Michelangelo: sculptor, painter, architect, and poet
Essay by Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker
For the 16th century, Michelangelo (1475-1564) lived a very long life (he lived to be 89), and therefore left us an incredible breadth of work in painting, sculpture, architecture, and poetry.
When Michelangelo was in his late 20s, he sculpted the 17-foot tall David for Florence. This colossus seemed to his contemporaries to rival or even surpass ancient Greek and Roman sculpture. David—and his later sculptures such as Moses and the two sculptures known as the Bound Slave and Dying Slave—demonstrated Michelangelo’s astounding ability to make marble seem like living flesh and blood. So much so, it is difficult to imagine that these were created with a hammer and chisel. But it wasn’t simply fidelity to the body, Michelangelo conveyed through his painting and sculpture humanity’s nobility, dissolving the distinction between our earthly realm and the divine.
In painting, if we look at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican in Rome, with its elegant nudes and powerful seated figures, and the now-iconic image of the Creation of Adam, Michelangelo set a new standard for painting the human figure, one in which the body was not just an actor in a narrative, but emotionally and spiritually expressive on its own.
And then there is his architecture, where Michelangelo reordered ancient forms in entirely new and dramatic ways. It is no wonder that Giorgio Vasari, who knew Michelangelo, wrote how Michelangelo excelled in all three arts: painting, sculpture and architecture:
the great Ruler of Heaven looked down and…resolved…to send to earth a genius universal in each art…He further endowed him with true moral philosophy and a sweet poetic spirit, so that the world should marvel at the singular eminence of his life and works and all his actions, seeming rather divine than earthy.Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors & Architects, translated by Gaston Du C. de Vere
Michelangelo was also a poet. In the poem below, Michelangelo gives us a sense of the co-existence in his art of a love of both the human (particularly male) body and God.
Sculpture, the first of arts, delights a taste
Still strong and sound: each act, each limb, each bone
Are given life and, lo, man’s body is raised,
Breathing alive, in wax or clay or stone.
But oh, if time’s inclement rage should waste,
Or maim, the statue that man builds alone,
Its beauty still remains, and can be traced
Back to the source that claims it as its own.
from The Complete Poems of Michelangelo, translated by J. Tusiani (1960)
Biography of Michelangelo (The British Museum)
David, 1501-04 (Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence)
The Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1510-12 (The Vatican, Rome)
Studies for the Libyan Sibyl, 1510-11 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
Moses, 1513-15 (Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome)
The Slaves, begun 1513 (Musée du Louvre, Paris)
Design for the Tomb of Pope Julius II della Rovere, 1505-06 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
The Last Judgment, 1536-41 (The Sistine Chapel, The Vatican, Rome)
Michelangelo, Divine Draughtsman & Designer (exhibition, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)