Italian Painter, Sculptor, Poet, and Architect
Caprese, Arezzo, Florence
Progression of Art
This statue of Bacchus depicts the Roman god of wine precariously perched on a rock in a state of drunkenness. He wears a wreath of ivy and holds a goblet in one hand, brought up toward his lips for a drink. In the other hand, he holds a lion skin, which is a symbol for death derived from the myth of Hercules. From behind his left leg peeks a satyr, significant to the cult of Bacchus often representing a drunken, lusty, woodland deity.
The work, one of Michelangelo's earliest, caused much controversy. It was originally commissioned by Cardinal Riario and was inspired by a description of a lost bronze sculpture by the ancient sculptor Praxiteles. But when Riario saw the finished piece he found it inappropriate and rejected it. Michelangelo sold it to his banker Jacopo Galli instead.
Despite its colored past though, the piece is evidence of Michelangelo's early genius. His excellent knowledge of anatomy is seen in the androgynous figure's body which Vasari described as having the "the slenderness of a young man and the fleshy roundness of a woman." A high center of gravity lends the figure a sense of captured movement, which Michelangelo would later perfect even further for David. Although intended to mimic classical Greek sculpture and distressed toward an antique appearance, Michelangelo remained true to what in visual human terms it means to be drunk; the unseemly swaying body was unlike any depiction of a god in classical Greek and Roman sculpture. Art historian Claire McCoy said of the sculpture, "Bacchus marked a moment when originality and imitation of the antique came together."
Marble - Museo del Bargello, Florence
This was the first of a number of Pietàs Michelangelo worked on during his lifetime. It depicts the body of Jesus in the lap of his mother after the Crucifixion. This particular scene is one of the seven sorrows of Mary used in Catholic devotional prayers and depicts a key moment in her life foretold by the prophet, Simeon.
Cardinal Jean de Bilhères commissioned the work, stating that he wanted to acquire the most beautiful work of marble in Rome, one that no living artist could better. The 24-year-old Michelangelo answered this call, carving the work in two years out of a single block of marble.
Although the work continued a long tradition of devotional images used as aids for prayer, which was developed in Germany in the 1300s, the depiction was uniquely connotative of Italian Renaissance art of the time. Many artists were translating traditional religious narratives in a highly humanist vein blurring the boundaries between the divine and man by humanizing noted biblical figures and taking liberties with expression. Mary was a common subject, portrayed in myriad ways, and in this piece Michelangelo presented her not as a woman in her fifties, but as an unusually youthful beauty. As Michelangelo related to his biographer Ascanio Condivi, "Do you not know that chaste women stay fresh much more than those who are not chaste?"
Not only was Pietà the first depiction of the scene in marble, but Michelangelo also moved away from the depiction of the Virgin's suffering which was usually portrayed in Pietàs of the time, instead presenting her with a deep sense of maternal tenderness for her child. Christ too, shows little sign of his recent crucifixion with only slightly discernible small nail marks in his hands and the wound in his side. Rather than a dead Christ, he looks as if he is asleep in the arms of his mother as she waits for him to awake, symbolic of the resurrection.
A pyramidal structure signature to the time was also used: Mary's head at the top and then the gradual widening through her layered garments to the base. The draped clothing gives credence to Michelangelo's mastery of marble, as they retain a sense of flowing movement, far removed from the typical characteristic of stone.
This is the only sculpture Michelangelo ever signed. In a fiery fit of reaction to rumors circulating that the piece was made by one of his competitors, Cristoforo Solari, he carved his name across Mary's sash right between her breasts. He also split his name in two as Michael Angelus, which can be seen as a reference to the Archangel Michael - an egotistical move and one he would later regret. He swore to never again sign another piece and stayed true to his word.
The Pietà became famous immediately following its completion and was pivotal in contributing to Michelangelo's fame. Despite an attack in 1972, which damaged Mary's arm and face, it was restored and continues to inspire awe in visitors to this day.
Marble - St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City, Rome
This 17 foot tall statue depicts the prophet David, majestic and nude, with the slingshot he used to kill Goliath, slung victoriously over one shoulder.
The piece was commissioned by the Opera del Duomo for the Cathedral of Florence, a project that was originally meant to be a series of sculptures of prophets for the rooftop. Although David's familiarity stems from the classic religious tale, the statue became not only a rendition of the tale, but a symbol for the new Florentine Republic of its defiant independence from Medici rule.
Considered one of Michelangelo's great masterpieces. An exquisite example of his knowledge of anatomy can be seen in David's musculature, his strength emphasized through the classical contrapposto stance, with weight shifting onto his right leg. A sense of naturalism is conveyed in the way the body stands determined, a confident glare on the young man's face. The top half of the body was made slightly larger than the legs so that viewers glancing up at it or from afar would experience a more authentic perspective. The realism was seen as so powerful that Vasari praised it as Michelangelo's "miracle...to restore life to one who was dead."
During the Early Renaissance, Donatello had revived the classical nude as subject matter and made a David of his own. But Michelangelo's version, with its towering height, is unmistakably the most iconic version. As was customary to Michelangelo and his work, this statue was simultaneously revered and controversial.
The plaster cast of David now resides at the Victoria and Albert Museum. During visits by notable women such as Queen Victoria, a detachable plaster fig leaf was added, strategically placed atop the private parts.
On another occasion, a replica of David was offered to the municipality of Jerusalem to mark the 3,000th anniversary of King David's conquest of the city. Religious factions in Jerusalem urged that the gift be declined because the naked figure was considered pornographic. A fully clad replica of David by Andrea del Verrocchio, a Florentine contemporary of Michelangelo, was donated instead.
Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence - Marble
Doni Tondo (Holy Family)
Holy Family, the only finished panel painting by the artist to survive, was commissioned by Agnolo Doni for his marriage to Maddalena Strozzi, daughter of a powerful Tuscan family, which gives it its name. It portrays Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and an infant John the Baptist. The intimate tenderness of the figures governed by the father's loving gaze emphasizes the love of family and divine love, representing the cores of Christian faith. In contrast, the five nude males in the background symbolize pagans awaiting redemption. The round (tondo) form was customary for private commissions and Michelangelo designed the intricate gold carved wooden frame. The work is believed to be entirely by his hand.
We find many of the artist's influences in this painting, including Signorelli's Madonna. It is also said to have been influenced by Leonardo's The Virgin and Child with St Anne, a cartoon (full scale drawing) that Michelangelo saw while working on his David in 1501. The nude figures in the background are said to have been influenced by the ancient statue of Laocoön and His Sons (the Trojan priest) attributed to the Greek sculptors Agesander, Athenodoros and Polydorus, which was excavated in Rome in 1506 and publicly displayed in the Vatican.
Yet influences aside, the piece is distinctly Michelangelo, an example of his individualism, which was considered very avant-garde for the time. It was a significant shift from the serene, static rendition of figures depicted in classical Roman and Greek sculpture. Its twisting figures signify enormous energy and movement and the vibrant colors add to the majesty of the work, which were later used in his frescos in the Sistine Chapel. The soft modelling of the figures in the background with the focused details in the foreground gives this small painting great depth.
This painting is said to have laid the foundations of Mannerism which in contrast to the High Renaissance devotion to proportion and idealized beauty, preferred exaggeration and affectation rather than natural realism.
Tempera on panel - Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
The Creation of Adam
This legendary painting, part of the vast masterpiece that adorns the Sistine Chapel, shows Adam as a muscular classical nude, reclining on the left, as he extends his hand toward God who fills the right half of the painting. God rushes toward him, his haste conveyed by his white flaring robe and the energetic movements of his body. God is surrounded by angels and cherubim, all encased within a red cloud, while a feminine figure thought to be Eve or Sophia, symbol of wisdom, peers out with curious interest from underneath Adam's arm. Behind Adam, the green ledge upon which he lies, and the mountainous background create a strong diagonal, emphasizing the division between mortal he and heavenly God. As a result the viewer's eye is drawn to the hands of God and Adam, outlined in the central space, almost touching. Some have noted that the shape of the red cloud resembles the shape of the human brain, as if the artist meant to imply God's intent to infuse Adam with not merely animate life, but also the important gift of consciousness.
This was an innovative depiction of the creation of Adam. Contrary to traditional artworks, God is not shown as aloof and regal, separate and above mortal man. For Michelangelo, it was important to depict the all-powerful giver of life as one distinctly intimate with man, whom he created in his own image. This reflected the humanist ideals of man's essential place in the world and the connection to the divine. The bodies maintain the sculptural quality so reminiscent of his painting, carrying on the mastery of human anatomy signature to the High Renaissance.
Many subsequent artists have studied and attempted to imitate parts of the work for what art historians Gabriele Bartz and Eberhard König called its "unprecedented invention." It is also one of the most parodied of Michelangelo's works, seen as humorous inspiration for The Creation of Muppet by artist James Hance in homage to Muppets creator Jim Henson; used in the title sequence of the television arts program The Southbank Show; borrowed from for the promotional poster for Steven Spielberg's movie ET; and derived from for artist TasoShin's The Creation of Mario in homage to Miyamoto's contribution to Nintendo games.
Fresco - Sistine Chapel, Vatican City, Rome
This grand epic sized statue depicts Moses seated regally to guard the tablets written with the Ten Commandments. His expression is stern, reflecting his anger at seeing his people worshipping the golden calf on his return from Mount Sinai.
Michelangelo's reputation following the sculpture of David reached Pope Julius II in Rome who commissioned the artist to come and work on his tomb. The ambitious artist initially proposed a project of over 40 figures. Yet In the final structure the central piece became this sculpture of Moses. Not only has he rendered the great prophet with a complex emotionality, his work on the fabric of Moses' clothes is noted for its exquisite perfection and look of authenticity. Again, he managed to craft a visage of seeming real life out of stone.
Pope Julius II famously interrupted Michelangelo's work on the tomb so that he could paint the Sistine Chapel. The final tomb wasn't finished until after the Pope's death in 1513, to be finally completed in 1545.
This sculpture has been at the center of much analysis, with Sigmund Freud having purportedly spent three weeks in 1913 observing the emotions expressed by the sculpture, concluding it was a supreme vision of self-control. Part of the controversy hinged around what appear to be horns protruding from Moses' head. While some see them as symbolic of his anguish, others believe them to hearken to a Latin mistranslation of the Bible in which instead of rays of light illuminating the radiance of Moses, he appears to be growing horns. This can stem from the Hebrew word Keren, which can mean 'radiated light' or 'grew horns.'
The work was eventually housed in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome where Pope Julius II had been Cardinal.
Marble - San Pietro Vincoli, Rome
The Last Judgement
This fresco covers the entire altar wall of the Sistine Chapel and is one of the last pieces in the seminal building that was commissioned by Pope Clement VII when Michelangelo was 62. In it we see the Second Coming of Christ as he delivers the Last Judgement. The monumental work took five years to complete and consists of over 300 individual figures. The scene is one of harried action around the central figure of Christ, his hands raised to reveal the wounds of his Crucifixion. He looks down upon the souls of humans as they rise to their fates. To his left, the Virgin Mary glances toward the saved. On either side of Christ is John the Baptist and St Peter holding the keys to heaven. Many of the saints appear with examples of their sacrifices. Particularly interesting is St Bartholomew, martyred by the flaying of his skin, the face on which is said to be a self-portrait of Michelangelo. The saved souls rise from their graves on the left helped by angels. On the right, Charon the ferryman is shown bringing the damned to the gates of Hell. Minos, assuming the role Dante gave him in his Inferno, admits them to Hell. Another noteworthy group are the seven angels blowing trumpets illustrating the Book of Revelation's end of the world.
In usual Michelangelo fashion, the artist depicted the traditional scene with elements of controversy, particularly by rendering its subjects nude with extremely muscular anatomies. His rendition of a beardless Christ was unusual for the time, as was the use of figures from pagan mythology. Vasari reports that the Pope's Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, called it a disgrace "that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully." Michelangelo, angry at the remark, is said to have painted Cesena's face onto Minos, judge of the underworld, with donkey's ears. Cesena complained to the Pope at being so ridiculed, but the Pope is said to have jokingly remarked that his jurisdiction did not extend to Hell.
materials - Fresco, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City
This piece is not only sculpturally complex and indicative of Michelangelo's genius, but it carries layers of meaning and has sparked multiple interpretations. In it, we see Christ the moment after the Deposition, or being taken down from the cross of his crucifixion. He is falling into the arms of his mother, the Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalene, whose presence in a work of such importance was highly unusual. Behind the trio is a hooded figure, which is said to be either Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus, both of whom were in attendance of the entombment of Christ, which would follow this event. Joseph would end up giving his tomb for Christ and Nicodemus would speak with Christ about the possibility of obtaining eternal life. Because Christ is seen falling into the arms of his mother, this piece is also often referred to as a pieta.
The multiple themes alluded to in this one piece: The Deposition, The Pieta, and The Entombment are further emphasized by the way Michelangelo carved it. Not only is it life like and intense with realism, it was also sculpted so that a person could walk around to observe and absorb each of the three narratives from different perspectives. The remarkable three-dimensionality allows the group to interact within each of the work's meanings.
The work is also a perfect example of Michelangelo's temperament and perfectionism. The process of making it was arduous. Vasari relates that the artist complained about the quality of the marble. Some suggest he had a problem with the way Christ's left leg originally draped over Nicodemus, worrying that some might interpret it in a sexual way, causing him to remove it. Perhaps Michelangelo was so particular with the piece because he was intending it for his own future tomb.
In 1555, Michelangelo attempted to destroy the piece causing further speculation about its meaning. There is a suggestion that the attempted destruction of the piece was because Nicodemus, by reference to his conversation with Christ about the need to be born again to find everlasting life, is associated with Martin Luther's Reformation. Michelangelo was known to be a secret sympathizer, which was dangerous even for someone as influential as he was. Perhaps a coincidence, but his Lutheran sympathies are given as one of the reasons why Pope Paul IV cancelled Michelangelo's pension in 1555. One of Michelangelo's biographers Giorgio Vasari also mentions that the face of Nicodemus is a self-portrait of Michelangelo, which may allude to his crisis of faith.
Although Michelangelo worked on this sculpture over a number of years he was unable to complete it and gave the unfinished piece to Francesco Bandini, a wealthy merchant, who commissioned Tiberio Calcagni, a friend of Michelangelo's, to finish it and repair the damage (all except for replacing Christ's left leg).
Marble - Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence
Pietà Rondanini is the last sculpture Michelangelo worked on in the weeks leading up to his death, finalizing a story that weaved through his many Pietas and now reflective of the artist's reckoning with his own mortality. The depiction of Christ has changed from his earlier St. Peter's Pieta in which Christ appeared asleep, through to his Deposition, where Christ's body was more lifeless, to now, where Christ is shown in the utter pain and suffering of death. His mother Mary is standing in this piece, an unusual rendition, as she struggles to hold up the body of her son while immersed in grief.
What's interesting about this work is that Michelangelo abandoned his usual perfection at carving the body even though he worked on it intermittently for over 12 years. It was a departure that so late in his prolific career signified the enduring genius of an artist whose confidence would allow him to try new things even when his fame would have allowed him to easily rest upon his laurels. The detached arm, the subtle sketched features of the face, and the way the figures almost blend into each other provide a more abstracted quality than was his norm, and all precursors of a minimalism that was yet to come in sculpture. The renowned sculptor Henry Moore later said of this piece, "This is the kind of quality you get in the work of old men who are really great. They can simplify, they can leave out... This Pietà is by someone who knows the whole thing so well he can use a chisel like someone else would use a pen."
This sculpture's importance was ignored for centuries, including its disappearance from public discourse until it was found in the possession of Marchese Rondanini in 1807. It has since excited many modern artists. The Italian artist Massimo Lippi is quoted as saying that modern and contemporary art began with this Pietà, and the South African painter, Marlene Dumas, based her Homage to Michelangelo (2012) on this work.
Marble - Museo d'arte antica, Sforza Castle, Milan