Spectacle Joins Gravitas at the Met’s Monumental Michelangelo Show

Michelangelo understood how the threads of civilization have at times been broken and redrawn.


It might be the poster for a fantasy-adventure movie half a millennium before film was invented — the long-suffering hero tested once again, attacked in midair by a bevy of grotesque beasts.

In what scholars believe to be Michelangelo Buonarroti’s earliest surviving painting, completed in the late 1400s when he was a twelve- or thirteen-year-old apprentice, we see Saint Anthony tormented by a ring of demons, some with fur and fangs, others with scales and sharp spines, all clubbing or clawing at him and seeking to drag him to hell. Michelangelo (1475–1564) was copying from an earlier, black-and-white etching by the Alsatian artist Martin Schongauer, using oil paint to literally flesh out the bizarre creatures with colorful pelts and membranous wings. A contemporary described the young artist studying “the shape and coloring of the fins of fish” at a local market to better imagine hues and textures for his hybrid devils. Schongauer gave the public a picture of a saint so pious he levitated, thus galling Satan’s minions into their airborne attack. Michelangelo achieved Technicolor-worthy drama by adding an atmospheric landscape that placed the action in a believable locale, giving otherworldly Bible stories an everyday verisimilitude.

Accompanying this early painting in the Met’s exhibition are more than 130 of Michelangelo’s drawings, three of his sculptures, and myriad works by his teachers, contemporaries, and students, all of which reveal the artist’s inborn knack for integrating gravitas and crowd-pleasing spectacle. In his late twenties, Michelangelo made a sketch after Masaccio’s painting of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. Religious dogma aside, what undoubtedly appealed to the maturing artist was Masaccio’s profound portrayal of the hopelessness — Eve wailing, Adam burying his face in his hands — of human beings who have realized they’ve really blown it. Seventy-five years after the original masterpiece was created, Michelangelo added a bit of beef to Adam and some matronly solidity to Eve, leavening some world-weariness into Masaccio’s lost innocents.

At age twenty-two, Michelangelo had carved a young archer from marble. Armless and cut off at the knees, the lad’s proportions are a bit wonky—legs too long, head too big. Yet the hips and torso twist convincingly and the head tilts with an almost rapturous calm, stone astonishingly given the suppleness of flesh. A wall text reports that the artist already “considered himself first and foremost a sculptor in marble. His emphasis on the three-dimensional form in drawings emerged alongside his practice as a marble sculptor.”

This intense focus on the human form as it coalesced from stone under his hands perhaps explains why Michelangelo’s figures on paper have such monumental presence, as if he is drawing statues rather than people, as seen in his chalk sketches for the Sistine Chapel frescoes (1508–12). (The Met has erected a heavy wooden scaffold under a one-quarter-scale photographic reproduction of the chapel’s vast ceiling, giving viewers a sense of the massive logistical challenges of the fresco process, which entails applying paint to wet plaster. It took Michelangelo, working in small enough sections that he could finish each days’ work before the plaster dried, four years to cover the more than 6,000-square-foot expanse with biblical imagery.) Whether drawing from life or from clay models, Michelangelo’s figures transcend mere body-builder musculature and evince the Olympian physiques of the classical Greek and Roman masterpieces being rediscovered around Italy at this time, many of which he studied as a young artist. Later, as an established master (he had already completed his seventeen-foot-tall David), Michelangelo was one of the first people summoned when the Laocoön was discovered, in 1506, after more than a millennium in the ground, its gracefully writhing figures lost during the medieval centuries. When brought back to light, such forms fueled the naturalistic drama of the Renaissance in general and Michelangelo’s brawny humanism in particular. This is captured in his chalk studies, included in the show, for “The Ignudi,” the name coined by the artist for the naked athletic youths whose shoulders and hips torque dramatically as their bodies create frames around the biblical episodes on the ceiling.

Despite believing himself a sculptor at heart, Michelangelo became somewhat of a prisoner of his painting fame. Twenty-five years after the first Sistine Chapel commission, a new pope cajoled the aging artist into covering the back wall of the chapel with scenes from the Last Judgment. (Like many sequels, this one is more heavy-handed than the blockbuster original.) In both instances, these epic works were soon copied by painters and printmakers to satisfy a public wanting facsimiles of the masterpieces to display in their homes. After the Last Judgment was completed, it was, fortunately, copied by the painter Marcello Venusti; the panel, on view in the show, gives us an accurate record of Michelangelo’s nude figures before modesty-minded church officials ordered drapery painted over the genitals (some of which have been re-exposed in subsequent restorations).

Fascinatingly, it is in some of his architectural drawings that Michelangelo’s hand is at its most loose and lyrical. When in his forties, he proposed relief sculptures for a church sacristy, laying down bare right angles and half circles in a delicate brown wash to imply shadows around the reliefs, the soft, deft strokes implying the sun’s imperceptible but nonetheless inexorable daily march. (Whatever the time period or methods, drawings by hardcore sculptors often convey a tangible presence different from the compositional 2-D effects that concern painters. Through varying the angle and distance of his spray can as he painted around three-dimensional objects placed on flat surfaces, the twentieth-century sculptor David Smith achieved a tactile quality of physical volume very different from the more fictive realms of his abstract expressionist colleagues.)

Works by Michelangelo’s contemporaries in the exhibition tell us the number of windows in the facade of a building in Rome that Michelangelo had designed, as well as the placement of arches and heights of columns. But this is mere information, absent the atmospheric ambience of the master’s own sketches. Michelangelo’s later drawings at times project overlapping ideas, as if in the design of a doorway he was also seeking out the most elegant proportion of support to opening. In his vision of a third-floor window (ca. 1540s), he has worked with chalk and compass and rule, searching for the perfect marriage of arc and line, deciding and then backtracking on where a vertical might bulge to imply the weight of a stone lintel or the most pleasing height for a sill. With its reworkings and palimpsests, the image looks weathered, already aged in the Eternal City. A photograph of the actual window, some 470 years old, feels much like the drawing, as if Michelangelo, secure in his immortality, had been drawing for us, his descendants, rather than for his own time. Not surprising for someone who understood how the threads of civilization have at times been broken and redrawn — the Laocoön rediscovered in a Roman vineyard, a beautiful work of art that was all but forgotten, known only through ancient texts.

Michelangelo believed flesh to be the “mortal veil” of one’s eternal soul. With even this small glimpse of his superhuman output, it’s clear that Michelangelo’s soul is not the only thing that will long outlive his flesh.

‘Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer’
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
Through February 12, 2018