A history of Michelangelo’s most famous sculptures.
Michelangelo was the very definition of an artist. He wasn’t good at one thing, he was great at everything. He was a painter, sculptor, architect and unknown to some, a poet. Although he is considered the leading High Renaissance artist, many (including this writer) consider him to be the greatest artist of the western world ever. His statues in particular, explored the ranges of the human body’s muscular tension and expression as the ultimate work of art itself and his artistic philosophy and inspiring energy gave the world insight into the mind of a complicated and fiercely religious genius.
Michelangelo Buonarroti was born on March 6, 1475 in Caprese, Tuscany to Lodovico di Leonardo and Francesca Buonarroti. He was the second of six boys born into a middle class family with connections, via a grandmother, to the powerful Medici family. The Medici family members, ruling Florence, were wealthy patrons of the arts and would later produce two popes. When Michelangelo was born, his mother was too sick to nurse him so he was sent to a wet nurse whose family was made up of stone cutters which no doubt influenced his love for sculpture. His mother’s death at the age of six and his father’s lack of affection shaped Michelangelo into a complex man. He was well known to be short tempered, rude and very touchy. Having always considered himself a son of Florence, Michelangelo moved to the city at the age of 13 to study. There he developed mentorship relationships with some of the greatest artists and sculptors of the time, including Leonardo di Vinci, although the two never got along very well.
Masterpiece is a word rarely heard anymore, but it has become synonymous with Michelangelo. Unlike many artists, who peak at a certain stage in their careers, he created awe inspiring and controversial works throughout his entire adult life. The overwhelming beauty of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel changed painting forever and the sheer architectural mastery of St. Peter’s Basilica, considered the greatest church in all of Christiandom, is a crowning achievement. Still, from his first work of art to his last, Michelangelo was a sculptor. In this article we will review a few of his most famous sculptures and what they say about the man and art in general.
Madonna of The Stairs
Michelangelo, like most Christian painters of his day, loved to portray the virgin mother and Christ in his art. He sculpted several versions of this pure vision, but Madonna of the Stairs holds significance because it is his first known work, created in 1492 at the age of 16 while living in the house of Medici and learning from the greats. Created from relief marble, the vision of the mother sitting on the stairs with her son between her legs has some of the same poetic concepts that we see later in his paintings. To me, it has a very common feel to it. There doesn’t seem to be any symbolism even though I know there is. Although this is more famous, I personally prefer the Madonna and Child with Infant St. John because its emotions are really complex and the sight of Christ as a frightened child is touching.
Battle of The Centaurs
This marble relief sculpture, finished right after the Madonna of the Stairs in 1492, isn’t spoken of much, but I’ve added it to this list because of two things. First, this work has a raw and unfinished look to it that is a prelude to so much of his work. Why he left so much unfinished, who knows, but it’s interesting. Secondly, the mood is violent and confusing. The scene of men’s bodies interlocking in battle looks chaotic and is very rare for Michelangelo.
In 1494, Michelangelo sculpted his one and only wooden piece. Made of polychrome wood, the neo-gothic style picture of Christ on the cross is unique in its elongated darkness. There is no emphasis of muscles or strength and it looks extremely sullen and quiet (in the way only a sculpture has a sound). Its nudity also created a scandal, the first of quite a few Michelangelo stirred out of his love for the human body unencumbered. This style disappeared from Michelangelo’s work until the very end of his career.
Michelangelo’s Bacchus, a Hellenistic-type marble sculpture built in 1497 is one of the very few pagan works of art he created. Although he didn’t show any particular aversion to mythology, this piece was created at the request of a rich Roman art patron which is probably why this subject is chosen. Bacchus is also Michelangelo’s first large scale sculpture. The vision of the god of vine, wine and mystic ecstasy stands drunk with a grape wreath around his head and a little satyr hanging on to his leg. It’s an interesting figure, kind of sexual in the way we remember so many Roman works. Although his body stands fluid, it doesn’t seem to portray the dignity and confidence of most of Michelangelo’s work. His face looks confused, his head is tilted and his leg is raised like he could fall over any second (which might explain the wine thing).
David is arguably the most well-known statue on the planet. If you travel the world, any museum, school or gift shop uses David as the symbol for art. Michelangelo sculpted the piece while living in Florence from 1501-1504. At the time, Florence was going through a political crises and the power of the Medici family was vanishing. Michelangelo was an incredibly patriotic man and he symbolized his patriotism, in conjunction with his biblical knowledge, to form David. Its uniqueness also lies in the fact that, although the image of David, the future King of Israel, as hero isn’t new to the culture, most artists such as Donatello or Verrochio show him after the defeat of Goliath. Michelangelo’s painting shows him before the fight and it’s possible the point of the slingshot being almost invisible is his way of saying that David’s courage is the key to the impending victory, not necessarily his force. The 17-foot tall marble figure stands for duty and commitment and the ability to slay a greater giant. It was the first time a nude sculpture was allowed to be exhibited in the public square, which shows how much it was admired. The intensity of its gaze and the complete perfection of its facial and physical features marked the high point of Michelangelo’s early style.
Although David is the most famous statue of Michelangelo’s, the Pieta in Rome is widely considered the best. One of the most revered works of art in the world, the Pieta took two years to complete from one simple block of Roman gray marble and was presented in 1500. Sculpted in beautiful, polished marble it depicts the Virgin Mary supporting a dead Jesus on her lap after he has been taken down from the cross. This high degree of polish was not seen in any of Michelangelo’s other sculptures which may indicate his care for it. This statue was new and unique because in most of Europe, and especially Italy, Mary was depicted as either a young woman holding the baby Jesus or an old, grieving woman. Michelangelo’s Mary was young and resigned with no vision of pain. In addition, Christ’s wounds are barely visible. It’s an incredibly touching statue that expresses Michelangelo’s vision of humanity through Christ. He had never signed his work before, but having overheard someone say the Pieta was done by another artist, Michelangelo carved his name on the figure. He later regretted this, considering it prideful and never signed another work of art again. Later in life, he created the Florentine Pieta which he intended for his own tomb and the Rondanini Pieta, which remains unfinished. Neither compares to the first. The Pieta’s perfect detail of muscles and veins and its flawless grace catapulted 25-year old Michelangelo to the level of an artist beyond comparison.
The Medici Tombs
Michelangelo’s relationship with the Medici family is well documented. He was incredibly close to them and they were a key reason why he received many of the commissions he did; at least the early ones. The family had its own tomb in the Medici Chapel of San Lorenzo in Florence. In 1524, Michelangelo was tasked with creating tombs in the New Sacristy for Guiliano de Medici, Duke of Urbino and Lorenzo de Medici, Duke of Nemours. Many consider it only second to the Sistine Chapel in Michelangelo showing the essence of himself. The decision to place the tombs on the exact opposite walls underneath the high-domed room was Michelangelo’s way of reflecting the opposing characters of the brothers. On top of each tomb, Michelangelo sculpted two figures. For Guiliano, the figures of Day and Night represent his active extroverted style and for Lorenzo, the figures of Dawn and Dusk represent his contemplative introspective personality. The reclining allegories are outstretched, lying back to back across each end of the tombs in contrasting poses. The reclining style is very interesting; kind of lazy, but regal and is referred to as Mannerism which is widely copied around the world. Plans for reclining river gods and symbols of heaven and earth at the base of the tombs were never executed.
Words such as divine and inspirational are used to describe Michelangelo today, but the interesting fact is that they were used to describe him in his day as well. He was one of the rare greats whose genius ability to create several layers of meaning into his work was actually appreciated and revered during his lifetime and his influence on Western art is arguably the greatest. He lived and worked during a time of political and religious turmoil in the home of his heart, Florence, and his adopted home, Rome. His choice of marble for even the most detailed and delicate work shows his desire for laborious duty and his tendency to leave work unfinished likely shows his passion lied more in the exploration than the finished work. He worked until days before his death from fever in 1564 at the age of 89, unusually long for that time. There was a great ceremony before his burial in Rome, but his body was unearthed and smuggled back to Florence where it still lays in the church of Santa Croce.
At countless websites, numerous books and the most prestigious universities, Michelangelo’s symbols of the human condition, mankind, faith, power and sheer beauty are studied, analyzed, and taught around the world. To get a view of the lesser known as well as the famous works, I recommend Essential Michelangelo by Kirsten Bradbury. It covers 120 works of Michelangelo with beautiful, vivid pictures and a one page story around the origin and importance of the work.