March 6 is Michelangelo's birthday. Today, his work is the stuff of textbooks, package tours, community courses, bad novels, and even worse movies. His work is widely respected but not much loved. It's hard to imagine its novelty to viewers at the time Michelangelo's art appeared when we've all seen the paintings of the Sistine Chapel ceiling a billion times before, even if we've never visited Rome.
And yet, it is impossible to imagine the Roman Catholic Church today, or any church (including the Episcopal Church) tolerating so demanding, so ambiguous, and so personal a cycle of painting in so important and public a place as the Sistine Chapel. The basic program of the Chapel ceiling is rooted in a very medieval allegorical understanding of Scripture informed by Florentine Neo-Platonism that we find alien. It's very hard to see how any major church these days, where homophobia is now credal in status, would tolerate for a moment anything so blatantly homoerotic as the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Michelangelo was simultaneously the greatest of sensualists and the most serious of ascetics. Those two contradictory passions shape the nudes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. I illustrate two of them above. The nudes began as an ornamental detail, figures holding up faux bronze medallions with Old Testament scenes. They eventually evolved into something entirely their own, their drama eventually eclipsing the medallions that they were supposed to support. These figures are the most personal parts of the Sistine Chapel as well as the most blatantly erotic. They are beautiful athletic young men in the prime of life very much on display. Michelangelo intends us to admire, and even feel aroused, by their beauty. However, these figures are also deeply spiritual. Unlike the warrior athletes of ancient Classical art, these figures are restless with unnamed anxiety, or rest with melancholy longing. They seem to struggle against something unseen and unknown, or sit with a weary resignation. Perhaps these figures began as life studies from young men (young quarry workers might be likely models here), but they certainly did not end that way. These figures belong to the realm of ideas as much as any ancient Greek kouros or medieval angel. These restless athletes have nothing of the calm resolution demanded by the Classical aesthetic, or the otherworldly serenity of the medieval aesthetic.
There is an element of tragedy in these figures that is completely unlike the catharsis of Classical tragedy. There is something that seems to menace these magnificent figures and to cause them to despair. They are not content with their magnificence. Those splendidly athletic forms always seem on the verge of rending apart. Indeed, if you look closely at many of them, Michelangelo takes extraordinary liberties with proportions and anatomy. So many of these figures seem on the verge of expressionist distortion. That we believe in these figures at all is testament to Michelangelo's powers of visual persuasion.
Love, in the end, is love declare these figures. Erotic love is part of a continuum that contains selfless love, and even self-sacrificial spiritual love. All love from the most basic lust to the noblest self-sacrifice begins in passion. Creation starts in passion. The older I get the more amazed I am to discover the large central role that just plain horniness plays in artistic creation. That's certainly true for Michelangelo, as well as for legions of other artists for generations, including me. Love, lust, aspiration, and conscientiousness are all in conflict with one another for artists as they are for just about everyone else. Out of those struggles, art appears in all its vividness and ambiguity.
Those strong conflicting passions of sensuality and spirituality drove one of the most powerful conceptual imaginations in history. Michelangelo took on and mastered the largest projects of his era. Never do we get the sense that any project was too great for him, that its size and scope would overpower him. He was a man of tremendous physical strength carving his first sculptures out of very hard marble at age 14 and still carving marble as though it was warm butter at age 88 just two weeks before his death. His sense of inner vision was so powerful that he carved marble directly as if to free an enclosed figure, a way of carving marble that is unconventional and even reckless in every age.
There will never be another artist like him, and I doubt our age or future ages would tolerate his kind ever again.
More nudes from the Sistine Chapel ceiling:
That close proximity of physical and spiritual passion that almost cancels each other out -- but doesn't -- is what always draws me back to Michelangelo's work, and to the art of the Renaissance and Baroque. There is no either/or dualism between idea and flesh in the art of this period. Both live together, if uneasily. I struggle with the same issues in my own work, and always have.