They say that art should move you. Make you feel something. Make you want something. Make you think. A good work of art, a piece worthy to be called a “masterpiece”, is much more than just the sum of its parts.
Every artist has a favourite work. Yes, a lot of us will claim there are too many incredible creations in the world to choose just one as our favourite. But that’s not true. Plain and simple. We all have that ONE piece that so appeals to our senses, to our spirit, to our very being, that there’s no UN-seeing it. It marks us. Changes us. Inspires us more than any other.
Maybe you don’t even realize it right away. Or maybe you know the second you lay eyes on it that there’s no going back from that moment on. Everything you look at, everything you see, for the rest of your life, is going to be compared in some way, shape or form, to this masterpiece.
For me, that piece is Michelangelo’s Pietà.
A sculpture of remarkable size, the marble mother sits in quiet repose, the languid body of our dead (for the time being) Messiah draped effortlessly across her slightly oversized lap.
Her face is calm and serene as she cradles our Lord’s body. Michelangelo has endowed her with great beauty. Mary’s fine features are soft and pleasing, her lips carved into a delicate cupid’s bow.
Her head is covered, as is the rest of her body, with cloth that is modeled in such lifelike realism that one can imagine reaching out and feeling the gentle give of such delicate fabric.
The fingers of her right hand curl around Jesus’s side, while her left hand is outstretched and open, as if presenting Him to the viewer. “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29)
It is magnificent.
Truly, this is arguably Michelangelo’s greatest work. An achievement that surpasses even his other finest masterpieces: The statue of David in the Accademia Gallery, Florence, and the famous Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings.
Michelangelo Buonarroti was born March 6, 1475 in Caprese, Italy. Raised in Florence, Michelangelo was in a prime position to absorb everything that the art revolution of the Renaissance had to offer.
The “Renaissance” is a time of great change in Europe. In terms of art, it marks the end of the stiff, highly stylized works that were typical of the Byzantine period, and ushers in a new age which favours a type of realism reminiscent of the idealized Greek and Roman sculptures of classical times.
The Italian Renaissance encompasses a broad two hundred years, spanning from the beginning of the 14th century to the end of the 16th (1300-1600), with artists such as Giotto di Bondone (credited as the first artist to break with Byzantine traditions), Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), sculptor Donatello (1386-1466), and Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) at the forefront. But when we’re speaking about art, the most important and influential time period is, for me, right around 1500 — the High Renaissance.
The High Renaissance produced what I feel are some of the world’s greatest artists: Leonardo Da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Raphael, Titian, and yes, Michelangelo.
Apprenticed by his father to artists Domenico and David Ghirlandaio at only thirteen years of age, Michelangelo’s career as a premiere artist was cemented when he began working for the Medicis — one of, if not the, most powerful family in Italy, and well known patrons of the arts.
Michelangelo’s friendship with Lorenzo (“the Magnificent”) de’ Medici (1449-1492), allowed him to mingle with some of the most influential Florentines of the day, and most certainly helped shape Michelangelo into the artist and man he became.
~ Michelangelo’s skilled hand was responsible for creating the incredible tombs of both Medici brothers: Giuliano (left) and Lorenzo (right).
By his own admission, Michelangelo was primarily a sculptor. Said the artist, “Painting is not my profession.” And one need only look to his magnificent David or his stern yet regal Moses (a figure meant to be part of the tomb of Pope Julius II) to see that his talent as a sculptor was second to none.
But his reluctance to paint didn’t stop Pope Julius II (whose known praise for the artist’s work caused much jealousy among his contemporaries) from commissioning Michelangelo in 1508 to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
By 1500, the Chapel walls had already been adorned with beautiful frescoes painted by some of the greatest artist of the time (including a personal favourite, Sandro Botticelli). But that incredible vaulted ceiling was a daunting challenge. Imagine poor Michelangelo standing on a scaffold or lying on his back (many believe it is a myth that the artist worked while on his back), painting with his arms above his head, for four YEARS.
The Sistine chapel measures approximately 130 feet long and 43 feet wide, and while the original commission called for a rather simple depiction of the 12 Apostles, what Michelangelo actually delivered was 343 figures, illustrating a number of Old Testament Bible stories like the iconic “Creation of Adam”.
For an artist who didn’t even want the commission, Michelangelo’s ceiling is one of the most amazing works of art ever created. The time and detail that went into executing such a magnificent undertaking will never be matched. I can only speak for myself, but I do think it’s every artist’s dream to go and stand in the Sistine Chapel. Pictures are one thing, but to be IN that environment, surrounded with such awe-inspiring talent and beauty, physically immersed in what could be considered the finest example of Renaissance art in the world? Yes. That’s something I very much want to do.
I could go on forever about art, I really could. But I’ll save some details for another post (or two!). Suffice it to say that Michelangelo is one of the most important and influential artists, not only of the 16th century, but of the entire, all-encompassing world of Art. Whether we’re looking in awe on his divine Pietà, or admiring the pensive gaze of David, art aficionados and casual viewers alike can not deny the intense magnetism that Michelangelo’s works possess. The way he could captivate with a simple glance or pose has been rivaled only, in my opinion, by the great sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Michelangelo loved art, of that there can be no question. His beautiful yet unfinished Deposition from the Cross was one of his final works. And it is said that he was working on the Rondanini Pieta within a week of his death. Neither piece was a paying commission. Each was something he did for himself, and himself alone. In fact, Deposition from the Cross was meant to adorn his own tomb.
The Phaidon book on Michelangelo describes his Deposition sculpture so beautifully that I simply must leave you with it now.
“[The Deposition from the Cross is] a fully conceived work of art, the impact of which is somehow increased rather than diminished by its unfinished and impaired condition. This is probably due to the dominance of the figure of Nicodemus, in whose features those of Michelangelo are portrayed. At the same time its profoundly moving quality resides in something far deeper than in a mere physical resemblance, since it almost seems as if, in a subtle and indefinable way that is perhaps unique, the soul of the sculptor were here enshrined. Transcended by an infinite compassion, this beautiful supporting figure testifies to the attainment of a state of mind in which the spiritual and artistic strivings of a lifetime have been resolved; to the surrender of a will purged in the classic sense by pity and terror; to a yearning for the divine; and to that ultimate grace of spirit implicit in his own words, ‘I serve for the love of God.'”
Happy Birthday, Michelangelo. Thank you for being a continued inspiration to artists all across the globe. Myself included.