A-level: Michelangelo, Medici Chapel (New Sacristy)

Michelangelo, Medici Chapel (New Sacristy), 1519-34, San Lorenzo, Florence

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re in the claustrophobic space of the Medici Chapel in Florence. This is a funerary chapel designed by Michelangelo. Now, it’s unfinished, so we don’t know entirely what his vision was for this space.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:18] This is now known as the New Sacristy. It was made as a pendant to what has become known as the Old Sacristy that was designed by Brunelleschi.

Dr. Harris: [0:28] Both of these sacristies are places where priests would dress before saying the Mass. They’re part of the Church of San Lorenzo, near the altar.

Dr. Zucker: [0:37] San Lorenzo was the parish church of the Medici family. There are four Medici buried in this room. Although it’s unfinished and although we don’t understand Michelangelo’s conception entirely, he did, at least from afar, oversee the implementation of this room.

[0:52] He was the sculptor and the architect. We think he intended also to be the painter, although the frescoes were never initiated.

Dr. Harris: [1:00] This is a major undertaking for a long period of Michelangelo’s life; first, under Pope Leo X, a Medici pope, Michelangelo was given responsibility for projects here at San Lorenzo, including the Laurentian Library. After Leo X died, another Medici pope, Pope Clement VII, continued Michelangelo’s work here in San Lorenzo, specifically with this funerary chapel.

Dr. Zucker: [1:27] Let’s describe the space. It is primarily a square. It has a square apse, where the altar is. The space is much taller than it is either wide or long.

Dr. Harris: [1:37] If we compare this to Brunelleschi’s Old Sacristy, it seems as though Michelangelo’s added another layer of height. But like other architecture here at San Lorenzo by Michelangelo, there’s a feeling of the strength and power of architectural forms that are normally decorative.

Dr. Zucker: [1:56] Michelangelo is using architecture almost as if it were sculpture. It is expressive as opposed to functional. There are so many blind windows.

Dr. Harris: [2:05] It creates a real sense of confusion and ambiguity. What leads out? What doesn’t? At least one art historian suggested the idea of purgatory, a place where you maybe can get out, but you’re not sure. There’s a sense of entrapment.

[2:22] We move from a feeling of an earthly realm, which is ambiguous and dense, through a level which is intermediary, and then a top area, which has circles and semicircles and begins to suggest, through those kinds of perfect shapes, the heavenly.

[2:40] That makes sense in a funerary chapel, which is about the possibility of salvation and of resurrection. In fact, the subject of the fresco that was supposed to be here was the Resurrection.

[2:51] We have four allegorical figures: Night and Day, who frame the effigy of Giuliano de’ Medici, and Dawn and Dusk, who frame the effigy of Lorenzo de’ Medici. Let’s take the figure of Night. This is a female figure, who is twisted in an impossible way. Her back arm comes forward across her torso. Her forward arm moves back behind her. This is a very elegant but almost unnatural position.

Dr. Zucker: [3:22] When we think about Michelangelo, we often think about the height of the Renaissance and perfect proportion of the human body. And yet here we see a body that is elongated. It’s as if there are extra vertebrae and extra ribs in her torso. The leg itself is impossibly elegant because of its length. She is much more highly polished and finished than the figure next to her.

Dr. Harris: [3:45] Although it is important to remember that we don’t know how much Michelangelo intended to leave unfinished. The male figure is Day. He seems more to be receding than to be moving forward.

Dr. Zucker: [3:56] His head is hiding behind that massive shoulder. Between them, and above, we have one of the deceased. We have Giuliano.

Dr. Harris: [4:04] To me, one of the most beautiful figures in all of art history. This is a period of Michelangelo’s art where he’s looking for ideal beauty and elegance, and yet expressing that through these almost impossible positions of the body. Look at that neck. It’s so long and so graceful.

Dr. Zucker: [4:25] Like so many of Michelangelo’s sculptures before this, we have the sense of potential movement. He’s about to stand up.

Dr. Harris: [4:33] The figure of Day complements the figure of Night. Her back arm comes forward. His front arm moves backward. His back leg comes forward. We similarly see oppositions in the figures of Dawn and Dusk on the wall of Lorenzo de’ Medici.

Dr. Zucker: [4:49] That idea of Dawn and Dusk, of that moment of transition, is a reminder that this entire room is about transition. It’s about matter and spirit changing. That’s beautifully expressed by the figure of Lorenzo. Michelangelo apparently took great pains to sculpt a figure whose face would remain in shadow.

Dr. Harris: [5:09] He seems very different than his cousin Giuliano on the opposite wall.

Dr. Zucker: [5:13] One of the ways that that opposition has been discussed is that Lorenzo represents the contemplative life, versus Giuliano, who’s a representation of the active life.

Dr. Harris: [5:22] We think about the subject of this, too, with the passage of time, night and day, dawn and dusk, the days of our lives that lead toward our deaths, as something that erodes life. Yet, those very figures also seem to be eroded.

[5:39] There’s a sense of their passivity, their inactivity. They seem very strong, but unable to raise themselves, unable to act even though they are the very forces that bring down Giuliano and Lorenzo. We know that poetry was part of Michelangelo’s working method.

Dr. Zucker: [5:59] In fact, there’s a poem that’s directly associated with this chapel. Michelangelo wrote, “Day and Night speak:


“[6:05] We with our swift course have brought the Duke, Giuliano to death. It is just that he, the Duke, takes revenge for this, and the revenge is this: that, as we have killed him, he has taken the light from us. With his eyes closed, has locked ours shut, which no longer shine on earth. What then would he have done with us while alive?”

[6:27] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "A-level: Michelangelo, Medici Chapel (New Sacristy)," in Smarthistory, May 23, 2017, accessed June 14, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/new-sacristy-2/.