Often considered to be one of the greatest artists who ever lived, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simon was proficient in sculpture, architecture and painting. he also composed poetry and worked on logistics and engineering projects. Due to his many talents Michelangelo is generally considered to be one of the most significant and influential contributors to the Italian Renaissance which took place in the 16th century in Italy. The facts that are known about Michelangelo’s life emerge from the fact that he not only participated in vast array of business activities, but wrote extensive letters. The letters, even more so than the official documents and inventories that have survived through the centuries allow historians to gauge the great artist’s character as well as note the vents of his life.
Deborah Parker notes in her article,”The Role of Letters in Biographies of Michelangelo” (2005) that the letters left by Michelangelo offer a multidimensional, if only partially complete, depiction of his life and career. She writes that the letters “provide considerable information on the sculptor’s many-sided existence, from his complicated business affairs, his family trials, his anxieties over the obstacles which hindered his many projects” (Parker). Unfortunately, because the scope of the artist’s life was so vast and his life highly complicated, it is impossible to retrieve all of the events of his career or biography. However, what historians do know about Michelangelo’s life helps to bring about a greater understanding of his work and his aesthetic. One of the first important aspects of his life is that Michelangelo’s talent was recognized and nurtured from a very early age.
In fact, as mentioned in The Columbia Encyclopedia. 6th ed. (2012) Michelangelo was placed under the care of a master painter in his childhood years: “Michelangelo drew extensively as a child, and his father placed him under the tutelage of Ghirlandaio, a respected artist of the day.” After this experience, which lasted for only one year, “Michelangelo became the student of Bertoldo di Giovanni, a sculptor employed by the Medici family.” Even at this early stage, his talent was recognized for being formidable and passionate. In his earliest days as an artist he “was known to be extremely sensitive, and he combined an excess of energy with an excess of talent.” (“Michelangelo Buonarroti”) This pattern of personality remained with him throughout his life.
Michelangelo’s works, sketches, letters, buildings, sculptures, and paintings are so numerous that he ranks among one of the most prolific of all Renaissance artists. Among his most famous works are: the Pieta, The David, Moses, and the Sistine Chapel. The latter work is a series of frescoes which take up over 5,000 square feet in the chapel. Due to his mastery of both sculpture and painting it is sometimes difficult to correctly estimate the tremendous range of Michelangelo’s genius. For example, the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel provide enough material for dozens if not hundreds of critical studies. The same can be said for the extensive collection of drawings and sketches that survive and are known to be Michelangelo’s work. As john Symonds writes in The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti (1928) Michelangelo’s life was turbulent but his death was peaceful “It was at a little before five o’clock on the afternoon of February 18, 1564, that Michelangelo breathed his last.” (Symonds 508) His masterpieces of artistic expression continue to live on as active elements of in human culture to this day.
Formal Analysis of the Pieta
One of Michelangelo’s most enduring masterpieces of sculpture was created in 1499 when the artist was only twenty-four years old. this sculpture is notable for many reasons ranging from its exploitation of the Biblical theme in a n on-traditional way to its use of highly polished marble and exquisite detail. In physical terms, the piece is marble, 68.5” by 76.8” and is located in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. The work remains of the highest significance in terms of judging Michelangelo as a sculptor despite it being an example of his youthful work. During the time of its composition, a great deal of controversy came about due to Michelangelo’s depiction of the figures of Mary and Jesus.
As indicated in the book The Sculptures of Michelangelo (1940) the depiction of the dying Christ being held by his mother was viewed by many of Michelangelo’s contemporaries as being heretical. One of these reasons was due tot he fact that Michelangelo depicted Christ as being smaller and more vulnerable in relation to the figure of Mary which was common in Germany but unknown in Italy: “The idea of making the body of Christ smaller, so that it produces an effect of childlike helplessness in relation to the figure of the Madonna, is found in early German vesper sculptures.” (Michelangelo 9) Another aspect to note about the sculpture in relation to the characters it depicts is the facial expressions. The beauty and emotion expressed in the faces was, for Michelangelo’s time, a new technique. It is also one of the reasons that his work continues to inspire so much fascination and respect to modern viewers. Although a good many modern observers might not understand that this sculpture was, in fact, a subversive statement of sorts when originally created by Michelangelo, its radical nature can steel be seen. For example, the way in which the figure of Christ is draped over his mother’s lap puts the figure of Christ in a seemingly submissive position to the female figure in the scene. this is obviously a departure form the stringently patriarchal practices of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. It might also be said, in some ways, to represent a pagan view of life with a feminine Goddess at the center of religious experience rather than a male God. Equally radical is Michelangelo’s use of delicacy and poignant emotion to depict a violent scene of death. The pose of the figures is neither heroic or tragic but merely emotive of suffering, loss, and beauty.
From these simple observations of the sculpture it might be easily concluded that what Michelangelo was actually doing in the Pieta was to take a Biblical event to depict a humanist vision. the heroic aspect of the sculpture exists in its proportion and harmony. Obviously, the use of fine detail, such as the eyes of figures, or the facial hair on the face of Christ, are testaments to Michelangelo’s incredible expertise and control of his materials. they also indicate a signature style that is present in all of his best works. Michelangelo considered sculpture to be the highest of all forms of artistic expression. in his execution of the Pieta it is easy to see how his formal ideas of rhythm, balance, dimension, pose, and narrative converged. Michelangelo not only used the medium of sculpture to make the stone “speak” but to show dramatic contrasts between the heavy and impossible light, the cold and warm, and most importantly, the dead and living. this latter aspect may be the most powerful of all of the element s of the Pieta because when we view the work we see both the “living” and the “the dead” converging in lifeless stone. It is the vision and the talent of the artist who, like God, brings the marble to life.
Formal Analysis of Entombment
Michelangelo’s accomplishments as a painter are often difficult to assess due to the fact that unlike many famous painters, Michelangelo produced next to no canvas-paintings that survived. His most famous and important painting are, of course, the frescoes that were used to decorate the Sistine Chapel. However , a work such as the little-known painting Entombment (1500) is considered by some historians to have been of extraordinary influence and impact. This painting which for many years caused a controversy over attribution, is now firmly believed to have been created by Michelangelo. As such, it is an unfinished work, and one which clearly shows his genius as a painter.
The work is 63-1/2” × 59” and was made with tempera on a wood panel. The painitng is now in London in the National Gallery. The scene that is depicted in the painting is a Biblical scene that shows the dead body of Jesus Christ being placed in a tomb. What is of immediate notice in the painting other than the fact that the painting isd clearly unfinsihed is the arrangement of the figures. There are five figures around the central figure of Christ. The way that the figures encirlce the figure is provocative and interesting as is the fact that it is difficult to determine with certainty the identities of all five figures.
Michael Cole writes in his article “Michelangelo and the Reform of Art/Painting in Renaissance Florence, 1500-1550” (2003) that the painting, despite being unfinished, comprises nothing less than a combination of artistic and religious revolution. Cole insists that in depicting the figures of the painting in a way that is both realistic and unrealistic, Michelangelo is, in fact, challenging the idea of historical reality as the basis of the Bible. Cole writes that the painting was “groundbreaking, inasmuch as it made manifest the notion that Christian history had both a literal and a figurative dimension, consisting simultaneously of events that actually transpired and of transcendent occasions that fulfilled a larger purpose” (Cole 192). This gives a great insight into the composition of the painting which appears both historical and stylized.
This also gives a good insight into the function that Michelangelo felt was held by the art of painting. rather than merely illustrating accepted dogma, Michelangelo saw painting as a function by which the imagination and emotions of the artist and audience collaborated on challenging accepted ideals. Another aspect of the painting that is controversial and subversive is the depiction of Christ: “The wavering figure of Christ reminds us of Michelangelo’s three late sculptural works: the Pietà in Florence, the Rondanini Pietà and the Palestrina Pietà.” (Buonarroti 15) The idea of strength and vulnerability combined is another signature of Michelangelo’s work.
Michelangelo was not only one of the most talented and intelligent artists to have ever lived, but he was also one of the most daring and subversive. His works serve to challenge conventional ideas about art and humanity while simultaneously projecting heroism and beauty. As Cole so accurately observes “Michelangelo sought to restore the devotional image, strengthening its hold on a new cut of viewer” while at the same time “he aimed to sanctify the modern aesthetic, linking Renaissance techniques back into archaic types.” (Cole 192) For this reason he must be considered one of the greatest and most influential minds of the Italian Renaissance, as well as one of humanity’s most profound and influential artists.
Buonarroti, Michelangelo. The Paintings of Michelangelo. New York: Oxford UP, 1940.
Buonarroti, Michelangelo. The Sculptures of Michelangelo. New York: Oxford UP, 1940.
Cole, Michael. “Michelangelo and the Reform of Art/Painting in Renaissance Florence, 1500-1550.” The Art Bulletin 85.1 (2003): 192.
“Michelangelo Buonarroti.” The Columbia Encyclopedia. 6th ed. 2012.
Parker, Deborah. “The Role of Letters in Biographies of Michelangelo*.” Renaissance Quarterly 58.1 (2005): 91+.
Symonds, John Addington. The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti. New York: Modern Library, 1928.