Michelangelo was born today, in 1474. His achievements as a sculptor, painter, architect and poet mean that he is often considered to be the archetypal Renaissance man, some even see him as the greatest artist of all time.
His output through his life was prodigious, often called Il Divino, the divine one, particularly for his ability to instil a sense of awe with his creations. Michelangelo was also a devout Catholic whose faith deepened at the end of his life. His poetry includes the following closing lines from what is known as poem 285 "Neither painting nor sculpture will be able any longer to calm my soul, now turned toward that divine love that opened his arms on the cross to take us in
Most of his working life was spent in Rome, although he returned to Florence for a while after the downfall of the extreme preacher Savonarola whose followers were hostile to art and other things that they considered distractions and often burned them in their Bonfires of the Vanities (see pod Feb 7 ) . Luckily you can’t burn statues although you can attack them, and that is exactly what happened to his first piece we will look at the the first work we will focus on - the Pieta, which now can be seen in St Peters Basilica for free. He sculpted two of his best-known works, the Pietà and David, incredibly before the age of thirty.
A French Cardinal and ambassador to the Holy See, commissioned him to carve a Pietà, a sculpture showing the Virgin Mary grieving over the body of Jesus. Michelangelo was 24 at the time of its completion and it was soon to be regarded as one of the world's great masterpieces of sculpture, It is also the only piece Michelangelo ever signed. The figures are quite out of proportion, owing to the difficulty of depicting a fully-grown man cradled full-length in a woman's lap. Unusually for the time he sculpted a young and beautiful Mary rather than an older woman around 50 years of age, which would have been historically more accurate, but he said he wanted to create a work he described as "the heart's image". Christ's face does not reveal signs of the Passion because he didn’t want his Pietà to represent death, but rather to show the "religious vision of abandonment and a serene face of the Son. In 1972, a mentally disturbed geologist, attacked the sculpture with a geologist's hammer while shouting "I am Jesus Christ; I have risen from the dead!" With fifteen blows he removed Mary's arm at the elbow, knocked off a chunk of her nose, and chipped one of her eyelids. After the attack, the work was painstakingly restored and is now protected by a bulletproof acrylic glass panel.
Six years later, Michelangelo having moved back to Florence produced the 5m high sculpture of David. Originally commissioned for the roofline of the east end of Florence Cathedral, hence its height, because of the impact it made on the public consciousness it was instead placed in a public square, outside the Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of civic government in Florence. After the turmoil after Savonarola’s regime, the statue soon came to symbolize the defence of civil liberties embodied in the Republic of Florence, an independent city-state threatened on all sides by more powerful rival states and by the hegemony of the Medici family. The eyes of David, with a warning glare, were fixated towards Rome
Let’s turn to two of Michelangelo’s Frescos in the Sistine Chapel in Rome the scenes from Genesis on the ceiling and The Last Judgment on its altar wall. The commission, as envisaged by Pope Julius II, was to adorn the pendentives with figures of the twelve apostles. Michelangelo, who was reluctant to take the job, persuaded the Pope to give him a free hand in the composition. The resultant scheme of decoration awed his contemporaries and has inspired other artists ever since. The image of the finger of God touching the finger of Adam is one of the best known and most reproduced works in the history of art. It is inspired by verse 27 in the first chapter of Genesis "God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him". In 1990 a fascinating article by Dr Frank Lynn Meshberger in the Journal of the American Medical Association speculated that the background figures and shapes portrayed behind the figure of God appeared to be an anatomically accurate picture of the human brain…… a fascinating theory.
The Last Judgment covering the whole altar wall is a depiction of the Second Coming of Christ and the final and eternal judgment by God of all humanity. The dead rise and descend to their fates, as judged by Christ who is surrounded by prominent saints. Altogether there are over 300 figures, with nearly all the males and angels. This took four years to complete and Michelangelo worked on it twenty-five years after having finished the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and was nearly 67 at its completion. It was completed under Pope Paul III whose stronger reforming views probably affected the final treatment. Unusually Michelangelo depicted his own face in the flayed skin of Saint Bartholomew.
One of the functions of the Sistine Chapel is as a venue for the election of each successive pope in a conclave of the College of Cardinals, the first time it was used as such was in 1492, 50 years before the Last Judgement completed. Its place behind the main altar meant that the voting Cardinals would be contemplating it before they cast their ballot, standing in front of the altar each Cardinal would make a sacred oath that I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected. It is often assumed that the sharp contrast in Michelangelo’s between the ordered ranks of figures in the top part, and chaotic and frenzied activity below, especially on the right side that leads to Hell might act as a salutary reminder to the electing cardinals of the sacred gravity of their electing office.
Finally at the age of 71, Michelangelo received the greatest and final commission of his life. Pope Paul III appointed him chief architect of St. Peter’s Basilica, built over the grave of the apostle Peter, where popes are laid to rest, and home of the tallest dome in the world. By the time Michelangelo too over, it had been under construction for 40 years and had had five different architects but none of them had considered the engineering problems of raising a dome as large as the Pantheon (down the road) but twice as high. Michelangelo substantially increased the scale of the four major piers at the crossing that supports the dome, and enhanced the thickness of the perimeter of the church. Prior to Michelangelo, everybody else was following the rules of Vitruvius and ancient architecture, taking a different approach which only someone with his status and genius could carry off, he said that the compasses should be in your eyes, not just on the paper. It has oven been commented that as a sculptor, Michelangelo's buildings have the sense of a sculptural living presence.
How do we account of his unique genius? Michelangelo stood out not only for the inspired quality of his work, but also for his unusual comportment. He was abstemious in his personal life, and once told his apprentice, Ascanio Condivi: "However rich I may have been, I have always lived like a poor man." Condivi said he was indifferent to food and drink, eating "more out of necessity than of pleasure" and that he "often slept in his clothes and ... boots. He was by nature a solitary and melancholy person, a man who "withdrew himself from the company of men." This has lead to contemporary speculation that he may have met the criteria for Asperger's disorder, or high-functioning autism. A complex disorder that does not affect intelligence but does impact how people perceive and process information. Difficulty communicating, social isolation, a need for control, and obsession with very specific interests are hallmarks of autism.
A report by British psychiatrists Muhamed Arshad and Michael Fitzgerald in the journal of Medical Biography point out that as a child and young man, he did not get along with his family and suffered physical abuse. He was aloof and a loner, his mentor described him as being unable to make friends or to maintain any relationship. He did not attend his brother's funeral, and was obsessed with work and controlling everything in his life whether It be family, money or time, loss of control caused him great frustration. However, we attempt to understand his genius his legacy is perhaps unprecedented, the art school of Mannerism was inspired by him and his disciple Raphael. David is the most famous male nude of all time and now graces cities around the world, the dome of St Peter's was to influence the building of churches for many centuries, most notably St Paul's Cathedral, London, as well as the civic domes of many public buildings and the state capitals across America