Michelangelo: Beyond-famous Sculptor and Painter
Underpinned by his philosophy of humanism, Michelangelo’s sculptures and paintings sought to depict life as it really was. Many consider him to have been at the forefront of art in the Renaissance.
In 1915, French writer Romain Rolland was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his novel Jean-Christophe. It was a vehicle for his views on music. To give the world a chance to “breathe the breath of heroes,” he penned the Vies Des Hommes Illustres. In the book he recounted the lives of legendary artists, including Beethoven, Tolstoy and Michelangelo, whom Romain revered.
Michelangelo was an illustrious painter, sculptor, architect and poet of the Italian Renaissance. His works were considered the peak of sculpture art during that period. For his prominent artistic achievements, he was put on a par with Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. They were known as the “Big Three of the High Renaissance.” Among Michelangelo's masterpieces are his sculpture “David” and his frescoes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling that depicted nine scenes from the Book of Genesis, both of which exerted profound influence on the development of Western art.
A Young Painting Enthusiast Shot to Fame
Once the principal investigator in the Lowell Observatory Near-earth-object Search, Edward L. G. Bowell is an American astronomer famous for his discovery of a large number of asteroids. In 1982, Bowell discovered the asteroid 3001 and named it Michelangelo.
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, known best as simply Michelangelo, was born in Caprese near Florence, Italy, in 1475. His father was once the judicial administrator of the small town of Caprese and local administrator of Chiusi. Michelangelo's mother died when he was six years old. In school, Michelangelo just wanted to paint. His father punished him for neglecting other subjects. However, Michelangelo's passion for painting only grew stronger. At his wits' end, Michelangelo's father sent him to a painting workshop as an apprentice.
At the age of 13, Michelangelo was apprenticed to the renowned Florentine painter Domenico Ghirlandaio. He was quick to master many art skills. He then studied sculpture for a year with Bertoldo di Giovanni, a student of the famous sculptor Donatello. Soon he attended the Platonic Academy sponsored by Lorenzo de' Medici, de facto ruler of Florence. Favoured by Lorenzo for his outstanding talent, he studied the galaxy of royal court artworks there. In the meantime, his works and outlook were influenced by humanist poets and scholars who frequented the court. For four years, he studied classical sculpture in the palace gardens of the Medici family and matured as an artist.
In Lorenzo's mansion, a discussion group of intellectuals often gathered together. Known as the Platonic Academy, their new ideology of humanism advocated to see the world as it truly is and viewed humans as solely responsible for the promotion and development of individuals. Michelangelo was also exposed to the religious fervour and prophetic sermons of Italian friar and reformer Girolamo Savonarola, who boldly denounced the corruption of the Church and was eventually hanged and burned. With Lorenzo's death in 1492, Michelangelo lost his patronage, and Florence fell into chaos. He went to Venice and Bologna, and then Rome, which inspired the young artist with its ancient art.
In 1496, Michelangelo created his first batch of iconic works in Rome, including the “Bacchus.” Two years later, a French cardinal commissioned 23-yearold Michelangelo to carve the “Pietà” for St. Peter's Basilica. Unexpectedly, the art piece brought much fame to Michelangelo in Rome. Carved from one Carrara marble block, this 175cm-tall work is currently housed in St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City. This famous work of art depicts the scene in the Bible where the Virgin Mary grieves over the body of Jesus after the Crucifixion.
Aged 26, Michelangelo returned to Florence an established artist and spent four years there completing the world-famous statue “David.” Four years later, Michelangelo was invited back to Rome by the newly elected Pope Julius II to build his tomb in St. Peter's Basilica. The chief architect of
St. Peter's Basilica Donato Bramante resented Michelangelo's commission and convinced the Pope to commission him to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Michelangelo spent more than four years completing his frescoes on the ceiling with extraordinary perseverance.
With his remarkable achievements in sculpture, painting, and more, he was dubbed Il Divino, “the divine one.” In 1513, he resumed work on Pope Julius II'S tomb and completed three sculptures of the project: “Dying,” “rebellious Slaves” and “Moses.” At the age of 44, Michelangelo returned to Florence and was commissioned by Pope Leo X, a member of the Medici family, to craft sculptures for the tomb of Lorenzo de Medici in the Medici Chapel. There he created some of the greatest works of his life—the monumental complex in the Basilica di San Lorenzo. Famous sculptures such as “Day” and “Night,” “dusk” and “Dawn” are placed on the sarcophagi of this mausoleum.
‘David’: Sculpture of Perfection and Harmony
In 1536, Michelangelo, who was 61 years old, was called back to the Sistine Chapel in Rome. It took him nearly six years to create “The Last Judgment,” a fresco covering the whole altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. In 1563, his apprentice and famous painter Giorgio Vasari founded the Accademia e Compagnia delle Arti del Disegno in Florence, with Michelangelo as one of the honorary presidents. He remained in Rome since then.
In 1564, Michelangelo died in his workshop at the age of 89. He was as versatile as Leonardo da Vinci, with remarkable achievements in sculpture, painting, architecture and poetry. His artistic style has influenced artists for almost three centuries. Throughout his artistic career of over 70 years, he has created numerous magnificent masterpieces. Among them, the sculpture “David” is a world-class work of art, which is now at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze in Italy.
As a nude, “David” depicts a vibrant, well-built young man with unflinching countenance, pent-up muscles, and imposing heroic majesty.
His pulsing veins on his arms and the back of his hands look tense. The sculpture strikes a natural posture: the young man gazes to his left, with his legs slightly spread apart and his right hand falling to thigh level. His facial features are particularly handsome and easy to recognise: watchful eyes with heart-shaped pupils, high-bridged nose, and clear- cut facial contour.
“David” is based on a story in the Hebrew Bible. As the third king of the United Monarchy of Israel and Judah from 1010 BC to 970 BC, David overthrew the rule of the Philistines and reunified Israel and Judah. When he was young, Saul was the first king of the United Monarchy of Israel and Judah, which was threatened by the Philistines' invasion of Israel. Among the invaders was a giant named Goliath, invincible on the battlefield. For 40 days, Goliath challenged the Israelites to send someone out for a dule, but they refused.
At the time, David, a shepherd boy, was too young to fight. He brought food to his three elder brothers on the battlefield. Exasperated by Goliath's provocation and the rout of the Israelites, he offered to confront Goliath. King Saul was impressed with David's confidence, and offered him his armour, which David declined, taking only his sling and rocks. He led the Israelites to the battlefield and confronted Goliath. He denounced the Philistines' atrocities and infuriated the giant. When Goliath least expected it, David hurled a rock from his sling and knocked the warrior out. David immediately rushed forward and cut off his head with a sword. He was henceforth hailed a hero.
Inspired by this biblical story, Michelangelo departed from the conventional portrayal where the triumphant boy stepped on Goliath's head, and instead reproduced his muscular physique and vigorous valour moments before the fight. Full of confidence, the handsome boy stands with his head slightly turning to the left, as if vigilantly staring at the enemy in the distance, ready to fight him. His left hand holds the sling on his shoulder, and his right hand drops to thigh level, clutching a rock. The weight of his entire body falls on his right foot, which is firmly planted on the ground, while the boy slightly flexes his left leg. According to some Chinese art critics, David's waist is the source of its masculine appeal.
The stance of the sculpture is known as contrapposto, an Italian term for “counterpoise.” It is used in the visual arts to describe a human figure in an asymmetric stance where most of its body weight is put on either leg. It is said that ancient Greek sculptor Polykleitos coined the term in his pursuit of the ideal proportion of the human figure. With a far-reaching influence on the development of visual arts, the pose has been used in some Roman copies of statues. During the Renaissance, the classical pose was revived by many Italian artists, including Michelangelo.
In 1504, “David” was moved from Michelangelo's workshop and placed next to the entrance to the Palazzo della Signoria, later known as the Palazzo Vecchio. Although the two places were only half a mile apart, it took four days to complete the relocation. Legend suggests its nudity offended Queen Victoria, who ordered to have the figure's genitals covered with 28 copper fig leaves. In 1527, his left forearm was knocked off during a civil uprising in Florence. In 1873, the statue was moved to Galleria dell'accademia for preservation, and it was replaced at the original location by a replica in 1910.
John Kissick, a Canadian painter and art critic, once commented on “David” saying it embodied the perfect harmony of the human body. The work is said to have inspired French sculptor Auguste Rodin when he was creating “The Age of Bronze,” also known as “The Awakening Man.”
Monumental Frescoes on the Sistine Chapel
A tourist never leaves Italy without visiting Rome and the walled enclave Vatican City. Most of the Vatican's stunning artworks are situated in St. Peter's Square, the Vatican Museums, and the Sistine Chapel. Among them are Michelangelo's frescoes of nine scenes from the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, painted at the central section of the ceiling. In his magnificent frescoes above the rectangular hall of the chapel, Michelangelo re-created the biblical figures with expressive details.
It took the artist more than four years to finish these awe-inspiring frescoes, of which the themes ranged from the biblical story of creation to the
flood. Five of the frescoes depicted “The Separation of Light from Darkness,” “The Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Plants,” “The Separation of Land and Water,” “The Creation of Adam,” and “The Creation of Eve.” A total of 343 figures were painted by the artist on the ceiling. The central frescoes are organised according to their themes, ranging from the Creation, the Fall, and Expulsion to the Drunkenness of Noah. In the corners of each scene, ignudi (naked young men) are seen sitting in various postures. The central frescoes are flanked by sibyls and prophets.
Among these frescoes, “The Creation of Adam” is the most overwhelming on the ceiling. It illustrates the Biblical creation narrative from the Book of Genesis in which God gives life to Adam, the first man. God is depicted as an elderly Caucasian man outstretching his forefinger to Adam, who reclines on the barren coast of earth on the lower left, barely able as yet to lift his hand. Surrounded by angels, God, floating through the heavens in his swirling mantle, calmly gazes at Adam, with his forefinger about to touch that of Adam to impart the spark of life. In the scene, the person protected by God's left arm represents Eve, as evinced by the figure's feminine appearance and gaze towards Adam. Michelangelo illustrated the concurrence of two events in a still moment, a reminder that man is created in the image and likeness of God.
The frescoes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling and “The Last Judgment” covering the whole altar wall are considered Michelangelo's two most iconic works. Twenty-four years after the completion of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Pope Paul III, despite Michelangelo's old age, demanded him to paint the large wall over the altar of the chapel. At that time, Michelangelo was nearly 67, both physically and mentally exhausted. Plus, he was going through a crisis of spirituality and faith, which may be the reason why he chose the theme of The Last Judgment to demonstrate his pain. It took Michelangelo nearly six years, from 1535 to 1541, to complete this masterpiece. On the wall of nearly 200 square metres at the east end, he painted hundreds of life-size nudes.
As a traditional subject of biblical painting, “The Last Judgment” depicts the Second Coming of Christ and the final and eternal judgment by God of all humanity, whose souls rise and descend to their fates, as judged by Christ. In the fresco, Michelangelo showcased his mastery of human anatomy. To convey expressive details, he personally dissected dozens of corpses and studied the muscles and bones. Among the saints around Christ is Saint Bartholomew on the lower right, holding his flayed skin with the face of Michelangelo. The face was said to be painted by him on purpose as a prayer for redemption.
The fresco was shown to the public before the Christmas of 1541 and immediately sparked controversy throughout the city of Rome. For the nudity in the masterpiece, Michelangelo was accused of being insensitive to proper decorum. Shortly after the artist's death, Pope Paul IV ordered Daniele da Volterra to cover the offending parts with fig leaves, tunics, and loincloths. This earned the painter the nickname “Il Braghettone,” or “the pants-maker.” Today, this masterpiece is preserved in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.
“The Last Judgment” covers the entire wall over the altar of the Sistine Chapel, depicting altogether more than 300 figures inspired by historical and real characters. Conceptually, it simply depicts the Second Coming of Christ, who will judge both the living and the dead. Those who are forgiven will receive eternal life. In terms of the composition, Michelangelo utilised the entire wall, overriding the horizontal accent and introducing a strong vertical element. Michelangelo also did a fantastic job of displaying foreshortening, making objects bigger in size as they appear closer. This gives a three- dimensional aspect to the flat surface.
The figures in Michelangelo's works, even the women, are often known to be muscular. He was a perfectionist. Whenever there was even the slightest mistake, or he was dissatisfied with his work, Michelangelo would start over. He was a very generous man, and gave away a lot of his works. He once said: “However rich I may have been, I have always lived like a poor man.”
Throughout his life, Michelangelo created numerous imposing figures through sculpture and painting. Having exerted an unparalleled influence on the development of Western art, he showed artistic versatility of such a high order that he was often considered a contender for the title of the archetypal Renaissance man. ■