I couldn’t miss a chance to write a blog post about Michelangelo for his birthday (good luck fitting 542 candles on a cake!) but also because we had the fortune to have two Michelangelo drawings on campus as part of the Lines of Thought British Museum travelling exhibition, which is now on its way to Ulster Museum. They frame two of his biggest achievements in painting, with one being a nude sketch completed at the same time as the Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508-12) and the other a preparatory sketch for the Last Judgement, his epic counter-Reformation mural behind the altar of the Sistine Chapel, completed some thirty years later. (I previously wrote on Michelangelo in Rome – see here https://historylizzie.wordpress.com/2015/07/11/michelangelo-in-rome/ – so some of this might cross over, but I had to highlight Lines of Thought’s beautiful Last Judgement sketch in a new post!)
Michelangelo is primarily known for his sculptural forms, and his two contributions to what is arguably one of the most awe-inspiring spaces in Western Art completely reflect this. In the Sistine Ceiling, particularly in Creation of Adam, you can see how adept Michelangelo was at sculpting the male form (you only have to look at his statue of the female Dawn for the Medici chapel in Florence to see how focussed he was on perfecting the male form and that this influence crossed over into his approach to the female body) and this definitely shows in the two sketches in the Lines of Thought collection.
The earlier nude sketch shows Michelangelo playing with bodily proportions, whilst the Last Judgement preparatory drawing is an intricate mass of small bodies that he has tried to fit together. The Last Judgement contained 413 figures on a surface of two thousand square feet, (this was 70 more figures that on the ceiling of the chapel) so he really needed to know how they would lock together and interact with each other at various stages of the composition. The intricacy of the composition and the brilliance of the colour used left Vasari commenting that it was as delicate as miniature painting. Here you can see why this comparison works. Unlike the ceiling, Michelangelo didn’t put in any architectural framing elements and this means that it sits outside time and space, with some landscape at the bottom of the composition giving it an ahistorical grounding. This meant the fitting together of all the figures and their proportions would carry the composition, hence why his study shows him practising this in minute detail.
The fresco was commissioned by Pope Clement VII in 1533/1534 following the Sack of Rome in 1527 and represented the papal response to the challenge of the Reformation across Europe. Michelangelo started painting in May 1536, and it was finally unveiled on October 31st 1541 (when Michelangelo had reached the grand old age of 66). The drawing dates from around the time it was first commissioned by the Pope, with Michelangelo committing his thoughts to paper with excessive flourishes of figures (this sits in the Brainstorming section of the Lines of Thought exhibition, which includes drawings where a speedy profusion of ideas are thrown onto a page as the artist works through their imagination).
The Last Judgement was a particularly imposing choice for behind the altar. It shows Jesus Christ returning from heaven to judge the living and the dead, and whether they are to be sent to heaven or condemned to hell. He shows a horrifying version of hell, with everything in an almost cyclical motion around the central figure of Christ – Honour and Fleming comment that the subject of the Last Judgement has
“usually been conceived as reflecting the eternal quality of divine justice. Michelangelo’s vision was of a cosmic convulsion.”
It was so dramatic that upon its completion, it really divided critics with many contemporaries calling it his terribilità. One named Bagio de Cesana condemned the use of nudes, saying that
“it was not a work for the Chapel of the Pope but for stoves and taverns”
At the 1564 Council of Trent (the same year as the artist’s death) Daniele de Volterra was commissioned to paint modesty drapery on some of the nudes, which was later removed.
The drawing in Lines of Thought really represents the hectic nature of the composition and illustrates well how much activity is taking place, with figures of saints, virtues, his mother and others (all accompanied by identifying symbols, such as St Catherine with a wheel) around Christ. It also shows larger sketches on the same page of body parts, with Michelangelo practising the musculature of the forms that were to be painted on the wall.
He was an archetypal Renaissance genius, who was not only a painter and sculptor but also a poet and an architect (he drew up the plans for the dome of St Peter’s Basilica) – he was clearly aware that he was different, telling his nephew in 1547 that
“I was never a painter or sculptor like those who set up shop”.
I don’t think anyone can dispute this, and he had an aptitude for producing the most imaginative, powerful and beautiful forms, responding to compositional problems with genius solutions that left many in awe. To be able to see his sketches and thought processes (the aim of the Lines of Thought exhibition) allows you to see a genius at work. He will always be one of my favourite artists, a Renaissance genius that we still marvel at today – happy 542nd birthday, Michelangelo!
- Lines of Thought has now left the University of Hull Art Collection, but will be open at Ulster Museum from March 10th until May 7th 2017 before moving to Rhode Island and Santa Fe!