The Blog

Talking of Michelangelo

12:00 AM, Aug 9, 1999 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Where the human and the divine meet in Michelangelo's art, both the glories and the limitations of the human condition are revealed. The Creation of Adam shows the recumbent man and the deity virtually in parallel, and it is plain that Adam is made in God's image; yet there can be no mistaking who is master here. God is both tender and fearsome; His extended, life-giving right arm is like a lightning bolt that strikes with the utmost delicacy. Adam is as yet mere inert matter -- already beautiful but lacking vital force -- about to receive a soul. One discerns the immeasurable distance between Creator and creature in so slight a detail as their hands, which do not quite touch. Adam's outstretched arm looks as powerful as God's own, but it is limp-wristed, and his fingers are diffidently curled. The tip of God's right index finger, by contrast, is the focus of a masterful energy that gathers strength in a long diagonal and is discharged in a commanding gesture: Fiat homo. It is a gesture that can destroy as well as create. One sees it in a subsequent panel on the ceiling, as the angel wielding a sword drives Adam and Eve from Paradise. Human magnificence owes everything to God, and, once that truth is forgotten, man is never far from coming to grief.

God, too, partakes of that grief. The drawing of the Crucifixion that Michelangelo did in 1539 for Vittoria Colonna, a saintly widow whom he loved with ardent purity and whom Burckhardt calls "the most famous woman of Italy," is the finest rendering of Christ on the Cross done during the Renaissance. Painted by Cimabue and Giotto and Grunewald, sculpted by Ghiberti and Donatello, Christ just hangs there, dead: The Resurrection may be coming, but for now there is only death -- decorous and peaceful in Donatello's portrayal, gruesome beyond description in Grunewald's, but death in any event. Michelangelo's drawing, in which Christ is alive, depicts not only Christ's triumph over death but also the human struggle with life at its most frightful.

Michelangelo's Christ is tortured and haggard, but he is, nevertheless, unbroken. Brawnier than David, he looks as though he could wrench himself free of the nails. He twists his suffering body to relieve the terrible weight, yet he remains the image of heroic endurance. He casts his eyes toward heaven in agonized supplication, as a man, but in certainty of ultimate victory, as God. Most Renaissance crucifixions emphasize the defeated humanity of Christ, and leave his triumphant divinity to the viewer's pious imagination; Michelangelo's Christ suggests the promise of salvation, but also demonstrates the virtue most necessary for men as they struggle to be saved: fortitude. All men are to be strengthened by Christ's display of human strength. This Crucifixion is Michelangelo's subtlest heroic portrait: Human magnificence, exemplified by God become man, consists of the divine life good men will enjoy after death and the ability to endure the worst earthly trials undefeated.

Yet Michelangelo could not escape the fear that even heroic strength may not be enough; that fear is evident in the sculptures of the dead Christ that he carved in the 1540s and 1550s: the Florentine Pieta and the Palestrina Pieta. These are as different as can be from the signature piece that he made in his youth. In that early Pieta, Mary holds the dead Christ on her lap almost without effort; the effect is of an unearthly serenity.

In the Florentine Pieta, three people -- the Virgin seated, Mary Magdelene kneeling, and Nicodemus standing -- labor with all their might to keep the broken body of Christ from falling to the ground. A long, arcing, inexorably descending line runs from Christ's neck along his torso and thigh; his left arm plunges straight down from the shoulder; Mary's thigh and Christ's lower leg form a diagonal aimed sharply toward the earth. No human strength can long resist this downward pull; no human burden is heavier than that which man bears for having put God to death. In the Florentine Pieta, the holiest of human beings are on the verge of collapsing under the weight of human sinfulness. What, then, about the sinner? Not necessarily the wicked, but the good man with the usual failings -- what must he feel?

The answer is to be found in Michelangelo's poems. His poems can be so gnarled and knotty that even Italian editions provide paraphrases for the reader's benefit. Poets as great as Words-worth and Rilke have undertaken translations and given up. One is especially grateful then that John Frederick Nims, the author of eight books of poetry, former editor of the renowned magazine Poetry, who recently died at age eighty-five, saw the project of translating Michelangelo through to the end. In some 300 poems, mostly sonnets and madrigals, about 250 of them written during the last thirty years of his life, Michelangelo explored many aspects of the human condition, but always returned to what he considered its most significant feature: man's distance from God.

Much of Michelangelo's poetry can be characterized as thoughtfully erotic. Love, profane and sacred, is the predominant theme; passion provokes reflections on what sort of beings we are that we should have such feelings. Many of the poems are addressed to the hand-some and brilliant Roman nobleman Tommaso de' Cavalieri, whom Michelangelo met in 1532, when he was fifty-seven and Cavalieri twenty-three. others are addressed to Vittoria Colonna, and some to an unknown "lady beautiful and cruel." There are flashes of exuberant carnality, as in his aching to holdmy long desired sweet lord, / in my unworthy but eager arms, for ever. There are moments of disenchantment and even disgust with sensual pleasure, its core of ash and gall. There are intimations of love that transcends the strictly personal and lifts one heaven-ward: Drawn to each lovely thing, my doting eyes. / Drawn to its heavenly destiny, my soul. / Both with the one same goal, / no way, but in treasuring loveliness, to rise.

But, ultimately, all those lovely things get in the way of the poet's deepest longing, which is for God. In these poems, the greatest artist of the human body finds himself wishing he were not encumbered by a body of his own. Reminding one of John Donne's sonnet "Batter my heart, threeperson'd God," Michelangelo's sonnet "I wish I'd want what I don't want, Lord, at all" shows the poet's desire that God's love transform him into the kind of man who loves God as he should, without distraction or compromise.

Even art comes to seem a distraction, perhaps one fatal to the soul: Painting and sculpture soothe the soul no more, / its focus fixed on the love divine, outstretching / on the Cross, to enfold us closer, open arms. Life is short, and art is long; but eternity is a great deal longer, especially if you happen to be damned.

Michelangelo's own severity might seem unconscionable, miserable, or even mad; and one is relieved to find that Michelangelo continued to work on his sculpture almost to the last day of his long life. Still, the truth remains that one of the most remarkable of men found human magnificence simply not enough.

Jacob Burckhardt writes of the atrophy of religious feeling among the "intellectual giants" of the Renaissance: "The need of salvation thus becomes felt more and more dimly, while the ambitions and the intellectual activity of the present either shut out altogether every thought of a world to come, or else caused it to assume a poetic instead of a dogmatic form." Of Michelangelo, precisely the opposite was true. In this crucial respect, he was not a man of his time and place, but rather discovered in himself a need common to men of every time and place. And the answer to his need made even the David seem a slight thing.

Algis Valiunas is a writer living in Florida.