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Michelangelo LEARNING OBJECTIVE – To consider the importance to Christian art of Michelangelo, particularly his work in the Sistine Chapel. By the end of the lesson: All must – have gained knowledge of the art that Michelangelo produced. Most should – be able to explain the symbolic significance of the art he produced. Some could – consider why his work may be seen as both popular and unpopular.
The creation of Adam Adam, Created in God’s image, is the perfected human , lacking only the spark of life. He lies languidly as God sweeps in, his hair and drapery swept back by the rush of wind and gracefully extends his hand.
The downfall of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve appear twice in this scene. On the left hand side they are being tempted by the snake. Adam reaches for the fruit as well as Eve, implying that he is also implicated in the sin. On the right hand side they are being expelled from the garden; they have become clumsy and have lost their physical grace. The tree in the middle divides the scene. The snake and the angel are rotated images of each other, showing temptation and judgement.
On the left side as we look at the fresco we see people ascending. Some are flying upwards and some are being lifted by angels, a demonstration of the power of faith. The woman with her eyes closed represents hope and those leaning over the clouds giving a helping hand, charity. On the right hand side as we look at the fresco we see the damned descending to Hell. Some are falling, others are battered by angels and some are dragged down by demons. It is said that they are being hauled down by the part of the body with which they sinned. Many of the figures seem to be allegories of the vices.
This section shows the elect (those that are saved). Jesus and Mary are surrounded by saints and martyrs and others who have risen to Paradise. Some of these can be identified, but many cannot.
The trumpeting angels are waking the dead. Two books are being held, the one on the side of the damned is bigger and thicker than the other implying that ‘many are called, but few are chosen’.
This section at the bottom shows the damned being ferried across the river to Hell. The cave in the middle is breached with angels and demons battling over bodies. It is unclear what the cave represents, but the best guess is that it would represent Purgatory. When a priest performed Mass, he would stand right in front of the cave, perhaps reminding him that his celebrations helped those in Purgatory.
Symbols of Christ’s Passion. The cross and the crown of thorns.
The column on which Christ was scourged. These two top sections are reminders that the final resurrection is possible because of the sacrifice of Christ.
The section showing the resurrection of the dead has people being reclothed in flesh. Bodies break through the ground, some are skeletons and some fully awake. Some are being lifted by angels and others are grasped by greedy demons.
The figure of Christ appears to stride forwards rather than being in a traditional sitting position. It is perhaps a reminder of Christ at his resurrection striding out of his tomb. The face of Christ is impassive and his right hand in a position of command. The scars on his hands, feet and side, remind the audience of the cost of the eternal life that has been secured. Mary turns away, perhaps indicating that the time for her merciful intercession has passed. The closeness of the two figures could indicate that justice has been tempered with mercy and the two have become one. The beardless figure of Christ was criticised by some of his contemporaries as he resembled Apollo, god of the sun.
The figure with the keys is Saint Peter, he is returning the keys of the Kingdom to Christ. His facial features are interesting as he looks unsure of his reception. This figure, standing opposite Saint Peter is John the Baptist. John represents the tradition of the Old Testament prophets and Peter the beginning of the era of Christianity.
Saint Bartholomew - He is holding tokens of his martyrdom, a knife and his skin. There has been debate over why the skin does not match the figure. It has become widely accepted that the distorted face on the skin is a portrait of Michelangelo.
These figures are of Saint Catherine and Saint Blaise. It attracted initial criticism because the position of the figures invited bawdy jokes. Saint Blaise stood behind Saint Catherine and looked down at her as she leaned over to lift the broken wheel, symbol of her martyrdom, and turned her head back to look towards Blaise. Someone remarked that it looks as if she is saying to him ‘what are you doing back there?’. Soon after Michelangelo died his closest follower Daniele da Volterra was called to fix it. He added drapery to the upper body of Catherine and turned the head of Blaise away so he now looks towards Christ.
The despair of the damned is summed up in this one man where his isolation enhances the horror. His legs are wrapped round with a demon and another is pulling his feet as he plummets towards Hell. His one staring eye conveys vividly the dawning realisation of his fate. This one image is far more effective that would have been graphic images of physical torture.
Charon is the boatman from classical myth. He ferries the damned across the river Styx to the underworld. He appears in Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ and is described as a demon who torments the damned with their hopeless plight.
When the fresco was unfinished, Pope Paul brought his master of ceremonies Biagio da Cesena when he inspected it. When asked what he thought he said that it was disgraceful to have so many nudes in such a place and it was more suited to a public bath. When they left Michelangelo took his revenge by painting his features on Minos (the judge of the Underworld in Greek mythology). He is ridiculed by being given the ears of an ass. Minos is an emblem of evil and abuse of the body, for his right hand gently supports the friendly serpent in her fellation of him.
I live in sin, to kill myself I live; no longer my life my own, but sin's; my good is given to me by heaven, my evil by myself, by my free will, of which I am deprived. Many believe - and I believe - that I have been designated for this work by God. In spite of my old age, I do not want to give it up; I work out of love for God and I put all my hope in Him. I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free. The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection. Michelangelo
How do you think Michelangelo’s art in the Sistine Chapel would inspire believers?
Why do you think people would like it?
Why do you think that other people may dislike it?
What contribution do you think that Michelangelo has made to the Christian religion?
Do you think that his depictions of God, Jesus and other religious figures are suitable?