THERE are few more striking figures in the history of this remarkable time than Julius II who came to the pontifical chair in 1503. It is impossible for the dispassionate student of history to regard him with approval, or to justify by a calm estimate of his character or his acts the claim to greatness which it is none the less impossible to withhold. In an age when learning was an almost universal distinction in the higher walks of ecclesiastical and private life, Julius had neither scholarship nor scholarly ambitions. A munificent patron of art, he seems to have had little discrimination, and to have recognized in the work of Michelangelo rather its titanic than its spiritual qualities. A man of action by every instinct of his being, his action was usually both ruthless and ill-considered and for the most part barren of results. His ambitions were those of an empire builder, but history will record him as neither a great conqueror nor a true statesman. None the less, there is something magnificent about this Titan who for ten years occupied the center of this world stage, dwarfing into insignificance all other figures save one, and despite all protests of judgment or sympathy, we call him the Great Pope. Perhaps he gains by contrast with other popes of the time, with the unspeakable Alexander, the indolent Leo, or the cunning and ignoble Paul. Perhaps, too, we remember chiefly the one great deed to his credit. It is to him that we owe the Sistine Ceiling.
Michelangelo probably knew the pope as a cardinal in the day when he was making the Pietà. If not, the Pietà was their introduction. When Julius came to the papacy, Michelangelo was in Florence, putting the last touches upon the great David, setting the seal upon the sculptor’s skill and waiting for the artist’s inspiration. The head of Julius was full of vast projects covering every department of showy human achievement, and as soon as he got round to the subject of art, he summoned Michelangelo to Rome. An incidental result of this call was the loss to us of Michelangelo’s great Battle of Pisa, designed for the Town Hall of Florence, a work which no less a judge than Benvenuto Cellini declares to have far surpassed the Sistine Ceiling. Our slight knowledge of the work, and still more, our knowledge of Cellini’s ideals, leads us to a different conclusion. The work seems to have been like the David, a figure study, this time of infinite variety and unsurpassable skill, but a technical rather than a spiritual triumph. This was the thing that Cellini, himself a technician and only a technician, was able to appreciate. Much as we must regret that this cartoon, prepared at such vast labor and displaying the resources of Michelangelo’s art, was never to be transferred to the wall where we could have seen it, we need not regret the call to Rome. Michelangelo listened to the one voice that could stir the deepest chords in his nature, left to the technical connoisseurship of Florence the body of his art, and took the soul of it to Rome.
Between Michelangelo and Julius there was a tempera-mental sympathy founded on likeness of character and common need. Both were men of terrific passion, men who knew none of the tame impulses that we call feelings, but were swayed by tempests that demand a stronger word, men of boundless energy, capable of infinite things if properly directed, but easily breaking over the barriers of personal or social control. These two men on the instant realized their kinship, and though often, almost constantly, in conflict, they were drawn irresistibly together again by their common consciousness that true sympathy and adequate appreciation were to be found nowhere else. Never able to get along with each other, they were never able to get along without each other, a relation not uncommon in this world to spirits isolated by the greatness of their powers. It is one of the uncompensated tragedies of Michelangelo’s career that the great portrait statue which he later made of Julius, to decorate the portal of San Petronio in Bologna, in commemoration of the conquest of that city and its incorporation into the Papal States, should have been an object of political detestation rather than of artistic appreciation on the part of the conquered Bolognese, with the result that on the first occasion, which came all too promptly, it was recast into a cannon to be derisively called Pope Julius. Never was a subject so born for Michelangelo’s portrayal as Julius II. Never was an artist so gifted to portray a Julius as was Michelangelo. It was the irony of fate that the Titan of St. Peter’s chair should have been handed down to us by the serene and placid Raphael.
To Michelangelo, the finished technician, the pope now gave instructions to prepare designs for his tomb to be erected in St. Peter’s. This commission appealed to him beyond measure. It was in every way congenial to his temperament. He was at the zenith of his powers, and his imagination reached out into the illimitable. It was apparent, too, that the pope’s ambition was equally unlimited, and that he desired the utmost reach of the artist’s powers. The character of the pope, thus revealed in its most inspiring aspect, served to fire his imagination. Michelangelo rushed to the work, and in a short time prepared a sketch which, had it been carried out, would have dwarfed all other works of its kind since time began. It was to be a rectangular architectural structure, detached from the wall so as to be seen from all sides, a thing unknown before in tombs of the Renaissance. Some idea of its magnitude may be gathered from the fact that its decoration comprised forty-nine statues, at least twelve of them of heroic size, not to mention reliefs and other rich decorative details. The sketch was presented to Julius and aroused his utmost enthusiasm. The commission was promptly given, and Michelangelo received carte blanche to quarry the necessary marble in Carrara. Soon the quays of the Tiber were covered with huge blocks of marble, in quantities which amazed spectators but added to the pope’s exultation. Here was a man who could both plan and do.
Our imagination will hardly suffice to follow Michelangelo during the enthusiasm of the next few months. We shall never understand these momentous days until we realize the inadequacy of our experience to interpret the passions of such men. Artist and patron, either might have said to their wondering critics : “And all thy feelings matched with mine, are as moonlight unto sunlight and as water unto wine.” Michelangelo’s enthusiasms were as much more intense than those of other men as his depressions were the more terrible when the reaction came. This great undertaking was destined to bring him the uttermost extremes of both.
The work on the tomb went steadily forward, under the tireless energy of the sculptor and the sympathetic eye of the pope. His visits were frequent, even to the extent of having a special entrance to Michelangelo’s premises made for the purpose. But slowly these favoring conditions changed ; the visits ceased, payments were delayed, and the importunities of the embarrassed sculptor were met with coldness and at last with open repulse. Explanation was not at once forthcoming. Only later did Michelangelo learn that disease had shaken the pontiff’s nerve, that superstition, following in its train, had made the thought of the tomb a specter, that vast and ill-considered projects had exhausted the papal resources, and finally that calumny and malice had marked the sculptor for its victim. Julius had plenty of reasons for his waning enthusiasm if not for his coldness and insolence. These reasons Michelangelo could not know or share, and the rebuff stung him to the quick. He fled incontinent to Florence, outstripping the horseman sent to overtake him, and once safe on Florentine soil, refusing the summons to return. Not until the government of Florence begged him to yield to the pope’s entreaties to save the Republic from war on his account, did Michelangelo consent to make his peace with the pope and return, not to the work on the tomb, but to another and less welcome task. Surely Julius had need of Michelangelo.
This interruption to the great undertaking, supposed by all to be but temporary, proved permanent. Five plans succeeded one another, each smaller than the last, and it finally ended with an incredible caricature of Michelangelo’s plan, not in St. Peter’s, but in a lesser and comparatively unimportant church. The structure of the tomb is beneath criticism. The forty-nine statues have dwindled to eight, of which but three have any connection with the great sculptor, and but one is directly from his hand. The other five are totally with-out merit, and the effigy of the pope is the very bathos of art. Even so, the great pope is not buried in his tomb, but in a scarce marked grave in St. Peter’s.
We are not writing a history of either Michelangelo or the pope, and we should follow through the sorry details of this “Tragedy of the Tomb” to little purpose. We are concerned only to understand the message that he began to convey to us in this happiest moment of his career. That message was interrupted, but its spirit and purport are perfect and complete. It is contained in two works, beyond doubt the finest product of Michelangelo’s genius, the Moses and the Bound Slave, the latter now in the Louvre at Paris.
In the old church of San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains), appropriate reminder of Michelangelo’s fettered genius, is the tomb of the great Julius. In the central niche beneath the helpless effigy and between the mildly graceful figures on either side, sits the mighty Moses (C 451). It is one of several statues of like size and scope designed by Michelangelo to express the characteristics of the great pope. What the others might have been we have no idea. Certainly the one we have is the one most needful, the one which expresses the characteristic that obscures all others in the history of the great pontiff. But we will not read this meaning into the statue. Let us read it out of it, for if it is there, we may.
The statue is the pitfall of the mechanical critic. Despite its tremendous power it is a violation of many of the ordinary rules of thumb. The first thing that strikes the trained studio observation is that the proportions are wrong. The head, for instance, is all too small, especially the length from front to rear. The eyes are immense and sunk in great cavernous sockets that are startlingly impressive. The nose is large, the beard extravagantly long and profuse. The bare arms are those of a giant. The draperies drawn up over the knee are in ungraceful, not to say impossible folds. Condemnation is easy to those to whom these things are the sub-stance of art.
But why should these things be the substance of art? There is, of course, a well known law of normal proportion that has held with varying regard since the days of Polykleitos the width of the middle finger a unit which multiplied by specified factors will give us the dimension of every feature. Attitudes and other details have likewise been formulated and the whole reduced to a canon. This once done, it requires but little practice to grind out statues to rule. But what is the result of all this? Is it not perfectly apparent that these canonical proportions, attitudes, and so forth, once formulated and accepted, art itself is reduced to a formula ? The human figure thus treated becomes like a composite photograph, and all variations are eliminated by this doctrine of averages. Art becomes the apotheosis of the commonplace. Be this as it may, Michelangelo knew no such canon and it is in his deviation from the normal that as often as not we find the secret of his power.
We could hardly find a better statue to illustrate the necessities and the limitations of art. As we look at this statue we are impressed by a single thought with regard to which no observer is ever in doubt. The titanic figure, the alert posture, leaning forward as though about to spring from his seat, one foot thrown back as if ready for instant action, the head erect, the piercing gaze turned upon a definite object, the garments drawn back from the powerful limbs, everything unites in one single and definite impression. The figure is instinct with a mighty pent up energy that is ready at a moment’s notice to launch into fearful assertion. This is the characteristic of Julius which Michelangelo sought through this figure to express. It is, as indicated above, the characteristic that history has largely emphasized. A man whose passions were at every moment like a bomb about to explode, with an energy, colossal though destructive, thus we know him, and thus in the guise of Moses he here appears. The fearful energies of his frame are not restrained by reflection. They are ready to be released by the touch of a hair trigger. So Julius was always, and to all who knew him.
Now how does Michelangelo succeed in giving us this impression ? First of all, of course, by the power of the figure, and then, obviously, by the attitude as well, by the fact that he does not lean back in his chair restfully, but that he sits erect, fully energized, all his forces completely in hand. But all that could easily have been dulled or counteracted by a different treatment of the head. It is perfectly possible in life for a man of action to have a noble, philosophic brow. We discern his character, not by his brow, but by his action, which is patent to all men. But in sculpture we have no such resource. The man cannot act, and to choose a momentary phase of some rapidly evolving. action is always weak, inadequate, and mistaken. No, in sculpture, where everything is static and dominated by a vast repose that inheres in the marble itself, we must resort to other means. If we give our statue the philosophic brow, the lack of motion and of all real action will shift the whole emphasis, and the impression will not be that of a man of action but of a man of reflection with which we generally associate features of this kind. In sculpture we must be free to emphasize as exigencies may require. This Michelangelo has unhesitatingly done. Realist as he is, in treating details of any kind that are not essential to his purpose, he will unhesitatingly modify proportion or other factor in the interest of one paramount suggestion that he has to give. If he wishes to suggest reflection, he will exaggerate those features from which we are accustomed to take that suggestion. The brow would be higher and the face more dreamy than was the fact in life. Witness a modern sculptor’s at-tempt in the Last Days of Napoleon in the great palace of Versailles. But if on the other hand he wishes to express action sprung from sensation, with almost nothing of intervening reflection, he will do exactly the reverse.
The features that suggest reflection must be minimized and those that supply sensation, the mainspring of action, must be made paramount. Hence the small size of the head, or rather, the upper portion of the head, in Michelangelo’s statue, a device that he resorts to in other cases for precisely the same purpose. And hence, in like manner, the amazing prominence given to the organs of sense, the piercing eyes that look you through and through, the prominent nose, the heavy, passionate lips, the face that is instinct with passion, but from which almost every trace of philosophic calm lias vanished. The relative exaggeration of the muscular frame contributes to the same end. He is a giant whose energies are ready for instant assertion, and from whose senses comes inevitably the impetus to that assertion.
This free playing with the figure is merely a phase of the great process of idealism which is the very soul of art. There is no point in making pictures and statues of things that are about us, just as they are about us, with no more meaning and no more inspiration. Clever copying is but a test of artisan’s skill. The camera does it better than the artist at his best. No, the function of art is to give us ideas, and ideas worth the giving, ideas that life gives rarely and in broken bits, and that the artist gathers up, interprets and transfigures by his exceptional power. To accomplish this purpose, the artist is free to use any means. Nature lays no taboo upon her forms. It is as legitimate to leave out or minimize a feature as it is in painting a landscape to omit an unnecessary tree. The one question is, can the modification be made so as to convey the greater meaning and not merely to challenge attention to it as an oversight or a mutilation? This test Michelangelo was assuredly able to meet.
But our lesson learned, let us not hasten away from the spell of this great creation. To analyze is, after all, not the whole of understanding. If we are fortunate enough to go to the church when the organ is playing in the deep bay opposite, the vast harmony swelling through the mighty arches and evoking that higher sensibility, that nobler mood in which sympathy with these great creations is possible, then, first of all perhaps, something of the grandeur of Michelangelo’s thought will dawn upon us. The great eyes will look out upon us until we quail before their terrible penetration ; the vast passion with which the body is instinct will seem ready to launch itself forth with awe-inspiring fury. The Greeks of old pictured a god who hurled the thunderbolt and shattered the oak beneath. We wonder sometimes in what guise he appeared to their imagination. They have given us their vision in some of the fairest of their works, but two thousand years must pass and they must wait for a Christian to give us the mind and thought of the terrible Zeus. No hurler of the thunderbolt he ! He has but to turn his omnipotent gaze toward the objects that he fain would smite, and the earth must melt and man must quail in their presence. There is in all the world no statue, no work of art like the Moses. Its superhuman energy, its absolute unambiguity, the infinite daring of the artist’s genius, the unwontedness of his thought, all put it in a class by itself and lift it to a place to which our minds in their highest flights but seldom attain. To the routine spirit it is a blunder, to the petty man it is a mystery, but to all it is a work of superhuman power.
Michelangelo’s original design involved the use of a large number of decorative figures, seven or more of which were begun and two carried approximately to completion. Later plans first lessened the number of these figures and then eliminated them altogether. The two most nearly completed were given to a citizen of France, which country now cherishes them among the chief treasures of her incomparable collection. The others were built into an absurd grotto by degenerate Florence, from which ignominy they have but recently been rescued to honor the collection of the Accademia. It is with one of the Paris figures (C 452) that we are chiefly concerned. It is the figure of a beautiful youth, nude save for the band around the chest which holds him prisoner. The eyes are closed and the attitude expressive of conscious helplessness, and an acquiescence which is as devoid of hope as it is free from pusillanimity. To many, the suggestion is that of the passing of the spirit in death, and the name, Dying Youth, alternates with that of the Bound Slave as a popular designation. The latter is in one respect infelicitous, for of all possible suggestions, that of servility is most remote. The youth is of noblest mould, and his nobility abates not a tittle in his moment of self effacement.
Two interpretations of these figures have come down to us, either acceptable enough and of secondary importance. The one is that these “bound slaves” represent the conquered provinces which Julius, the creator of the Papal States, had constrained under his sway. If so, the artist, intent always upon the deeper experiences of the human spirit, suggests infinitely better the pathos of perished liberty than the glory of conquering achievement. That these conquered provinces were to be symbolized upon the monument, according to one of its designs, is certain, and whether this figure was destined for this purpose or not, we may be certain that the spirit of the design would have been the same and would have justified our inference. More probably, however, this is one of the “dying youths” intended to represent the arts as dying with the death of their great patron. Such a purpose it perfectly serves, with its matchless beauty, its unresisting hopelessness, and its divine pathos. In all this it perfectly embodies the theme which henceforth unfailingly characterizes Michelangelo’s noblest creations. That theme is pathos, expressed through more than human beauty, and perfectly but nobly submissive to a higher will.
Nothing could be more instructive than to compare this work with the David. The latter is a perfect study of the human figure, a realistic interpretation of a commonplace boyish action. It is charged with no great feeling, and suggests none, unless to those who are absorbed in problems of the craft or awed by its vast fame. This is sculpture. The other is not a true study of the human figure. The beauty is more than human, the detail subdued, and the attitude freely strained beyond the humanly possible, to suggest that pathos which in beauty and in depth of emotion passes all experience. This is art. It may be well here to recall the words of perhaps the most sympathetic of Michelangelo’s interpreters, a mind which like every true seer, recognized the unapproachable supremacy of Greek art, and yet wrote in all calm of this figure: “This is the most beautiful statue that I know; and when I say this, I recall all the most beautiful works of the Greeks.”
Powerful as are these two statues, they give no conception of the effect which the tomb as such would have produced. We must imagine the mighty Moses, with other similar statues, placed in great niches which were the commanding features of the tomb. Instinct with life and power, they were to translate to our thought the character of the living pontiff. Between these niches and in front of the pilasters or but-tresses which divided them, were to be these dying youths whose expiring life suffused with infinite pathos this memorial of the pontiff’s death. These figures expressed in a far higher and intenser manner the idea of mourning, ordinarily ex-pressed by bier and pall, by bowed head and shadowed face in the conventional memorials to the dead. Only slowly and imperfectly can the imagination picture the vast design on which Michelangelo had so completely set his heart that all later commissions seemed unworthy, and the Sistine Ceiling “a frivolous work.”
The reconciliation between the pope and Michelangelo and the return of the latter to Rome, resulted in a new commission and a new promise on Michelangelo’s part. The Sistine Ceiling was to be “repaired.” The working of the commission is interesting and, in the light of subsequent events, slightly humorous. To set Michelangelo to repair the work of an earlier painter illustrates how imperfectly Pope Julius realized the task or understood the man. As a personality he knew and prized him, but of his art he understood little enough. There were few things that Julius understood less than art. It is the more surprising, therefore, that we owe to his persistent purpose the completeness and integrity of this, the world’s greatest work.
The commission was most unwelcome to Michelangelo and the promise was given only after every resource of protest and evasion had failed. He urged that he was not a painter, which was true ; that he wished to go on with the other work, which was more than true. He might even have added as on another occasion he did, that he disliked painting and thought it an inferior art. All to no avail; nothing would turn Julius from his purpose, and his will was not one to be long resisted. The commission can be excused only on the general ground of the confusion of the arts in that day. Specialization was not the ideal of the time, as with us. On the contrary, it was distinctly a thing to be avoided. Many-sidedness and all around completeness was the ideal to which a few great minds surpassingly attained. Nothing better illustrates the possibilities of an ideal persistently and widely cherished than the ability of this time to produce men so many-sided as Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael. Having abandoned this idea of human develop-ment we do not remotely approximate to these individual attainments. But aside from this, the age had not as yet differentiated painting and sculpture in their thought. They were different, of course, and made by a different process, but that these differences affected their themes and their inmost spirit was a fact not grasped. ,An artist was an artist, and might be assigned to this or that branch of art as convenience dictated. The result justified the theory in this case, but Michelangelo perceived far more than his contemporaries the falseness of the theory. He was a sculptor born if there ever was one, and interpreting painting in the terms of sculpture, as such a man must do, came to define it as essentially false or sham sculpture and thus relatively unworthy. This is, of course, a total misconception of painting. Sculpture is a study in forms. Painting, with color as its medium, is primarily a study of spaces. It is the lights and shadows that fill a space that are the great thing in any great picture, though few painters have ever realized this as did Rembrandt. To leave the space a mere void, with the merciless, untempered light of day emphasizing its emptiness, and to carefully work out forms of no matter what in this space, will never make a picture. It is only sham sculpture, as Michelangelo not unnaturally defined it. Such knowledge as we have of Michelangelo’s perished work, the Battle of Pisa, perfectly illustrates this conception. As seen in the copy, doubtless much enfeebled, of a contemporary, it is simply a mass of human figures caught in every conceivable attitude, drawn doubtless with great power but wholly sculptural in conception. There is nothing about them, no atmosphere, no light and shadow, none of that mellowing and mood-creating environment which is the very soul of painting. This Michelangelo did not know ; the Italians did not know it. As we shall see, it rested with him more than with almost any other to discover it. A glance at one of his early paintings in comparison with such a painting as Andrea del Sarto’s Madonna of the Harpies, is most instructive. As an artist Andrea cannot be mentioned in the same breath with Michelangelo, but as a painter he is infinitely superior, understanding the mystery of light and shadow as an environment for his subdued and suggestive studies in form.
We may carry the comparison further and still to Michelangelo’s disadvantage. Let us notice his youthful work known as the Doni Madonna (C 101), more properly speaking, the Holy Family. It is a round picture, in the center of which is arranged a group of the Holy Family. These splendid figures are worthy of Michelangelo’s chisel at his best. Nothing can exceed the beauty of their modelled forms, and the grouping is a masterly study in that massy compactness and stability to which we have referred. A sculptor has characterized it as a “superb composition.” Yet a glance will suffice to show that as a painter’s composition it is a total failure. If such a group were executed in sculpture and set up in a large hall or in the open, it would leave little to be desired. But set it in a round frame, it is at odds with everything. The artist seems to have realized this when his group was finished and to have pondered what he should use to fill in the vacant spaces, and being firmly convinced, as he was wont to say, that landscape had no place in art, and being furthermore interested at the time in the study of the nude, he has taken from his sketch book or from his brain numerous nude figures totally irrelevant to his subject, which are scattered promiscuously into an arid background. Nothing could be more inappropriate. They are not connected with the theme nor yet with the composition. They are merely convenient material for padding where there ought to have been no occasion for padding. Michelangelo had not learned that a painter must work to his frame, and that if the frame has an æsthetic character of its own, as any frame has which departs symmetrically from the simple rectangular, then it becomes so much the more exacting. The lines within the picture must harmonize with the lines that bound it, as the song must fit the accompaniment. He has painted his picture as though he were making sculpture, and then waked up too late to the fact that his round frame was there to be reckoned with. Compare the totally different arrangement of Botticelli in his Madonna of the Magnificat (B 177), or Raphael in his Madonna of the Chair (C 188), works whose charm largely inheres, however unconsciously, in the music of line, the harmony between picture and frame. No, Michelangelo does not know the essentials of a picture as regards either arrangement or subject-matter. He compromises and paints like a sculptor. That he was conscious of his limitation is much to his credit. That he imputed something of that limitation to the art which he did not understand is natural. But it was not the less a handicap as he entered upon the stupendous task of painting before him.
But we are by no means at the end of Michelangelo’s limitations. He was working for the most ambitious of men, and as Julius felt his health failing and realized that his time was short, his ambition to see the work which more and more loomed large in his imagination as the personality of the artist cast its spell about him, was redoubled. The artist, working always at a furious rate, doing four days’ work in one, still worked too slowly for the masterful spirit whose one thought seems to have been should he perchance die and not see the Sistine Ceiling ? The chronicler tells us that the work was finished in twenty-two months, a work which in extent would easily be accounted ten years’ work of the most industrious painter. There are critics who doubt this statement. One has even ventured, by studying the patches of plaster, assuming that each one stands for a day’s work, to form his own estimate of the time required, and concludes that the work occupied some three years. Grant what credence we may to this most doubtful basis of estimate, the fact still remains that the work was rushed through with furious haste, allowing the minimum of time to the artist to study his problem and master the technique of this unwonted art. If to all this we add the fact handed down by plausible tradition that the commission to paint the Sistine Ceiling was granted to Michelangelo at the instance of his enemies, we reach the limit of imaginable handicap. If there is one thing more than another that cannot be extorted from men against their will, it is art. If there is one man that cannot be driven, it is the artist. He must choose his theme, his own time, his own mood, his own way, if the work is to be in any sense the vehicle of a higher sympathy. Yet all these conditions were lacking. Michelangelo was working for a tyrant who knew nothing about art, surrounded by an environment that was hostile and treacherous, executing a work under absolute protest. His genius has none the less surmounted all obstacles and given us the masterpiece both of his time and of his art.
It is perhaps in order to explain briefly this tradition of hostility. Michelangelo was certainly one of the least loved of men, and that too in spite of his undoubted probity and his patient kindness under discouraging conditions. Popularity, however, is seldom based on these substantial qualities. It is a matter of graciousness and tact, qualities in which the great artist was lamentably lacking. He knew nothing of those little arts by which we temper the harshness of truth in social relations. He praised when truth compelled and blamed where truth required, a very imperfect program of social procedure. Added to this was an almost total oversight of social conventions. When Charles V visited Rome, he not only paid him the honor of visiting him in his studio, but called out as he entered, “Keep on your cap.” When an astonished courtier later asked the reason for this unprecedented honor, the emperor good-humoredly replied, “Oh, he would have kept it on anyway.” It was easier for emperors to overlook such slights than for lesser men. There were few whom he did not wound, and recognized genius was no guarantee against dislike.
But there were other reasons for this opposition. Bramante, one of the ablest and most unscrupulous men of his time, was in constant fear lest Michelangelo should disclose certain damaging facts that were known to him and jeopardize his position with the pope. It behooved him to get Michelangelo out of Rome if possible. To all of these reasons were added the common reason of envy of this man who enjoyed the favor of Julius, and a general desire that the pope’s interest and largess might be transferred to undertakings by which others than Michelangelo might profit. What with the astuteness of Bramante as an organizer of discontent and the loveableness of Raphael who became the natural rallying point of the opposition, Michelangelo’s interests were seriously menaced through a long period of years.
One more fact should be noted before we venture with Michelangelo into the great Chapel (C 104). The domes and vaults of the Italian architecture had presented difficulties to the decorator from the first. Even the mosaicists had felt these difficulties. They show obvious hesitation in inserting figures in domes and apses, whose tilted surfaces throw the figures out of their natural position. On the whole, however, they accepted the situation. But with the more realistic tendencies of the Renaissance the objection to these inclined surfaces increased. Figures represented at full length upon these leaning walls seemed leaning and about to fall. Not until the fifteenth century was a device hit upon that seems to have met with instant welcome by the decorative painters. One Melozzo from the little town of Forli in Eastern Italy was employed to paint the great church of the Apostles in Rome, a church later unfortunately doomed to destruction. Upon the domed or vaulted ceiling of this church he represented apostles and angels in a decidedly new way. He seems to have reasoned something as follows: “Upon an upright wall I can by foreshortening make a figure seem to lean or fall backward. Why then can I not upon a wall that leans forward, by means of foreshortening, make a figure that seems to stand up-right ?” This he forthwith proceeded to do. The visitor to the Sistine Chapel should first thread the devious passage-way into the Sacristy of St. Peter’s and there dwell long and carefully upon the fragments of Melozzo’s painting. There are heads of apostles and figures of angels, all curiously difficult in position and seeming to fall backward, but perfectly adapted to the purpose above mentioned.
When Melozzo’s work was done, a new epoch had been ushered in. No matter how badly a wall leaned or what its irregularities, by proper application of foreshortening the figures seemed to stand upright. As we gaze upon these fragments we can easily see the significance of this discovery. We do not so easily see its limitations, but Melozzo’s successors were quick to realize and illustrate them. The new opportunity offered provided a trap for the unwary. Melozzo is quickly followed by Mantegna, perhaps working out the problem for himself and coming again to the same result. In a dome at Mantua he has painted a railing round the base of the dome inside, and figures standing behind the balustrade and leaning over, looking down at you, or otherwise engaged with an ingenuousness that is almost deceptive. Correggio at Parma took up the scheme and went farther, completely forgetting the limitations of all such representations. It had now become perfectly possible to put figures anywhere on the celling and have them stand upright, but only, of course, with this limitation, that they must be seen from below, neither the natural nor the dignified point of view. In his latest work in the Cathedral of Parma, the Virgin rises to heaven accompanied by myriads of the angelic host, and the low-vaulted dome of the Cathedral opens out with a marvellous vista of cloud and sky that seems to lead the eye up into the very heaven itself. The heavenly host soar upward, the uppermost figures mere hints in cloudy dimness, but the lower figures scarce beginning the ascent. The whole conception is a beautiful one, but Correggio hardly realized the impression which he was certain to produce. When the work was done and the patron for whom it was executed gazed at last upon its uncovered glories, he is said to have remarked unsympathetically, but with not a little justice, that to him it resembled a fricassee of frogs. The mass of dangling legs was the thing that first met his gaze, the thing that has first met the gaze of every observer since.
The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel presented a similar problem. The Chapel is a long and narrow room surrounded by enormously high walls which are covered with a shallow barrel vault. The round arched windows are placed so high that they cut into the dropping edges of this vault and are covered by little cross vaults which intersect with the main vault in small V-shaped patterns, leaving the broad central expanse of the ceiling unbroken by any architectural feature. These curved surfaces could not, in this age, be decorated otherwise than with foreshortened figures of the kind described. Perhaps the severest test to which the painter in this case could be subjected lay in this same problem of foreshortening. It was here that Michelangelo’s enemies certainly hoped for his discomfiture. As a sculptor he would not and could not know anything of these things. The sculptor does not foreshorten except in pictorial relief. He makes real forms, leaving the eye to foreshorten as it beholds these forms from various points of view. Would this sculptor be able to deal with this problem of foreshortening met by Melozzo and carried to such extent by later painters ? There was every reason to believe he would not. It was here precisely that Michelangelo’s enemies reckoned without their host. We have mentioned in an earlier chapter his amazing power of visualization. Probably no other painter could have worked upon a scaffolding near the ceiling where only a fraction of the figure was visible at a time, and at the same time have posted himself in imagination down in the farther corner or at the entrance door, and carried with him a perfect mental picture of his work. Yet this was easy and inevitable for Michelangelo. The problem of foreshortening is one of the most difficult in the painter’s repertory. With Michelangelo, thus endowed, it was scarcely a problem at all. The result is that the ceiling is the most remarkable series of studies in foreshortening that can be found in the work of any artist or any time. It is here that the sophisticated and technical consciousness of the age most quickly recognized his skill and proclaimed his triumph. It is here that we will recognize their judgment and pass on.
The work having been decided upon, Michelangelo made the usual preparations. He asked the Pope to have a staging built, and the Pope, with possibly unconscious humor, commanded his arch-enemy, Bramante, to construct the staging, which was done by suspending the structure from the timbers of the roof, the cables used passing through holes in the ceiling. Michelangelo protested that this made it impossible for him to complete the work, to which Bramante, perhaps not unwilling to embarrass the artist, replied that the staging could be supported in no other way. With his accustomed resourcefulness, Michelangelo dismissed the architect and reconstructed the staging, supporting it by pressure against the side walls, in accordance with the principle used ever since, but unknown until that time. He expected farther to lighten his labors by employing helpers in painting the routine parts of the work, the architectural setting, and so forth, which involved the most ordinary proficiency. But his exacting nature, which could never cooperate or build on other men’s foundations, could not cooperate even here. Their work was unsatisfactory, and after several attempts, Michelangelo tore off the plaster they had covered, laid new, and executed the work himself. So common was this use of helpers and so legitimate if confined to unimportant parts which are easily within the limit of their proficiency, that we should have assumed it as a matter of course in this case were we not definitely informed of Michelangelo’s experiment and its failure. Nothing more impresses us in every phase of Michelangelo’s life than his absolute isolation. Isolated by his seemingly unsocial temper, isolated by the uniqueness of his genius, isolated by the exaction of his own more perfect insight, the world looked on amazed and helpless, helpless to help or even to understand.
The first task was to choose a theme and the division of the vault. As before said, the ceiling was one vast unbroken expanse, merely notched round the edges. It was impossible to cover it with a single composition, the tendency to tours de force of this sort not having gone its disastrous length. The method of division again was no choice of Michelangelo but was predetermined by the practice and taste of the time. Architectural division arranged as nearly as possible to produce illusion, divided the vast plain surface into a number of deep panels which seem to be windows opening into the sky. This sumptuous architectural setting furnishes pedestals for large numbers of figures, the significance of which will appear later. Outside of this series of panels which occupies the great central space, are the notched edges of the ceiling which are reserved for later and even more significant use.
The subject chosen for the ceiling is the story of Genesis, beginning with the Creation and extending on into later incidents of the Bible story. The beginning is at the forward end over the high altar, the series extending backward toward the great entrance doorway. There is much reason to believe that Michelangelo painted in the opposite direction, but too much conclusion cannot be drawn from this, for he must certainly have chosen his subjects before beginning and made his preliminary sketches or the cartoons. Only in the manner of applying the fresco itself are we at liberty to note his progress as a painter, resulting from his own rapidly accumulating experience. This progress is remarkable. If we begin at the end, that is, at the great entrance doorway, and take, for instance, the panel representing the Flood, we shall see something of the same sculpturesque manner that Michelangelo had so unsatisfactorily used in his pictures of the Holy Family and the Battle of Pisa. There are figures in throngs, executed with a mastery already long familiar, but there is little in the environment to show that Michelangelo is thinking primarily of a certain unit of space and is trying to give it a mood and a meaning all its own. If, on the other hand, we pass to the later work, the whole method changes, and finally, in the last stages of the work, the representations upon the side walls over the windows, the sculpturesque style is utterly abandoned and figures barely hinted at peer out of a mystery of shadow that is infinitely suggestive and determines the higher character of the work. These changes in method, how-ever, significant as they are and impressive to the least technically minded, are not the subject of our study, nor will we more than note in passing the restraint with which Michelangelo has applied the principle of foreshortening above referred to. Along the sides sit the Sibyls and Prophets, those marvellous figures whose various attitudes seem to exhaust the possibilities of the study of the human figure, all in perfect erectness on the sloping walls of the low-dropping vault, sitting upon pedestals which the artist has constructed for them, the foreshortening giving the impression of absolute erectness. But as we gaze up into the middle of the ceiling where the curve of the vault necessarily becomes well-nigh horizontal, Michelangelo makes no attempt to have figures stand or sit upright. He knows that to do so would only show us their feet and legs, and that all spiritual suggestion would be banished by this physical incongruity. So he accepts the limits which a ceiling inevitably imposes, changes the method completely, and gives us, on the one hand, these windows opened into heaven through which passes the Creator, prone, floating over the vast expanse. Or when this method does not suit his theme, he boldly paints the ceiling panel as though it were a picture upon a side wall, recking not that the figures that should stand upright are in reality lying horizontal. Better a great deal to lay that burden upon the imagination than to stand them endwise and sacrifice his theme to the sense of the grotesque. Even in the study of these things we discern the master. But were his mastery only in these things the Sistine Ceiling would not have made Michelangelo immortal.
And now, all impatient, we will turn toward the artist’s message. What has he to tell us of this most hackneyed theme, for hackneyed it is, worn threadbare by age-long use, a story old and glazed with perfunctory handling until art has wearied of its monotony. In the dreary art of Ghirlandajo, splendid though his painting be, Bible tales are told perfunctorily, almost apologetically. Crowded into the background are Zacharias and the Angel and the Holy Child, while stately burghers of Florence line up in the foreground and turn their backs upon the sacred scene as though ashamed of its empty monotony. Two hundred years of repetition had rung the changes upon these themes until they were utterly distasteful. Only once in the history of human art has personal genius been able to bring back the dead to life, to again endow with interest and thrill with passion themes that have been reduced to empty phrases and to which the heart has ceased to respond.
But we stumble at the outset, and need one more word by way of preparation. Michelangelo represented in the most dogmatic form the more or less conscious conviction of the Renaissance as to what was a suitable subject for art. From the time of Homer down to the nineteenth century, the supremacy of man was undoubted. The human was human, and the non-human was humanized. The Greek never raves over a landscape, though he felt its beauty in his own way. Homer never speaks of the rosy dawn. Such a phrase would be unthinkable. But the “rosy-fingered dawn,” that to him was no metaphor but only an inevitable mode of thought. So on down to our own day. Wordsworth never wanders among the hills of Grasmere but he has intimations of immortality and suggestions of the supreme Being. The principle is expressed in higher form perhaps than when “old Triton blew his wreathed horn” but it is the same principle. The impersonal has no meaning at all until the imagination makes it personal. With Tennyson all is different. Read through his poems from cover to cover and nature speaks in her own character, impersonal yet beautiful, and the heart responds, shaped by the century’s absolute devotion to natural science. To such a heart the impersonal nature needs no apology, no proxy.
Not so to Michelangelo or to any of the past. What others felt he dogmatically asserted. There was but one subject for art the human figure. You might idealize it, transfigure it, for the human was the image of the divine, but to adopt a lesser or a lower form was the desecration of art. It was indeed the bane of painting that it attempted more than sculpture to do this degrading thing.
Consider what it means when an artist starts to paint the story of Creation and yet refuses to give us other than the human form. The Creator he may give us, for he is but the transfigured human, but for a time at least he can give us nothing else. The story of the Creation, therefore, can be nothing other than the story of the Creator. From his varying expression and varying moods we must divine his work, the spirit, at least, of his work, for in art especially, “the letter killeth, it is the spirit that maketh alive.” Hence this wonderful story has been somewhat aptly described as “the evolution of the Creator,” a successive revelation of the Creator in his successive moods, each enlarging and supplementing the preceding.
(C 105) Our first panel gives us seemingly little enough. When we remember that we are to find the secret of Michelangelo’s thought in the study of the Creator, it disappoints us to find that this first figure is scarcely visible. We look at once for the face, for the seat of expression, the source from which we are wont to guess the meaning of personality. But the face is concealed, apparently with intention. The void is filled with a vague mass of nebulous something into which plunges the Creator, his prone figure moving rapidly forward and his outstretched arms buffeting the masses about, but the head is upturned and we see beneath the bearded chin. We are baffled. We see nothing but mystery. But recall for a moment what the first day of Creation has to tell us. All was without form and void, and the Spirit of the Creator moved upon this void and formless mass. That is about as far as we get this first day. What is he doing ? We cannot tell yet. Is his effort constructive ? We cannot discern. Is it beneficent ? That too is concealed in mystery. One thing only is revealed, just the one thing that that first day told us. The spirit of the Creator moved upon that which was formless and void. That Michelangelo has told us with unprecedented power. As we gaze upon this figure whose features are concealed, whose acts are indefinite, whose spirit is unrevealed, one impression dominates every other, the one impression which it was Michelangelo’s purpose to make clear. It is a manifestation of power, supreme, irresistible power, whose purpose and spirit are as yet withheld.
Our panels alternate, a large and small, both to break the monotony that would otherwise result, and to accommodate the larger themes. We can sometimes vary the order to ad-vantage. Let us take the third panel for a moment in contrast with the first which it in some ways closely resembles. Again we have the figure of the Creator, this time perfectly visible, for the face is turned toward us, not too significantly, however, for the face still refuses to be expressive ; perhaps in an unsympathetic mood we might call it stolid. It is a ponderous figure, so like and yet so unlike the one we saw first. Again he moves prone and forward through the vast reaches of space, the dimmest hint beneath him of land and sea, but a hint that taxes the imagination, so slight is it. It is the Separation of the Dry Land and the Sea (C 107), or, if you will, the Creation of Earth and Water. To understand its intent we must recall the ideas of the ancients. They knew nothing of our elements, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and so forth. To them all things were fashioned of earth, air, fire, and water. And of these elements, two were active and two were passive. Earth is obviously a passive element, and water almost equally so, for though mobile, water is as little inclined as the earth itself to move unless moved upon. But fire is active; indeed, we know it only as such. And air, too, seemed constantly to start a-moving without outward cause, and so was deemed to have the power of moving on its own initiative. Here then we have the creation of the two passive elements. Now let us recall what we said at the outset, that Michelangelo makes no effort to show us the creative act. He is artist enough to know that that act has to do with science and not with art. It is the spirit or mood that dominates the act which is valuable as a theme in art. If, therefore, art is to tell us the story of creation, it must give us primarily the successive moods or emotions which accompanied the great creative acts. To tell us how it was done would appeal to our curiosity, not at all to our emotions. And so it is the spiritual counterpart of the act and not its great result which Michelangelo isolates as the proper theme of art. This case is remarkably expressive. The Creator passes before us, a ponderous figure but devoid of all exertion. The great arms are stretched out but no muscle is strained. The face is turned toward us but its passive features indicate a mind at rest. The whole moves with a vast momentum like the effortless motion of the spheres. Passivity and power, the one not less evident than the other, these characterize the whole conception and admirably portray the spiritual character of the elements whose creation is here suggested.
Let us turn for a moment to the intervening picture (C i(36), the larger panel in which the vaster theme is so impressively represented, the Creation of the Sun and Moon, that is, of Fire, the active element par excellence. See how instantly the whole conception changes. The Creator is here the same Creator as before, but the form suddenly become erect, with flying drapery and streaming hair, tensely knitted eyebrows, and the face gathered up into one supreme assertion of power, either arm stretched out, every muscle taut, the one merely in sympathy with the other as he flings off from his fingertip the great orb of day on its everlasting flight. It is a truism of art that these manifestations of power do not befit the static arts. Suggest power in repose, as we have it in the Moses, and you are within your sphere. Represent it in full exercise, and the petrifying of the momentary will inevitably belittle the manifestation, and you will feel the limitation rather than the illimitable. Perfectly true, and illustrated by a thousand examples. But there, for some reason inscrutable to the ordinary observer, the law is defied with impunity. He who gazes upon this figure of the Creator with the feeling that his power is limited, with the feeling even that it is momentary suggesting his weakness, with the longer gaze, has yet to make his impression known. Our artist has resources whose power we feel but cannot analyze.
It can hardly escape our notice that these representations are less simple as we have progressed ; at first only the cloud effect and the half-obscured figure unattended. Then in the panel next considered the figure of the Creator is swathed in a mighty garment within whose folds we dimly discern little attendant figures, nameless and yet most appealing to the imagination. They are invoked by the artist to perform a part which we may best understand through an analogy.
The Greek drama was in some respects like our own. The play consists of a series of acts with intervals between them. But these intervals instead of being wasted, and given over to the frivolous irrelevancies of the audience, are utilized by the playwright for the most impressive of his dramatic devices, the carefully suggested response of the audience, in the person of the chorus. The chorus is no part of the play itself, but a running commentary upon it. Here, in impassioned poetry, the playwright brings to bear all the resources of his art to give voice to the passions which the audience is supposed to feel and which he hopes to help and to guide them in feeling. The chorus bewails the fortunes of the victim and execrates the villain, arousing the feelings of the audience to the highest pitch of intensity and increasing its susceptibility to the utmost limit, as the play unveils its farther mysteries.
In the same way, these little figures that accompany the Creator upon his mission in some sense represent the spectator. Their part is at first a simple one. In the passive scene of the Creation of Earth and Water they too are passive. One gazes forward to see what is coming, the other back-ward in quiet curiosity to see what change is wrought as the shadow of the Creator passes. But pass to the great panel, the Creation of the Sun and Moon, and see how instantly they waken to the stirring strain of this mighty act. One shields with upraised arm her eyes against the blaze of the new luminary, while another, peering out from below, turns and gazes with wide-open eyes full of wonder and almost of terror up into the face of the Creator, to divine, if possible, the meaning of this unprecedented mood. This psychic suggestion creates within us the mood which befits the theme. Our eyes are blinded by the luminary which Michelangelo wisely has barely suggested in his representation, and our wonder is excited and our awe borders upon fear as we gaze upon the Creator in this utmost assertion of his power.
(C 108) In the center of the ceiling is the great panel which as long as we are human will seem to us the culmination of the theme. Its story is told in Michelangelo’s own free way. He seems never to have hesitated to be wise above what is written, though all unconscious, perhaps, of the audacity of his interpretations. The story runs, we recall, that the Creator fashioned man from the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul. Such a story passes muster when narrated in words. Painting is a more exacting art. Other arts put no check upon the most grotesque imagination, but painting, with its more vivid appeal to the mind, quickly distinguishes the grotesque from the seemly, and the story must be revised for the painter’s higher purpose. Man here is fashioned, be it from the dust of the earth ; the fashioning is complete. And such a man, by common consent the most beautiful of all examples of the nude in Christian art. Yet the beauty is more often felt than analyzed. It is not in the perfect fashioning of body, head, or limbs. It is more in the attitude, and the attitude again not so much expressive of life and the experiences we know, as suggestive of things more elemental in art.
When we analyze art down to its simplest elements, like the oxygen and nitrogen of our planet, we shall find among the elements such things as straight lines, curves, and angles, which it will be difficult to resolve into anything simpler, and yet which have a character, a spiritual character, if you will, that is quite inseparably their own. What can seemingly be more meaningless in the world of art and in emotion than a straight line ? Yet it carries irresistibly certain suggestions, suggestions of stiffness, force, and burden-bearing power. If we were in a room where the ceiling was supported by a central pillar and that pillar were seen to bend and assume a curved form, we should hasten to depart. That would be suggestive of weakness, whereas the straightness and rigidity would reassure us with its suggestion of strength. The curved line, in turn, is suggestive of yielding, softness and grace, a thing equally beautiful in its proper place and trying out of its proper place. And finally, the angle is suggestive of harshness and aggressiveness. No one feels complimented by the suggestion of an angular character. These meanings are not arbitrary, though it would puzzle us perhaps to trace them to their origin.
Now, Michelangelo’s purpose is to interpret in harmony with these most elemental principles of art this new chapter in creation. Man is formed in all exquisiteness and beauty, but as he receives the gift of life, it is needful to suggest on the one hand his own imperfect animation, yet, withal, not the helplessness and collapse of death, still less the rigidity that our imagination perhaps reads into the Bible narrative. There must be in it all the promise of beauty and grace and yet that yielding to the divine touch and to the divine will which is indispensable to our purpose. Who would read into this story of life’s beginning ever so little a suggestion of the malcontent or the revolté ? The exquisite curves that grace this figure, even more than the perfect modeling of the figure, convey the artist’s meaning. Of elemental lines and living attitudes, Michelangelo is equally master and uses them perfectly for his purpose.
More striking still is the change that has come over the Creator. Now at last we may look with expectation to the face for meaning and for a message from soul to soul. Perhaps the face at first will disappoint us. There is little of the sentiment with which a debilitated imagination has of late endowed the fatherhood of God. Things are said of the Heavenly Father that would be a disgrace to an earthly parent, and of which Michelangelo knows nothing. The face is frank, manly, and strong, a face to inspire confidence and trust, the grandly human being, then a s always the noblest suggestion of the divine. This meaning, however, has migrated to the face. The figure is less prominent, less remarkable in posture, and yet one supreme exception must be noted. Look at the hands, those two hands that meet as the current of life passes with the touch. In Michelangelo’s art the hands are scarcely less expressive than the faces. Were this work to perish and leave us but these two hands, the whole story of the giving and receiving of life would still be told complete.
Interest on the part of the little attendant figures now visibly increases. They swarm in larger numbers about the Creator. Over the right shoulder and the left they crane their necks to gaze with joyous curiosity at this new creation, thus manifesting the larger interest which we inevitably feel in the creation of our kind. The sunshine is upon their faces and eagerness is betrayed in every movement. But one figure is different from the rest. This figure turns shyly away, the face as well, but the eyes gaze furtively forward with the rest, with an interest that belies the attitude. The arm of the Creator is around the neck protectingly, lovingly, as though here were an object of his especial care. Can we not almost hear the Creator say, “It is not good for man to be alone” ?
From this supreme creation we pass with a sense of relief to a smaller panel which less passionately engages our attention. The Creation of Woman (C III) is one of the least felicitous of Bible stories for the painter’s purpose, and Michelangelo, unable to translate it into more inspiring form, contents him-self with hinting at what will not lend itself to picture. There is little of new revelation in the form of the Creator. Even the magnificent figure of Eve, that strong mature type which Michelangelo always preferred for his vaster purposes to the graceful, sylph-like girlish form that other artists affect ; all is excellent if not astonishing. Adam, crouching low in the corner of the field, is buried in a deep, obscuring shadow which at once subordinates him appropriately in the field of vision and symbolizes that deep sleep which fell upon him. Even here in the third or fourth scene that our artist presents he has caught the mystery of shadow and discovered that the painter can use it as the sculptor cannot, to shift his emphasis and to symbolize spiritual realities that in marble must be expressed by other means if at all.
But interest rises again to the highest pitch as we come to the great scene of the Temptation and Expulsion from the Gar-den (C 112), a scene which from the decorative and color point of view is as central and focal as is the Creation of Man in the field of spiritual suggestion. This is the point to notice perhaps the most surprising thing in Michelangelo’s work. Scarce any Florentine ever understood the real magic of color. Form was everything, color too often an unmanageable element with which they managed to vulgarize and spoil the forms which their pencil had perfectly expressed. Of none was this truer than of Michelangelo. It is difficult to conceive of coloring more crude, more needless and noisome than the color of the Holy Family above referred to. The colors are the worst possible, and their handling is as bad as their choice. That he should have triumphed over such difficulties at all, working against his will and under the furious pressure of the ambitious Pope, is a miracle. That he has so triumphed is perfectly obvious, but, simply because of the spiritual grandeur of his creation, this triumph is too often overlooked. A peculiar tint of mingled gray and rose dominates this masterly composition, and now that we look at it we shall find that that tint goes everywhere like rays of the sun diminishing as they go, yet everywhere the same. The ceiling has costumes and color details in infinite variety, yet everywhere goes this same tint of “diaphanous violet grey,” infinitely subtle, lofty, and pure, blending, enfolding, unifying all. It is from this center, this second focus of the mighty work that this color harmony radiates everywhere.
But to return to the story and the spirit which, with Michelangelo, is always supreme. Again our story is subjected to daring revision. In the center is a tree round which coils the serpent whose body terminates, according to the quaint imagination of Christian tradition, in a human body, head and arms. Only so could the rôle of the serpent in this transaction be explained. At the left sits Eve, like Adam in the scene before, the most splendid example of Michelangelo’s treatment of the female nude. If we miss for a moment the seductive charm that French art has doubtfully lavished upon the female nude, we need but a second glance to realize that here is nobility, strength of character, which successfully shields us from the ever present danger of the theme. Base indeed would be the man upon whom Michelangelo’s nude could make an impure impression.
The serpent reaches out the fruit of the forbidden tree which Eve grasps willingly, nothing loath. But here the story changes. We had read that “the woman ate of the fruit of the tree and gave to the man and he did eat.” Our Milton farther shifts the responsibility. The woman was tempted while the man was away. Had her natural caretaker and protector been present, she would not have fallen. When he returns he finds that all is lost, chides her for her faithlessness, and then magnanimously takes of the fruit himself that he may share her fate. Not so our artist. Eve is tempted plainly enough, but Adam is not waiting for her to give him of the fruit. He boldly robs the tree. If there is fruit to have he is going to have it, and he asks no odds of the serpent. Thus Michelangelo, all unconscious, it may be, reads into every act the great lesson of human experience. From the least unto the greatest every form of life tells us one story. The male element is the aggressive element. It is for him to lead and her to follow. So it has been from the be-ginning of time. It was a quaint and unmanly device of the early narrator to thus shift the responsibility. Of all such devices Michelangelo knows nothing. With an intuition that asks no permissions, is conscious of no discrepancies, he owes allegiance only to the great laws of life as he knows them, and he knows them as a thing perfectly revealed.
Our remaining panels are less inspiring. Here is the artist’s earlier work. Here his first conceptions. The themes themselves were less to his purpose, the Flood, with its confusion and its multiplied figures, lends itself at best far less to the artist whose power lay in putting mighty meanings into a single mighty form. The Flood, the Drunkenness of Noah, all these have merit, but a merit over-shadowed and inevitably forgotten.
We are told that the work was done in halves with an interval between. The half first completed was doubtless this long central strip, the great figures that encircle it being reserved for later execution. The interval is marked by a characteristic episode that is worth recalling. The Pope, ever impatient, had continually asked when the ceiling would be done. His curiosity was overpowering, and hints were not wanting that he would like a view of the work as it progressed. To all such suggestions Michelangelo turned a deaf ear. How could it be otherwise ? His patron was no artist, and to take him up upon a staging was to give him a glimpse of a figure that would tell him nothing. It might even give rise to serious misunderstandings and interference with the work, for the Pope, it must be remembered, was autocrat, and if an arm or leg displeased him and must needs be changed, there would be no appeal from his decision. The work was so conceived that only as a whole and seen from the proper point of view could it possibly be appreciated. At last the Pope took things into his own hands. Who should go into the Sistine Chapel if not the Pope ? So one day he ventured in. The artist was painting away on the staging above, his feet hanging over the edge of a plank, when he became conscious that the Pope was stealthily watching him from below. Suddenly a plank fell from the staging near where His Holiness stood. There was a sudden dampening of his curiosity. He concluded to leave the Chapel until the artist should be done with it and choose to show him the work. Thus these two men, half Titan and half child, played their game together around this the greatest of mankind’s achievements.
When at last the long series of panels was finished, the pressure upon Michelangelo became irresistible. Now, at last, he had a consistent whole, so it might be urged, and so indeed it was. The urging was renewed until at last the artist removed the staging and allowed the Pope and his following to gaze upon the great undertaking. One can imagine with what eagerness this stern old Pope, his head sinking daily lower upon his bosom, entered to see this work which was the object of so much solicitude. One can imagine too with what other eagerness these enemies of Michelangelo, led by the powerful Bramante, and now crystallized round the most lovable of all the artist’s rivals, the charming Raphael, entered to see if the artist had met their malevolent expectations. They were not left long in doubt. What must have been the emotions of Julius as he gazed upon this Creator of the Sun and Moon, this Titan among the Gods who so perfectly em-bodied his own invincible spirit! Now for the first time Julius had found his God. The creations of other artists had been insipid, travesties upon the divine as he knew it, as he dreamed it, if indeed he dreamed at all. Here for the first time was the Creator that created him, who endowed him with that indomitable energy that could hurl worlds into being. Such a God he knew and recognized. Here indeed was art, to which his own heart answered back as it had never answered back before. The Pope’s word was not final, but for the moment it was law. But let us charitably believe that there was no enemy of Michelangelo so irreconcilable that he did not here recognize the creation of a master. The unanimity which has scarce been broken by the bitterest of critics since, was for the moment complete.
But hostility to Michelangelo was not finished. There was perhaps something of truth in the plea which the rival clique now made to the mighty pontiff. This work was a unit, perfect and complete. Nothing might be subtracted from it; equally, nothing might be added to it. Any addition would be an irrelevancy, out of harmony with the great central overpowering thought. What is perfection save that to which nothing can be added and that from which nothing can be taken away? Michelangelo ought not to be allowed to spoil his own creation or to create a rival to it. Leave it as it was. And now let our beloved Raphael fill these vacant and irregular spaces, where his genial compositions would fit with such infinite grace. Such was the plea, but the old pontiff, hoodwinked perhaps before, when malevolent suggestion seemed to favor his purpose, now shut his grim lips together like a vise and declared that while he sat in the Chair of St. Peter no hand but Michelangelo’s should touch the Sistine Ceiling ! He sat in the Chair of St. Peter just about long enough:
The massive architectural divisions between the panels in the great central vault are carried down the sides of the vault, forming large spa ces between the windows for the reception of the colossal figures which have most impressed the imagination of mankind (C 117 to 128). Here sit the Prophets and Sibyls. The place of the former in a work of this kind could not be doubted. They are the great founders of the Hebrew, and so of the Christian faith. Popular convenience has distinguished between major and minor prophets. This suggests little more to the ordinary reader than prophets who wrote large books and prophets who wrote small books. The distinction to Michelangelo’s mind is seemingly more fundamental. The minor prophets offer him an opportunity, as always, for the portrayal of magnificent figures, and to those who judge art solely by skill in such portrayal, these figures must be counted among the noblest of the ceiling. Such figures, for instance, are Zechariah (C 121), and, above all, Joel (C 120), who in dignified nobleness and magnificent freedom are equal to the best creations of our artist. But Michelangelo’s work is never to be judged by the simple portrayal of the figure. That to him was a means and not an end. Zechariah, for instance, sits in profile, deeply engrossed in reading a book. Behind him stand two little figures which remind us irresistibly of the figures in the panels above, attending the Creator, and in some way associated with His character and activity. The association, which we cannot resist, is doubtless intended. They are to be thought of here as His representatives, the still small voice through which His revelation is made known to the prophet and so to mankind. But Zechariah is apparently unconscious of these figures behind him. They look over his shoulder and eagerly await an opportunity for the communication of their message. The opportunity does not come. Likewise in the case of Joel, absorbed in the reading of his manuscript. Nothing could be more dignified or beautiful in its way than this figure, but despite obvious effort to attract attention, the little figures that represent the divine Spirit gain no hearing. Joel, like Zechariah, is absorbed in reading his book. The minor prophet has always “read his book,” the proper act, no doubt, for those born to be minor prophets.
In the case of Daniel (C 123), we have a distinct and some-what striking departure from the precedent thus established. The figure is beyond question a late one in Michelangelo’s work. So astonishing is the freedom which the artist manifests in handling the painter’s art that critics have been wont to boldly defy tradition and declare that Michelangelo could not have painted this figure but must have had a helper more familiar with this unfavored and misunderstood art. The way in which the shadow is thrown across the face this is characteristic of the painter, not of the sculptor. The one weakness in all these criticisms is the failure to perceive that Michelangelo was striding along with seven-league boots to the very summit of the painter’s art. With that power that possessed him in every stage of activity, he was accomplishing in two years that which art had been accomplishing in as many centuries. This figure is but one example among scores, of a mastery of which his earlier painting shows no trace.
But what has he told us of Daniel ? He evidently remembers, as we do, one incident in the book above every other the refusal of Daniel to live upon the king’s meat and the success of his experimental dietary. Daniel is an athlete, the magnificent embodiment of physical manhood. As such Michelangelo represents him, with all sympathy. But from all we know of Michelangelo, the book of Daniel as a prophecy must have appealed to him little, this, of all the books in the sacred canon, the most enigmatical. It has been the prolific source of more fantastic forecasts of human events than all others put together. There is nothing fantastic in Michelangelo’s thought. If we do not understand him it is not because he is intricate or indirect. He has the directness of a child. It is merely the vastness of his passions which baffles our imagination. For the stilted symbolism of Daniel he could have had no possible sympathy. It is quite significant that the little figure that elsewhere voices the sacred message, should here be degraded to a menial service. He comes down and holds the book in which this minor prophet is reading and from which he is apparently copying excerpts. It would be dangerous to force too far such inferences, but it is impossible to avoid the suggestion.
Turning now to the major prophets, all suddenly changes. Look at Ezekiel (C 119) as he sits, not now reading from the manuscript which he holds mechanically and forgotten in his hand, but listening with all possible attention to the little figure that with excited mien and gesture is now pointing at some-thing without. The prophet sits, his figure thrown forward like the Moses but in an attitude even more suggestive of impending action. One foot is drawn back as if to receive the weight of the body an instant later. The head is alert, the eyes wide open, the gaze of superhuman intensity. What is the allusion ? No one who has read the book of Ezekiel can ever forget that of which the artist would here remind us, the vision of Ezekiel. Just what he saw is not too clear, was not too clear, perhaps, to him, but as the Creator is borne through the heavens on the backs of these winged creatures, he left upon the mind of the prophet as upon all who have heard his message, the impression of majesty and of whirlwind force that has fascinated the imagination of mankind. At such a vision Ezekiel is obviously gazing, a thing pointed out by the messenger of inspiration. For-getting all lesser revelations he now gazes, not with eye alone, but with all the energies of his frame fixed upon the fearful spectacle.
Turning to Jeremiah (C 118), note the contrast. His name has left its impress upon every Christian tongue. The Jeremiad is the prophecy of pessimism and despair. Notice how every resource is drawn upon for the expression and emphasis of this thought. He sits with his legs crossed as though permanently out of action. One hand drops idly as though unnerved forever, recalling once more Michelangelo’s power of expressing character through the hand. Upon the other hand rests the heavy weight of the head. The eyes are downcast or closed. He sees not, would fain not see, for what he sees is evil, and evil continually. Inert, heavy with a sorrow that betokens utter hopelessness, this Michelangelo has expressed not through face alone but through the body eloquent, whose resources he commands as completely as ever did the Greek. And now a master stroke. Behind him stand the figures who, as heretofore, are the messengers of the divine, but now for the first time we have not childish figures but adults. Michelangelo seems to appreciate that the sentiments here expressed are such as are impossible for a child. The child grieves but never despairs. The buoyancy of youth is incapable of these deep and permanent sentiments, for it is only permanent and temperamental sorrow that has any value in art. Hence adults are drafted into the service and these, in turn, sharply contrasted as representing the familiar extremes of strength and weakness in despair. We have all known those who, overwhelmed by misfortune, have made prompt and ignominious surrender, collapsing under the blow, not unfrequently willing to lay upon an unwilling world the burden of their grief. And then we have known others who, robbed, it may be, in a moment of all that life held dear, have gone about their daily task as before, the same cheerful greeting, the same prompt helpfulness, sorrow tearing their very heart out, but bearing it alone with themselves and with God, the heroic type, less common, yet to none of us unknown. Michelangelo’s repertory of human character cannot resist the temptation to paint this contrast in these figures that voice the message of despair. The one with drooping head and dishevelled hair weakly yields in abject surrender. The other, with head held high, a face in which despair is more absolute than any other, but after all, a spirit unbroken and undismayed. Thus our artist rings the changes upon that humanity that we know so well and which, represented in its more permanent traits, is the supreme and undying theme in art.
Isaiah (C 122) is perhaps as a figure the most splendid on the ceiling, but the theme was one that lent itself less readily to expression through painting than the others. By common consent the greatest of all the prophets, his message is not one that furnishes a dramatic incident like Ezekiel or Michelangelo, 1475-1564.
outward despair like Jeremiah. He is spiritually subjective among the prophets and hence the one least capable of interpretation through an art that is primarily objective and sensuous. Of his inspiration, his deeper insight, none can doubt, but how shall we in painting portray a spirit turned inward upon the mental vision ? Michelangelo’s representation is significant. He is simply a splendid figure, sitting quietly this time, yet erect and strong, again with the written word, but all unheeded. There is nearer word at hand, and the messenger this time has a hearing. Not excited, as in the case of Ezekiel, not despairing and voiceless as with Jeremiah, but simply deeply earnest, he voices his message, and Isaiah; his eyes half closed, gazing at nothing without, sits, the very picture of intense and uttermost attention. He listens, seeing not the thing without, but seeing what Ezekiel might never see.
By common consent, and apparently by the artist’s own choice, the place of honor belongs to Jonah (C 117) , for the artist has placed him at the front of the Chapel above the high altar where those who enter by the door opposite, or the worshipper as he rises from prayer may most easily, most certainly see this colossal figure. Yet the figure is at first unbeautiful. It does not compare in splendid spiritual inspiration with the figure of Isaiah, as indeed why should he ? The message of Jonah to the world has been a very different one from that of Isaiah, though the idle disputes to which his prophecy has given such endless provocation are hardly chargeable to his account. Why then this supreme honor, this universal praise ?
There is some reason to fear that the honor accorded to this figure by Michelangelo’s contemporaries was not based on the deepest understanding. The chronicler raves incontinent over this marvelous artist who, on a wall that leaned forward, could make a figure lean backward. It is indeed a marvel of technical skill. Nowhere upon the ceiling is Michelangelo’s skill in foreshortening more apparent than here. Every degree of foreshortening finds application to some part of this curiously postured figure, the whole being instinct with a life and a vehemence that is rare even in the magnificent creations of Michelangelo. But why does the figure lean backward ? If he leans backward merely to give opportunity for these feats of foreshortening, then the whole is unworthy and is in violation of Michelangelo’s most sacred canon, the subordination of skill to the higher ends of art. Let us accept this as a purposeless display of cleverness only when we must. The whole precedent of Michelangelo’s work is opposed to such a conclusion.
At the risk of trespassing beyond our field we must for a moment recall the prophecy which Michelangelo is here interpreting. The suggestions which follow are an attempt to divine the artist’s views. The book is a novel, or, if the word offend, we will call it a parable, a name which is synonymous but perhaps less startling. The purpose of the writer is to rebuke the Hebrews for their race selfishness, in all time their most conspicuous weakness. The characters and incidents are doubtless pure fiction, not the less true or appropriate for their purpose. Jonah, a Hebrew prophet, is told to carry to the city of Nineveh (the writer purposely chooses the metropolis of the ancient world) a stern message of condemnation and impending destruction. He refuses to go. His concern is solely for his own people. He holds that charity begins at home, a convenient remark in such cases. But Jonah has to go ; the Almighty has ways of his own for accomplishing his purpose. In this case the way chosen was peculiar but nowise unusual for the Oriental story teller. The ease with which he reaches into the crudest and most unplausible supernatural to help out the exigencies of his plot is proverbial. It did not in the least disturb the Orient reader. When Jonah, sullen under compulsion, at last makes his way to Nineveh, his message is delivered with a vengeance. The people are startled, impressed, and the injunction to repentance is heeded in an unusual degree. And then, to the complete discomfiture of the unwilling prophet, the repentant people are spared. Jonah has absolutely no patience with this new course of events. He says in substance, “I came against my will and against my better judgment. I delivered the message as it was given to me. I told these people that for their sins they were to be destroyed, and named the day as given to me. I have staked my reputation as a prophet upon this message, and here the day has arrived, and just because these unworthy Gentiles have repented, the prophecy is not fulfilled and my reputation is sacrificed.” There is something half humorous in Jonah’s frank expression of grievance.
We all know how the story continues, Jonah, worn out by his peevish complaint, lies down under the shade of an arbor and falls asleep. But he awakes with the sun upon him, for a worm has cut down the gourd whose shade covered the arbor, and it has withered away, and Jonah expresses regret that the gourd has perished. Then comes the voice of the Lord, saying, ” Jonah, thou hadst compassion on the gourd that was cut down by the worm, and should I not have compassion on six hundred thousand souls who knew not their right hand from their left?” Could any message be more plain? Could any message in its way be more significant ? One interpreter only, seems to have disentangled this significant message from the literary accidents which have con-fused our alien thought, one interpreter only, and he not a commentator or an exegete, but an artist.
Look again upon Michelangelo’s picture. Jonah, perched upon a high seat from which he can look down contemptuously upon this object of his disdain, leans backward and turns his coarse, unsympathetic face up in angry protest to God and says, “See, there it is, not destroyed at all ! The time is up and I am compromised forever.” And off to the right, a little baby face, the youngest, gentlest of them all, turns sad little grieving eyes upon Jonah and raises a tiny, protesting hand, as who should say, ” Jonah ! Jonah !” In the whole range of Christian art there is no profounder or more impressive interpretation. The theme is not one of spiritual exaltation, of quiet calm, or peace, like the magnificent Isaiah. It has its unlovely aspect, but that is but incidental to the deeper spiritual suggestion which so easily exalts it to the highest rank of art.
(C 124-128). Turning to the Sibyls, our thought is at first one of wonder that they should be included here among the worthies of our Christian faith, but it was the tradition of the Christian Church that they had revealed, dimly, to be sure, but yet revealed to the peoples to whom they ministered, the coming of the Lord. They therefore find not inappropriately their place here among the prophets. But they offer to Michelangelo a different and, at first sight, a lesser opportunity. The disadvantage is turned by his colossal genius to account, and he has given them a meaning which the prophets them-selves do not convey. There are no Sibylline books. It was impossible to tell by tradition or record in what respect Delphica differed from Libyca. They are but shadowy figures upon the background of a vast tradition. Left thus to his own imagination, Michelangelo at once transcends the narrow bounds of temperamental peculiarity as we find it in Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah. Emptied of their meaning he fills them with the largest meaning of all, for it is in the Sibyls that we read the great character of prophecy itself. It is not a prophecy, but prophecy, that expresses itself through them. Nothing is more significant than the contrasted opinions that have been expressed with regard to these remarkable creations. One writer chooses the Erythrean Sibyl (C 125) as easily first among these splendid creations, praises the rest but disparages at the close the Libyan Sibyl as one unaccountable to his mind in a work otherwise supremely great. Upon what possible ground such judgments are based, the present writer cannot remotely guess. The spiritual significance of these various figures is so stupendous and, for the most part, so clear that it seems impossible that the most perverted studio taste can be unconscious of it. And nowhere is this message more striking than in the case of the Libyan Sibyl, a figure which the present writer would snatch more eagerly from destruction than any other upon the entire ceiling. It cannot be too strongly insisted that these works are to be regarded not merely as studies in the human figure. Their significance in this connection is indubitable, but this connection is intrinsically so insignificant, so subordinate to the higher things of art to which Michelangelo is devoted that to judge them by any such standard is like judging the more immortal passages of Shakespeare by their grammar. It is hardly less than an impertinence to obscure even for a moment these spiritual messages by considerations of technique.
(C 126) The Delphic Sibyl is perhaps the best and most favorably known, a youthful figure and comely in the extreme, for it is a peculiarity of Michelangelo that the profoundest and even the most somber spiritual emotions are expressed through singularly beautiful forms and faces. The custom of art has here been influenced by human tradition. Mankind associates spiritual beauty with something less than the most perfect physical charm. The prophet expressed the expectancy of the race when he saw in the Messiah, with all his spiritual comeliness, a face marred above the countenances of men and “no beauty that we should desire him.” Rarely has the reconciliation between spiritual perfection and physical beauty been completely effected in art. But our youthful sibyl is undeniably beautiful. Yet to dwell upon that fact or to mention it, produces an almost instant recoil. The face so totally lacks anything of the consciousness that usually accompanies physical beauty, that we deprecate attention or allusion to the fact. Other thoughts fill her mind. Another meaning is supreme in her comely face. The eyes are wide open with an expression that is tinged with pain. The mouth, too, is slightly open to accommodate the heavier breathing that speaks of excitement. There is an evident consciousness of the overwhelming responsibility which her task involves. She is a novice at the task, and this heavy, this almost crushing responsibility, so appropriately suggested by this novice among the prophets, is the first great thought that Michelangelo would convey to us as he groups around this story of God and his creations, the appropriate theme of his messengers and of their relation to God and to man. Extremes meet as we come next to the Persian Sibyl (C 124), the latest, perhaps, of them all, a figure from whom all consciousness of other things has disappeared. The face is half turned away, yet strongly, perfectly revealed, her attention completely absorbed in the book which she reads to the forgetting of all other things. Her meaning again is easy and clear. It is the absorbing nature of the great function of prophecy, the way in which it takes possession of body, soul and spirit. How little is here left for the contemplation of those name-less, petty cares that fill the warp and woof of life !
(C 127) Passing to the Cumaean Sibyl again all changes. This is the strangest, the most striking, if not the most beloved of all these titanic figures. The frame of a giantess, with bared arms that are appallingly powerful ; a head small in proportion, for reasons long ago suggested; she again is absorbed in her task. But the suggestion of that terrible face is not in the least the same as that of the deeply absorbed Persica. It inspires something akin to terror. We are accustomed to the weakness and pliability of the feminine, a tradition perhaps not wholly deserved. The voice of woman somehow jars strongly in the imperative mood. But look upon this face and see if there is a suggestion of feminine yielding and persuasive sweetness. The expression of the face, supplemented, be it noticed, most admirably, by the powerful frame which perfectly serves its purpose, is that of irresistible power, let us rather say of inexorable will. It reminds us that the words she will speak are the decrees of God, with whom is neither variableness nor shadow of turning, a characteristic surely appropriate to the great theme of prophecy. Profoundly significant, these vast traits that outline this greatest of functions are one by one being drawn with certain hand by our artist prophet.
(C 128) We may close this delineation with the Libyan, strangest, and, as above noted, to some most incomprehensible of all, yet how can her message be overlooked? She sits there, turning upon her seat to lift down the heavy tome whose weight, be it remarked, is no small factor in the impression that it produces. All is weighty, heavy, sombre, here, yet the face and figure are of surpassing beauty. Phidias himself would have called them classical. There is an obvious kinship here to the most beautiful types upon the ceiling else-where, to one in particular that we shall notice in a moment. Beauty transcendent, yet forgotten by her, forgotten by us, because from it all there is one supreme dominating expression. It is that of pathos. The message that she is commanded to transmit to man, a message to which she is wonted now, for she is not the novice that we saw at the first, that message is not merely weighty, not merely attention compelling, not merely inexorable, but, alas, it is a message of sadness. The sin of man and the disaster and suffering that it has brought into life, these are the great themes with which the messenger of God can scarce fail to be impressed above all else. They recall that significant sentence from one of George Eliot’s letters, one that she wrote with no thought that we should ever read : “The religion of the future must take larger ac-count of that which is after all of all things best known to us, the sorrow of the human lot.” If any are tempted to feel that this is not the thing we know best, they are indeed fortunate. Be that as it may, one thing is certain. It is those that have felt this first and foremost and who, feeling it by the deeper predisposition of their own nature, have been most prompt with that sympathy which is sorrow’s only possible alleviation, that the world has chiefly delighted to honor. Such a one was Job, such a one’ was Savonarola, such a one was George Eliot, such a one was Michelangelo, chief among them all.
Now as we look back over this wonderful series, each with its contribution to the spiritual interpretation of our great theme, let us stop for a moment and notice Michelangelo’s method as an artist. These sibyls are women, we say. But are they ? Female forms, to be sure, but are they in essence, feminine ? It were dangerous here to venture upon the definition of the indefinable, the eternally feminine that lures us on, but none can be wholly unconscious of what that word suggests. First and foremost, using the word in a sense exalted and pure, it stands for charm, the instinctive weapon of those to whom is denied physical supremacy, but who have a world to conquer and ends to gain. Who has not felt that charm ? Who has not marvelled at-the skill with which it is displayed for the attainment of inevitable and necessary ends? Few more profound observations have been made than that of our always serious humorist, Oliver Wen-dell Holmes, who says in effect that the woman who has not succeeded in building about her for the radius of a few yards at least, an atmosphere of charm, has missed the point of her being. This, first and foremost, is the impression which the feminine has made upon our race, and with it, consciousness, a keen sense of the need and the opportunity for its exercise, this is foremost in the concept with which we have to deal.
And now turn to our Sibyls and see if it is there. Take not the terrible Cum ea nor the engrossed and absorbed Persica Take those who in years and form might more appropriately manifest the qualities we have mentioned. Is the great eyed, wondering, anxious -Delphica smiling to win your favor, frowning to make you keep your place ? Does the pathos of the Libyca remind you of this feminine charm ? Is she looking for worlds to conquer ? We have but to ask these questions to realize what an immense gulf separates these creations of Michelangelo’s imagination from the human counterpart which furnishes but the outward symbol of his thought. Lost to all feminine interests and to all feminine impulses are these mighty creatures that instead of .the feminine are filled with the divine.
This is precisely Michelangelo’s art. A realist, we saw, and when there is no occasion for modifying the lineaments of nature, none was more terribly, more ruthlessly true. But such is a deceptive use of the term. Absolutely, utterly an idealist, he would as unhesitatingly modify proportions and attitudes, reeking not of the humanly possible, caring only to express his thought. He just as unhesitatingly empties the human of its commonplace content to fill it with those vaster impulses that alone give his work significance. The human, the natural, serves the purpose of supernatural and superhuman suggestion. That is the essence of Michelangelo and the supreme triumph of art.
It will not do to leave the Chapel, however, without noticing the other figures that crowd the ceiling where we have named alone the chief. The so-called decorative figures (C 131, 132, 133), four of which are grouped at as many corners of each of the smaller panels, filling out the space to the width of the broader panel next, are most inadequately named. They alone among the figures on the ceiling are privileged to be nameless, a privilege which the true artist would always prefer but which he must usually sacrifice for the hardness of men’s hearts. A name upon a work of art is almost always misleading. Upon a work of the highest art it is usually profoundly so. It is impossible to use a name around which throng historic associations without sending our thought off on alien lines, suggesting thoughts accidentally associated with the name in our own experience. Only by leaving art to tell its own message in its own way is it possible for the artist to crowd out irrelevancies. But, alas, his message is too unintelligible, his language too obscure to us trained in a foreign tongue, and so, despairing of giving his meaning in his own way, he gives us his meaning in another way, and mixed with other meanings which it is impossible for him to exclude. In these figures, scattered freely about upon the ceiling, Michelangelo has in some sense, therefore, his supreme opportunity. There is nothing to mislead us. What do they represent ? At the risk of incurring the very danger we have deprecated, it may help us to suggest that their value, as indeed the value of all the rest, is in the expression of significant human moods. The meaning, of every true work of art in the last analysis is a mood, never an intellectual proposition, never a mere historic fact. These are pure art, because they express pure mood ; nothing else. It is astonishing, as we gaze upon them, to see the range of Michelangelo’s genius. Emphatically, overwhelmingly prophetic in his tempera ment, sombre in the natural direction of his thought, he had a mood that is easily distinguished amongst the multitude that life has taught us to know. But the things that he knew not in his own self, he seems to have perfectly appreciated in his capacity as an observer of mankind. How perfectly he distinguishes between pusillanimous and heroic despair ! With equal certainty he gives us the joyous, rollicking mood the Greek knew so well, that joy in physical existence untroubled by spiritual suggestion or calm.
“How good is man’s life, the mere living ! How fit to employ All the mind and the soul and the senses forever with joy!”
Or again, take the delicate youth that sits, crowned with laurel, his dreamy eyes following his mind to things far away (C 133). The Poetic Mood perhaps we may call It, or another, less poetic, the Pensive Mood, if names help us:
They may hinder more than help, for there are moods by the thousand where we have names but by the score. Or, finally (the list is long and cannot be too carefully followed out by the thoughtful student) (C 131), let us note the youth who leans upon a bunch of colossal acorns. The attitude is characterized by relaxation and repose. of body and spirit. The face again is singularly beautiful, first cousin to the beautiful Libyca. The figure is the supreme triumph of the nude, the much prized Adam itself no whit superior. The eyes are dreamy, and again, be it carefully noted, the face on second glance is tinged with unconscious pathos, a pathos more significant because unconscious. And here we may pause to remark that it is only the pathos which is temperamental, which is so deep seated in character that it is a background upon which all other moods are cast, that is significant in art: Few things are more worthless than the April shower of grief, oftentimes vulgarly obtrusive and selfish, which deluges the victim of some temporary accident. This is one of the unsightly things to be kept at home until the eyes, red with weeping, have regained presentableness. To portray these accidents of life in art is the quintessence of bad taste. It is the sufficient condemnation of the Baroque sculpture which for a century and a half, alleging Michelangelo as its warrant, revelled in an orgy of cheap tragedy which the wholesome spirit loathes. But the pathos that tinges the imagination with a somber hue, which predisposes the individual to feel the great world’s suffering, and to give it the solace of an ever-ready sympathy, as the surest alleviation of the pains of existence, is the most beautiful of all human traits. This was the beauty of Michelangelo’s character. It is the all but universal beauty of his art. In this youth we have perhaps the finest expression of this most frequent of Michelangelo’s themes. If names will help us here to hold a memory fast, we will take the risk. Down in the great corridors of the Vatican there is a lovely statue whose pure and placid beauty draws us irresistibly back to the great days of Greek art. The proud possessors of this mighty collection would fain indicate that it symbolizes the spirit that broods over all. They have called it the Genius of the Vatican. As we stand beneath this vast creation of Michelangelo and see in all its variety one unbroken unity, as we see in its many hues one all-embracing dominant tint, we may perhaps remind our-selves of the thing we need most to remember if we call this beautiful youth the Genius of the Sistine Chapel.
But why the acorns upon which he leans ? The question may seem trivial following such considerations, but it is suggestive. The great Julius belonged to a family named della Rovere of the Oak. Michelangelo was nowise un-conscious of the debt that he owed to Julius, both as his patron and his protector in the carrying out of this much menaced undertaking. With all his faults he realized in him a sympathy nowhere else to be found, and most necessary to him. When Raphael painted the great apartments of the Vatican, he portrayed the Pope on almost every wall ; carried in his sedan chair, kneeling before the altar, the great Julius appears again and again. But in Michelangelo’s assemblage of prophets and sibyls there was no place for a pope, not even for a Julius. Yet gratitude and recognition was there, and hence this figure, like others here and there, leans upon a bunch of colossal acorns, suggestive, without obtrusion, of the patron to whom he owed so much. We would like to enter the Vatican that memorable morning, following the tottering form of the stern old pope, and gaze with him upon this ineffable youth and upon this reminder of his own part in this incomparable creation. Let us hope that the stern old gray eye moistened with tears of recognition as it did not in the presence of the blazoned walls of Raphael.
One thing more, and this the last for us, as the last in time. It is impossible, as we stand in the Sistine Chapel itself, to see to advantage, or to heed in this mighty assemblage, the small curving pictures in the spaces between the windows above the side walls, nor yet the ceiling decorations in the tiny triangular spaces in the cross vaults. They were last executed, and in some sense least important, but as showing the stupendous progress of Michelangelo’s technique they are in some ways best of all. They represent the ancestors of the Hebrew kings (C 129, 130), but Michelangelo has passed quite beyond anything like literalism. They are a series of suggestions from a now perfectly unfettered fancy, endowed with a supreme resource. Think of the Battle of Pisa and the sculptured outlines of the Holy Family with which our artist’s career as a painter began. And now turn to these walls at which a Rembrandt would have gazed with fascination, the figures half emerging from the transparent shadow, the wondering gaze of the maiden into the mystery which is symbolized by the darkness about her, the magic of light and shadow to whose spiritual suggestion our minds are so susceptible, has seldom been more potently employed. It is this most abstract aspect of nature that is most directly spiritual in its influence upon our spirits. Of all this the sculptor knows and can know nothing. The superiority which Michelangelo claimed for that art rests upon other things, and is one which the painter can easily match by this his supreme privilege. The mystery of these shadowed hints more than anticipates the great conjurer of the north. Studied in reproduction they are perhaps the most mood-creating of all Michelangelo’s creations. The unwilling artist had found perhaps the best medium for the expression of those moods which most distinguish his art.