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Michelangelo- The Sculptor

Updated on June 25, 2010
 Nydia, The Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii, modeled 1855-56, carved 1858, and touched by a six year old.......... yep, it was me! Sorry dad!
Nydia, The Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii, modeled 1855-56, carved 1858, and touched by a six year old.......... yep, it was me! Sorry dad!

Art Appreciation

I have been an appreciator of art since I was a small child. Looking back, I remember family field trips, and I know that all of the small journeys my parents fashioned have had a tremendous influence on who I've grown up to be. My first outing to the Art Institute found my father in trouble with the security guards, as the first thing I did was run to touch a statue that had been deemed off limits by the use of those unforgettable red velvet ropes that are supposed to serve as fences to keep things safe and out of reach. C'mon, I couldn't have been the only six year old to ignore the ropes, or the only person who has ever reached out and touched a piece of antiquity, but maybe I was the only one to get caught.

Raising children requires the expansion of boundaries; there are no boundaries, and I learned that from my father. Nonetheless, I always remembered the look on his face when I did the unthinkable; he made that face for security, and then he smiled about the unthinkable for years.

My Dad was an adventurer, even when the adventure took place only minutes away from home. I can find beauty in most anything.......... the most perfectly planned garden, or the random growth of wildflowers on the side of the road; an artist's painting, or the art of a child working with finger paints for the very first time; the beauty of wild animals whether seen in their natural habitat, the zoo, or even the sighting of a lone coyote walking stealthily through a city cemetery. Beauty is everywhere.

Michelangelo is one of my favorite artists. His paintings are undeniably beautiful; the Sistine Chapel is without doubt one of art's wonders, but what I love most about his work are the sculptures, and what I appreciate most is the poetry that most aren't even aware of. Michelangelo was an artistic genius, and as such he left behind a legacy of gifts that have and will be appreciated for generations.


Michelangelo the Sculptor

Little is known about where Michelangelo acquired either his love or knowledge of sculpting. In the year 1488, at the age of thirteen he became an apprentice to Domenico Ghirlandaio, who was at that time the most famous fresco painter (wall painter) in the city of Florence, but it wasn't his painting that first gained him notice; it was his gift for sculpture.

Michelangelo's gift for sculpture soon attracted the notice of the most powerful and influential family in Florence. Lorenzo de Medici took Michelangelo into his household, and it was there that he began his studies of what the Renaissance artists considered the preeminent criterion for beauty, the works of the ancient Greeks and Romans. What is considered to be Michelangelo's greatest contribution to art, the ability to convey emotion in sculpture came from his relentless study of classical antiquity, and his never ending desire to move beyond all of antiquity's greatest achievements. In essence, his desire was to be the best, and he was. I wonder if he knew it.

The Madonna of the Steps (c. 1491), may have been Michelangelo's earliest work. It was carved in marble, and it is only one of many of depictions he would create of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. Although a very small, and carved in low relief, Michelangelo was only 15 or 16 years old when this work was completed. He was remarkable; the carving is remarkable.



The Battle of the Centaurs was completed in 1492, just before the death of Lorenzo de Medici; Michelangelo's most influential patron of that time. It is said that Michelangelo spent hours in the Medici garden studying the Roman statuary on display there, that his knowledge of sculpture was gained through the inordinate amount of time he spent just gazing at the history which surrounded him, and that its influence is apparent in his depictions of the human body.

Although most of Michelangelo's works were inspired by religion, this piece was taken from the world of mythology. If you look closely, the centaur for which this carving was titled is really nowhere to be seen. The glimpse of a man half human- half horse isn't visible, and yet, the sight of the raging battle, along with the individual violent interactions shows the artist's mastery of his craft. We only see what he meant for us to see, and we don't miss what isn't there, or even notice that it's missing.



The city of Florence was anything but Utopia during the 1490's, and the political unrest in the city where he'd grown up led Michelangelo to move on in order to find commissions for his work. He had spent time in both Venice and Bologna before finally settling in Rome under the patronage of Cardinal Riario.

Bacchus was carved in marble, and it was Michelangelo's first masterpiece. Created for a neighbor of the Cardinal, Bacchus was originally vandalized by its owner. Galli, a banker, displayed the sculpture in his garden, with one very important change to the artist's original statue, the removal of an arm. Imagine, a work of Michelangelo vandalized in order to make it appear an antiquity. If Galli could see the future, I think he would have left it untouched. Today the statue stands whole, although I don't know how, Galli must have stored the arm in the garden shed........... go figure!

PIETA (MARBLE) 1498-1500
PIETA (MARBLE) 1498-1500


Pieta is another of Michelangelo's religious representations, another depiction of the Virgin Mary and her son, Jesus. Originally commissioned for the tomb of a French cardinal-diplomat in St. Peter's, Rome; this statue portrays the grieving mother as she holds his body after he's been crucified.

In this piece we can see the great attention to detail that Michelangelo became famous for. Another work in marble, it was perfectly created, but filled with illusion. Who notices that Mary appears to be as young as her son? Who wonders at the apparent timelessness of her beauty, or that she seems to be holding someone the size of a young child rather than a grown man. One of Michelangelo's greatest attributes was in his ability to carve a vision of beauty, nobility, and reserved emotions; a vision that we simply see for what it is........ a work of art. A masterpiece.



By 1501, the political situation in Florence had been stabilized, and a republican constitution was welcomed; it brought peace to what had been a tortured city. Michelangelo went home, and when he arrived there he found that art was once again a celebrated civic enterprise. The city's regained support gave Michelangelo what would become his greatest prize, the giant, an 18 foot high block of marble that had been lying forgotten for a period of forty years as a result of another artist's failure. That forgotten block of marble would become David, and by 1504 it had been completed and placed in the city square, right in front of Florence's seat of government.

For the Florentines, the biblical David was a symbol. They saw his triumph over the giant Goliath as a symbol of their own triumph over the popes and emperors who had relentlessly tried to control their own small city-state. Michelangelo's David represented everything that the city of Florentine embodied; heroism, idealistic beauty, and that ever present feeling of tension. David's face was beautiful, and yet, unlike the other heroes of ancient times his face was also marked with worry, something evident in the furrowing of his brow. David became the model of a republic, a tribute to its people, and yet another legacy of the artist Michelangelo

The Tomb of Pope Julius II

Michelangelo's contract to erect a large, freestanding tomb for Pope Julius II was nothing if not a fiasco. A five year contract didn't keep Pope Julius interested enough in what he'd commissioned to see Michelangelo past his search for appropriate materials. The two had a huge falling out, but eventually they were able to reconcile............ thus the Sistine Chapel; could one of the most amazing artistic feats of all time have been an apology? I wonder........

After the Pope's death, his family and other patrons embarked on a 40 year argument over exactly what the tomb would look like. The scale of the project was immensely reduced from what the Pope himself had originally commissioned, as were the services of Michelangelo. In the end, the tomb's completion found only three contributions from the artist who had at one time been contracted to complete a much larger, and far more opulent resting place. Michelangelo's contribution was culminated in the three sculptures at the base of the tomb; those of Moses, and the two women placed on either side, Rachel and Leah.

Moses is the tomb's centerpiece. Carved from marble, Moses is seated; he holds the Ten Commandments under his arm. It is said that Moses is in its own way a portrait of Pope Julius, that Moses' face was a reflection of the Pope's. It is also said that the horns placed on Moses' head were based on what had been a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for halo, and that Michelangelo was well aware of that mistake before he carved them. He knew of the error, and still used them anyway.......... a bit of defiance.



Michelangelo was known to have created thirty-one sculptures; the majority of which were completed before he attained even thirty of his eight-eight years. He was self-taught, and many still wonder exactly where he acquired the talent so apparent in his work; a talent that was undeniably evident even as a young man, a teenager.

The sculptures I have cited here are only some of his creations; they are without question my own personal favorites. My final additions to what you've already seen are Michelangelo's Day and Night.

These sculpted figures can be found on the tomb of Lorenzo de Medici, Michelangelo's first true patron. They lie facing in opposite directions, directly beneath the Medici's effigy. Day is powerful; he sits in repose, and his coldness is almost challenging as he looks over his shoulder. It's as if the person Michelangelo portrays can be seen in the attributes of the body alone; the face is relaxed, and it is only second in importance to the implied strength we see looking back at us without worry. The tomb was erected for a man of power......... a power we can feel through the nonchalance in Day's being.

Night is Day's polar opposite, and she reclines with her back to him, not looking even the least bit worried. Night symbolizes death and darkness, something that comes to even the most powerful of men, and Day would do well to heed her message.

Her countenance is surrounded by symbols........ symbols of the darkness, and symbols of death. Her hair is bound by a crescent moon, an owl stands at her feet next to the poppies below them, and her right arm is bent behind what may be a death mask; all while her left arm may be seen to be held in a position that depicts strength. Her power seems to be stressed in an even greater way that Day's, but doesn't that make sense? Even the strongest of men will one day bow to the ever more mysterious power of the Night......... the inevitable moment of death.



References for this article were:

The Life and Works of Michelangelo; by Nathaniel Harris

Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man and his Times; by William Wallace 


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