As I continue to endure the relentless purgatory that is the the Baltimore Orioles offseason, I’ve been spending a lot of time at the Enoch-Pratt library down the street from my Mt. Vernon apartment. One gem I’ve recently pried loose from the stacks and placed on my bedside table is Thomas Cahill’s “Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created our World.” Cahill writes about turning points in history, those events that so completely shred contemporary conceptions of the human experience that men from one century to the next can barely recognize each other. These are, as he puts it, the “hinges of history,” the revolutions in the timeline that shape to world we live in today. Heretics and Heroes concerns itself with Medieval Europe’s slow swing from the Dark Ages into the Age of reformation and exploration. An unsurprising result is that Cahill’s narrative is dominated the normal elements that come with the territory: famine, slaughter and Popes of all shapes and sizes. But, as the good storyteller always does, Cahill makes sure to leave some room for the Arts and their inevitable role in periods of change. Which brings us to Michelangelo, high Renaissance artist extraordinaire and his brush work in the 16th century icon, the Sistine Chapel.
Painted between 1508 and 1512 under the patronage of Pope Julius II, Michelangelo’s fresco work at the Vatican takes the Abrahamic view of man’s place in the universe and crystallizes it for the viewer, deftly communicating both its rich iconography and the answer it gives to the eternal question of our place in time and space. The vast and unrelenting nature of Mike’s work seems absurd when it is mostly seen on the back of postcards and drink coasters, but for the most part it elicits a sense of profound serenity from the viewer. We, if only for a brief moment, experience a kind of comfort and calm that comes with seeing possible locations for our place in the greater scheme of things. The existential panic stops, our shoulders relax. We have that zen moment Deepak Chopra talks about on Oprah. All is well.
As a result, it seems almost a given that this work was completed by an artist whose love of God and painting were one in the same, that Michelangelo took to the delicate work of crafting these legendary frescos with all the love and precision that they communicate today. However, the man who is heralded as the greatest painter of all time was not a big fan of painting. In fact, he despised it, often referring to it as the lowest form of creative expression. As Cahill puts it, Michelangelo “looked down on painters as piddling draftsmen: they were as nothing compared to sculptors, who could release forms of such dynamic power as to remake mere nature and overwhelm the viewer completely.”
Pictured: Definitely a sculptor.
You might gather from Cahill a hint of artistic hierarchy. Indeed, Michelangelo fancied himself a sculptor. This, of course, is not unwarranted: anyone who’s seen his commission for the Florence Wool Guild in 1501, popularly known as The David, has to give it to the man. However, leading up to his work at the Vatican, Mike inadvertently developed a kind of “one-hit” wonder syndrome. Having bent himself to the “low art” of painting in order to generate some spare change, his talents with the brush eroded public demand for work with the chisel. One can imagine poor Michael digging through piles of commission requests, looking for the one opportunity to get creative with some marble and only ever finding requests for “Freebird.”
So it was in a rather glum and if not agitated mood that Michelangelo found himself roped into creating one of the greatest works of art in the Western canon. He was initially lured up to Rome on the pretense of sculpting a grand tomb for Julius II, a pope notoriously short on cash. While awaiting payment, the master sculptor spent his days lying down on scaffolding in the Sistine vault doing the kind of work he would ascribe to beggars. If that wasn’t enough, the project took an immense physical toll on him. As the art historian and contemporary Giorgio Vasari relates, Michelangelo “worked with great inconvenience to himself, having to labor with his face turned upwards, and impaired his eyesight so much in the progress of the work that he could neither read letters nor examine drawing for several months afterwards except in the the same attitude of the looking upwards.”
The discomfort and disfigurement is driven home by some verse Michelangelo wrote while in the midst of the project. Referring to the majestic chapel as a “den”, Mike goes on to conjure up a disfigured image of himself that reads like Kafka’s Metamorphosis. “I’ve grown a goiter…which drives the belly close beneath the chin/ my beard turns up to heaven; my nape falls in,” he says. “Fixed on my spine: my breast-bone visibly/ grows like a harp….In front my skin grows loose and long…Crosswise I strain me like a Syrian bow; whence false and quaint I know.”
Suffice to say it’s not a pretty picture. And for Michelangelo, the work he did in the Sistine Vault never was either. He spent years recuperating from the physical strain he endured and lamented never being able to complete Julius’s tomb, a work he was sure would seal his destiny as the age’s greatest creative genius. Instead he entered into the realm of artistic immortality working in a medium he hated, for a guy he felt short changed by and in conditions that left him physically maimed, all leaving him to lament, “foul I fare and painting is my shame.” Perhaps he would take solace in the fact that his frescos look great on on coffee cups and shower curtains. Maybe the idea that his works are really handy in helping Robert Langdon get to the bottom of Dan Brown mysteries would help him sleep at night. More likely, he would take heart in the idea that his experience in the Sistine Vault suggests a central truth about attempting to reveal man’s relationship to the divine: it is an incredibly human process.