Michelangelo Buonarroti is one of those artists whose names we utter when we’re asked about perfection, or let’s say, art that is close to perfection in our eyes. One of the principal figures of the High Renaissance and perhaps the most well-documented one in the 16th century, he is grouped with other greats like Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. Though he was separated from the other two by many years, his name is uttered in the same breath with theirs because he was a powerfully individual artist whose works often excited scorn even from the patrons. Michelangelo frequently experimented with his ingredients for his art and worked quite ceaselessly. According to Condivi, even in his personal life he was very carefree about his attire and seemed to live for his sole passion, which was mainly sculpture.
He chose to create sculptures over paintings (frescoes) because it is thought that he considered painting to be an inferior art over sculpture and architecture. Though there are several works which are attributed to him, but their authenticity has not been conclusively determined and works such as the Leda and the Swan have been lost, only to remain in popular memory through imitations, most famously by Rubens. Inspite of this, frescoes by him have inspired generations of artists and awed millions of people over the ages. His style which is difficult to mould into any definition, might be called a personal style, by which he was able to blend his own ideas into his works. For the first time during the Renaissance, the human form was being studied with importance, and Michelangelo’s works seem to celebrate this idea of the human body. His men and women are passionate, elemental, and appear to be quite powerfully captured, whether on a fresco or in a sculpture. He was initially criticised because he changed natural postures for more stylised ones, but on closer examination one finds that he had the question of perspective on his mind, and it seems his mind always worked to find a way to improve his art in the eyes of the viewer. There is also a sense of the terrible in his work, his Expulsion of Adam and Eve show a markedly violent atmosphere surrounding the first humans. It has been conjectured that Savonarola’s movement had impacted Michelangelo profoundly, this might seem true if one observes the way he deviates from his predecessors. Often his methods of depicting figures are highly stylised which later gave rise to Mannerism, but the figures are also almost brutally realistic at the same time which can be both awe-inspiring and quite disturbing.
He worked for a time as an apprentice to Ghirlandaio and it is clear that he imbibed all that he could from his master. There is evidence to support the fact that Ghirlandaio considered Michelangelo to be one of his best pupils and sent him to Lorenzo de Medici, the de facto ruler of Florence with the certificate that he was one of his best pupils. His imagination fiercely grasped all that it saw and imbibed it quickly. He started working on several commissions at the same time, and it is due to this fact that there are several unfinished works of Michelangelo. He worked on more than one project at a time, his racy mind could not be satisfied and his imagination fuelled him to undertake all of them in short notice. By the time he was 24, Michelangelo had begun the construction of the Pieta, which is often considered one of the pinnacles of his career. It was during this time that he grew an interest in anatomy and often studied the corpses in the church hospitals, drawing unwelcome responses. He left Florence after the rise of Savonarola and went to Bologna, where he continued with his work. He even successfully completed a snow statue, and the story of it has now passed into legend. All this tells us that he had an extensive early career which taught him, experienced him for the great works which he undertook later.
Approximately in 1507, he started painting the Doni Tondo.
THE DONI TONDO
120cm in diameter
It is called a Tondo because it is in a round frame. Possibly commissioned by the Agnolo Doni to commemorate his marriage with Maddalena Strozzi, it is the only finished panel painting by the mature Michelangelo. It features the Christian Holy Family, Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
It is striking because of the way the figures are placed in the painting. Mary occupies the central space of the painting, lifting the infant Jesus in her hands, and it is difficult to say whether she is handing him to Joseph or receiving him from Joseph. She is sitting between the legs of Joseph, as if he is protecting her, and he has a higher position as the conventional head of the family. The elements around the family include plants and perhaps water.
It is striking that John the Baptist is also present in this painting. He is at the back, almost at the middle ground of the painting and his figure is comparatively a diminutive one. There is a horizontal band between him and the trio. Mary is sitting on the earth, her eyes and arms raised towards the heavens, and Joseph’s eyes display a singularly caring look towards his family. There is an almost indistinct landscape at the far back, and beyond the horizontal band are five nudes who do not look directly at the trio. They are much smaller in size and do not occupy a central position. They appear indistinct on a casual glance, and there is much conjecture as to why the artist chose to portray them, and the identity of the nudes.
Each of the figures seem piercingly beautiful, and their facial as well as bodily contours almost sculpture-like, as if they were made out of stone. They are stylised, as his other works, but there is a certain translucence that makes them timeless, and on looking at their faces we feel we can connect ourselves to them. A sense of spiritual elevation may be said to be present. The clever use of the ‘unfocused’ background and ‘focused’ foreground makes the image all the more striking and real to our eyes. The darker colours have been used for shading, a technique commonly known as cangiante. Mention should be made to the attention paid to the folds and intricacies of the drapery. They have been observed from life and flawlessly reproduced, every fold of the cloth, every blemish on the skin, even the hair (including Joseph’s facial hair) can be called nothing short of flawless. It is hard to conceive that an artist, incorporating all the pigments known in his time, was able to create a work of such brilliance.
It is suggested that The Doni Tondo was inspired by Leonardo’s The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, and there is enough evidence to substantiate this claim. Both portraits bear certain similarities. But we will not go into those details, as this paper pertains strictly to Michelangelo.
St. John the Baptist was the patron saint of Florence, hence he is often seen in the works of several Florentine artists. There is the presence of plants in this painting, and plant symbolism has occupied critical thought on this for decades. A plant with properties of both hyssop and cornflower lies in front of John the Baptist, and cornflower is considered to be a symbol of Christ. Mary who is sitting on the earth, is also on a bed of grass, though observing the painting now reveals almost faded, dead grass, though it is believed that Michelangelo painted them in bright green, and the colours have faded with age. The anemone represents the Passion of Christ and perhaps the Trinity. Giorgio Vasari believes that the name of the painting was a pun for the Italian word for gift, “donare”, and the patron’s name, Doni. Scholars like Barolsky support this view.
However, scholars like Mirella D’Ancona hold different views on this. She believes that the Virgin’s central placement is due to her role in human salvation. Michelangelo here, according to her, supports the belief of the Dominican order and the Maculist point of view which rejects the Immaculate Conception of Mary. She says that the artist believed that Mary received her sanctification upon the moment of the incarnation of Christ. Jesus in the painting seems to be growing out of her, as if he is a part of her. This view has been held to be quite influential as Michelangelo was strongly influenced by Savonarola and his thoughts. The nudes on the left seem to represent the soul and the intellect, and those on the right represent imagination, nourishing and sensation. This is probably a visual depiction of the ideology of Fiscino, whom Michelangelo references in his other works. The eyes of Mary in the painting is quite striking as she expresses devotion through her languid gaze and Joseph has a look of care, even worry, from the furrow of his brow. They even depict a normal family, the child with the parents. The Doni Tondo is one of the most timeless paintings of Michelangelo.
THE CRUCIFIXION OF ST. PETER
625cm x 662cm
This is the last fresco which the artist could execute. It is somewhat different than his earlier works, earlier frescos because here he seemed to observe what might be called ‘The Diagonal Method’. The fresco was commissioned by the Pope and unveiled in his Cappella Paolina. The artist concentrated on the depiction of the terrible pain on the facial expression of St. Peter as he was raised on the Cross by Roman soldiers, upside down. It is placed on the wall of the Pauline Chapel, where the conclave takes place for the election of the new Pope. In marked contrast to Perugino’s earlier work on the same topic, Michelangelo decided to paint the emotions of every one present in the most vivid detail possible.
It faced criticism at the time because many believed that Michelangelo’s failing health caused him to disregard the Mannerist style, and these sprawling figures are almost grotesque. But it can be understood that in order to portray the agony of St. Peter, the artist deliberately created such a style in this painting. For example if we consider the saint’s stare, we will see that his body is twisted on the Cross and he is looking at the viewer, as if he demands the viewer to gaze at the pain properly.
The blue undulating hills in the background and the evening sky provide an odd setting for the main scene. The principle figure occupying a large area is the body of St. Peter who is lying on the Cross, his eyes arched in an awkward fashion, with a quizzical expression. But what will invariably strike the viewer is the agony, which seems almost all-pervading.
The dark clouds above symbolises the tragedy that is taking place, the crucifixion of a saint. He is being a martyr. St. Peter said that he was not worthy to be crucified like Christ, hence it is his wish that he be crucified upside down. It is also significant that he was the first pope, and this painting is kept in the conclave where a new pope is elected. The people who are putting him upon the Cross seem to be struggling, and the realism is to be noted here. This is no romanticised depiction, but a very brutal depiction of the act of Crucifixion. Even the female figures are provided with a rugged contour in their faces and their limbs, which is unnatural to Michelangelo’s original style.
The Diagonal Method is perhaps the most significant and interesting aspect about this piece. If one ‘reads’ this painting from the left, the eyes of the person will invariably move in a diagonal fashion to various characters populating the frame, from the equestrian figures on the left, to the women huddled at the bottom, to the various people clustered at the centre and at the right of the frame. Everyone’s faces bear the impact of the grotesque spectacle unfurling at the centre. The eyes of the saint are almost haunting, it is as if he is telling us to bear testimony to his ordeal of pain. It is entirely different from the languid, passive glance observed in other saints’ eyes and even in the eyes of the Virgin.
Michelangelo’s power and genius as an artist can be observed from his various works. But it is wonderful to note, and Romain Rolland draws our attention to this, that though his principle genius was in sculpture and architecture, he created immortal works of painting by bringing a level of depth and originality which had not been seen before him. Rolland makes special mention to his powerful figures in the images, even in the sketches like The Damned Soul, where the animosity of the face tells us more than perhaps a page of description. The title of this work has been ‘Transcending Mannerism’ because though he unconsciously gave rise to the Mannerist style, in these he transcends and them and almost makes the works a specialty of his own.
1. Romain Rolland, Michelangelo.
2. Giorgio Vasari.The Lives of the Artists.
3. d’Ancona, Mirella Levi (1968). “The Doni Madonna by Michelangelo: An Iconographic Study”. The Art Bulletin.