Things You Didn't Know About These 3 Seminal Michelangelo Artworks

Top Lists, Art History

September 14, 2019

A brilliant artist of the Italian Renaissance, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, known best as simply Michelangelo, is one of art history's earliest true "characters." A polymath genius, Michelangelo infused his work with a psychological intensity and emotional realism that had never been seen before, often causing quite a bit of controversy in his time. Today listed among the world's most iconic masterpieces, each Michelangelo artwork continues to be revered, and even devotionally prayed upon, today.

Born in the small village of Caprese in 1475, Michelangelo grew up in Florence, a center of the early Renaissance movement. At the young age of 13, he already became an artist's apprentice. Demonstrating obvious talent, Michelangelo was taken under the wing of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the ruler of the Florentine republic and a great patron of the arts. The rest is history.

Carving an entire sculpture from a single block with unparalleled talent, Michelangelo could conjure real life from stone. An expert at anatomy, he produced the perfect High-Renaissance blend of aesthetic harmony and anatomical accuracy, resulting in bodies which appeared to breathe upon sight. Michelangelo once wrote:

The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.

Michelangelo's works were largely taken from mythological and classical sources. His most seminal works, the massive painting of the biblical narratives in the Sistine Chapel, the 17-foot tall testament to male perfection, David, and the heartbreakingly genuine Pietà are today considered some of the world's most genius works of art.

Despite being among the most famous works of art, there are still many things about these Michelangelo Buonarroti masterpieces which remain relatively unknown.

Featured image: Michelangelo - The Last Judgment (detail), 1536–1541, by Francisco Anzola via flickr. All images via Creative Commons.

Pieta, 1498–1499

A breathtaking sculpture depicting the body of Jesus in the lap of his mother Mary after the Crucifixion, the sculpture Pietà has inspired emotion, faith, and imitation since its creation. It was commissioned by Cardinal Jean de Bilhères, a representative in Rome, as a work that had to be his funeral monument, seeking to acquire the most beautiful work of marble in Rome, one that no living artist could better. Twenty-four years old at the time, Michelangelo answered the call, carving the work during his period spent in Rome out of a single block of marble.

In this first depiction of the famous scene in marble, Michelangelo moved away from the depiction of the suffering of the Virgin Mary which was usually portrayed in Pietàs of the time, instead presenting her with a deep sense of maternal tenderness for her child. Unlike artists before him, he depicted Mary youthful and beautiful, which some church observers sneered at. According to his biographer, Ascanio Condivi, Michelangelo explained his choice:

Do you not know that chaste women stay fresh much more than those who are not chaste? How much more in the case of the Virgin, who had never experienced the least lascivious desire that might change her body?

The Jesus Christ himself appears only asleep in his mother's arms, symbolic of the resurrection. The details of his body are rendered to perfection. Vasari described Pietà as the work of "divine beauty", in which Michelangelo convinced both himself and us of the divine quality and the significance of these figures by means of earthly beauty.

It was the only work Michelangelo ever signed, following the rumors circulating that the piece was made by one of his competitors, Cristoforo Solari. He swore he would never sign another piece, staying true to his word.

While being on loan to the 1964 World's Fair in New York, the first time it left Rome since its inception, the work was placed in a bulletproof enclosure consisting of two and a half tons of Plexiglas while electric-powered conveyor walkways kept crowds of viewers moving along. Traveling across the ocean by ship, the statue's packaging was designed to withstand shipwreck, which would make it float even if the ship went down.

In 1972, an unemployed, delusional geologist from Hungary, Laszlo Toth, leaped over the railings at St. Peter's Basilica in The Vatican to attack Michelangelo's Pietà with a hammer, knocking off Mary's left arm, snapping off the tip of her nose and damaging her cheek and left eye. After the 10-months-long repair work, was completed, the Vatican had the marble statue encased in a triple layer of bulletproof glass.

Featured images: Michelangelo - Pietà, 1498–1499. Marble, 174 cm × 195 cm (68.5 in × 76.8 in). St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City.

David, 1501-1504

A 17-foot tall statue, David is housed in Galleria dell' Accademia in Florence, Italy. It depicts the prophet, majestic and nude, victoriously holding the slingshot he used to kill Goliath. The statue was commissioned by the Opera del Duomo for the Cathedral of Florence for a project which initially envisioned a series of sculptures of prophets for the rooftop. After the artist finished the piece, carving it from a single block of marble, it took four days and forty men to move the statue from Michelangelo's workshop into the Piazza della Signoria, even though the distance was less than a mile.

The Biblical David was a favored subject in the art of Florence. Considered one of Michelangelo's greatest masterpieces, the sculpture demonstrates the artist's impressive knowledge of anatomy, emphasizing his strength through the classical contrapposto stance, with weight shifting onto his right leg. Moving away from the traditional representation of David, often depicted triumphant over Goliath, Michelangelo chose to portray him in the phase immediately preceding the battle. The sculpture is imbued with a strong sense of naturalism, for which Vasari praised David as Michelangelo's " restore life to one who was dead." The top half of the body was intentionally made slightly larger than the legs so that viewers glancing up at it or from afar would experience a more authentic perspective. The size of David's right hand is exaggerated, often believed to be a reference to a nickname for the biblical David, which means "strong of hand." When Michelangelo's David was unveiled after three years, it was simultaneously revered and controversial, which was the case with much of the artist's work.

During the 1527 uprising, unruly protesters flung a chair that broke the statue's left arm in three spots. In 1873, officials decided to move David indoors to the Galleria dell' Accademia to protect it from the weather. However, the statue is now suffering from stress fractures caused by the vibrations of scores of tourists filing past. The plaster cast of David now resides at the Victoria and Albert Museum. During visits by notable women such as Queen Victoria, a detachable plaster fig leaf was added, strategically placed atop the private parts.

Probably due to the statue's extreme height, it took centuries to notice that David's eyes are flawed - his left eye gazes forward while the right eye is focused on some distant spot.

Featured images: Michelangelo - David, 1501-1504. Marble sculpture, 517 cm × 199 cm (17 ft × 6.5 ft). Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence, Italy.

The Last Judgment, 1536–1541

A magnificent and almost overwhelming Renaissance fresco, The Last Judgment covers the entire altar wall of the Sistine Chapel cathedral in Vatican City. It is one of the last pieces on the Sistine Chapel ceiling that was commissioned by Pope Clement VII, which also features the painting The Creation of Adam. The Last Judgement depicts the Second Coming of Christ as he delivers the Last Judgement, consisting of over 300 individual figures. This massive piece, measuring approximately 39 by 45 feet (13.7 by 12 meters) and covering the whole altar wall, was commissioned when Michelangelo was 62 and took five years to complete.

The central figure in the painting is the Christ raising his hands to reveal the wounds of his Crucifixion and looking down upon the souls of humans as they rise to their fates. The Christ is surrounded by the Virgin Mary glancing toward the saved right next to him, and John the Baptist and St Peter at his feet holding the keys to heaven. It is believed that the face of St Bartholomew, one Jesus' 12 disciples, is a self-portrait of Michelangelo. On the right, Charon, a figure from Greek mythology, is bringing the damned to the gates of Hell while Minos is admitting them. Another noteworthy group are the seven angels blowing trumpets illustrating the Book of Revelation's end of the world. At the time, it was unusual to depict a beardless Christ, as well as the figures from pagan mythology. Just after the artist's death, Giovanni Andrea Gillio collected all Michelangelo's departures from the biblical tradition in a book entitled Due Dialogi.

Many of the subjects in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel painting are rendered nude with extremely muscular anatomies, which caused many controversies at the time. The Pope's Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, described The Last Judgement as a disgrace "that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully." Angry at the remark, Michelangelo painted his face onto Minos with donkey's ears, while recent cleaning of the Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco reveals a serpent biting his genitals. After Cesena complained about it to the Pope, he jokingly remarked that his jurisdiction did not extend to Hell. Just a few weeks prior to Michelangelo's death, scandalized churchmen at the Council of Trent agreed to engage artist Daniele da Volterra to add clothing to the nude figures in Michelangelo's fresco.

Featured image: Michelangelo - The Last Judgment, 1536–1541. Fresco, 13.7 m × 12 m (539.3 in × 472.4 in). Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.