Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni was a famous painter living in the times of the Italian High Renaissance. He was a very talented artist, who mastered not only visual arts like paining and sculpture, but also other disciplines, such as architecture, poetry and engineering. His influence on the development of the classical European art was unprecedented. Alongside Leonardo da Vinci, he is considered to be one an archetype of a ‘man of Renaissance’, i.e. a person interested in every discipline which humankind pursues, following the Terence motto „Nothing of that which is human is alien to me”.
1. Nine scenes from the Book of Genesis at the Sistine Chapel (1508-1512)
Michelangelo was entrusted with the task of creating a series of frescoes that would cover the whole ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, as envisioned by the rebellious Pope, Julius II. Michelangelo painted all the frescoes while standing on a special scaffolding, in an extremely uncomfortable position, where his head had to be raised upwards all the time. Painting frescoes also had another difficulty: the paint had to be applied to layers of wet plaster. Regardless of the conditions, however today we can all admire Michelangelo’s masterpieces. The nine Biblical scenes include:
- The Separation of Light and Darkness
- The Creation of the Sun, Moon and Earth
- The Separation of Land and Water
- The Creation of Adam
- The Creation of Eve
- The Temptation and Expulsion
- The Sacrifice of Noah
- The Great Flood
- The Drunkenness of Noah
2. The Last Judgment (1536-1541)
Michelangelo began working on The Last Judgment exactly twenty-five years after he finished painting the scenes from the Book of Genesis. The Last Judgment can also be found within the space of the Sistine Chapel, but in contrast, it occupies the front altar part. Michelangelo was commissioned to craft the painting by Pope Clement VII. The original design was Resurrection and only after Clement VII died and Pope Paul III replaced him, when the idea changed. Apparently the new Pope thought the Last Judgment was more fitting for 1530s Italy. In his work, Michelangelo consciously breaks with the standards of depicting religious scenes. The opinions on the fresco were therefore divided. Some were astonished by mastery of art, others deemed the picture frivolous and not suitable as part of religious decor.
3. The Crucifixion of St. Peter (c. 1546–1550)
This famous fresco by Michelangelo can be found in the Cappella Paolina, Vatican Palace, in the Vatican City, Rome. St. Peter was depicted often in religious art, as he was a prominent figure of the New Testament and also one of the founders of the Catholic church. Most of the depictions however shunned away from difficult or drastic topics. Michelangelo, however, opted once again for originality and painted St. Peter being crucified by Romans, head down, because the saint claimed to be unworthy dying in a way Jesus had died before him. Unfortunately, the Cappella Paolina is now closed to the public and the painting cannot be admired live.
4. The Entombment (c. 1500)
This is a painting which has never been finished. Moreover, it is even debatable whether it was Michelangelo who had painted it, or whether it was an imitation done in similar style by one of his pupils. Today it can be seen at the National Gallery in London, which purchased it from a Scottish photographer residing in Rome in 1868. Generally, The Entombment is considered to be one of Michelangelo’s early works. According to the painting’s documentation it was originally commissioned to be made for the church of Sant’Agostino in Rome. It is said that Michelangelo left the project unfinished, because he started working on the famous sculpture of David.
5. Doni Tondo (The Holy Family) (1506 or 1507)
This is the only mature painting by Michelangelo that has made it to our times. It still retains its original frame as well. Also known as the Doni Madonna, the Tondo in its name refers to the circular shape of the painting. This kind of presentation was very popular in Renaissance to depict scenes connected with home and family. In the foreground The Doni Tondo features the Christian Holy family (the child Jesus, Mary, and Saint Joseph) and John the Baptist. In the background we can see some vaguely nude male figures. There is no clear explanation for them, and the interpretations vary among art critics.
6. The Battle of Cascina
The Battle of Cascina is another great, but uncompleted work. It was first commissioned from Michelangelo by Piero Soderini, a statesman of the Republic of Florence. The original site for the painting was a wall of the Salone dei Cinquecento room in Palazzo Vecchio. The opposite wall was to be decorated by Leonardo Da Vinci himself, with a depiction of the great Battle of Anghiari. Michelangelo’s painting still survives as a cartoon, crafted by Michelangelo’s pupil Sangallo. According to Michelangelo’s biographer, the original copy of the cartoon was destroyed deliberately by one of the artists’ rivals, Bartolommeo Bandinelli. The thematic battle was fought between Florence and Pisa in 1364 and Florence won.
7. Leda and the Swan
Women abducted and seduced by divinities were a very popular theme in Renaissance as well as in Baroque. Many artists explored mythical love conquests, and the Leda and the Swan myth was one of them. The original Greek tale talks of Zeus transforming himself into a swan and seducing Leda, who was the wife of Tyndareus, King of Sparta. The original painting by Michelangelo is no longer extant, but Peter Paul Rubens made an exact copy of it 1601, having seen the original artwork back in Rome. He tried to keep the style as exact as possible, with focus on the depiction of human musculature and proportions.
8. The Conversion of Saul (c. 1542–1545)
Painting once again in Cappella Paolina of the Vatican Palace, Michelangelo Buonarotti created a beautiful fresco in a Biblical theme. The painting was not well received by the artist’s contemporaries, as it was done in a very progressive way. The style used by Michelangelo, called mannerism makes use of asymmetry and exaggerated, artificial depictions of human beauty. Therefore, mannerist paintings seem to be more unbalanced than most works of Renaissance. The story of Saul is a well known one for Christians. He was a Pharisee, a Jewish religious politician of sorts, who witnessed Christ, changed his name to Paul and became an Apostle.
9. The Torment of Saint Anthony
This is the earliest painting known to have been produced by Michelangelo. It is said that when he was only 12 or 13 he painted “The Torment of Saint Anthony” after an engraving by Martin Schongauer, a popular 15th century German artist. The painting follows a common religious theme of the Temptation of Saint Anthony. It tells about the saint facing a multitude of supernatural temptations during his lifetime. The painting depicts Saint Anthony being ambushed by devils, while floating over a desert. It was sold in July 2008 at Sotheby’s for a record sum of 2 million dollars!
10. Madonna and Child with St John and Angels (c. 1497)
Also known as the Manchester Madonna, the painting can be visited today at the National Gallery in London. Michelangelo’s authorship of the painting was questioned throughout the19th and 20th century, but today the scholars are certain of it. The painting first resurfaced during the Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester in 1857, therefore it became known as “Manchester Madonna”. The subject of the painting derives from a non-Biblical tradition of Virgin Mary and the Child Jesus meeting Christ’s cousin St John the Baptist, on the Holy Family’s Flight into Egypt. There are also several other Devanagari elements, like the understated wings of the angels. Another characteristic element are the poses of the figures depicted, they are quite static and resemblant of a sculpture.