When I was a teenager in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I remember Mom reading the fictionalized biography by Irving Stone about Michelangelo. She liked to call the book “the a-GO-nie and the ec-STASS-ie.” She was probably trying to fool me into believing these were Italian words or something.
It wasn’t until several years later that I became very interested in Michelangelo, along with Leonardo, having heard these two were especially prominent in changing the face of art in Europe.
Michelangelo’s David was the first colossal nude (17 feet tall) to stand in a piazza since Imperial Rome. He was in his early thirties when he created it.
I read my own biography of Michelangelo while studying him at school, and knew that he was kind of a misfit and not a very happy man, throughout his life. But he was considered perhaps the greatest artist of his time and vied, in many people’s eyes, with Leonardo for the title of Renaissance Man. Two biographies, almost unheard of, were written about him while he was still alive, that is how famous he was.
Anyway, the guy was good. Really good at what he did, whether it was writing poetry, sonnets, madrigals and epigrams; or sculpting, painting and designing buildings (he was one of the architects of St. Peter’s Basilica). He was foremost a sculptor and he loved finding just the right giant chunk of Carrara marble up in the mountains in northern Tuscany.
There are three stunning works by Michelangelo housed in the Vatican, two in the Sistine Chapel and one in the basilica itself (I’m not counting the church’s dome or any of the other architecture he designed for the building itself).
Let’s start with the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel.
He was hard at work on designing and sculpting figures for Pope Julius II’s tomb, when the Pope hauled him away from his favorite art to create and paint a fresco on the ceiling in the chapel named after his Uncle, Pope Sixtus IV (hence the “Sistine” Chapel).
The art is groundbreaking for a couple of reasons, one of which is: the artist used a painted architecture to help make the scenes cohere.
He uses both Old Testament prophets and pagan sibyls to frame the main theme, all of whom supposedly foretold of the coming of Christ.
The center theme consists of the first nine stories of Genesis, beginning with “Let there be light,” through the drunkenness of Noah.
Our guide, Christian told us a great story:
Michelangelo started with the last panels, those that feature Noah, the flood and the aftermath. After having completed three or four of them, Michelangelo looked at them and decided they couldn’t possibly compete with the “real painters” who’d painted the scenes along the walls below (Botticelli for one).
So he took a metaphorical step back and changed his tactic:
He started to paint sculptures.
The most famous scene – of God’s finger about to touch Adam’s – is a great example of sculpture coming to life in the fresco.
The story goes that he got so good at it that, toward the end of the four years it took to complete the ceiling, Michelangelo could be seen painting with one hand and drinking a coffee with the other.
The Pope fired all his other painters (except Raphael of course) because Michelangelo changed the way painting was done. He was 37.
We were not allowed to take photography in the Chapel due to copyright laws (!) but I bought a book and have tried to help illustrate what I mean:
This panel – one of the early ones he painted – is “The sacrifice of Noah.”
Compare it to the next panel – that of the “Expulsion from Eden” – and I think you can see he has changed from trying to paint a ‘painting,’ to painting sculptures
Oh, how he loved the human form!
Two popes later, Clement VII (a Medici from Florence) commissioned Michelangelo to finish the Chapel by painting “The Last Judgment” on the altar wall. He was 59 when he began.
This fresco is very different from the ceiling fresco.
It is also not the fresco Michelangelo painted, what you see today:
His fresco depicted the risen Christ and his mother, Mary totally nude.
And no one was brave enough to order him to paint clothes on them!
It wasn’t until after his death that the Pope finally ordered a former student of Michelangelo to paint some modesty onto the fresco in the form of a loincloth (for Jesus) and a blue robe (for Mary).
The nudity, however, isn’t what makes this fresco so different from the earlier one. It is the angry, judgmental theme of the entire work. Jesus is no longer a loving, forgiving, gentle god. He is pointing to those being resurrected and sending them up to heaven or down to hell.
The only smiles you’ll find on any of the faces are on those of the demons gleefully biting into the damned and devouring all sorts of body parts.
Look at the face of the guy on the left: he’s doomed and he knows it!
Even the ones who are going to be saved don’t look very happy:
The artist paints in a macabre self-portrait: it’s his face you see on the flayed skin held by Saint Bartholomew (an early Christian martyr who was flayed for his beliefs).
I wonder what this says about Michelangelo's state of mind, that he portrays himself as a flayed piece of skin....
And now I’ll quit before you fall asleep and take one more post to talk about the Basilica of St. Peter.