Sunday, October 25, 2015



Michelangelo, Dying Slave, c1513

Form:  This just over lifesize sculpture of a dying or bound "slave" shows us a powerful naturalistic figure carved in marble.  The anatomy is slightly distorted in that the head is a touch too small.  The figure's posture is also an exaggerated contrapposto that was referred to as a serpenata referring to the snake like writhing and counter posture of the figure which is characteristic of Michelangelo's work.  These are some of the characteristics you can see throughout Michelangelo's works and is a quality that we also see in the artists of the Mannerist movement who follow after him. Charles Baudelaire's poem Beacons provides a description that is both a formal description and an symbolic analysis:
Michelangelo, a vague plane where one sees
Hercules mingled with Christ,
Powerful phantoms which in their twilights
Tear their shrouds by stretching their fingers;

Baudelaire's interpretation is not too far off the mark if you compare this sculpture against this stanza dedicated to Michelangelo. 
Marylin Stokstad devotes almost six pages of her survey to this giant, and if you've done the readings out of Liaisons, you've probably have an impression of Michelangelo as a moody, tortured and melancholy artist.  This sculpture is an excellent work to begin with because it in some ways is the perfect symbol of what Michelangelo strove for and often could not accomplish.
Context:  This was meant to be part of a greater work that Michelangelo was called from Florence to Rome to create by Pope Julius II in 1505.  It was meant to be a monumental work which would have been placed within the nave of the future reconstruction of St. Peter's.  It was never completed and Michelangelo was pulled off the project to work on the small chapel of Pope Sixtus called the Sistine Chapel in 1506.  Michelangelo fought against this new commission and much of the novel The Agony and the Ecstasy outlines the struggle between the Pope and Michelangelo over these two projects.  In short, Michelangelo was the loser in the battle and felt trapped and tormented by the Pope.
Iconography:  There are various interpretations of this sculpture since it was designed as one of the works that was to be on Julius' tomb.  The most apologetic to the Pope is that he freed Italy from ignorance and anarchy and that the sculpture is symbolic of the forthcoming liberation.  Another, proposed by Janson, is that the sculptures were part of a series that represented the arts and were now shackled because of the Pope's death, but I like the more contemporary psychological interpretation.  This sculpture is probably a representation of Michelangelo's emotions.  He felt enslaved to the Pope and to his projects.
There is also the possibility that Michelangelo was also tortured by a carnal desire to be with men.  This is evidenced in the poems and sonnets he composed for a you beautiful man named Tommasso Calvierri (who did not return his affections) and in the various sensuous male nudes he sculpted over his career.  One only needs to compare these images of males to his females to get the idea.

Michelangelo, Self Portrait

Michelangelo, Detail of the Last Judgment, c1535
Sistine Chapel, Rome
On the left are two images.  The top one is a documented self portrait.  In this image we can see Michelangelo uses heavy chiaroscuro and a deep penetrating gaze to create an image that is honest but also a bit dramatic.  Notice that he includes his shattered nose that you read about in both Vasari and Stone's accounts.  One of the skills that most painters needed to develop during the Renaissance period was the ability to paint portraits and accurate likenesses.  Often this skill was developed by painting with a the only model that one might have available which is one's self.  The humanistic and platonic idea of perfectability also gave rise to self reflection and observation.  A portrait then is not just about the immediate appearance but also it is a symbol of the person.  In this image we see that the artist is studying himself and also demonstrating his ability to create a strong physical likeness as well a psychological likeness.
If the likeness is at all accurate one can then relate it to this image of St. Bartholomew from the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel which was painted in 1535.  More than twenty years after the completion of the Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508-1512).
The Saint was flayed alive for his troubles and if you look closely at the skin you may see that it looks a bit like Mike.  Further support for my interpretation of the Dying Slave image above.


Hagesandros, Polydoros, 
and Athanadoros of Rhodes.
Laocoon and His Sons, probably the original 
of the 1st C. CE or a Roman copy. 
Marble ht 8' Musei Vaticani, Rome
Excavated 1506

Michelangelo. Moses, Tomb of Julius II.
c1513-1515. Marble, height 7'8.5"
Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome

Belvedere Torso
c300-50 BCE- probably 1C BCE
"Apollonius son of Nestor an Athenian"
Stokstad discusses at length the circumstances and context surrounding this sculpture for the Tomb of Julius. Form:  This image of Moses is extremely naturalistic and also exhibits a bit of the serpentine movement that we see in his other work.  The posture of the figure and the proportions are also a bit exaggerated because this work was meant to be seen from below.  This is one of the characteristics you can see throughout Michelangelo's works and is a quality that we also see in the artists of the Mannerist movement who follow after him.
Some of the details that show Michelangelo's virtuosity are the fingers that are intertwined with the fabric and hair and the deep undercutting and details of the hair itself.  Often Michelangelo will show fingers pressed into hair, fabric or flesh and these materials seem to be responding to the pressure.  This what is referred to as an artist's conceit or concetto (italian for conceit) because it is hard to do and shows his skill as an artist.
The pose is one in which the figures seem to be on the brink of movement, almost as if they are about to rise out of the chairs.  This pose can be seen throughout the body of Michelangelo's work and can be directly related to the two classical works with which he would have been very familiar.  The Laocoon and His Sons group newly excavated in Rome in 1506 and another fragment of sculpture, also in the Vatican collection called the Belvedere torso.
Iconography:  The Renaissance understanding of classicism and its kalos is strongly represented in Moses.  Michelangelo has unified the head of Greek philosopher, with the body of an athlete to form a Christian Old Testament superman. 
The horns on Moses' head refer to a mistranslation.  As many artists, he was misled by the translation of the word keren (plural karnaim), which in Hebrew can mean both “horn” and “ray.”
Exodus xxxiv. 30, “All the children of Israel saw Moses, and the skin of his face shone,” translated in the Vulgate, “Cornta esset facies sua.” Rays of light were called horns. Hence in Habakkuk (iii. 4) we read of God, “His brightness was as the light, and He had horns [rays of light] coming out of His hand.” Michel Angelo depicted Moses with horns, following the Vulgate.

According to the Brittanica,
The Sistine Chapel is the papal chapel in the Vatican Palace that was erected in 1473-81 by the architect Giovanni dei Dolci for Pope Sixtus IV (hence its name). It is famous for its Renaissance frescoes by Michelangelo. The Sistine Chapel is a rectangular brick building with six arched windows on each of the two main (or side) walls and a barrel-vaulted ceiling. The chapel's exterior is drab and unadorned, but its interior walls and ceiling are decorated with frescoes by many Florentine Renaissance masters. The frescoes on the side walls of the chapel were painted from 1481 to 1483. On the north wall are six frescoes depicting events from the life of Christ as painted by Perugino, Pinturicchio, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandajo, and Cosimo Rosselli. On the south wall are six other frescoes depicting events from the life of Moses by Perugino, Pinturicchio, Botticelli, Domenico and Benedetto Ghirlandajo, Rosselli, Luca Signorelli, and Bartolomeo della Gatta. Above these works, smaller frescoes between the windows depict various popes. For great ceremonial occasions the lowest portions of the side walls were covered with a series of tapestries depicting events from the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. These were designed by Raphael and woven in 1515-19 at Brussels.
. . .The frescoes on the ceiling, collectively known as the Sistine Ceiling, were commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1508 and were painted by Michelangelo in the years from 1508 to 1512. They depict incidents and personages from the Old Testament. The "Last Judgment" fresco on the west wall was painted by Michelangelo for Pope Paul III in the period from 1534 to 1541. These two gigantic frescoes are among the greatest achievements of Western painting. A 10-year-long cleaning and restoration of the Sistine Ceiling completed in 1989 removed several centuries' accumulation of dirt, smoke, and varnish. Cleaning and restoration of the "Last Judgment" was completed in 1994.
As the pope's own chapel, the Sistine Chapel is the site of the principal papal ceremonies and is used by the Sacred College of Cardinals for their election of a new pope when there is a vacancy.
 "Sistine Chapel."   Britannica 2001 Standard Edition CD-ROM.   Copyright © 1994-2001 Inc.   December 3, 2002.
The Arrangement of the Narrative A semiotic or structuralist analysis The diagram below explains that Michelangelo actually had "program" or design for the creation and flow of the overall narrative associated with the ceiling very similar in nature to the way in which Giotto arranged the Arena Chapel and Ghiberti's doors.
The ceiling is entirely decorated with Old Testament stories, in keeping with the narrative as a typology.   Over all the divisions in the ceilings are painted trompe l’oeil frames that create distinctions between each story and allow for the organization of the panels.   In order to better understand the overall meaning of the narrative order of these stories, art historians use a the same theory that literary analysts do to study the interrelationship of the stories or narratives.  This kind of analysis is called a semiotic or structural analysis.  By looking at this wall as a whole, and interpreting the relationship of panel image to the others, it is possible to come up with a deeper understanding of the set of frescoes as a whole.   In this case the overall meaning of the frescoes relate to the Bible as it might have been interpreted by St. Augustine 354-430.  According to the Brittanica, Augustine's, "adaptation of classical thought to Christian teaching created a theological system of great power and lasting influence. His numerous written works, the most important of which are Confessions and City of God, shaped the practice of biblical exegesis and helped lay the foundation for much of medieval and modern Christian thought."

Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, Built 1475-1481 painted by 
Michelangelo between 1508-12
St. Augustine, came up with a concept in which he viewed the universe and man's existence as divided in two worlds.  One was the City of Man which was temporary and fallible.  This is represented by the way in which the ceiling and the chapel's space is divided.
Across the center of the chapel is a screen (called a rood screen).  Marked on the diagram as thick black line.  Since the Sistine Chapel was the Pope's private chapel and only he and the clergy are allowed on the side of the screen closest to the altar.  This divides the worshippers from the clergy.
On the clergy's side of the screen all the Old Testament stories deal with Heaven.  This is the "City of God" which goes on forever and in which god will provide for the faithful.  This is where man was before sin.
On the other side of the screen is where we are allowed to stand.  Notice how it is quite literally the "City of Man."  The three episodes depicted on the ceiling which depict sin are where we are allowed to stand.


Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, Built 1475-1481 painted by Michelangelo between 1508-12
The center set of images represents scenes from the Old Testament.  The main themes are expulsion and sin.  This refers to our "original sin" and how we lost heaven.  Surrounding these scenes are images of the prophets and Sibyls (prophets from Ancient Greece) and serve as a kind of thematic framework in which to view the center scenes. 
Beneath these stories and surrounding them are depictions of ancestors of Christ and the Old Testament prophets who guide us.  Included in this are the Sibyls (prophets from Ancient Greece) who have established the Classical foundation that all this is built on.  This  foundation is very similar in content and structure to the caryatids from the Acropolis, the seven virtues and vices from the Arena Chapel and Ghiberti's doors
All of these elements are further framed by the illusion of classical architecture which surrounds each scene.  This is very similar to the the triumphal arch that serves as the framework of Masaccio's Trinity with Donors.


God Creating Adam
Mosaic portrait from Pompeii79 CE
Form: This reproduction is one of the best for demonstrating Michelangelo's use of intense or saturated colors on the ceiling.  After the cleaning of the chapel, many art historians were disturbed by the purity and exaggerated nature of his color.  If one looks very closely at the images, Michelangelo sometimes would put pure strokes of color one next to the other so that when the viewer saw it from below the colors would mix because the eye would blend them together.  This is called optical mixing.   Mosaics also use this quality but and is one of the first instance of its use in painting that we know of.  This is one of the central panels from the Sistine Chapel and perhaps one of the most important.  The figures are well over life size and they are muscular and idealized.  The figure of Adam is posed in a reclining languid attitude with the hand and finger extended towards God's finger.
The figure of God is surrounded by some kind of veil and contains figures that range in age from infancy to young adulthood.  God is depicted in motion as an older bearded male. God's body is draped in a semi transparent veil which allows the viewer to see the overall youthful musculature and detail without revealing the genitals.
Iconography: The idealized musculature and nudity are references to the classical humanistic tradition within which Michelangelo was working.  The concept of kalos is significant in that God is represented as both youthful and beautiful as well as aged and wise as evidenced by his beard.  The fact that God is clothed is a "nod" to the more conservative conventions of the day in which it would have been unacceptable to depict God as nude.  It could also be a reference to the Platonic concept that God is genderless.
The fingers of God and Adam do not touch.  The juxtaposition (comparison) in Adam's languid almost lazy pose and God's active one is symbolic of the moment just before Adam is brought to life.  This is one of the characteristics you can see throughout Michelangelo's works and is a quality that we also see in the artists of the Mannerist movement who follow after him.
Context:  This image, as in many others, especially his Last Judgment were always considered a bit controversial because of the nudity.  At times, Michelangelo did take some abuse for his use of nude figures.  He was accused of impropriety for them.

Belvedere Torso
c300-50 BCE- probably 
"Apollonius son of 
Nestor an Athenian"
Form:  Scattered throughout the frescoes, almost as framing devices are the nude figures of young athletic looking men.  These ignudi (singular ignudo) all are derived somewhat from the poses of the Laocoon Group and from the Belvedere Torso.  In fact, if you look at these ignudi throughout the ceiling, they all seem to be the Belvedere torso with different arms, legs and heads pasted on them. Iconography:  The bunches of acorns found close to each figure and scattered throughout the ceiling's decorations are symbols of Pope Julius' family name the della Rovere (oak in Italian). 
Again as in all the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel the concept of kalos is important.  The idealized musculature and nudity are references to the classical humanistic tradition within which Michelangelo was working but in addition to this these heroic figures are adjusted to fit in with a Christian point of view.   According to art historian Irwin Panofsky (remember he did the analysis of the Arnolfini portrait) these nude figures are representations of the "athletes of god" and as such they are classical wingless angels.

Libyan Sibyl
Form: Placed within regular intervals in trompe l’oeil niches are a series of female figure all with scrolls and books.  They are depicted as having extremely masculine looking musculature and form but they are actually labeled in a painted plaque underneath each figure as a "Sibyl."  It seems obvious from the preliminary drawing below that Michelangelo studied nude males for these figures.  We also know from looking at Michelangelo's Pieta that he was capable of depicting feminine looking women but he made the choice in these figures and others to depict women as extremely strong looking.
  Iconography:  The appearance of strength is a depiction of symbolic strength.  These Sibyls (prophets from Ancient Greece) who have established the Classical foundation that all this is built on.  In order to "hold up" there prophetic points of view, symbolized by the large books and scrolls, these figures would have to have been powerful.  As such they are holding up the foundations of Christianity and this is very similar in content and structure to the caryatids from the Acropolis, the seven virtues and vices from the Arena Chapel and Ghiberti's doors


Charge to Saint Peter (Handling of the Keys)
1481-1483 Vatican, Sistine Chapel, fresco
On the north wall are six frescoes depicting events from the life of Christ as painted by Perugino, Pinturicchio, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandajo, and Cosimo Rosselli. .  . Above these works, smaller frescoes between the windows depict various popes. Above the Popes are images that represent the ancestors of Christ and they, like the Sibyls, function as symbolic caryatids who support the narrative of the images above them.