WHERE the element of character and personality is so largely involved in our estimate of an artist’s work, as it is with this painter, we should do well to bear in mind the importance of his statues (see forward) as assisting us to comprehend and place him. Michael Angelo’s position as a painter is fixed solely by his works in the Sistine Chapel. His few panel pictures, three or four in number, are not much more than interesting curiosities, when large facts are in question.
In this Chapel, where his great triumph as a painter was celebrated, we must first distinguish between the “Last Judgment,” painted late in life on its end wall, and the much earlier ceiling frescoes for the “Story of Genesis,” with the attendant decorative compositions.
The whole Chapel with its earlier fifteenth century frescoes on the side walls, below which were once hung the tapes-tries of Raphael, is a fine reminder of the ideals of the Renaissance in the matter of interior decoration. This apartment, which still serves as the papal chapel of the Vatican, has its name from the pope, Sixtus IV., who built it about 1473.
Michael Angelo’s original profession was that of sculptor, and as such he had already won his reputation before the ceiling pictures were begun (in 1508). His “David” in Florence had just been completed; his “Bacchus” and “Pietà” are also earlier works. In this profession he was already remarkable for colossal and grandiose conceptions, and the tomb of Julius II., which was to have been the central feature of St. Peter’s Church, was already one of his commissions. Even in the later and diminishes proportions of this tomb, as placed in another Roman church, the statue of “Moses” is still the most imposing piece of modern statuary, while the “Captives” of the Louvre, which were detached from the tomb after the changes in its plans, made after the death of the pope, are counterparts in importance of his Tombs of the Medici, subsequently done in Florence.
In these various works of sculpture an imperious and daring genius of conception is supported by profound knowledge of the anatomy of the human figure, and by a wonderful technical ability in the use of the chisel. But in sculpture Michael Angelo expressed his own great personality. In the ceiling frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, this personality became the servant of Christian art in such a way that the greatness of the man united with the greatness of his time and of his subject to produce a most wonderful work of Bible illustration.
To tell the story of the Creation in pictures worthily and grandly, is a task which no other artist of any period has accomplished. Even the mere physical execution of a work of such vast extent was a miracle of personal fortitude and endurance. To calculate, while lying on his back on a scaffold close to the ceiling, the proper proportions of detail treatment for effect on the distant floor below, was one of the least of his tasks.
Among these subjects of the ceiling the ” Creation of the Sun and Moon,” the ” Creation of Adam,” the “Creation of Eve,” the ” Temptation and Expulsion from the Gar-den of Eden,” aie the most remarkable.
In the angular recesses of the vaulting and in the arched spaces above the windows were represented the ” Fore-fathers of Christ.” The ruling thought of these compositions is to illustrate the expectant transition stage of history waiting for the new dispensation of Christ.
Between the triangular recesses of the ceiling are arranged the ” Prophets ” and ” Sibyls,” representing Hebrew and pagan inspiration according to an Italian artistic method which conceived of inspired thought as common to the classic and the Jewish literature.
The panels of the main ceiling, devoted to the ” Story of Genesis,” are alternately wide and narrow. At the angles thus formed between the panels are placed the nude male figures commonly called personifications of architectural force. There can be no question but that these various frescoes, when viewed in their combination and vast extent, are the most daring and successful effort of architectural decoration ever undertaken by man.
Twenty-two years after the completion of the ceiling frescoes (finished 1512) the ” Last Judgment” on the rear wall of the chapel was begun. Its enormous dimensions, sixty feet in height, and bold designs will always extort the admiration of the beholder. At the same time we must confess to a certain coldness of appreciation for this work by contrast with our feeling for the “Story of Genesis.” As far as this lies in the failure of the picture to correspond to the imaginative demand made upon it, we must remember that such a failure must be involved in any picture of the subject, and this would have been conceded instantly by the artist and by his time.
We will begin our estimate of the “Last Judgment” by acknowledging that this subject, which we could not imagine a nineteenth century painter as even attempting, had its proper place in art when the mission of art was to illustrate Bible literature and to represent Christian belief. Therefore, instead of approaching the ” Last Judgment” from the standpoint of the nineteenth century, which is really that of imaginative literature, we must approach it from the standpoint of the sixteenth century, which is that of imaginative painting. But when the picture is viewed from the standpoint of its own period, as one more treatment of a traditional religious subject which was inside the limits of art because the whole Middle Age, and the early Renaissance as well, had represented its religious ideals, beliefs, and teachings by means of art, we must still admit some shortcomings in the ” Last Judgment” as compared with other religious art of the time, for instance, as compared with other works by the same man in the same place.
If we should attempt in one sentence to fix this short-coming, it would be by saying that the studies of the anatomist and the zeal of the student in fore-shortened figures have been carried to a point where we lose sight of the subject in admiring the science of the painter. It was the greatest virtue of the great time that its technical science in details did not overpower its idea, and that the whole was always greater than its parts, even when taken together. In the ” Last Judgment” the parts taken separately or together are perhaps more admirable than the whole.
This much having been said in qualification, as against an unconditionally enthusiastic attitude toward this great picture, we are forced to admit that it is the largest and in many senses the most imposing, as it is the latest, of the monumental works of Italian art (the decorations of the Doge’ s Palace at Venice alone excepted). As an astounding exhibition of power and science in drawing it is undoubtedly, when dimensions and number of figures are considered, the superior of any other single work in the whole world and in that sense the worthy climax in painting of the sculptor of the ” Moses,” and the architect of St. Peter’s dome.
It was the mission of Michael Angelo to astound humanity by a character in which profound scientific and technical knowledge were combined with capacity for enthusiasm and with exalted imaginative power. It has thus been his strange fate to have been admired by two distinct classes of experts those who lay stress on purely technical science of execution in design without reference to the thought it may have who are captivated by grandeur of thought without reference to the science of execution. As the besetting sin of Italian art in its later decadence was to lay undue stress on technique, without reference to thought and conception, it was possible for Michael Angelo to satisfy the taste of that period and even to serve as the model of many of its imitative efforts. On the other hand, the most authoritative critics of our own time class him as a man of mind with Shakespeare and with the most exalted geniuses of all history in music and in literature.
Considered as a painter pure and simple, Michael Angelo’s forte was the study of the human figure, both in its anatomic form and in its action as represented by the art of foreshortening. As a colorist he does not take high rank, but it cannot be said that the quality of his art would have been improved by a different scheme of color. Where design considered as drawing is the force of the artist, color must of necessity be subordinated to this force. For de-sign emphasizes the outline, while color emphasizes the surface and the mass. It must further be said that there is no other artist whose work so absolutely requires a knowledge of the personality and life as connected with the history and political revolutions of his time. Grimm’s ” Life of Michael Angelo ” treats of these matters in a most satisfactory way. Vasari was personally acquainted with Michael Angelo, and the life written by him is one of his best, being full of interesting anecdotes and personal details.
( Originally Published 1894 )
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