The Divine’s chisel 

The divine craftsman, a celebrated painter, and an architect – a visionary in the field of Art & Architecture went by the name Michelangelo Buonarroti, was one of the greatest revolutionists of the Italian Renaissance. Michelangelo’s flair and versatility were exceptional. His love for his craft went beyond human consciousness. The rhythm of his hammer became his heartbeat. And with every chisel in the marble he sought his place closer to God. He deemed the marble so divine, that he chiseled with utmost precision to give birth to God-like sculptures that are still celebrated today. He loved art and had a deeply passionate relationship with sculpting. Michelangelo extended himself in various mediums including sculpture, painting, architecture, and poetry, but always regarded himself as a sculptor. 

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La Pieta, displayed in St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome_©Pintetest

His work blended cathartic insight, physical realism, and emotional intensity. His artworks followed the High Renaissance style. By the time Michelangelo started working, the early Renaissance had evolved into the High Renaissance. The High Renaissance taught the essence of its earlier form. But it’s only in Michelangelo’s work, that one gets to witness the evolved style of Mannerism. The figures in Mannerist works usually have graceful but elongated limbs, intense facial features, and exaggerated static movements. Mannerist art appears as compositions of human poses with unusual proportions. Michelangelo sought a continuous refinement of form and composition, pushing exaggeration and juxtaposition to great limits. Beauty wasn’t the only thing he tried to seek, it was motion in static forms that gave his sculptures meaning. The subtlety of gaze, the positions of limbs, the dynamic movements of the body. All these nuances of the body Michelangelo sculpted gave birth to something beyond the sculpture itself.

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Studies for the Libyan Sibyl (recto); Studies for the Libyan Sibyl and a small sketch for a seated figure (verso)_©Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1510-1511
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Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel features this rendering of the Libyan Sibyl – a woman doing her work with strength and grace)_© The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

He was a committed humanist. His artwork emphasized the dignity, greatness, and the infinite core of human existence. He created human compositions to celebrate the essence of God in the form of a human. Michelangelo’s interest in human anatomy helped him to understand its mechanics. Exploration of anatomy made his sculptures transcend fictional reality. The legacy of his sculptures helps the artists of newer generations to realize how the human body could express itself in its entirety. Michelangelo believed that human is God personified. It’s in a man’s fulfilled consciousness, that one attains God.

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Four studies of a left leg, 1515-1520, Michelangelo Buonarroti, red chalk, retraced with pen and brown ink. Teylers Museum, Haarlem. Purchased in 1790  _©eylers Museum, Haarlem
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Striding Male Nude, and Anatomical Details, 1504 or 1506, Michelangelo Buonarroti, black chalk with white heightening. Teylers Museum, Haarlem. Purchased in 1790  _©eylers Museum, Haarlem

<< David versus Goliath 

In 1501, Michelangelo was commissioned to create a sculpture that could enhance the city’s Duomo (Italian Cathedral), the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. He created young ‘David’ from the Old Testament of the Bible – a heroic, beautiful, and powerful larger than life 17 feet tall structure. The creation of David made Michelangelo truly immortal. Michelangelo’s David did not fear any Goliath. He symbolized the city with the overpowering sculpture, the city which refused to submit to any ruler. He didn’t depict the brutal act of David beheading Goliath but rather brought to life all the emotions that David must have felt before the act. He enlivened David’s wrath, ego, beauty, and strength through his movements – the perfect ideal that Michelangelo wanted to see embodied. Working on the sculpture was a gruesome task, throughout which Michelangelo found solace in poetry. He wrote that the hammer that chisels a human figure out of a hard stone must bend to my will, but it’s God’s will that guides my hammer to create the magnificent.    

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Michelangelo’s David, on display at Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia since 1873  _©  Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia

God creates Adam 

In 1505, Michelangelo started working on 40 lifesize statues for a tomb that Pope Julius II commissioned him for. During which Michelangelo produced one of the most renowned artworks ‘Moses.’  Michelangelo carved Moses with a complex emotional expression, muscular definition, and a hyper-realistic beard in marble. His work on the deep yet realistic folds of the fabric of Moses’ clothes carries elegant detail and brings Moses to life. As the Pope was involved in military disputes and with scarce funding, the progress on the tomb came to a halt. This made Michelangelo leave Rome.

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Michelangelo’s Moses, on display at Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli_©Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli

In 1508, Michelangelo was called back to Rome for an ambitious fresco painting project: to render 12 apostles on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the most sacred part of the Vatican City, where new popes are elected and inaugurated. The project spanned over four years, during which Michelangelo painted 12 figures – seven prophets and five sibyls (female prophets) around the border of the ceiling and filled the central space with scenarios from Genesis. 

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Sistine Chapel, Vatican City _©Kate Meyers

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was done in fresco painting, an art form that Michelangelo didn’t have expertise in. However, he set out to test himself and started to work on one of his most noteworthy projects. He experimented with human forms and exaggerated human proportions. His extensive study of human anatomy, helped him to play around with the drama, that human muscular architecture possesses. His works are proof enough that the human form is limitless, its expressiveness has no bound under the hands of a genius. 

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Reconstruction of the Sistine Chapel before Michelangelo’s frescos _©Michelangelo-ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

Michelangelo began work on the frescos in 1508, replacing the blue ceiling dotted with stars. He used the architecture of the ceiling to organize the composition. He had to scrape out the old plaster and then paint while laying over his back on wooden planks. It took a great amount of courage and determination to see this project through. The ceiling is 60 ft above ground, so Michelangelo had to organize the scale of all the paintings according to the viewer who will be looking at them from the ground. He possessed exceptional organizational skills. He starts his narrative at the altar which is divided into three sections. In the first three paintings, he tells the story of the ‘Creation of the Heavens and the Earth’; followed by the ‘Creation of Adam and Eve’, and the ‘Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and finally the story of Noah and the Great Flood.’ 

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Diagram of the subjects of the Sistine Chapel _©Begoon, CC BY-SA 3.0
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Michelangelo, Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, 1508-1512, fresco(Vatican City, Rome _©Rogers Macquilini
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Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome and the Pope watching from far below _©Peter Jackson

The most famous fresco painting, the Creation of Adam takes center stage in all aspects. It shows Adam as the herculean traditional nude, leaning on the left as he extends his hand towards God who fills the right half of the painting. God is shown racing towards Adam, his hurry is shown by his white flaring robe and energetic movements of his body. God is shown surrounded by the angels encased within a red cloud with Eve under his left arm. The viewer’s eye is drawn to the hands of God and Adam almost touching. The shape of red clouds resembles the shape of the human brain. As if God not only intended to infuse Adam with life, but also higher consciousness. 

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The creation of Adam, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo_©Teylers Museum, Haarlem

He doesn’t portray God as the oversized father figure who creates the little Adam, but the two are seen gazing at each other at eye level reflecting that one inspires the other. Man is God’s image but he is also autonomous and independent in a way. The narratives have been watered down to only the essential figures to be depicted on a monumental scale. Michelangelo can narrate a strong sense of emotionality which can also be perceived from the floor of the chapel.   

The human body for Michelangelo was a complete composition in itself. This involved layers of complexity with the combinations of poses in a composition. The dynamics of each movement create a distinct mood and grant a whole new meaning to the art. For Michelangelo, perfection had to be carved, not achieved. Michelangelo is the first person who can said to have been truly revered like a God. He believed that light is man’s direct relationship with God. what counts, is the inner enlightenment that enables one to be in touch with God and thus find personal salvation which can lead to the beginning of greater and evolved beliefs. 

Reference List: 

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  8. Matthias, M. (2024, February 1). Mannerism. Encyclopædia Britannica. 
  9. Hibbitt, F. (2023, November 6). Michelangelo’s sculpture: The ideas of visionary art explained. The Collector. 
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