Michelangelo Buonarroti, ‘The Divine One’, is widely heralded as the Greatest artist of all time. His masterpieces spanned decades and fields. His understanding and passion for the human form revived humanity’s pride in itself, at a time when enlightenment was sorely needed. His works still stand as testament to our ability to surpass ourselves in dark times.
[This post is an expanded version of our 5-minute show on Anchor – you can listen by clicking on the video that heads this page.]
Few people I know would disagree that 2016 marked a low point in our faith in humanity. Between the obscene suffering and oppression around the world, the increasing vitriol of political discourse, some rather worrying electoral outcomes and our general mistrust – after decades of encroaching postmodernism – towards all things Western Culture, it’s been rather difficult to maintain a sense of self-worth as humans.
In times like these, I find comfort in the Great artists.
Because to have faith in humanity means to believe in our potential. And there is no more powerful reminder of that potential than the artists responsible for the very best that humankind has achieved. The vision of a Great artist can show us that we are better than the darkness that engulfs us – be it the darkness of our own personal fairings, or of the society we find ourselves part of.
I visit Rome a few times every year. It’s a quarterly pilgrimage to one of our Great urban creations – a place filled with beauty and wonder. My home there is only a few minutes’ walk from the Vatican, and from my balcony I can see a familiar landmark peaking over the trees. It’s the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, Il Cupolone. One of the most recognised (and imitated) monuments in the world. Its many copies include St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and Capitol Hill in Washington D.C.
Today St. Peter’s Cupolone is the tallest building in Rome. In deference to its majesty, there is a city statute stating that no building can stand higher. The man who designed it was born last month, in 1475. Michelangelo Buonarroti. The Greatest artist who ever lived. A man so talented, so exceptional, that in his own lifetime, they called him The Divine One – il Divino Michelangelo.
From sculpture, to architecture, to painting, no other artist has ever created as many masterpieces of such magnitude, and in such diverse fields. Similarly varied is the range of passions Michelangelo’s work conjures – we are humbled both by its frightening power (terribilità) and by its grace, yet those same qualities fill us with wonder that a mere human could have produced it. His greatest works possess such force and delicacy, we are moved to consider whether there just might be a spark of the divine within mankind.
But Michelangelo’s art didn’t just point at the divine within us. It also restored our pride in our humanity.
After the fall of the Ancient World – an age that had marked the pinnacle of human achievement in the arts, literature and philosophy – Europe fell into cultural and societal darkness. A time of disorder and ignorance, in which the worth of even the mightiest of individuals was subjugated to the will of God, and the iron fist of His enforcer on Earth: the Church. Our civilisation, once the proud imposer of order over chaos, now cowered in fear of the Divine, in unending shame for the Original Sin for which all humans bore the blame. The individual was a slave to his masters, both earthly and divine, and the body was seen not as something to admire, but as source of mortification, a reminder of Adam and Eve’s trespasses. It was Michelangelo’s art, that finally reminded mankind of our potential for good, and of the beauty and harmony within the human form.
Early on in his career, a Not-Yet-Divine Michelangelo had worked in Florence, under the patronage of Lorenzo de’ Medici. The powerful Medici family were early backers of the budding Renaissance movement, and their wealth and influence had helped raise Florence to the level of a new Athens, at a time when the rest of Europe was only beginning to emerge from the cultural abyss.
The protection of the Medici afforded Michelangelo privileges unavailable to others. One such privilege was access to dead bodies, which he dissected in order to educate himself on human anatomy – an activity that was otherwise prohibited by the Church. Michelangelo’s deep understanding of the human body is clear from his work – with their skin stretching over vein and muscle, his statues are marble turned into flesh.
Take the famous Pietà, the statue of the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Christ, completed when the artist was only 22. It is breathtakingly lifelike, with the softness of the folds in Mary’s drapery and the naturalism of Christ’s pose. One detail that always gets me is how his flesh bulges upwards just under his armpit, right where Mary’s right hand sustains his weight. And I’ll never cease to be amazed at how Michelangelo has managed to convey Christ’s body’s complete lack of resistance. In it, I see all the peacefulness of death.
Isn’t it incredible that it was carved from a single block of marble? As though the artist was not sculpting, but freeing the bodies from the stone they were trapped in. It’s pure magic.
Then you have his David, the Giant of Florence: one of the most famous statues in the
world. Standing proud at 16 feet tall, David is for the first time portrayed here no longer as a meek shepherd, but as a determined hero, in the moment of his decision to fight Goliath. The male body seen not as a source of shame, but of pride and beauty.
And what about his fierce Moses, a towering, stern, powerful figure. More Zeus than Moses, a God among men. The story says that Michelangelo was so in awe of the perfection of his creation that he struck the statue with a hammer crying “perchè non parli” – why won’t you talk?! True to his monicker, the Divine Michelangelo believed he was bestowing life upon his creations.
Yet as Great a sculptor as he was, Michelangelo’s Greatest works are in the Sistine Chapel. If you’ve never been inside, all I can compare it to is the feeling of sheer majesty you get when you’re at the Grand Canyon. 6000 square feet of frescoes, with over 300 figures in scenes from Genesis – each an incomparable masterpiece. And at the centre, the Creation of Adam, with a benign God granting the spark of life to Man in his original purity: all beauty, innocence and pride.
But this isn’t just the story of the beginnings of the world. In its loving depiction of the human form, the Sistine Chapel tells the tale of humanity freeing itself from the yoke of shame it had been subjected to by the Church’s bigotry. Mankind could look to the future and stand proud and naked, like David, like Adam, and proclaim: I am.
You look up and the whole room is packed with detail, all this on a ceiling 60 feet high. For four years of his life Michelangelo painted standing on a custom built scaffolding designed specifically for this job, with his neck turned upwards, inhaling toxic fumes from the mixing pastes for the affresco. He was often lit only by candlelight, as it was frequently too hot and humid to work during the day.
But step into the Sistine Chapel and you will know it was worth it. The presence, the drama the colour are more than words alone can describe.
The ceiling was immediately hailed as a triumph – the Divine Michelangelo had truly earned his soprannome. The next 50 years of art history are mainly a succession of other artists reacting to it, attempting to deal with that level of magnificence. Raffaello, who at the same time was painting the walls of the Papal residency, was not only directly inspired by the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but he paid homage to the the great master by including the Divine One as a character in his own masterpiece, The School of Athens.
Decades later, Michelangelo returned to the scene of the crime, and decorated the front wall of the Chapel with The Last Judgment. Another masterpiece as epic as his work on the ceiling. But where the ceiling represented all the Renaissance’s optimism and hope in the future, The Last Judgment is terrifying, with divinity no longer seen as the benign bestower of the gift of life, but as an avenging Christ, so omnipotent his own mother turns her gaze away from him, unable to look upon his raw power. This radical shift in tone makes sense. The Last Judgment came during the Counterreformation, a time when the Church’s backlash against Martin Luther’s Protestant reformation had obscured the original promise of the Renaissance. This was a darker art for a darker age.
The Pieta’, David, Moses, the Sistine Chapel, the Cupolone… most artists would give their life to have had the honour of producing just one of these. But Michelangelo created them all. And more.
The Divine Michelangelo was a man of harsh temper, terrible passions and many frustrations and doubts. But he was also an artist of great majesty and unparalleled vision. And there are few people in history who have made a greater contribution to our art, our culture and the way we view our own potential. His work reminds us of our divinity, while moving us to take pride in our humanity.
Much like God granting the gift of life to Adam, The Divine Michelangelo restored mankind’s faith in itself.