Archive for the ‘Michelangelo’ Category


The Drunkenness of Noah — Andrew Graham-Dixon

November 12, 2012

Contrary to popular belief, he painted in a standing position, not lying on his back. According to Vasari, “The work was carried out in extremely uncomfortable conditions, from his having to work with his head tilted upwards”.

The last painting in the final triad of the ceiling’s narrative frescoes is The Drunkenness of Noah. The picture is a lesson in human frailty, and a meditation on the mysterious workings of God. At first glance it might appear to be one of the most backward-looking of Michelangelo’s compositions. But in fact it is a highly inventive, unusual picture, pregnant with possibility for future generations of artists.

As in the narrative paintings of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, the painting breaks with the unities of time, place and action to tell its story like a comic strip, with the same protagonist shown in two different situations at two different moments in time. To the left, the red-robed Noah sets to with his spade, working the land that God has spared from the Flood, and has blessed with fertility: `And Noah began to be an husbandman; and he planted a vineyard’ (Genesis 9: 20). He is silhouetted against a harsh white sky and confronted with an expanse of yellow ochre ground that seems so harsh and desert-like that his spade barely penetrates its surface. In this particular passage of the painting, Michelangelo proposes an image as simple and emblematic as a piece of heraldry, as schematic as the impresa on a Renaissance shield or flag — a rugged symbol of the lot of man after the Fall, doomed to a life of hard labor.

To the right, Noah appears again. But this time he is naked, no longer the righteous patriarch but an all too mortal man, who has indulged too much in the wine that his vineyard has produced: `And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent’ (Genesis 9: 21). He reclines in a stupor, his head sunk upon his chest. He appears as another of Michelangelo’s parodies of the figure of an ancient Roman river god, like the petrified boy hunched over the wine cask in The Deluge. His sons, Ham, Shem and Japheth, shocked by the sudden apparition of their inebriated father, gesticulate and prepare to cover his nakedness.

This troubling, dreamlike picture is susceptible to different levels of interpretation. Within traditional Christian theology, its message was one of hope, since throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance this episode was seen as one among many Old Testament stories in which was prophesied — as through a glass, darkly — the redemptive sacrifice of Christ. Like Christ, Noah was stripped bare and humiliated in the eyes of mankind. The torpor of Noah’s drunkenness was, symbolically, a small death, foreshadowing the death of Christ on the Cross. Noah’s drunkenness was also held to prefigure Christ’s Passion, in that while Noah seeded the vine and drank of its fruit, Christ said, `I am the true vine, – and my Father is the husbandman’ (John 15:1) — a sacrifice commemorated daily at Mass, in the wine of the Eucharist.

Michelangelo reinforces those ancient associations by placing a pitcher at the end of the hard wooden bed on which Noah has collapsed. A clay wine cup is at his side, as if to suggest the blood that will course from the wound in Christ’s side when he is crucified on the Cross. This allusion would not have been lost on Michelangelo’s contemporaries, familiar as they were with images of the Crucifixion in which angels descend from heaven, bearing goblets in which to catch the precious drops seeping from Christ’s wounds (a well-known example is the so-called Mond Crucifixion in the National Gallery, painted by Michelangelo’s contemporary Raphael).

Yet Michelangelo complicates his vision of The Drunkenness of Noah, adding and inventing elements that are entirely his own to impart a deeper structure of meanings to the scene. The broader pattern of images on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which creates an interlocking network of symbols and allusions — like themes repeated and varied in musical composition — instantly imparts a dark and penitential note to this image of an unregenerate drunkard shamed before his sons. Joel, the prophet enthroned immediately to the left of the scene, had railed against the sinfulness jr of those who fall into inebriation: `Awake, ye drunkards, and weep; and howl all ye drinkers of wine’ (Joel 1:5).

Moreover, the all-encompassing symmetry of the nine narrative panels on the main vault invites the viewer to see The Drunkenness of Noah, the very last image, as a pair with the very first, The Separation of Light and Darkness. The contrast is striking and severe, its effect like that of a scything caesura in poetry. On one side, the all-powerful God reaches up with a majestic gesture to bring light from the darkness — and, by implication, to wrestle good from evil; on the other, a mere man lies slumped ignominiously in the den of his own sinfulness, impelled, despite himself, to repeat the error of Adam’s Fall.

The Drunkenness of Noah is a work that shows how deeply Michelangelo responded to the compressed, laconic and enigmatic style of Old Testament epic. The artist may not be inclined to dwell on the particularities of specific human emotions — he stands, in this regard, at the opposite end of the spectrum to a painter such as Rembrandt, or a sculptor such as Donatello — yet he has his own deep sense of humanity. In painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo did not only reflect on the Book of Genesis, digest its meanings and ponder the detail of its stories. He expressed, with terrible poignancy, the predicament of those who are created and controlled by the veiled God of the ancient Hebraic tradition. They live under the perpetual threat of self-alienation and cannot help becoming other than they once were.

It is the lot of every great figure of the Old Testament, from Adam onwards, to follow God’s will and to embody his purposes as best they can, but in doing so they often find themselves terrifyingly helpless — uniquely helpless, by comparison with the heroes encountered in any of the world’s other epic literary traditions. The God of the Old Testament not only sends them challenges and trials of unfathomable mystery (the instruction to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac; the myriad ills heaped on the head of Job). He also changes them, within themselves, within their very beings, in ways that are equally beyond their comprehension and power to predict.

This aspect of the Old Testament stories was perceptively analyzed by the German literary. critic Eric Auerbach in an essay entitled `Odysseus’s Scar’.” Auerbach, whose method was comparative, believed the particular qualities of biblical narrative were thrown into sharp relief by the counter-example of Greek epic. In particular, he drew a series of telling contrasts between the heroes of the Hebraic tradition and those of the Homeric legends. The heroes of Homer, he noted, change little. They are people whose `destiny is clearly defined and who wake every morning as though it were the first day of their lives: their emotions, though strong, are simple and find expression instantly’.

But those who play their part in the stories of the Old Testament are different. They are more inward and variable, more cloaked, even to themselves. They are separated in time and place, horizontally distant from one another but joined by their vertical connection to God — a God whom they know they must serve, but whose purposes are hidden from them. Life, for them, is the painful process of discovering what lies in store. `The stern hand of God is ever upon the Old Testament figures; he has not only made them once and for all and chosen them, but he continues to work upon them, bends them and kneads them, and, without destroying them in essence, produces from them forms which their youth gave no grounds for anticipating.

This is Michelangelo’s theme in The Drunkenness of Noah. An Old Testament hero succumbs to a great transformation, realized in the forms and colors of a vivid nightmare. The artist has created an image that seems to externalize the hero’s awareness of his own complexity — making visible, so to speak, the dark thoughts that are present only as a shadow across the face of his carved David.

Noah could be dreaming the scene of his own humiliation, such is the hallucinogenic power of Michelangelo’s representation of the scene. The artist paints it as a phantasmagoria, lends it a quality of inward vision found nowhere else in the world of his time, save perhaps in that hauntingly weird fifteenth-century prose romance, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a work of fiction by the Dominican friar Francesco Colonna, quite probably known to Michelangelo, in which the hero progresses through a landscape of architectural and sculptural dream imagery that feels like a projection of his own thoughts and fantasies.

Once more, the depth of Michelangelo’s originality can be measured by the extent to which he departed both from the literal Genesis narrative and from established visual convention. Earlier artists had shown Noah drunk among his vines, which they usually imagined as a form of leafy arbour. By contrast, Michelangelo places him inside a wooden shed so dark it might be a cellar. Objects in this space assume the characteristics of things seen in dreams, being either over-scaled or unnaturally clear and distinct from one another. The wine vat behind Noah looms ominously while the bowl and pitcher beside him are held in a light that gives them a trembling, oneiric particularity. These are effects that anticipate, by some five hundred years, those found in the `metaphysical’ paintings of Giorgio de’ Chirico and the dreamlike art of the Surrealists.

In the Book of Genesis, Noah is discovered in his drunken state by his son Ham, who fetches his brothers Shem and Japheth: `And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.’ But in Michelangelo’s painting, these relationships are all changed. The three sons confront their father’s nakedness together. None faces backward and none is allowed to escape the shock of the encounter. .’

The sight of their father is like an apparition, an image from out of the dark. As Charles de Tolnay noted, Noah is `like a marble statue placed on a temporary wooden base’. He might almost be a sculpture that they have excavated from the ground — like the antique sculpture of the struggling Laocoon and his sons, doomed by the Greek gods to die wrapped in the coils of serpents, that Michelangelo himself had witnessed being excavated in Rome in January 1506, two years before he painted this picture.

The Laocoon

The memory of the Laocoön, a work that made a deep and lasting impression on Michelangelo, seems embedded in this painting, which also joins a father with his sons in a moment of crisis and pain. Even the draperies that play about the figures have a writhing, serpentine quality.

Whereas the Bible implies that Noah’s sons themselves are clothed — which was how earlier artists had envisaged the scene — Michelangelo paints them as nudes, just like their father, giving them merely token robes that do nothing to obscure them. This is a daring invention, epitomizing his bold habit of transforming the conventions of religious art, bending them to purposes and meanings that evade purely theological analysis. The young men’s upright, athletic and muscular bodies, lit by an irregular play of lights and darks, as though by the flare of lamplight, contrast cruelly with Noah’s slack and slumped form. The image is an archetype of that moment, late in the father-son relationship, when the child must take on the role of parent because the parent, enfeebled, has become a kind of child. It can also be seen as a metaphor for the sudden, shocking recognition of death as an ineluctable fact of human existence.

Seeing their father like this confronts the sons with their own mortality and mutability — that mutability which, within the scheme of the Old Testament stories, governs all of life in the postlapsarian world. As he is now, so they will become. Their powerlessness to change that fact is emphasized by the inadequate flimsiness of the wisp-like drapery with which they have been furnished. The sons cannot cover their father’s shame and they reflect his vulnerability in their own uncovered state. Man is always naked before God.


The Sacrifice of Noah — Andrew Graham-Dixon

November 5, 2012

The Sacrifice of Noah is a characteristically Michelangelesque image, one that places a single, inspired individual in a pit of fools. The solemn, white-bearded prophet, rapt in contemplation of the true spirit of God, is surrounded by a crowd of the unenlightened, whirled in the circle of their own restless energies around a vortex of flames.

The Deluge is flanked by two other paintings representing scenes from the biblical story of Noah. The first of these, which can be identified as The Sacrifice of Noah, appears to be the only one of the Sistine ceiling’s narrative pictures to have been placed out of chronological sequence. It precedes The Deluge, although logic dictates that it should come afterwards, given that its subject is Noah’s sacrifice to God for having spared him and his family from the Flood. The subject is described in Genesis 8: 20-1: `And Noah builded an altar unto the Lord; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the Lord smelled a sweet savour; and the Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more everything living, as I have done.’

Michelangelo’s decision to place this scene first has been the cause of some confusion. The artist’s early biographers, Giorgio Vasari and Ascanio Condivi, assumed that the picture did not illustrate the life of Noah at all, but must represent the sacrifice of Cain and Abel. Their explanation, which has been followed by some modern scholars, has the virtue of restoring chronological integrity to Michelangelo’s fresco cycle (since Cain and Abel’s sacrifice occurs well before the Flood in the Book of Genesis). But it is contradicted by the visual evidence of the fresco itself. There are no obvious candidates for the figures of Cain and Abel, while Abel’s offering, `the fruit of the ground’ (Genesis 4: 3), is nowhere to be seen. The congested queue of animals awaiting sacrifice, which include an elephant, is surely intended to suggest the multitude of living creatures disgorged from the Ark.

Comparison with the other frescoes definitively confirms the subject as The Sacrifice of Noah. The patriarch may only appear as a diminutive figure in The Deluge, but his principal attributes are unmistakable. He wears red, and he has a long white beard. So too does the figure at the centre of Michelangelo’s scene of sacrifice. The altar over which he presides stands next to a structure resembling part of the Ark in The Deluge. There is further supporting evidence, if any were needed, in the distinct similarity between Noah’s three sons in the nearby Drunkenness of Noah and three of the youths assisting at the rite in The Sacrifice — the boy bearing logs for the fire, the boy kneeling astride the dead ram, and the boy peering into the altar flames. They are the same figures in different poses.

So the chronological conundrum remains, but Michelangelo’s apparently puzzling decision to place the scene out of sequence is most plausibly explained as a victory for expressive power over strict narrative coherence. The Deluge, a subject that involved multitudes fleeing a rising flood, clearly called out for the largest of the three fields dictated by the structure of the ceiling’s design. The artist must have been reluctant to relegate it to the first of his two smaller panels, so, instead, he placed The Sacrifice there.

Michelangelo was the first artist of the Italian Renaissance to create an image of The Sacrifice of Noah that evokes the pagan sacrifices depicted on sarcophagi and other works of antique art. His predecessors, such as Jacopo della Quercia, who had depicted the life of Noah in his bas-reliefs on the doors of San Petronio in Bologna, represented the episode as a comparatively inert act of devotion, showing the patriarch and his family joined in prayer around a simple altar — a far cry from Michelangelo’s dynamic frieze of turning, twisting figures.

In deciding to treat the subject in this way, Michelangelo was looking back in time, past the early Renaissance and the Middle Ages to the distant traditions of Greece and Rome. The artists of antiquity had dwelt in much detail on the material preparations for acts of sacrifice to their many gods — the preparation of offerings, the lighting of fires — and Michelangelo drew direct inspiration from such classical sources in planning his own composition.

Noah’s daughter-in-law, who shields her face from the heat as she places a brand of wood in the sacrificial fire, is directly derived from a figure representing Althea in a frieze on a Roman sarcophagus. The youth seen from behind, crouching to peer into the flames, may have been based in part on a similar figure on a sarcophagus in the museum of antiquities at Naples. He bears an even closer resemblance to the lower, struggling figure in one of the most celebrated surviving classical statues, the pair of marble wrestlers preserved in the Uffizi Galleries at Florence. Since this work was only excavated in 1583, Michelangelo cannot have known it directly. But it seems probable that he was familiar with a similar sculpture, subsequently lost to the ravages of time.

Michelangelo’s allusions to classical sculpture should not be taken to signal an unthinking admiration for the world of antiquity. The opposite is the case. On this occasion, he uses the figural language of Roman art, with its straining, busy forms, to suggest that Noah’s children are so wrapped up in the bloody acts of animal sacrifice that they misunderstand the true significance of the rite in which they partake — the implication being that they are almost as lost in ignorance as those devotees of ancient pagan cults whom the artist has made them resemble.

They wrestle with the reluctant beasts; they carry wood; they tend the fire and exchange a bloody parcel of viscera, destined for the flames. The contrast between these figures and that of Noah himself could hardly be more extreme. While they are lost in mere action, he is absorbed in solemn contemplation. His eyes are lowered, his head bowed in thought. Those around him resemble warriors, but he looks like a priest. His shaven head even faintly resembles a priest’s tonsure.

In the contrast between Noah’s stillness and the movement all around him lies the essence of the picture. In the theology of Michelangelo’s time Noah’s offering was seen as a prefiguration of the Mass, the salvific re-enactment of Christ’s death, the offering of his flesh and blood as bread and wine. It is to that higher rite that Noah’s gesture, pointing heavenwards, prophetically refers. A stark contrast is drawn between the old rites of sacrifice, made redundant by the coming of Christ, and the pure rite of the Mass – between the acceptable and the unacceptable offering.

It is a characteristically Michelangelesque image, nonetheless, one that places a single, inspired individual in a pit of fools. The solemn, white-bearded prophet, rapt in contemplation of the true spirit of God, is surrounded by a crowd of the unenlightened, whirled in the circle of their own restless energies around a vortex of flames.


A Picture That God Can Unpaint — Andrew Graham-Dixon

October 29, 2012

The nine narrative paintings that span the vault of the Sistine Chapel climax in a catastrophic scene of universal destruction illustrating the events of The Deluge. Although it comes near the end of the sequence, it was the very first picture to be painted. The fresco is the largest of the three images in the cycle telling the story of Noah. Its theme is human sinfulness punished by the omnipotent Almighty, the moment when the vengeful and unpredictable God of the Old Testament saw

The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”
Genesis 6: 5-7

Noah alone is exempt, for God finds that he is `righteous’. He is told to build an ark from gopher wood, and to take on board all of his family. He must also give shelter to every species of animal, `to keep seed alive on all the face of the earth’, for God intends to send a great flood to cleanse the wicked world. As the waters rise, Noah and his family board the ark; `the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened … And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground:

Then the Lord said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation. Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth. For in seven days I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.”

And Noah did all that the Lord had commanded him. Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters came on the earth. And Noah with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives went into the ark to escape the waters of the flood. Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, two and two, male and female, went into the ark with Noah, as God had commanded Noah. And after seven days the waters of the flood came on the earth.

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.

On the very same day Noah with his sons, Shem and Ham and Japheth, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons entered the ark, they and every wild animal of every kind, and all domestic animals of every kind, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, and every bird of every kind—every bird, every winged creature. They went into the ark with Noah, two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life. And those that entered, male and female of all flesh, went in as God had commanded him; and the Lord shut him in.

The flood continued forty days on the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. The waters swelled and increased greatly on the earth; and the ark floated on the face of the waters. The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; the waters swelled above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep.

And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings; everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred fifty days.
(Genesis 7).

Michelangelo fleshed out this, starkly told tale, transforming it into a panorama of human misery. A disjointed crowd of refugees seek their last haven in a drowning world. The floods of divine vengeance, which despite a raging tempest are not storm-tossed but eerily still, stretch to the horizon, forming a blue-grey field of watery nothingness that will, inexorably, engulf and erase all. In places, especially on the right-hand side of the composition, this dull-colored void is so extensive that the artist might almost have left the fresco bare. This effect has been accidentally exaggerated by a patch of actual paint loss, caused by an explosion in the nearby Castel Sant’Angelo in 1797, which made a section of painted plaster fall to the ground. But a contrast between emptiness and fullness was, in any case, certainly part of Michelangelo’s intention. It is an apt pictorial metaphor for his subject — which is, itself, a great unmaking. A vigorous crowd of the damned is being encroached upon by an expanse so blank as to be virtually abstract. Seen through half-closed eyes The Deluge resembles a picture that has been partly whitewashed. The world is a picture that God can unpaint at any moment.

Michelangelo envisages a moment when the flood has risen so high that only two mountainous outcrops protrude above the waters. To these precarious points of refuge the last remnants of humanity cling, as if washed up by the tides like so much flotsam and jetsam. On the right-hand side of the picture, a group of lamenting figures takes shelter beneath a makeshift tent strung between two tree trunks. To the left, a tribe of antediluvian humanity winds its way up towards the cramped, plateau-like summit of a mountain.

Scale is hard to determine in this blasted, almost empty place, but the considerable height of these stunned unfortunates, measured against the single leafless tree that fails to offer them shelter, suggests they are beings of gargantuan stature. `There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bear children to them, the same became mighty men, which were of old …’ (Genesis 6: 4). Forming a procession of the damned, these doomed titans concentrate on carrying their possessions — pots and pans, articles of clothing and furniture — to safety.

Michelangelo rarely descends to such detail, being one of the least circumstantial artists of the Italian Renaissance. His principal instrument of self-expression is the nude, on which he plays innumerable variations, the corollary of which is that as an artist he shows little interest in the mundane details of day-to-day existence. For him, painting and sculpture, like poetry, were essentially means by which spiritual ideas might be expressed.

Francisco de Holanda, a Portuguese illuminator who made his acquaintance in Rome in the 1540s, recorded a conversation in which Michelangelo expressed a revealing level of disdain for the oil painters of the Flemish tradition. `They paint in Flanders,’ he said to de Holanda, `only to deceive the external eye, things that gladden you and of which you cannot speak ill. Their painting is of stuffs, bricks and mortar, the grass of the fields, the shadows of trees, and bridges and rivers, which they call landscapes, and little figures here and there. And all this, though it may appear good to some eyes, is in truth done without reason, without symmetry or proportion, without care in selecting or rejecting.‘ He added, dismissively, that such .an art was capable of pleasing only `young women, monks and nuns, or certain noble persons who have no ear for true harmony’.7

By Michelangelo’s own stern standards, The Deluge pays an unparalleled degree of attention to the minutiae of ordinary life. At the back of the group of hapless figures hurrying uphill away from the waters, the artist includes an impassive woman in a simple turban. She balances an upturned kitchen stool on her head, on which are poised a conical clay soup jar — inventories reveal that Michelangelo’s own kitchen contained a similar vessel — some loaves of unleavened bread, a stack of crockery, a knife and a spit for turning meat. Painted in muted tones of earth and off-white, this is the artist’s only recorded still-life. The woman carrying it is preceded, in the headlong rush to safety, by two male figures who are similarly laden.

The first, a youth whose long tresses of blond hair are blown sideways by the gale-force wind that courses through the whole scene, carries in his left hand a roll of salmon-pink cloth and a long-handled frying pan. The second bears a heavy bundle wrapped in a blanket, stooping under his load like Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders. On the island to the right, the group of sheltering figures has managed to salvage a keg of wine. One slumped and almost comatose figure, supported by two others, has clearly drunk deeply from it, in an attempt to anaesthetize himself from the terror of imminent death. Another fearful young man, his body curled up in a fetus-like position, lies across that same, presumably emptied, keg. Staring out across the waters with a blank-eyed expression, he seems petrified by fear.

Michelangelo draws attention to these small details but does so in a way devoid of all compassion. The objects that these people have stored against their ruin are not intended to evoke pathos; they are items of incriminatory evidence. These men and women are doomed precisely because they have taken too much pleasure in the things of this world, while paying too little heed to the state of their souls. The objects depicted are themselves pointedly symbolic. One group has loaves of bread; the other has wine.

To Michelangelo’s audience, bread and wine would inevitably have evoked the Eucharist, the mystical body of Christ consumed by the faithful during communion. But the bread and wine in The Deluge are unsanctified remains of impious feasts, symbolizing the sins of an irredeemable multitude.

The painting contains numerous pointed inversions of this kind, parodies of the language of high and sacred art that serve to underline the cursed state of this antediluvian multitude. The naked young man curled against the wine keg resembles a Roman river god — in antique art, the gods of the rivers were conventionally depicted leaning on upturned, gushing water vessels. But instead of presiding over a life-giving flow of water, Michelangelo’s youth prepares to die a watery death. The reclining woman in the other group, to the far left of the composition, also resembles a Roman river deity. But she too is a symbol of death and aridity, rather than fertile life. Her breasts are empty and will bear no more milk, as the weeping infant at her shoulder makes clear.

This pattern of inversion is carried through to several other figures to the left of the painting, which seem calculated to evoke sacred associations, only for those associations to be simultaneously denied. A young man bearing his wife on his back recalls St Christopher carrying the Christ child across the waters. A young woman, who is haloed by a wind-blown arc of plum-colored drapery, and who holds her smiling and oblivious baby close to her, calls to mind innumerable images of the Madonna and Child.

A group truncated by the edge of the frame, to the extreme left, includes another woman with a baby, next to whom patiently stands a donkey — imagery that evokes the Holy Family’s rest on the flight to Egypt. But there is to be no rest for these people, no blessing, no salvation. Michelangelo takes a particular and even cruel relish in forcing the message home, by filling his work with such echoes of other, happier themes. He imparts a brutish, crude quality to these figures, that makes them seem both primitive and irredeemably earthbound. The standing mother is confirmed as an anti-Madonna by the set, sullen, stupid expression on her face. Not one of the doomed titans looks up, or makes time to pray.


The Temptation and Expulsion — Andrew Graham-Dixon

October 8, 2012

The last scene in the central triad of images on the ceiling is The Temptation and Expulsion. Here Michelangelo tells the story of the Fall of Man, giving his own narrative interpretation to the events recounted in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 3.

First, Adam and Eve fall into temptation in the Garden of Eden, and are punished for their sin:

Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.
(Genesis 3: 1-6)

Then, God discovers Adam’s transgression and condemns him and Eve to suffer the pains, labor and discord of mortal life. To ensure that Adam does not take fruit also from the tree of life, and become immortal, God exiles him forever from Eden:

Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.
(Genesis 3: 23-4)

Generations of artists before Michelangelo had depicted these two scenes separately. Going against convention, he joined them in a single image, framed with such fearful symmetry that it links the crime with its punishment in a pattern of stark inevitability. The two halves of the painting mirror one another to the extent that, seen through half-closed eyes, they resemble shapes made by folding a piece of inked blotting paper in half.

This is apt, because the picture itself is a kind of hinge — a hinge on which the whole grand narrative of the ceiling turns. It is here that man sins, here that his fate is sealed. Adam and Eve break with God’s commands and are separated from God for ever. Unity gives way to alienation, harmony gives way to discord, oneness becomes fragmentation.

The three scenes that follow this one — all tracing the subsequent life of man on earth, through the story of Noah — are characterized by a busy brokenness, a mood of nightmare, a deliberate compositional disharmony, entirely at odds with the breadth and the sweeping simplicity that characterize the earlier scenes depicting the Creation. In this way, the very rhythms and formal structure of the paintings of the Sistine ceiling conspire to define mortal life — the life that follows the Fall — as disharmony, disconnection, alienation.

On the left, Adam and Eve are depicted as youthful, energetic figures. The semi-reclining Eve is flushed with excitement, anticipation sparkling in her eyes, as she reaches round to take the fruit offered by the serpent — a creature depicted by Michelangelo as half-woman, half-snake, the long coils of its serpentine tail twined round the trunk of the tree. The face of the creature resembles those of the maenads and furies in ancient art. There is a resemblance, too, to the face of Adam. The two figures have the same flowing yellow hair. Their gestures even seem to flow towards one another in a convergence of erotic energy.

The Fall of Man had often been interpreted as a surrender to impure desire, and its sexual aspect is strongly emphasized by Michelangelo. The tree of knowledge bears not apples but figs, which have a traditional sexual significance. Eve kneels, not to pray, but to seduce. Her left hand is suggestively entwined in that of the serpent, from whose fist several fruit protrude.

Adam reaches greedily, with a claw-like hand, towards a bunch of figs in the shadowy leaves next to the mouth of the snake-woman, while his own genitals hang like fruit beside the mouth of Eve. The middle finger of Eve’s right hand is emphatically extended in a crude gesture and points down towards her own sex. Adam has turned into shadow, his face half-hidden in profile, to indicate that he has chosen the way of darkness.

Eve’s outstretched arm is rhymed by the shape of the dead tree stump against which she reclines, to show that in reaching towards temptation she has embraced the world of mortality and forsaken eternal life. Both are depicted against an outcrop of barren rock, another stark symbol of death.

In making Adam such an active figure, one who does not blindly follow Eve but vigorously reaches into the tree to pick the fruit himself, Michelangelo emphasizes that the couple are implicated in a partnership of sin. The artist also stresses, by this means, that Adam has acted out of his own free will. Adam’s energies are Promethean in their unruly vigor. He does not only reach into the tree but also pulls its main branch down towards him.

The gesture that he makes with the arm closest to the serpent, both stretching out and groping for the figs with the index finger of his right hand, is a graceless parody of the gesture with which God brought him into being in The Creation of Adam.This is the moment in the narrative of the ceiling when man seeks to take control of his own destiny, when he sets out to become, as the guileful serpent suggests, a god himself. The result is disaster. God’s pointing finger conjures life from nothing. But Adam, in reaching for divinity, conjures only the specters of death and hardship, and condemns Man to a world of pain.

In suggesting the complexity of Adam and Eve’s motives in this moment of Original Sin, Michelangelo indicates the multitude of evils encompassed within it — greed, treachery, God-defying insolence, a whole Pandora’s box of ill intentions. John Milton, who retold the story of the Fall of Man a century later in his epic poem Paradise Lost, never saw The Temptation and Expulsion. But Milton’s puritanically severe reflections on the nature of Original Sin, in a prose work entitled De Doctrina Christiana, set forth a view of the subject very close to that expressed in Michelangelo’s painting:

If the circumstances of this crime are duly considered, it will be acknowledged to have been a most heinous offence, and a transgression of the whole law. For what sin can be named, that was not included in this one act? It comprehended at once distrust in the divine veracity, and a proportionate credulity in the assurances of Satan; unbelief, ingratitude; disobedience; gluttony; in the man excessive uxoriousness, in the woman a want of proper regard for her husband, in both an insensibility for the welfare of their offspring, and that offspring  the whole human race; parricide, theft, invasion of the rights of others, sacrilege, deceit, presumption in aspiring to divine attributes, fraud in the means employed to attain the object, pride, and arrogance …

The other side of the painting, the bleak mirror image of Adam and Eve choosing sin, represents the moment of their punishment and belated remorse. An angel reaches out with a sword — a punitive gesture that rhymes cruelly with the enticing gesture of the serpent offering fruit — to expel the couple from the Garden of Eden.

Adam’s face is twisted into a rictus of anguish, and he looks instantly older and more wizened, as though mortality has already begun to work its effects on his flesh. Eve has metamorphosed into a hideous caricature of her former seductive self, a lumpen, lumbering being — a member of the same crude tribe of antediluvian giants that will soon be encountered, stumbling to their destruction, in Michelangelo’s depiction of The Deluge.

As she takes her first steps into the world, the mother of mankind scowls and covers her breasts in shame, looking around over her shoulder, one last time, at paradise lost. She might be looking back at her own image beneath the tree, seeing the memory of the happy self she once was, but can never be again.


The Creation of Eve – Andrew Graham-Dixon

October 1, 2012

The second of Michelangelo’s paintings telling the story of Adam and Eve is The Creation of Eve, the biblical source for which is Genesis 2: 21-2:

`And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept; and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman…’

The artist shows the blonde-haired Eve emerging from the side of Adam and coming face to face with her creator. Michelangelo has placed Adam’s sleeping form next to a jumble of dark rocks, which introduces a spatial ambiguity into the scene and makes Eve look as though she might be stepping from the entrance of a cave beside him. Emerging from darkness into light, she seems astonished by the suddenness of her encounter with God. Her mouth hangs half open in amazement and she holds her hands up instinctively in a prayer that also looks like a gesture of supplication. With his raised right hand, God seems to be pulling her upright, drawing her out of Adam’s side and into life. He stares solemnly into her troubled eyes.

The figure of God in The Creation of Eve is distinctly less awe-inspiring than the airborne, cosmic creator of the earlier Genesis scenes. Dressed in a voluminous mantle, he has here the aspect of a patriarch or priest. He does not fly, but stands and even stoops slightly in the act of creating woman. His weight upon the earth is suggested by the single mighty foot shown protruding from his robes, toes splayed on the bare grey ground. His hair and beard are a lank, dullish blond, painted with far less energy and animation than the swirling grey locks of God in the other scenes.

How can these differences be explained? Partly perhaps as a result of the evolution of Michelangelo’s ideas between one phase of painting and the next. The artist was to break off from painting the ceiling for several months after finishing The Creation of Eve. This pause for thought might well account for the great difference between the figure of God the Father as he appears in this picture, and as he would appear in the three scenes of the creation of the universe and The Creation of Adam.

It may simply be that Michelangelo, recognizing that God would have to become dynamically more active for the earlier scenes of creation, took the chance offered by a break in his work to reconceive his personification of the deity. But one of the great (and relatively underrated) aspects of the artist’s achievement in painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling was that he managed to preserve the total unity of the scheme despite the evolution of his own style during the course of the four years that it took him to complete it. And the fact remains that the character of God, as he appears in The Creation of Eve, powerfully contributes to the particular expressive twist that Michelangelo gives to this episode in the Genesis story.

The position of the fresco on the ceiling of the chapel is significant. It is the central image of the nine narrative scenes, occupying a place directly above the screen that once divided the area closest to the altar — reserved for the pope and his court — from that occupied by less exalted worshippers. It marks a corresponding separation within the overall scheme of the Genesis narrative, dividing the stories of creation from those of fallen humanity. So it makes sense that the figure of God should suddenly, in this image, seem so much more grounded. This is the moment when the story itself comes decisively to earth. The transition is not a joyful one. The action takes place on a lonely stretch of coast. The line of the horizon, where sea meets sky, neatly bisects Eve’s body at the midriff.

The overt symbolism of the picture restates the ultimate beneficence of God’s plan for mankind. The sleeping Adam, beneath a dead tree stump suggestive of a truncated cross, is once more a prefiguration of Christ, while Eve, springing from his side, calls to mind the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, in that water and blood ran from the side of the crucified Christ (associations reinforced by the water behind her, and by the way in which she holds her hands up to the priest-like figure of God, like a worshipper at Mass preparing to receive the wafer).

But the pious complacency inherent in such typologies is disturbed by the raw emotion with which the painting is charged. A current of intense, troubled feeling courses from Eve to the Almighty. She looks at God with an expression of pained and pleading mystery that lends this already cramped and claustrophobic act of creation an ominous, menacing atmosphere.

Eve, placed dead centre of the entire Sistine Chapel ceiling, is given a unique privilege. She is the only figure on the whole ceiling who is allowed to look into the eyes of God. Does she already feel sinfulness stirring within her breast? Could she be asking God why he has made her, why he has squeezed her into being, imperfect as she is? These are among the oldest and most intractable questions that Christians have asked themselves about their God. If all was foreknown, all foreordained, by a perfectly benevolent deity, why create the possibility of evil at all? But in Michelangelo’s painting, she receives no answer. The solemn God stares back at Eve with eyes as hard, as unyielding, as stones.


The Creation of Adam – Andrew Graham-Dixon

September 28, 2012

Probably the most iconic religious fresco of all time. Michelangelo 1511.

The ceiling’s central triad of images begins with The Creation of Adam, a majestic depiction of the moment when God imparts life and a soul to the first of men. It is among the most dynamic and startlingly original of all Michelangelo’s inventions. Like many famous pictures, it can all too easily be taken for granted. The overwhelming familiarity of the composition, its beguiling power and simplicity, can obscure its true qualities. Only on close, careful inspection does the work disclose its range of meanings and subtleties of expression.

The tradition of misreading The Creation of Adam is as old as the picture itself. So far did it depart from all previous artists’ imaginings of the creation of humanity that the work completely bemused at least one early visitor to the Sistine Chapel. Paolo Giovio, bishop of Nocera, who also wrote brief lives of Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci, composed a slender biographical sketch of Michelangelo sometime between 1523 and 1527.

Giovio’s text, a bare 31 lines in Latin, contains a short appreciation of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which is principally memorable for revealing the author’s bafflement when faced with The Creation of Adam: `Among the most important figures is that of an old man, in the middle of the ceiling, who is represented in the act of flying through the air …’ Giovio clearly had no idea of what he was looking at. But his incomprehension serves as a measure of just how novel, how alien to prevailing conventions, Michelangelo’s painting seemed to his contemporaries.

The artist was familiar with other depictions of the same theme by earlier Renaissance artists. In devising his composition, he may have had somewhere in his mind a celebrated bronze panel by Jacopo della Quercia on the Porta Magna of San Petronio, in Bologna, a city Michelangelo knew well, having spent several months there creating his doomed monumental bronze portrait of Pope Julius 11. Jacopo had depicted Adam nude and recumbent on a somewhat abstract outcrop of rock, springing into life as if waking from sleep, with the cloaked figure of God the Father standing over him, making a restrained, priestly gesture of benediction. Michelangelo galvanized this somewhat wooden piece of early Renaissance theatre by turning it into a whirlwind encounter between man and God.

The Almighty floats weightlessly through space, wrapped in a billowing red cloak that enfolds his angelic entourage. He is a severe, grey-bearded Creator, reaching out with great deliberation towards the languid Adam, a suitably earthbound figure (the name `Adam’ is also the Hebrew word for `earth’). So it is that God imparts to man, across the few inches of air that separate their outstretched fingers, the spark of life that makes him move and breathe.

In early Christian depictions of the creation of man, God had usually been truncated to a mere hand gesturing from a strategically placed cloud. He had developed into the familiar figure of an old man with a beard by the middle of the fifteenth century, but there was no precedent for showing him `in the act of flying through the air’, let alone dressed in clinging draperies that reveal his legs from the thigh down.

The fingertip act of creation was also Michelangelo’s own invention. Given that this has become the single most famous, most reproduced detail in the entire pictorial scheme of the ceiling — despite the fact that the celebrated fingertips themselves were repainted, due to a small area of loss, by the restorer Domenico Carnevale in the 1570s — it is worth considering in some depth just what Michelangelo may have intended by it.

Where did the painter get this striking idea? It owes little to the account given in Genesis 2: 7, which casts God in the role of a sculptor who literally breathes life into his work: `The Lord God formed man, of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.’ Michelangelo may have taken inspiration from a medieval hymn traditionally sung at Vespers on Whit Sunday, one stanza of which refers to ‘Digitus paternae dexterae’ – the finger of God’s right hand. The overarching theme of this hymn, which celebrates the nature of God’s gifts to man, also seems apposite to The Creation of Adam:

The seven-fold gift of grace is thine,
Thou finger of the hand divine;
The Father’s promise true, to teach
Our earthly tongues thy heavenly speech.

Thy light to every sense impart;
Pour forth thy love in every heart;
Our weakened flesh do thou restore
To strength and courage evermore.

Drive far away our spirits’ foe,
Thine own abiding peace bestow;
If thou dost go before as guide,
No evil can our steps betide.

The notion that God, through the touch of his finger, metaphorically imparts not only grace but also instruction was embedded in earlier Christian tradition. In considering the Ten Commandments given to Moses from on high, Church fathers had seized on the metaphor of a divine finger — one that both writes instructions for mankind and points out the path of the true and good life. St Augustine develops this idea in a passage in his fifth-century treatise De spiritu et littera:

That Holy Spirit, through whom charity which is the fullness of the law is shed abroad in our hearts, is also called in the Gospel the finger of God. That those tables of the law were written by the finger of God, and that the finger of God is God’s spirit through whom we are sanctified, so that living by faith we may do good works through love

It is impossible to prove that Michelangelo, or the papal advisers who may have helped him to formulate his iconography, had such ideas in mind when devising The Creation of Adam. Interpretations of paintings based on their presumed connections to a specific text or texts are often suspect. This is especially true when those texts are not the primary sources, as in this case, but are drawn instead from the deep well of post-biblical Christian thought.

Such hypotheses bring with them the temptation to force ill-fitting meanings on to works of art that visually resist them — to yoke the unwilling image to the inflexible word. As Leo Steinberg once cuttingly remarked of a fellow art historian, `His glimpse of a Michelangelo picture is as from a speeding car bound for the library.’ Yet in this particular instance the facts of the picture seem to confirm rather than contradict the hypothesis — suggesting that Michelangelo was indeed aware of the Christian tradition that found, in the image of God’s finger, a metaphor for his commands.

There is a look of total concentration on the face of the creating God, in Michelangelo’s fresco. But his gaze, depicted with such sharpness and clarity, is pointedly not directed at the reclining Adam. Instead, he stares with great intensity at his own outstretched finger. He does so in a way that suggests that what is being channelled through it, and towards Adam, is not only the impulse of life but also man’s incipient awareness of God’s own will — and, with that, the capacity for thought and for moral action. It is as if, in the moment of his creation, Adam is also being instructed in the laws by which God means him to live — laws that he will break, with fatal consequences for all of mankind.

Did Michelangelo really mean the viewer to understand all this, in the gesture and gaze of the Almighty? There are good reasons for believing so. The idea of transgression, Adam’s transgression against the divine will, is central to the tragic unfolding of the Genesis story as told by the artist. In the next painting but one, The Temptation and Expulsion, he will take the forbidden fruit. Michelangelo will later make it clear that man’s fallen condition is a direct consequence of Adam’s disobedience, by making the slumped body of the drunken Noah the epitome ofpostlapsarian human frailty resemble a pathetically collapsed version of Adam’s God-perfected body in the scene of his creation.

Yet for Adam to transgress, Adam must first be given the laws that he is to break. This begs the question, where, if not in The Creation of Adam, does Michelangelo imply that narratively necessary divine act of instruction? There is no space for it anywhere else in his scheme. The subject of the painting is best understood, therefore, as the formation rather than simply the creation of man.

The most compelling evidence for this interpretation is to be found in one of the most obvious places, namely Ascanio Condivi’s life of the artist. Admittedly, Condivi is an occasionally unreliable witness, but the fact remains that he knew Michelangelo intimately, and the very terseness of his description of The Creation of Adam, so pointedly bald and unembroidered as it is, gives it all the more credibility. Of the figure of the Almighty, Condivi simply writes the following: `God is seen with arm and hand outstretched as if to impart to Adam the precepts as to what he must and must not do.’

Michelangelo’s Adam looks up at God with an expression of barely dawning awareness on his face. He has just woken into consciousness and there is still about him the wide-eyed helplessness of a child. Yet the look in his eyes suggests that he has already begun to absorb the awareness that life brings with it duty to God. There is a slight implication of melancholy in his gaze, as of someone being drawn half against their will from blissful ignorance towards a sense of responsibility.

Adam’s body is full-grown and athletic. The chiseled outlines, the ebbs and flows of contour that define his nude form, recall Walter Pater’s famous remark about art aspiring to the condition of music. The effect of the entire figure is epitomized by the single detail of Adam’s outstretched arm — which swells and fades, rises and falls, from the curve of the shoulder to the soft bump of the bicep, along the meandering line of the forearm and across the reaching hand, like a melody drawn in the air.

The modeling of the figure’s flesh and muscles in light and shade is equally haunting (and represents a triumph of subtlety within the medium of fresco, which is far less malleable and forgiving than oil paint, making such effects of chiaroscuro notably difficult to achieve). Michelangelo disdained landscape painting but here he has painted Adam’s body as if the human form were itself a landscape to be explored. The soft juncture of his left calf and thigh, the shadowy hollows and protuberances formed in the area around his neck and collarbone, are painted with an immense, tender sensuality. They have what the twentieth-century painter Frank Auerbach has called a ‘haptic’ quality, a term denoting painted forms so instinct with life that to look at them is to have the uncanny sense of physically touching that which is depicted.

Adam must be perfect, his image that of a god on earth, because of the words of Genesis 1: 26: `And God said, Let us make man in our image, .after our likeness.’ In no other figure on the whole of the ceiling is Adam’s beauty repeated, and that too is part of Michelangelo’s expressive purpose. The first of men, newly created, represents a perfect state of harmony with God — but one that is destined to be lost, and never recaptured until the blessed rise on the day of the resurrection.

The scene where the action takes place is the most abstracted of landscapes, a grassy mound suspended in infinite space. Temporally, the picture is even more ambiguous because it represents a moment in which all of history — from the creation of man to his fall and ultimate salvation — is also contained. Michelangelo gives to God an aspect that expresses his infinite power. The vivid coils and whorls of his hair and beard evoke the cataclysmic patterns of whirlwinds and whirlpools. They bear a remarkably close resemblance to a later, celebrated group of apocalyptic drawings of floods and deluges by Michelangelo’s contemporary (and occasional rival) Leonardo da Vinci, who knew the Sistine Chapel and may have been influenced by this detail.

The figures contained within God’s mantle span the arc of time. At his shoulder he is accompanied by seraphim and cherubim, members of the highest order of the angels, to whom Michelangelo has also given the character of classical representations of the four winds. Their presence makes of the mantle a sail, swelled by their breath and thus impelled through space. Below God’s right arm lies a mysterious, anguished figure, present only as a groaning face, half obscured by darkness. This shadowy presence can tentatively be identified as a personification of Chaos, the dark nothingness from which the Almighty wrestled the universe into being — now conquered, he is whirled along in God’s train like the captives trailed in the wake of ancient triumphal processions.

There is also a beautiful young woman held in the embrace of God’s left arm. She looks across at Adam with a lively, fascinated gaze — the look, almost, of a startled gazelle — suggesting that she knows her destiny to be entwined with his. She can be identified with certainty. She is Eve, preordained in the mind of God from the beginning. Michelangelo has arranged his composition so that she appears as if coming out of God’s left side, a subtle prefiguration of the way in which she will actually emerge from the left side of Adam — God’s own likeness on earth — in the ceiling’s very next narrative scene. The length of green drapery that enfolds her loins has become unwound and flutters freely in the air beneath the crowded mantle of divinity, reaching down towards the earth that is Adam’s namesake. Green is the color of life, symbolizing Eve’s fruitfulness as the future mother of mankind.

If the spectator looking up at the ceiling should choose at this point to zoom out, so to speak, and encompass all three of Michelangelo’s paintings telling the story of Adam and Eve, a larger pattern of meaning can be seen to have its origin here. The figure of Eve is repeated twice more across a single, powerful diagonal that connects all three narrative scenes of the ceiling’s central triad — creating, as it were, one line of vision along which can be traced the successive stages of her destiny. She nestles in God’s mantle; she emerges from Adam’s side; she tempts Adam to his fall.

Behind the figure of Eve, in The Creation of Adam, can be glimpsed another female figure, with wispy blonde hair and a face partially obscured by paint damage. Her hand is wrapped around God’s left arm, suggesting her proximity to the Almighty. The most likely explanation for this figure’s presence is to be found in Proverbs, Chapter 8, in which Wisdom is personified as a woman coeval with God himself. `The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old,’ she proclaims. `I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth there was … When he prepared the heavens I was there, when he set a compass upon the face of the depth’ (Proverbs 8: 22-7).  Wisdom seems to be leaning forward to whisper into Eve’s ear. But Eve, transfixed by the sight of her husband, pays her no heed.

Numerous interlinked allusions and associations play across the composition. These form a chain of meaning, carried from figure to figure, at times from hand to hand, the end of which is to create a metaphor for an omniscient God’s all-encompassing salvific plan for erring humanity. In the figure of Eve is also implied that of the Virgin Mary, vessel of the Incarnation. Beside her is a staring child, a look of ominous foreboding in his eyes. He is the infant Jesus Christ — an identification underlined by the hand of God, whose fingers encircle the round protuberance of the child’s right shoulder in just the same gesture used by a priest when he elevates the Host, flesh of Christ, at the ceremony of the Mass. Within the mantle of God, within the divine mind, all is foretold and all foreseen.


The Genesis Cycle, First Triad:– Andrew Graham-Dixon

September 27, 2012

Art historians have noted several unusual features of this fresco. Andrew Graham-Dixon has pointed out that God has exaggerated pectoral muscles suggestive of female breasts, which he interprets as Michelangelo’s attempt to illustrate “male strength but also the fecundity of the female principle.” In addition it has been noted that the anatomy of God’s neck is too complex and does not resemble the normal contour of the neck. The lighting scheme of the image has been noted to be inconsistent; whereas the entire scene is illuminated from the bottom left, God’s neck appears to have a different light source from the right.

The Separation of Light and Darkness
Michelangelo begins at the beginning, with a depiction of The Separation of Light and Darkness. He shows the Almighty God of the Old Testament as a heroic male figure with grey beard and hair, dressed in lilac robes that swirl about him, twisting upwards through the heavens to separate light from darkness. He embodies male strength but also the fecundity of the female principle, in that Michelangelo has given him pectoral muscles nearly as rounded as a woman’s breasts. The figure rises into space amid rays of light. The picture is at once the sparest and the most austere of the ceiling’s scenes of Creation.

The subject is drawn from the Book of Genesis:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
Genesis 1: 1-5

There was no precedent in earlier Christian art for Michelangelo’s dynamic airborne deity swooping through an implied infinity of space. The artists of the Byzantine and medieval traditions had expressed their own sense of the ineffable mystery of God the Creator by removing the scenes so elliptically described at the start of Genesis to a pictorial world of abstract geometrical perfection.

The Italo-Byzantine craftsmen who had created the thirteenth-century mosaics of the dome of the Baptistry in Florence — a famous and much venerated building at the heart of the town where Michelangelo spent his formative years — had represented the God of the Creation scenes as a solemn, hieratic figure floating on a ground of gold, enclosed by the celestial spheres, making a stiff gesture of benediction.

The artists of the early Renaissance had humanized God the Father, to the extent that he could appear in Masaccio’s celebrated fresco of The Trinity, of the 1420s, in the Florentine church of Santa Maria Novella, as a doughty ancient with a forbiddingly solemn expression on his face. But Michelangelo energized this still recently anthropomorphized figure in a way that was both new and revolutionary.

His reinvention of the all-creating deity as a figure flying through space under the unseen impulse of divine will, was to prove enormously influential. Artists of the High Renaissance such as Raphael, followed by the painters of the Baroque and Rococo periods, would follow Michelangelo in embodying God as a being with human form endowed with a superhuman, cosmic thrust and energy.

Romantic painters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would impart something, of his twisting, irrepressible force to the Promethean heroes of their own disenchanted mythologies. Michelangelo’s influence can even be discerned in the popular art of the twentieth century. Inventors of the American superhero comic-strip adapted his style to their own ends. The character of Superman has his origins, as a graphic creation, in the airborne God who flies majestically across the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Although The Separation of Light and Darkness is the first of the nine narrative scenes from the Book of Genesis, Michelangelo painted it last of all, along with the other two scenes of primal creation. Having gradually worked his way along the ceiling, starting at the chapel’s entrance with the painted histories of fallen humanity, he finished above the altar with images of the all-powerful God. So while the momentum of his narrative moves, as in the Old Testament, from the acts of God to the life of man, Michelangelo actually painted that narrative in reverse order.

There could have been purely practical reasons for this, but the artist’s piety may also have played a part. Michelangelo must have known that, as he proceeded with the project, he would become more technically accomplished in the medium of fresco. Perhaps he wanted to be at his best when painting the scenes that involved God alone.

To create the image of the deity reaching up to separate light from darkness, night from day, Michelangelo used the difficult technique known as sotto in su. The figure is seen, from beneath, as though soaring up and away from the viewer. Practical methods had been devised by earlier generations of artists for accomplishing this particular type of illusion. The architect and theorist Leon Battista Alberti, in his treatise . on painting of the 1430s, had described a perspective `veil’ — a grid of threads strung on a wooden frame, through which a painter might study a subject seen at an extreme angle of foreshortening, transcribing each element of what he saw on to the corresponding sections of a squared-up piece of paper.

If Michelangelo used a device of that kind, he did not do so slavishly. Such was his self-assurance that he departed in many details from the carefully calculated sketch for this scene produced in his workshop, to help him realize this difficult perspectival illusion. The outlines of that sketch were incised into the wet plaster before Michelangelo began work, so the evidence still survives of just how freely he improvised from it. Minute study of the picture’s surface during conservation has revealed that the artist changed the angle and position of both of God’s hands and arms, and even shifted the entire figure so as to set it more firmly on a diagonal — increasing its torsion and intensifying the sense of God’s upwardly spiraling energy.

The difficulty of making off-the-cuff changes to such a challenging composition should not be underestimated. It is a tribute to Michelangelo’s exceptional ability to think three-dimensionally, even when working in two dimensions, that he managed to carry it off. It is as if, in painting The Separation of Light and Darkness, he conceived the rectangular panel to be painted not as a flat surface but as a block of stone extending upwards through the vault of the ceiling. Into that block, he imagined himself carving the figure of God, painting a form he could almost feel with his hands.

God’s act of creation is simultaneously an act of division. He reaches into the air as though separating bright swirls of lightly tinted steam from a mass of heavy grey storm clouds. Michelangelo, as well as the more theologically learned among his audience, may have associated the separation of light from darkness with ideas about the Creation expressed by the venerable Saint Augustine (354-430).

In The City of God, the influence of which had been all-pervasive in medieval Christendom, Augustine had compared God’s separation of day from night to his division of the angels into two communities, the good and the bad. A number of traditions told of the rebel angels rising against God, under the leadership of Lucifer, and being cast down into darkness by the host of good angels, led by the Archangel Michael. Augustine explicitly identified the good angels with heaven and the light that God called `Day’ in Genesis is 1:1 and 1: 3-5. The all-creating God is also God the judge. Just as, in the beginning, he divided dark from light, good from evil, so on the last day will he divide mankind into the saved and the damned.


There are numerous stories of Julius’s growing impatience with the length of time it took to finish the ceiling. On one occasion, he is even said to have struck Michelangelo in a fit of frustrated rage. The pope’s importunity may explain the great speed with which the artist finished the scenes of the Creation. Not only were they among the last to be completed, they were by some distance the most rapidly painted. Analysis of its surface has revealed that The Separation of Light and Darkness was painted in a single giornata — just one working day of about eight hours, a period determined by the rapid drying-time of the wet plaster into which the painter of true fresco is obliged to work his images. The artist worked quickly and instinctively, using particularly dilute pigment so that in places the figure of God seems as though dissolving into — or condensing out of — the circumambient air.

As a measure of the painter’s acceleration, the time taken three years earlier to paint The Deluge, at the other end of the chapel, had been no fewer than twenty-nine separate giornate. Admittedly, the subjects are hardly comparable, in that The Deluge occupies a larger area of ceiling and contains many different figures, all of whom had to be depicted in some detail for the story to make its impact. The broad, summary style in which Michelangelo painted the soaring figure of God was well adapted to the contrasting grandeur of the opening of Genesis — a metaphor, itself, for the sweeping, flowing, creative powers of divinity.

The Creation of the Sun, Moon and Plants
Michelangelo also worked with great rapidity on the second of the three scenes of primal Creation. This was a larger and more complicated composition than The Separation of Light and Darkness, but one that still took him only seven giornate to complete. Its subject is The Creation of the Sun, Moon and Plants. This time the figure of God appears twice, to indicate that two different moments in the narrative have been telescoped together.

To the right, frowning with concentration, he divides the heavens with a sweeping gesture of his arms, creating both sun and moon. The wingless angels in his broad cape express a mixture of admiration and awe, bordering on terror. This part of the composition is drawn from Genesis 1: 14-18: `And God said let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night … And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night…’

To the left he is seen from behind. Here, the contours and delicate coloring of God’s lilac robe give it the look of a conch shell flying unexpectedly through the sky. He is shown in the act of bringing forth vegetation from the hitherto barren earth, in the form of a few wisps of grass and fronds of fern, silhouetted against the white air. Michelangelo’s source here was Genesis 1: 11: `And God said let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself…’

There is a pointed lack of emphasis on the actual creation of the earth, a part of the story that the artist has not quite left out but has certainly abbreviated to a bare minimum. It is implied, so to speak, as something that must necessarily have happened, in the gesture with which the receding figure of God calls forth the grasses and other plants. But even that gesture is given relatively little prominence, enacted as it is by a Creator whose mighty back — and even mightier posterior — is turned to the spectator. Far greater prominence is given to the formation of the sun and moon. Both were drawn with the aid of a compass — the imprint made by its point is still minutely visible in the centre of each sphere — and colored in flat thin layers of golden yellow and silvery grey. Michelangelo has contrived matters so that his entire composition revolves around sun and moon and the divine gesture that links them.

According to an ancient tradition going back at least as far as to the writings of the fourth-century St Ambrose, the sun was held to be a mystic symbol of Christ, while the moon, reflecting back the sun’s radiance, was equated with the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ and embodiment of the Church. In creating the sun and moon, therefore, God was also pre-ordaining Christ’s Incarnation and the institution of the Church. His outflung arms are a visual anticipation of Christ’s arms, stretched upon the Cross. The expression of solemnity on his face suggests that even at this moment, so close to the beginning of time, he is gazing ahead and seeing, in his mind’s eye, the betrayal and death of his son.


The Creation of Life in the Waters
In the last painting of the first triad, Michelangelo’s God is restored once more to effortless tranquility. He floats through the air, again wrapped in a billowing mantle and attended by a small angelic retinue. This time he. is shown above a vast expanse of grayish-white water. Some authors have assumed that the painter had Genesis 1: 2 in mind: `And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.’ Others believe that he meant to indicate the separation of the land from the water, as it is described in Genesis 1: 6: `And God said let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.’

Either hypothesis, if true, would mean that Michelangelo had disturbed the chronology of Genesis in the order of his pictures. But there is no good reason to suppose that the artist reversed biblical time here. The last of his three pictures almost certainly depicts the events of the fourth day of Creation, which take place directly after the creation of sun and moon: `And the evening and the morning were the fourth day. And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creatures that have life …” The gesture of his hands suggests that Michelangelo chose to paint the very moment of this invocation. God holds his palms above the water, creating a teeming multitude of unseen creatures down in the depths of the ocean.


‘A Bathroom Of Nudes’ – Andrew Graham-Dixon

September 26, 2012

Michelangelo never wanted to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He was daunted by the difficulty of the task and made it clear from the start that he resented the commission, which had been imposed upon him by the imperious and demanding `warrior pope’, Julius II. The artist persisted in the paranoid suspicion that the whole scheme had been cooked up by his enemies and rivals, to give him an opportunity to fail on the grandest scale and in the most embarrassing way. As they well knew, he was a sculptor, not a painter, and would be bound to make a fool of himself.

Besides, he had better things to do. The decoration of the ceiling of the chapel of the papal conclaves — all twelve thousand square feet of it — clearly struck Julius II as a fittingly grand scheme on which to employ the most prodigiously gifted artist of Renaissance Italy. But Michelangelo did not see it like that. For him it was a distraction from the yet more ambitious project, of a great monument sculpted from marble, to which he had already devoted years of his life, and on which his heart was set.

He reluctantly noted down the details of the contract for work on the ceiling in a memorandum written to himself — the earliest document confirming his acceptance of the commission – phrased with apparently heavy irony. `Today, 10 May 1508, I, Michelangelo sculptor, have received from His Holiness our Lord Pope Julius II five hundred papal chamber ducats … on account of the painting of the vault of the chapel of Pope Sixtus for which I began work today under the conditions and agreements which appear in a document written by the Most Reverend Monsignor of Pavia and under my own hand.” Michelangelo, sculptor, had reluctantly agreed to paint.

The `Monsignor of Pavia’ with whom he had made the agreement was Cardinal Alidosi, a favorite of Julius II who was soon to meet with a bloody death. The pope appointed him as legate of Bologna but Alidosi governed the city so ineffectively that he provoked a successful uprising against papal rule. Called upon to explain his failure, he made the mistake of heaping the blame on Duke Francesco della Rovere, the pope’s nephew, and shortly afterwards the enraged duke stabbed Cardinal Alidosi to death in broad daylight on a street in Ravenna — a murder which went unpunished and largely unlamented.’ Michelangelo was a superstitious man and this may have strengthened his gloomy conviction that the contract he had signed with Alidosi was an ill-omened deal.

The murder took place in the summer of 1511, when after three years of back-breaking toil the artist was still wrestling with the decoration of the ceiling. A year later, with the end at last in sight, he addressed a stoical letter from Rome to his home town of Florence, telling one of his brothers that the work was almost finished. He was plainly exhausted. But what shines through, despite the wearily laconic tone of the letter, is Michelangelo’s belated, dawning sense of how much he had achieved, despite his own worst fears: `I shall be home in September … I work harder than anyone who ever lived. I am not well and worn out with this stupendous labor and yet I am patient in order to achieve the desired end.’

Posterity has rarely regretted Michelangelo’s grudging acquiescence in taking on his `stupendous labor’, although there have been occasional dissenting voices. Barely ten years after the artist had finished his work, the newly elected, notoriously ascetic and – much to Rome’s relief — short-lived Pope Hadrian VI is said to have turned a baleful eye up to the ceiling, and to have curtly dismissed it as `a bathroom of nudes’. The most prolific and influential art critic of nineteenth-century England, John Ruskin, was similarly disconcerted by the ceiling’s many nude figures. He regarded it as a work of retrograde genius, which replaced the innocent piety of early Renaissance Christian art with the turbulent energies of a dangerous sensualism. Ruskin even went so far, in a lecture given in Oxford in 1871, to describe Michelangelo as `the chief captain of evil’ of the Italian Renaissance.

Despite such outbreaks of misplaced prudishness, there has otherwise been broad consensus about the quality and importance of Michelangelo’s paintings for the Sistine Chapel. Collectively they represent one of the highest pinnacles of creative achievement — an equivalent, in the visual arts, to the poetry of Dante and Milton, or the music of Bach. The most fervent admirers of the fresco cycle go further, arguing that it is the single greatest work of painting in the entire history of Western civilization.

That was certainly the opinion of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the founding president of the Royal Academy, who dedicated the last and most emotional of his Discourses on Art to the subject of Michelangelo, the only artist whom he considered to have been `truly divine’. Speaking to his students for the final time, on 10 December 1788, Reynolds regretted that he had spent his life painting portraits and imagined what he might do if he were a student once more: `were I now to begin the world again, I would tread in the steps of that great master: to kiss the hem of his garment, to catch the slightest of his perfections, would be glory enough for an ambitious man.’

Michelangelo occasionally seems in danger of disappearing behind the myths that have circulated about him, the many stories about his superhuman abilities, his `divine’ nature and talents. What is sometimes forgotten is that most of the elements of Michelangelo’s legend were in place while he was still alive. For example, Reynolds’s reference to the artist’s supposed divinity has its origins in a flattering pun on the two parts of the artist’s name, composed by Michelangelo’s contemporary, the poet Ludovico Ariosto — `Michael, more than human, Angel divine’.’ This was then turned into a commonplace by the artist’s friend and biographer, Giorgio Vasari. Vasari used the phrase `the divine Michelangelo’ so frequently as to turn it into a kind of Homeric epithet.

Novels and plays have been written about Michelangelo. Films have sought to dramatize his volatile personality and to tell the story of a life that was, for sure, anything but ordinary. Such attempts to reanimate the artist have for the most part whittled him down to the wooden caricature of a tortured genius. But however they may have distorted the man, the very existence of such productions says something important about the nature of his achievement, and the nature of his originality.

Michelangelo was one of the first artists to call forth intense speculation about his own identity and motives. It is no accident that people have wanted to flesh him out in fictions. His art made them want to do that. Perhaps the single most radical and revolutionary aspect of his work — and this is particularly true of the paintings he created for the Sistine Chapel ceiling — was the fact that it so strongly insisted on, and inflamed, precisely that kind of curiosity. It cannot be too strongly emphasized that almost every form and figure, almost every image among the myriad images with which Michelangelo spanned the vault of the chapel, is starkly unconventional.

He was well aware of the solutions that had been found by earlier generations of artists, who had illustrated the same Old Testament stories that were prescribed as his subject matter. But he did his utmost to avoid repeating them. The paintings that he produced, ranging from The Separation of Light and Darkness to The Creation of Adam, from The Deluge and the other stories of Noah to the depictions of the prophets, are exhilaratingly varied and inventive. But they bear little resemblance to any pictures made before their time. Even at the halfway stage of their completion, when the artist’s scaffolding was moved across the vault to reveal the work he had done so far, what most immediately struck those who thronged to see the pictures was their utter originality. They were instantly recognized as a `new and wonderful manner of painting’.

There was, in fact, a well-established Renaissance convention of eschewing convention — of creating works of art with the explicit intention of leaving previous works of art in the shade. That tradition was particularly strong in Florence, the town where Michelangelo spent his formative years and began his career as an artist. It was embodied in the works of the quadrumvirate of Florentine masters who had reinvented the languages of painting, architecture and sculpture during the first half of the fifteenth century: Brunelleschi, who had erected the great dome of the city’s cathedral; Ghiberti, creator of the bronze reliefs that decorated the doors to the city’s Baptistry, famously dubbed by Michelangelo himself `the doors of paradise'; Masaccio, painter of the frescoes for the Brancacci Chapel in the church of the Carmine, where Michelangelo drew and studied in his youth; and Donatello, the sculptor of the marble St George that stood guard over the city’s grain store at Orsanmichele, and the creator of the figures of prophets and saints, whether of St John the Baptist or Mary Magdalene, carved with such subtle realism they seem instinct with thought and on the point of speech.

Madonna of the stairs (or Madonna of the steps) is a relief by Italian Renaissance master Michelangelo, created around 1491. Madonna of the stairs was one of Michelangelo’s first paintings. He made it when he was about seventeen.

Of those figures, it seems likely that Donatello meant the most to Michelangelo. This was not only because Michelangelo, himself, wanted to be a sculptor. A pupil of Donatello’s, Bertoldo di Giovanni, almost certainly gave Michelangelo his own first lessons in sculpting; and the young artist’s earliest surviving work, The Madonna of the Stairs, is a bas-relief evidently inspired by the bas-reliefs of Donatello. It may well be that Michelangelo felt that there was a direct line of inheritance between them, although in temperament and approach the two artists could not have been more different.

The source of Donatello’s power as an artist is the strength of his faculty of imaginative projection. He asks himself what a desert prophet such as St John in the wilderness might actually have looked like, emaciated and wild, and he carves what he sees in his mind’s eye. He asks himself what it might look like when a woman such as the vengeful biblical heroine Judith cuts a man’s head off, and he casts the image in bronze. His works are compelling but they compel no meaningful interest in him because in creating them — in giving them such a strong sense of life that they present the illusion of being not works of art but actual human beings – he has absented himself.

Michelangelo is not like that. His originality is of a different order, his creativity of a different nature. The images presented by his paintings for the Sistine Chapel ceiling are not the product of any great sense of human empathy. If anything, they suggest that Michelangelo had little interest in entering into and genuinely sympathizing with the lives of other people — in the field of his art, at least. It is impossible to believe in Michelangelo’s Adam, in Michelangelo’s Noah, in Michelangelo’s people fleeing from the deluge, in anything like the same way that it is possible to believe in Donatello’s figure of a wild-eyed prophet known as Zuccone (literally, `pumpkin face’). Michelangelo’s figures are removed from reality in such a way that they appear almost as phantasms or ideas.

The whole Sistine Chapel ceiling easily assumes the appearance of a phantasmagoria, in which all the images are united by their nature as emanations of Michelangelo’s own thought and sensibility — his own contemplation of the truths that might lie embedded in the mysterious and often inscrutable Old Testament stories which he had been called upon to illuminate. The fresco cycle as a whole radiates a powerful and sometimes oppressively strong sense of introspection. Looking at it feels almost nothing like looking at the real world. It feels, instead, like looking inside the mind of the man who created it.

Michelangelo was an accomplished poet as well as a visual artist. That fact contains within it a clue to the particular, unique qualities of his painting. To draw a literary analogy, Michelangelo does not tell a story in the prosaic, direct manner of Boccaccio but in the poetically allusive style of Dante — the one Italian writer, according to Michelangelo’s biographer Ascanio Condivi, whom the artist `has always studied’.

Every pose, every gesture, in the Sistine Chapel ceiling is charged with the sense of deliberation, intensity and polyvalence that words and phrases acquire in great poetry. No element of Michelangelo’s work is without significance, depth, implication, sometimes to the point where his language becomes so fraught with possibility, so compressed and allusive, that it cannot be pinned down to the expression of any single doctrine or idea.

In this sense his spirit of innovation as a painter might be compared to that of Shakespeare as a writer — who, in Hamlet, invented what Frank Kermode describes as `a new rhetoric’, so inward-looking and so rich in complexity that `sometimes it takes the poet beyond the limits of reason and intelligibility’. Nothing means only one thing and everything has been subjected to the immense pressure of the artist’s thought. This holds for the larger patterns of meaning that play across the surface of the Sistine Chapel ceiling’s surface, connecting one picture with another; it prevails too at the minute level of the smallest detail, epitomized by the most famous detail of the ceiling’s most famous image of all — that small area of painted plaster where the whirling energies of a multitude are suddenly stilled, crystallized, to the particulate density of two fingers pointing across a few inches of air.

In short, Michelangelo did not just invent a new kind of art, but a new idea of what art could be. He put his own sensibility, his own intellect, his own need and desire to fathom the mysteries of the Christian faith, centre stage.


A rather dizzying virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel courtesy of youtube but it does show you how to maneuver about the virtual tour which you can find here.


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