see the hint of something which will become increasingly important to Michelangelo and will most certainly be felt in his architecture -- a quality which signals the beginning of a change away from the ideals of Renaissance and classical art to a new type of art. In Michelangelo, this quality is a sense of movement and power, rather than beauty, as the new ideal. Movement and power result in a sense of incomplete form, even formlessness, as the forms of perfect anatomy are denied. For Michelangelo, this incomplete form or formlessness was the sign of the organic quality of the living thing.  In fact, for Michelangelo the forces of the building could be understood as the muscles of human body. The parts of the building would fit together and function in much the same way as the parts of the human being, because the building would live and breathe just as a living organism did.
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