MICHELANGELO seems to have finished the great Pietà at the age of twenty-eight, the David at thirty-one, and the Sistine Ceiling at thirty-seven. There still remained to him more than fifty years of life, during nearly all of which he was in such condition of body and mind that he might have continued to work at his calling. Throughout this long period, too, he was unhesitatingly recognized by all as the chief artist of Italy, the recognition falling little short of adoration on the part of those most competent to judge. When we remember farther that the period continued the policy of liberal patron-age of the arts, and that his enemies and his only possible rivals were speedily removed by death, we cannot but look with amazement upon the paucity of achievement. Only twice during this half century was he employed upon a serious commission of painting or sculpture, and only once did he bring the work to completion. This is not the place to discuss the reasons for this tragic waste of the powers of the world’s supreme artist. The character of the works executed or begun in this period speaks volumes as to the conditions under which the artist was compelled to work in these later days. It was one of the most troubled periods that Italy has known in her troubled career. The uncertainties of the situation were aggravated by the extreme difficulty of personal adjustment between Michelangelo and those with whom he had necessarily to deal, a difficulty amounting to impossibility in at least one pontificate which gave to the great artist but menial, not to say humiliating employment. To all of this must be added that fact that the building of St. Peter’s in Rome and of lesser buildings in Florence absorbed the energies of the time, even to the extent of diverting Michelangelo’s energies from his chosen art to architecture, to our everlasting loss and regret. With Michelangelo’s achievements in architecture we shall not here concern ourselves. We have still to consider one great work in painting and one or two unfinished but colossal undertakings in sculpture which precede and follow the former. It will be convenient for us to consider first the painting, the famous Last Judgment, for which we must again return to the Sistine Chapel.
(C 134) The Last Judgment, perhaps the most famous painting in the world, was completed by Michelangelo at the age of sixty-six, nearly thirty years after the completion of the Sistine Ceiling. Its message is the message of another time, and it voices, let us freely confess, a different spirit. Long years have passed, years of disappointment and tragedy. Julius had long since been gathered to his fathers, and the great tomb that was to commemorate his character was still a project, dwindling with time and with the lessening influence of his family. Another pope had sat in the Chair of St. Peter, again potent but unfriendly, disliking above all else the haunting spiritual suggestion of Michelangelo’s work, so uncongenial to his pleasures and his temperament. Florence had fallen under the attack of his even less worthy successor, and the liberties that Savonarola had taught the freedom-loving Michelangelo to regard as the necessities of existence, had been extinguished forever. Odious tasks had been imposed upon the despairing artist, some of them menial and unworthy, others prostituting his talent to the commemoration of despicable and hated things. He gazes upon life now stretching behind him and upon an uncertain future, brief and ever briefer, with no hope that the ambitions of his youth are destined to fulfillment. Nor was the new occupant of the Chair of St. Peter one to redeem the faults of his predecessors or win the artist’s respect. Paul III, the ambitious representative of a powerful and unscrupulous family, a fox in his low and cunning diplomacy, a hypocrite in his thinly disguised immorality, now commanded in no uncertain ‘terms the services of the unwilling artist. The Last Judgment, covering the great end of the Chapel entirely, from floor to ceiling, one stupendous composition, so much in the spirit of the sophisticated taste of his age, is the result. It is the mockery of fate that this work has been lauded as Michelangelo’s supreme achievement ; that it has been studied by the artists of a later time as the model for all purposes and all temperaments. Michelangelo at his best is not the model for other purposes and other temperaments, perhaps we may say, for any other purpose or any other temperament, for he is of all artists most unique and inimitable. His manner is monstrous when used for lesser things and dictated by a different spirit. But alas, in this work, his manner, even in his own hands, is used for other things, and is dictated by another spirit. We will not waste our time or scatter our attention by repeating the unworthy jokes that are told about this immortal work, the petty prudery of the court officials that vainly whitened the place that was full of dead men’s bones, the repainting of Michelangelo’s work, even in his own lifetime, in deference to these petty objections. It will suffice us briefly t3 notice two great characteristics of the work which we cannot ignore. First of all, the artist has shown a mastery that is worthy of all praise, in covering the vast space in a single composition which, after all, revealed itself as a unit. The titanic figures in the foreground are followed by lesser figures behind, and out of the misty background comes trooping the innumerable host up to the grand assize. One critic, sympathetic, but strangely forgetful of what had gone before, speaks of this as the supreme merit of the picture, and adds that this art of misty background and immeasurable suggestion is the art that is Michelangelo’s own. Think of it ! This man, whose first pictures were but sculptured groups, padded about by irrelevant things, this man who knew no atmosphere, no shadow, no suggestion, this man has now so impressed the imagination of posterity that the extremest application of this very art is instantly recognized as his by right. It is in fact an art of which he was fully master, but the last which he mastered, the one most alien to his chosen medium.
But, conceding all that may be claimed for the marvelousness of this great composition, its unity under almost impossible difficulties, and, above all things, its limitless suggestion as the eye loses itself down the dim vista of figure and cloud, the work is in the deepest sense, the sense which Michelangelo himself would have called the deepest, a colossal, a tragic failure. The mighty nudes that stand up before us in the foreground are not like the youth that leans upon the bunch of acorns, vehicles for spiritual suggestion. Their faces are not spiritual, the moods that animate them are not exalted and grand. On the right hand and on the left there is crass materialism, that if it speaks of the mastery of the material, speaks also of forgetfulness of the spirit. These nudes are exaggerated, say some. Yes, but not more than the Cumæan Sibyl ; but there there is purpose, exalted, spiritual purpose, in the hyperbole that so magnificently serves that end. But here there is no purpose. Large, gross, and carnal, they weigh heavily upon the spirit which, in the presence of Michelangelo, fain would soar. It is these needlessly exaggerated masses o unspiritual flesh that were the bane of Rubens and were responsible for his Descent from the Cross which so inconceivably shines by this worst of borrowed lustres. An orgy of flesh was the result of Michelangelo’s influence, epitomized here. Such would perhaps have been the result in any case, for one can well imagine how the painters of a later time, even without this incentive, would have studied the reclining youth or the Cumæan Sibyl with attention to body rather than to spirit. Pitiful was the device by which the “breeches-maker” artist of the day covered with commonplace draperies these figures that shocked prurient taste, but more pitiful was the fact that here for once Michelangelo failed to redeem the body by the supremacy of the spirit. Here is tragedy, not triumph ; tragedy easy to excuse but impossible to disguise.
The last great tragedy of Michelangelo’s life is associated with his old benefactors, the much detested Medici. When, a year after the completion of the Sistine Ceiling, Pope Julius died, Michelangelo not only lost his one great patron, but his successor, Leo X, proved thoroughly unfriendly throughout his pontificate. Leo was the second son of Lorenzo de’ Medici, born in the same year as Michelangelo and there-fore his companion during the two years that Michelangelo lived under his father’s roof. If we may think of Michelangelo as in a sense the adopted son of Lorenzo, he was in so far the adoptive brother of Leo. Yet the eight years of his pontificate were the most humiliating of Michelangelo’s experience, and we search in vain for a trace of sympathy between the two. We might be tempted to trace the origin of this antipathy to some irritation growing out of this very experience, perhaps to resentment of this son of the house at the privileges enjoyed by an outsider. Michelangelo’s irritating manner in his youth would abundantly supplement any such surmise. But a deeper cause lies in the character of the pope who, inheriting both the glorious traditions of the Medicean house and the papacy as organized by Julius, was content to fritter away both on personal indulgence and frivolous dilettantism. The frivolous was not unknown among the varied interests of Lorenzo ; it was clearly the dominant interest of his son. Still, he lacked neither ability nor force, and with all his indifference to the highest interests with which his house had been identified, he never forgot the material interests of his family, and while still cardinal, in the last days of Julius, he had forced their return to Florence in a campaign the brutalities of which seem to have shocked an age accustomed to plunder and massacre. What Michelangelo’s sentiments were at this fall of the government of Savonarola and the extinction of liberty so dear to him, we can infer from the events of a later time. Suffice it to say, for a decade he lived in intermittent fear of violence, and was kept in uncongenial employment by a pope who could not ignore his greatness, nor yet understand or sympathize with his spirit.
In the last year of the pope’s life a new actor appears upon the scene, the Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, also a Medicean, a son of Lorenzo’s brother who was assassinated, and adopted after his father’s death by the great Lorenzo. He was there-fore virtually another son of the famous household in which Michelangelo had been a member and like the pope his former companion and adoptive brother. His relation to Michelangelo was to be hardly more favorable than that of Leo, but it was better motived and more sympathetic. After a brief interval of twenty months, he followed Leo in the papacy, which he held for eleven years as Clement VII, the most disastrous years that Rome has known since the fall of the empire. Not only did these Medicean popes witness the dismemberment of Christendom, Leo losing Germany under Luther and Clement losing England under Henry VIII, but Rome was sacked and virtually destroyed in the struggle, with resulting loss to her accumulated art and worst of all with the most serious interruption of her art activities.
It was as cardinal that the later Clement, always primarily interested in the welfare of his house, inaugurated the great work which was to continue through his lifetime and thence-forth remain unfinished, the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo, designed as a Mausoleum for the members of his family. The work seems never to have appealed to Michelangelo, and it is certain that he took it up under compulsion and dropped it as soon as he could. He had no idea, however, at the outset, how bitterly his feelings were to be intensified by subsequent events. The earlier sketches make it plain that the work was at the outset conceived in a different spirit from that. which later came to characterize it. The reason for this change is to be found in the revolt of Florence from the Medici during the ebb of Clement’s power, a revolt in which Michelangelo certainly sympathized, followed by the siege of the city by mercenaries, its stout resistance in which Michelangelo participated, its betrayal to the Medici and the formal and final establishment of the family in the person of a contemptible and vindictive bastard, as ruler of Florence. To Michelangelo this meant the extinction of Florence. History was to prove him right. From that day, Florence has never produced a great work or a great man.
It was with all the potential hatred of tyranny and meanness developed into painful consciousness that Michelangelo was driven back to his task by pope and duke. What his emotions were it is difficult for tamer natures to picture. Doubt-less they varied much, and the storms of passionate irreconcilableness which loom so large in the record, alternated with moods of that loyalty to his rulers and to his art which was so deeply implanted in his nature. But the one dominant characteristic of the work is the anguish and protest of a soul unreconcilable. Slowly the work dragged on for four years more, when Pope Clement died, and the artist flinging down his chisel, left Florence never to return save under pall and bearers. They did not know that he would not return, perhaps he did not know. They waited, then reminded him, asked him, urged him, besought him. When advancing years and changing interests at last made it clear that he would not return, they begged that he would furnish designs to some one else for the completion of the work. He did not, perhaps could not. Only when all hope of his further participation had vanished, was the unfinished work supplemented by another and given that degree of presentableness in which we now see it. The incompleteness of the work and the cooperation of another artist, apparently unguided by Michelangelo, makes it uncertain that the work as we now have it, expresses his intention. Still, it is difficult to see how these figures as Michelangelo left them, could have been used other-wise than as we now see them. Details might have been different, but not fundamentals. So far as our judgment has to deal with principles, we shall hardly do Michelangelo in-justice if we judge him by the work as it stands.
These tombs have been more often and harshly criticized than anything else in the work of the great artist. Even his devoted admirers have often been unable to reconcile them with the commonly accepted canons of sculpture, even with principles which Michelangelo is known to have approved. The usual judgment is expressed by a sympathetic critic when he alludes to them as “those magnificent failures, the Medicean Tombs ” (C 455, 459). Magnificent they undeniably are in their splendid manifestation of the great sculptor’s power, in the repose of their cyclonic passion, the ease with which they stir the deepest emotions of the heart. But in their surprising disregard of some of the most fundamental requirements of sculpture, it is difficult, according to any ordinary standard, to characterize them otherwise than as failures. Yet from this ordinary judgment the writer most earnestly dissents, believing that the exceptional conditions under which the artist labored and his exceptional temperament required exceptional forms of expression, and yet that such expression was justified by the highest considerations of art, and these exceptional means legitimized thereby.
The criticisms are easy and some of them fundamental. The statues which bear the names of Lorenzo and Giuliano (not the distinguished Mediceans of those names) (C 456, 46o) are said not to resemble these men, and the observer is strangely puzzled to know why.- Passing this, however, as a pardonable caprice, the critic is struck by the startling instability of the figures upon the sarcophagus, Night and Day upon that of Giuliano (C 457) and even more, the Morning and Evening Twilight upon that of Lorenzo (C 461). Of all statues known to us up to this time, none have so utterly defied the law of gravity. Held upon the sloping top of the sarcophagus at the most slippery point by bolts or other invisible means which it is impossible for art to permit the mind to contemplate, they seem plunging to their destruction and that of all about them. The following century was to give us plenty of such violations of the law of gravity, which justify themselves by Michelangelo’s example, but his practice in both earlier and later work is conspicuously against such license. We have seen by what extraordinary means he sought to give stability to the great Pietà. Less conspicuous but equally careful is his effort in the case of the Moses, of which the great sculptor, Rodin, says enthusiastically : “You could roll that down hill and not break off any essential part.” No artist up to Michelangelo’s time had been so careful to maintain the “integrity of mass” as he. Yet here he has completely and wantonly sacrificed it.
Pursuing our observation farther, we discover another violation of accepted law, at first sight easily confounded with the foregoing, but really quite distinct. It is the sacrifice of psychic repose. In considering the instability of the figure of Twilight we were thinking of it as a stone whose huge mass and weight threatens to fall with crushing force on what-ever may be beneath. Let us now for a moment think of these figures as persons, and see how they seem to feel and what feelings they suggest to us in consequence. The figure of Night from the Tomb of Giuliano (C 457) will best serve the purpose of this inquiry. It purports to be a woman sleeping. But how long would a person sleep in that attitude ? If she fell asleep, what would happen to the bent leg, to the unsupported elbow, to the head and neck ? The slightest consideration will convince us that none of these postures could persist in sleep. And if by some chance a woman should sleep for half an hour in such a posture, how would she feel when she awoke ? What would be the sensations of neck and elbow and wrist ? The suggestion is painful in the extreme and as such is apparently a violation of the most obvious laws of art. When we consider how overwhelming are these objections, and how flagrant the contradiction between this and the artist’s earlier work, we can appreciate the characterization of these works as “magnificent failures.”
The unsympathetic critic may indeed go farther and re-mind us that overwrought or impossible posture is not unknown in Michelangelo’s earlier works. The Bound Slave presents a posture which it would be difficult for the human figure to assume, and the Sistine Ceiling is not wanting in attitudes which it would be difficult for nature to duplicate, not to mention the free modification of proportions which we have more than once had occasion to note. But these attitudes are one and all marvellously expressive, and we find for the modified proportions at least the justification of an obvious purpose quite within the limits of art. But no-where have we had postures so unnatural or so painful, and nowhere before have we had the least sacrifice of the great law of stability of stone which Michelangelo has conserved with a care as unprecedented as his violation of it seems here to be wanton.
We have already discussed the difference between correct drawing, and good or expressive drawing, and have claimed for the latter the higher place in art. There is no sacerdotal sanctity about the human figure. It is a language in the artist’s hands through which he is privileged to express the ideals of art. Any departure from nature which is purposeless and any departure which obtrudes itself upon consciousness and cannot be “kept under” by the higher sentiments and ideals which it is invoked to express, is a mistake; and, conversely, any departure from nature which is unnoticed in the contemplation of these sentiments and ideals and which serves the better to express or emphasize them, is legitimate. The drill-master may murmur at this disparagement of the canons of the studio, and we may concede that this is dangerous doctrine ; it is none the less the irreducible minimum of the liberty which art must claim.
Can we find any purpose sufficient to justify this overwhelming license on the part of Michelangelo ?
We might dismiss the criticism upon the statues of Giuliano and Lorenzo, that they are not portraits, with the general observation that Michelangelo did not make portraits, but this leaves them purposeless. If not portraits, then what ? Michelangelo is not wont to give us meaningless figures.
The figure of Giuliano (C 456) is singularly lacking in those deeper suggestions with which Michelangelo has made us familiar. He is passively good-natured, but not benevolent, concerned with things about him, but not alert. A mind sensuous and objective, he is concerned with neither past nor future, nor with matters of other than immediate import. Complacent acquiescence in the life of here and now, he is the negation of the larger vision and the deeper sentiments which are everything in Michelangelo’s art.
Lorenzo opposite (C 46o) is a complete contrast. His bowed head is covered by the helmet whose visor shades his face, and the position is such as still further to obscure the features which, even in the fullest light, are vague and haunting. The popular designation of “Il Pensiero” is a correct characterization. He ponders. There is neither protest nor pathos in the face, only mystery, the most haunting and inscrutable of any figure in art.
The artist seldom has definitely formulated purposes, such as we are continually inclined to attribute to him. He is con-trolled by moods. which he may or may not refer to outward conditions. In these moods he sees certain mental visions which harmonize with these moods or are at variance with them. In the one case they appeal to him, and in the other case they do not, though he may have no very definite idea why. He may, indeed, assign a nominal meaning to his works which is quite different from their real meaning as ex-pressed in the conditions of their origin. It must therefore be with a full consciousness that we are formulating what Michelangelo did not formulate, that we venture to inquire why Michelangelo was interested in these figures as they presented themselves to his inner vision. What fact in his surroundings was responsible for the moods which these figures express ? The answer at once suggests itself when we re-call the recent return of the Medici, the extinction of popular liberty and the subjection of Florence to Medicean rule in a particularly odious form. We have no difficulty in imagining that for most Florentines the adjustment was prompt and painless. Their concern for present needs obscured the deeper issues which to a few seemed big with the import of the eternal things. To these few, however, the ways of Providence must indeed have seemed inscrutable. While the multitude went about their affairs pettily cheerful, too blind to see that the sun had been stricken out of the sky, how many who remembered the thunderings of the great preacher against iniquity in high places, who recalled the heart searchings of Florentines and the purification of private and public life which had so long persisted, must have cried out in their anguish of spirit: “How long, oh Lord, shall iniquity triumph ? Was Savonarola then not thy prophet, and carest thou not for the righteousness that he enjoined in thy name ? Lo, the kingdom of the Christ which we have sought to establish with such cost, is no more, and the iniquity against which thou settest thy hand ruleth over thy chosen.” How inevitable these contrasted moods ! How perfectly expressed in these two contrasted statues !
Remembering that Michelangelo was among the unreconciled and that his mood was one of far more passionate protest than that of most even of the unreconciled, we have now not far to seek the explanation of the other more pronounced peculiarities of the tombs. Suppose we had asked Michelangelo : “Why have you, who have so emphasized the law of stability in your creations of stone, left these figures to slide off into the abyss? Why have you violated the laws of nature and the laws of art ? ” How easily might he have replied, ever brooding upon the things he could not accept: “Do you then see stability around you? Is not everything sliding off into the abyss ? I have violated the laws of Nature? Has not Florence violated the laws of God? How else should I express the perversion of law save through the perversion of law ? ”
The same inquiry may go farther with even more telling rejoinders. “Why this woman sleeping in such an impossible attitude? Could she sleep like that ? Could she rest if she did sleep? And these other figures of morning and evening, the one pain-effaced, sinking into a sleep that promises no reviving ; the other awakened as from terrifying dreams to a day that is without hope? Why this ordeal of pain and discomfort in the presence of `Kind Nature’s sweet restorer’ ?” How easy the answer, “Do you then sleep sweetly in this our Florence? Does sleep bring repose and restoration? Do you not take refuge in sleep from the shame of waking, and awake from dreams that are night-mares, to a day that is worse than your dreams ? ”
All such conversations are imaginary and, it might be argued, fanciful, but in the case of the Night we have strangely corroborative evidence. Familiar and unchallenged is the story of the admiring visitor who saw the Night in Michelangelo’s absence and, struck by its beauty, penciled his compliment upon it. The lines are graceful and worthy of the polished style of the age of Lorenzo. The compliment was undoubtedly sincere..
” Night, that thou seest here sleeping in so graceful an attitude Was carved by an Angel from this stone. And since she sleeps she is alive.
Dost thou not believe it? Touch her and she will awake and speak to thee.”
Even in prosaic translation the charm of this tribute is apparent. Another artist would have felt happy all day in consequence. Michelangelo read the lines and wrote his rejoinder below. His lines have all the grace of the other’s with the rugged power of the great Dante of whom he was so passionately fond :
” Well for me that I sleep while shame and wrong endure around me. For me not to hear, not to see, is great good fortune. Therefore wake me not, I pray. Speak softly.”
Tolerably plain words these, and certain to reach the Medicean palace before nightfall, where a diviner would hardly be necessary for their interpretation.
It was in moods like these that the great sculptor proceeded with his work. It was such moods as these which these statues were fitted to express. Ostensibly, their grief was for the death of the insignificant personalities whom they commemorated. Really, they expressed moods born of disasters to Florence, the disappearance of righteousness and the perversion of the divine order. These moods that filled the passionate soul of the great artist, they perfectly express. One question remains for us, and this all-important. Are such things art ? They are expressive, profound, forceful, sincere, but are they beautiful? Our first impulse is to shudderingly answer, no. Such conditions do not please us; such protests are contemplated with pain. But let us be sight of this fundamental fact, we are a ship without a compass. But beauty is not so simple or so easily defined as we are wont to assume. Anything is beautiful which we would fain experience again for its own sake. Perhaps we may best appreciate the scope of the term by an analogous case. George Eliot speaks of a “sort of happiness which often brings so much pain with it, that we can only tell it from pain by its being what we would choose before everything else, because our souls see it is good.” And so we may say of beauty that in some of its forms it is so nearly akin to ugliness that we can scarcely tell it from ugliness, save that there is something about it that our souls crave and tell us it is good. If we are to locate these great passionate moods of Michelangelo anywhere within the realm of beauty, it must doubtless be in these forms that are out on the confines of the harsh and the terrible but which our souls crave and tell us they are good.
Do Michelangelo’s moods command our sympathy or not ? It matters little whether we share his estimate of the popular government of Savonarola or his detestation for the degenerate Medicean house. Knowing that he saw liberty in the one and tyranny in the other, do we like him the better that his heart refused compliance and even sought relief in angry outburst, or would we rather he had made terms with tyranny ? Few will hesitate in answer to such a question. The soul that will not compromise and that refuses to be consoled for the loss of its ideals, is the thing that the heart chiefly delights to honor.
The Medicean Tombs are art. They are transcendent art, in the most literal sense of the word, for they transcend the ordinary forms of art as their ideals transcend its ordinary ideals. The laws of stability, of psychic repose, these are just laws, of application as universal as are the laws of harmony in music. But when Wagner seeks a leitmotif to express sin, he chooses, not a melody or chord, but a crashing discord that in other connections would not be music at all, but which here serves as the only possible expression of a theme necessary to his larger composition. So Michelangelo reaches into the realm of dissonance for the means needful to express the vaster music which he alone was able to hear. He has not violated but transcended the laws of art. Let us cheerfully concede that we have room in our sympathy for but little music of this heroic sort, but we are infinitely the poorer if we shut that little out.
Michelangelo’s return to Rome was followed by dreary years spent upon the Last Judgment and then by a still longer task as architect of St. Peter’s which occupied practically the remainder of his life. In this last connection he is said to have worked without pay, saying that he would do this work for the repose of his soul. His religious feeling deepened, and he was heard to question whether he ought not to have spent his life in devotion rather than in the frivolous practice of art. From this time, too, date the poems and letters which express such a wealth of human tenderness on the part of this man now robbed of the last vestige of human companionship. He was known as an architect, and in general, as a wonderful old man, whom all honored but few loved. It was remembered that he had painted on occasion, and though popes might come and popes might go, he had made the great chapel his forever. But to many it would have been a surprise to learn that he had once been a sculptor. The Drunken Bacchus and the Cupid still existed somewhere in private possession, but of them the world knew nothing. Away in Florence, to be sure, there was the great David, looking out upon the market-place, and the tombs were there to add their testimony, but these were unknown to Rome, awed by St. Peter’s and the great Chapel. Only the Pietà and the Moses were there to be pointed out by some guide as “made by our Michelangelo, fifty years ago, before he found his real calling.”
And now of a sudden the curious were again aroused by the rumor that the sound of his chisel was to be heard by night in his house. Who could have given him a commission in this abandoned art ? What could the commission be? In truth, the man had returned to the art of his choice, just for one work more before he died ; not for a king now or a cardinal or a pope; just for himself, and for God, a work that was to be his monument. And since the great church busied him by day, the old man, almost sleepless, devoted the night to his work, which none might see. The history of art offers few more pathetic pictures than that of this old man, alone with the double isolation of old age and of genius, tireless by day and sleepless by night, a candle in his cap and the flare of the candle upon the marble and upon the dark shadows about, working away upon his last utterance to mankind. The work went slowly with this man of eighty years, for his eye was dim and his natural force abated. The hand trembled now, and the old-time grip of iron was relaxed. At last, we are told, the hand or the vision failed him, the blow went too deep and cut into the figure which he saw within the marble. And then, seized with petulance or despair in his old age he was capable of either he grasped his heavy mallet and began to break it up. But an old servant who had served him faithfully in these years and borne with his moods, rushed up and begged him, if he would not take farther pleasure in his work and complete it, would he not give it to him, and slowly, reluctantly, the old man consented. The slight damage was repaired, and now behind the high altar in the great Duomo of Florence it stands, as he left it on that fateful night, not marking his burial place, but none the less his monument. It should be visited near the hour of noon, before the western windows are flooded with the afternoon sun, when a slender shaft of light coming from behind and above emphasizes the suggestive shadow that wraps it about.
The group represents the Deposition from the Cross (C 464). The body of the Christ is lowered by Joseph of Arimathea and received by the mother and the Magdalen below. Never death so utter, never form so helpless as manifested in this body of the Christ. Never character so intact in despair-as that of the Joseph or love so utter as that of the mother whose face shows so dimly yet so dearly through the uncut marble.
The composition is harsh like a cry of anguish, but perfect in its accord. It will be noted, too, that the old compact group returns, for with all its pain, life has again righted itself, and Michelangelo again tells us of the eternal things. There is an infinite certitude in the character note of this funeral dirge, heroism without hope and love made perfect in despair !
“Integer vitæ” intact of life, so ran the poet’s praise. Intact of life, though all else fail, so reads this last message. Last words from such a man and uttered with such deliberation should command more than the usual attention. We shall not read this last word far wrong if we formulate Michelangelo’s philosophy something like this.
Life is a failure. The things you fain would do you may not do, the ambitions you cherish you shall not realize ; such is the common lot of man. Who has reached the age of gray hairs and cannot look back on a pathway strewn with the wrecks of cherished plans and high ambitions ? That is the common lot of life. Expect no other. Life is a failure.
But you need not be a failure. You cannot do the things you fain would do. One thing you can do. You can give back your soul to God as he gave it, unsullied and unscathed. Integer vitae,with life intact. The Joseph of Arimathea is said to resemble Michelangelo; a chance resemblance, if any, so far as outward appearances go. But in the head, bowed in submission but not in weakness, the soul strong and erect, though with nothing but itself to sustain it, we see the spiritual portrait of Michelangelo.
The story is told that while the work was in progress, curiosity ran high as to what the old sculptor might be doing in the night behind closed doors. Other means failing, two friends more daring than the rest, devised a pretext for calling upon him at night. They were admitted, not cordially but with passive courtesy, and as they gazed upon the unfinished work, the candle in Michelangelo’s cap, as by accident, fell to the ground and flickered and went out, whereupon he remarked simply, “Let us go out with the candle.”