For the past 20 years, Dr. Matthew E. Bunson has been active in the area of Catholic social communications and education, including writing, editing, and teaching on a variety of topics related to Church history, the papacy, the saints and Catholic culture. He is faculty chair at Catholic Distance University, a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and the author or co-author of over 50 books including: The Encyclopedia of Catholic History, The Pope Encyclopedia, We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI, The Saints Encyclopedia and best-selling biographies of St. Damien of Molokai and St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
The name Michelangelo still represents the zenith of Renaissance majesty, some of the highest ideals of Beauty and Truth and a testament to putting all of the gifts God gives to the service of exalting and proclaiming Him to the world.
The masterpieces of Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564) are so numerous that it is a challenge to list them all, let alone speak of them in a manner that does them justice. That does not mean, of course, we should not try.
In keeping with that spirit, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is currently hosting an extraordinary exhibit – the largest collection of Michelangelo’s drawings ever assembled outside of Italy. Entitled, “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer,” the exhibit brings together 200 of Michelangelo’s drawings, three of his marble sculptures, his earliest painting, his wood architectural model for a chapel vault and other works by contemporaries and influences on his development, from 48 public and private collections in the United States and Europe.
The pieces are truly exquisite, and anyone interested in seeing some of Michelangelo’s skill will not be disappointed. But the exhibit also helps to answer two questions often asked about the Renaissance genius: how exactly did he go about creating the incomparable pieces of art that made him a legend and who were the influences on his own artistic development?
Genius and Mentors
As the Met exhibit stresses: “During his long life, Michelangelo was celebrated for the excellence of his disegno, the power of drawing and invention that provided the foundation for all the arts. For his mastery of drawing, design, sculpture, painting, and architecture, he was called Il Divino (‘the divine one’) by his contemporaries.”
It is easy to forget that such genius required an immense amount of hard work. Michelangelo tortured his body with endless hours of labor, from the paint of the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel dripping into his eyes to the back shattering task of creating a masterpiece of sculpture such as “David,” the “Pietà” or the Tomb of Pope Julius II.
In its carefully selected elements, the exhibit at the Metropolitan captures not just samples of his finished work but a sense of how Michelangelo went about the task. The supreme example is the monumental cartoon for his last fresco in the Vatican Palace, part of his “Crucifixion of St. Peter” in the Pauline Chapel and that was completed around 1550. Preparatory drawings for frescoes, the cartoons were typically etched with charcoal or black chalk and then glued together to form a visual grid. These helped the artist create the desired image and to make needed adjustments to the design before undertaking the painful task of the frescoing. The immense cartoon of the Crucifixion of St. Peter reveals all of the technical details needed by Michelangelo as well as the full glory of his vision for the painting itself. The result is that this cartoon used by the artist as a mere preparation for the greater work stands by itself as an artistic triumph. The same is true of the treasure of scraps and scribbles made by Michelangelo as he put his imagination to paper. Three small examples are the “Studies for the Dome of Saint Peter’s”; sketches of the planned tomb of Pope Julius; and the facade of the Medici parish church of San Lorenzo.
And while the sketches and cartoons reveal a genius at work, the exhibit also helps us to understand how he became il Divino. The visitor is able to trace the life and the development of Michelangelo, from his time in the Florentine workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio at the age of 13 to the oil-and-tempera painting, “The Torment of Saint Anthony” around the age of 16, to the lasting influence of the sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni. Bertoldo imparted such a love of sculpture that Michelangelo ever after considered himself first and foremost a sculptor and not a painter or architect.
The Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo, of course, is best known for one masterpiece of painting: the Sistine Chapel. Commissioned by Pope Julius II, the ceiling was painted between 1508 and 1512, with the towering Last Judgment that took up the entire altar wall painted between 1536 and 1541. The Metropolitan exhibit does justice to the ceiling, with a one-quarter scale recreation of the entire work, as well as exceedingly rare sheets of sketches for the overall design and of some of the figures who eventually filled the vault.
The ceiling remains one of the greatest achievements of the visual arts in all of human history. Giorgio Vasari, the gifted biographer of the artists of the Renaissance, wrote of the ceiling in his work The Lives: “Questa opera è stata ed è veramente la lucerna dell’arte nostra, che ha fatto tanto giovamento e lume all’arte della pittura, che ha bastato a illuminare il mondo” (“This work has been and is truly the beacon of our art, which has brought so much good and light to the art of painting, that was enough to illuminate the world”). In 2012, on the 500th anniversary of the completion of the ceiling, Pope Benedict XVI used Vasari’s comment to reflect himself on Michelangelo’s achievement:
Beacon, light, illuminate: Vasari uses these three words, words not far from the hearts of those present at the Celebration of Vespers on 31 October 1512. But it is not just the light that comes from the wise use of color with a wealth of contrasts, or from the movement that animates Michelangelo’s masterpiece, but the idea that runs throughout the great ceiling: it is the light of God that illuminates these frescoes and the Papal Chapel as a whole. That light with its power conquers chaos and darkness to give life: in the creation and in the redemption. Indeed the Sistine Chapel tells this story of light, of liberation, of salvation. It speaks of God’s relationship with humanity. With Michelangelo’s talented frescoed ceiling, the gaze is led to review the message of the Prophets, to which are added the pagan Sybils awaiting Christ, back to the beginning of it all: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). With unique expressive intensity, the great artist draws God the Creator, his action, his power, to show clearly that the world is not the product of darkness, chance, or senselessness, but comes from an Intelligence, from a Freedom, from a supreme act of Love. In that moment of contact between the finger of God and the finger of man, we perceive the point of contact between heaven and earth; in Adam God enters into a new relationship with his Creation, man is in direct relation with Him, he is called by Him, he is in the image and likeness of God.
“An invitation to praise”
The Metropolitan exhibit also does great justice to his later years, most notably his time in Rome before his death, between 1534 and 1564. Remarkably long-lived for his era, Michelangelo remained as hardworking as ever, but his creative drive was matched by introspection and a deepening prayer life. It included his friendship with Vittoria Colonna, Marchesa of Pescara, who was in her own right a true intellectual and the foremost woman poet of her time. Michelangelo also wrote exquisite poetry, and while his painting and sculpture work displayed still his power and energy, they were also softer. He dedicated several drawings, including the “Dead Christ Held by His Mother” and a “Pietà” to Vittoria and presented them to her as gifts.
Michelangelo was able to spend three decades in the Eternal City. Someone of his genius inevitably left a lasting influence on artistic sensibilities and also on the very look of Rome: the Campidoglio, or Capitoline Hill; the Palazzo Farnese near the Campo de’Fiori; and of course, St. Peter’s Basilica itself for which he served for seventeen years as chief architect trying to bring the project at long last to completion.
With Michelangelo’s passing, the world lost one of its greatest geniuses who put to use worthily all of the gifts that God gave him. And in turn, we are impelled to turn our gaze to his works, the Sistine Chapel above all, and praise God. As Pope Benedict said in 2012 standing beneath Michelangelo’s frescoes:
To pray this evening in the Sistine Chapel, surrounded by the history of God’s journey with man, wonderfully represented in the frescoes above and around us, is an invitation to praise, an invitation to raise to the Creator God, the Redeemer, the Judge of the living and the dead, with all the Saints of Heaven, the words of the canticle in Revelation: “Amen. Hallelujah!... “Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, small and great”! ... “Hallelujah! ... Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory” (Rev. 19:4a, 5, 7a). Amen.
The exhibit “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer” is open at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until February 12.