Friday, July 8, 2016

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. 

For a full online text and a complete set of videos for $20 please visit: