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Michelangelo’s spirituality

30 June, 2010

George Bull uncovers the depths of Michelangelo’s spirituality, his profound passion for beauty and his struggle not to let this draw him away from a Christian vision of the world.

Michelangelo rarely commented on his art or the processes by which it was created. Now and then, sometimes in his verse, he revealed some of his emotions and motivations as sculptor, painter or architect and something of his theory of art. Best known in this context are two sonnets in praise of, respectively, the physical beauty of his pupil and friend, Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, and the spiritual nobility of his mentor and friend, Vittoria Colonna. In these Michelangelo described how rough marble already contained the image that the artist would reveal with the guidance of his intellect. The most profound understanding or intuition of Michelangelo’s spirituality can be gained only through the eyes, through long contemplation, absorbing his images into one’s mind. Putting into words what the works of Michelangelo tell us about his spirituality is then at best superfluous.

Sheer beauty and power
Giorgio Vasari, Michelangelo’s first biographer, wisely did not try to do this though he did convey very finely the sheer beauty and power of Michelangelo’s great works of religious art. In his Lives of the Artists (published in 1568) Vasari described Michelangelo’s Roman Pietá as ‘a revelation of all the potentialities and force of the work of sculpture. It is certainly a miracle that a formless block of stone could ever have been reduced to a perfection that nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh’.

Michelangelo’s painting of ‘The Last Judgement’, Vasari exclaimed, which showed the world ‘the true Judgement and the true Damnation and Resurrection’ must be acknowledged ‘as the great exemplar of the grand manner of painting, directly inspired by God and enabling mankind to see the fateful results when an artist of sublime intellect infused with divine grace and knowledge appears on earth.’ Michelangelo’s model for the dome of St Peter’s, Vasari reported, was unique in the world for its grandeur and ornamentation; his concept would produce a vaulted structure of tremendous beauty and awesomeness: ‘sí bella e terribile macchina’.

Skilled in every craft
Vasari had his own reasons, patriotic, didactic and opportunistic, for attributing Michelangelo’s artistic genius to the direct intervention of Almighty God who as ‘the benign ruler of heaven’ had decided to send into the world (and specifically Tuscany) an artist in true moral philosophy and poetic expression who would ‘be skilled in each and every craft, whose work alone would teach us how to attain perfection in design…’ Michelangelo himself certainly appreciated the vast extent of his talents in the arts of design, and especially sculpture; when he was working for the (never executed) façade of the church of San Lorenzo in Florence, he declared that he would do it ‘so as to make it in architecture and sculpture the wonder, the mirror of all Italy.’ But in the beauty of the figures of his art, as his own religious feelings intensified over the years, he discerned not the expression so much as the potentially fatal challenge to his spiritual well-being.

Michelangelo’s complex and agonised spirituality was rooted in the unsophisticated Catholicism of his family, country and culture. Just as when a baby he sucked in with his mother’s milk the hammer and chisels he used for his sculptures (he once told Vasari), so growing up in Florence he was nurtured in the practices and pieties of the Christian faith. As a boy he would attend Mass in his local Franciscan church of Santa Croce, with its dramatic, painted scenes by Giotto and his followers, and with Donatello’s wooden crucifix. In his ‘teens, he was stirred by the sermons and writings of Savonarola, warning Florentines of the tribulations to come and the need to repent. What simple believers saw in the frescoes which Michelangelo in adult life painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he saw, too: truthful pictures of the Creation of the World and of Adam and Eve, the Fall of Man, and of the Flood and other events from the Old Testament. All his life, Michelangelo’s letters, not surely just from convention, easily invoked the name of God.

The last sacraments and Christian burial and prayers for the dead mattered to him. He gave alms to the friars and orphans. He belonged to the confraternity of San Giovanni Decollato, comforters of the condemned. Before he died among loving friends in 1564, he wrote a will of three sentences, leaving his soul to God, his body to the earth and his possessions to his nearest relations. About a decade previously, after the shock of the death of his assiduously devoted servant Urbino, though still grieving, Michelangelo had written a sonnet for another then absent friend and support, Ludovico Beccadelli, Archbishop of Ragusa, affirming that through the cross, and grace and sufferings they would meet again in heaven; but he was sure it was right before they breathed their last to go on enjoying themselves on earth: ‘goderci in terra mi parria pur bene’.

Lover of beauty
Michelangelo hugely enjoyed his friends and the good things of life such as the trebbiano wine and the cheeses his nephew sent to him from Florence. His humour in words and pictures ranged from scabrous to side-splitting. His other devoted contemporary biographer, Ascanio Condivi, wrote that Michelangelo ‘loved not only human beauty but universally every beautiful thing: a beautiful horse, a beautiful dog, a beautiful landscape, a beautiful plant, a beautiful mountain, a beautiful wood and every place and thing beautiful and rare after its own kind.. .’ Condivi put this apologia naively in the context of his rejection of accusations made by ‘certain lewd men’ that Michelangelo’s love of the human body was ‘lascivious and impure: as if Alcibiades, a most handsome young man, had not been loved most chastely by Socrates…’

Michelangelo himself felt compelled to refer to these charges sneeringly hinted at by Pietro Aretino in a letter dated 1545 complaining that Michelangelo gave his drawings only to ‘certain Gerards and Thomases’ in a sonnet for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri written about 1534. Michelangelo had become lovingly attached to, besotted by, the nobly-born, handsome, talented and courteous young Roman just before leaving Florence for good in 1534. His sonnet, like the many written for Cavalieri, in tone and images imbued with Christian Platonism, envisaging his soul climbing with Tommaso towards God, rejoicing in Tommaso’s ‘most gracious face,’ rounded on the ‘stupid mob’ which foisted its degraded feelings upon others. There can be little if any doubt that Michelangelo’s relations with Tommaso de’ Cavalieri were ‘platonic’ despite his sexual orientation.

Nor can there be any doubt about the intensity of Michelangelo’s physical, emotional and sexual drive. He was not ashamed to acknowledge his susceptibility to human companionship (which may paradoxically have increased his occasional surliness and wish for solitude) and to human beauty. A sonnet written when he was in his early seventies began with the declaration that every beautiful thing passed through his eyes instantly to his heart along a path open to thousands ‘of all ages and sexes’. This passion for beauty, not least the beauty of the male human body, was the driving force of his primarily sculptural art. And it was the long experienced intensity of his passion for art, rather than his sexual disposition or practices, which as he grew older increasingly disturbed and yet enriched Michelangelo’s spirituality.

Centred on Christ
The torment and struggle can be followed in Michelangelo’s religious poems as in his old age he moved away from neo-Platonic expressions to Christocentric images and invocations and yearned to be held in the arms of Christ, his dear Lord, rather than in those of his dear lord Tommaso. Influencing his thoughts were his animated conversations with Vittoria Colonna, the other great love of his life, and what she conveyed to him of the intellectual and religious concerns of her scholarly, cultured, very catholic circles of friends, including clerical reformers within the Catholic Church, (the spirituali, grouped round Cardinal Pole) who were seeking to heighten religious awareness and personal holiness, and the preacher Bernardino Ochino, whose teaching ran foul of the Inquisition.

Influencing Michelangelo’s feelings were inter alia his physical ailments, including tinnitus and gallstones; the legacy of his long period of guilt and trepidation arising from failure to complete the preposterously enormous tomb promised fur Pope Julius II, who was probably as awesome, as terrible to Michelangelo in the dreams of his old age as he had been in the flesh; the deaths, as the decades passed of father, brothers, dear friends and helpmates and new-born Buonarroti family babies; the vexations caused by his nephew; and the intrigues of his rivals for the favours of the Pope and the important work for the new St Peter’s.

Michelangelo feared for his immortal soul. His innate love of beauty had produced his utter dedication to art. His intensity as an artist had distracted him from the pursuit of holiness. If he could be saved he would be saved only by faith bestowed on him through the grace and pardon earned by the sacrifice on the Cross and the shedding of the blood of Christ. Michelangelo’s sporadic bouts of melancholy aggravated his alarm.

Creating art out of turmoil
From the spiritual turmoil of Michelangelo’s old age sprang sculpture, paintings, poetry and architecture of still inadequately appreciated richness, originality and strength. These include the strong, rarely seen theologically challenging paintings in the Pauline Chapel of the conversion of St Paul and the crucifixion of St Peter; the heartbreaking, painfully realised so-called Rondanini and Florentine Pietás; the cupola of St Peter’s, the design of which he had wished to settle once for all by resisting the fierce pressures on him to return to Florence and piously working for no reward.

In contrast to the pagan drawings done for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, Michelangelo’s three later presentation drawings for Vittoria Colonna, showed Christ on the Cross, a Pietá, and Christ with the woman of Samaria at the well. Amazingly, Michelangelo depicted Christ crucified, not in the semblance of death, as Condivi recorded, ‘but in godlike attitude, raising his countenance to the Father, and appearing to say “Eli, Eli”; and thus the body does not fall as if slumped in death but is seen as a living being, wracked and contorted by a bitter torment.’

Michelangelo’s poetry
In his recently published, very thoughtful, Introduction to the Poetry of Michelangelo, Christopher Ryan tracks the conflict the poems movingly express between the supreme valuation Michelangelo placed on art and the exaltation of grace by an artist nervously aware of the dangers of making of human beauty an idol blocking the sinner’s way to repentance. Nonetheless, despite his awareness of the burden of original sin and the helplessness of man without grace, Michelangelo still cannot help seeing human beauty as a vessel of God’s love. Of one late poem, Ryan writes that its ‘glorious opening rivals anything that Michelangelo had written on the subject of human beauty as an entree to the religious sphere.’

To what am I spurred by the power of a beautiful face?
Since there is nothing else in the world that brings me delight, to this:
to ascend while still alive among the blessed spirits by a
grace so great that every other seems inferior.

Here Michelangelo’s use of gratia looks back to the dawn of the Renaissance and his own completion of its promise through the creation of works combining classical form with Christian spiritual content, from the ‘Pietá’ to the under-appreciated statue of ‘The Risen Christ’.

G. K Chesterton discerned in those years of precarious balance and splendid artistic achievement the successful emulation of the art of pagan antiquity so as ‘really in a manner [to] convert and christen the dead. They [Renaissance artists] did baptise all that bodily manifestation and materialisation into the body of Christ.’

When in 1995 Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass in the Sistine Chapel to mark the completion of the cleaning and restoration of Michelangelo’s and other Renaissance painters’ frescoes he reached out to Michelangelo across the centuries, making magnificent amends for the condemnatory attitude and actions of Pope Paul IV. ‘The frescoes that we contemplate here introduce us to the world of Revelation. The truths of our faith speak to us here from all sides… The Sistine Chapel is precisely – if one may say so – the sanctuary of the theology of the human body. In witnessing to the beauty of man created by God as male and female, it also expresses in a certain way the hope of a world transfigured, the world inaugurated by the risen Christ, and even before by Christ on Mount Tabor…in the context of the light that comes from God, the human body also keeps its splendour and its dignity. .. If it is removed from this dimension, it becomes in some way an object, which depreciates very easily, since only before the eyes of God can the human body remain naked and unclothed, and keep its splendour and its beauty intact…’

Beauty of the Creator
Daringly the Pope noted that having in the ceiling frescoes striven to ‘restore to Adam’s presence his corporeity, the features of ancient beauty’ with great daring, Michelangelo even transferred this visible and corporal beauty to the Creator himself’ About this, with perfect balance, Herbert von Einem has written: ‘Let there be light! Above the altar… hangs the consummation of Michelangelo’s work: the portrayal of Creation itself, His arms lifted high above his head, the Lord shaping the form of his earth’.

‘The biblical conception of a deus creator was unknown to antiquity, bur only after the revival of classical art did it become possible for Christian art to give visual shape to the conception. This is Michelangelo’s achievement. For the first time he leaves tradition behind and strikes out into regions never before explored in art. From the formal point of view the figure of God is developed from that [by Michelangelo] of St Matthew; as there, the move of the body is the expression of spiritual strain, of suffering. Not only the bliss of creation but also its agony finds expression here.’ Michelangelo listens, looking like his own painting of Jeremiah on the Sistine Chapel ceiling above the head of the living Pope, ‘il pastor della chiesa’, a poet and humanist, too. Michelangelo’s face is also that on the flayed skin held out before Christ by the martyred St Bartholomew.


This article first appeared in Spirituality (July/Aug 1999), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.

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