Humanism in Michelangelo's Sculpture


Renaissance humanism was a great movement that emerged in Europe, particularly in Greece and Italy, in the 14th century. Humanism represents the change in focus from supernatural beings to people and nature. It involves appreciating the human beings in their natural way and potential. Renaissance means a complete change or the rebirth of a certain issue (Crum and Paoletti). Before the humanism movement, artists devoted their attention to the supernatural beings, such as God and spirits. After the movement began, artists started to focus more on the human activities, experiences in their work and their body. Various forms of art, such as poems, literature and sculptures, depicted real people. Unlike in the past, human beings and nature inspired other people to create new works of art (Takacs). The people of Italy became obsessed with knowing their history and copying their neighbors the Romans and Greeks. Sculptures made during the humanism movement, in particular, exhibited an enormous difference from the ones created before (Estep). Sculptors were significantly influenced by Renaissance humanism and made sculptures of real people. Humanism in sculptures can be well depicted in the works of Michelangelo, who was a great Italian artist (Quill). Michelangelo studied the human nature and body carefully and well represented it in his sculptures. He also worked as a painter and an architect. Humanism as a tendency in Renaissance art significantly affected the work of Michelangelo, making his sculptures represent high humanistic values through their idealistic image.

The Formation of Michelangelo as an Artist

Michelangelo is described by many as a self-made artist who attempted to harmonize all human aspects in his life. He was born in a middle-class family in an Italian city. His father was a local magistrate. In his early years, Michelangelo showed little interest in formal education (Quill). He became more interested in watching a local painter who he was introduced to by a friend (Barolsky). The artist was painting a church. Michelangelo was intrigued by the Roman and Greek paintings and sculptures. His love and passion for art were noticed by his father who agreed to make him an apprentice in a famous Florentine painters shop. His stay at the workshop was cut short because he was offered the opportunity to move to the palace at Florentine (Tatem). It is at the palace that Michelangelo learned critical skills and acquired basic knowledge about life that shaped his future career. The Medici family ran the palace. During his five-year stay there, Michelangelo learned classic sculpture under the supervision of an old sculptor Giovanni (Unger). His interaction with various people at the palace shaped his attitude towards life and art, which was later depicted in his career. Michelangelo came into contact with humanism artists who developed his views on the appreciation of nature and the human body using art. His later works reflected this influence as he later earned the title of the greatest Renaissance humanism artist.

Politics at the palace also influenced Michelangelo’s views. It was during his time in the Medici gardens that the kingdom was conjured, and he experienced war. Later in his career, Michelangelo produced various pieces of the art depicting war. The war he was painting, however, was not the one he had experienced; it was a classic story told by the Greeks (Sider). The knowledge about Christianity spread by the Catholic doctrine in the city of Florentine influenced Michelangelo’s career as well. Most of his great works are based on biblical stories. The famous David statute is a representation of a story from the Bible. The artist also portrayed many religious duties, such as in the Pieta, which is a sculpture of Mary holding the lifeless body of Jesus on her thighs. At the same time, however, the palace had an adverse effect on Michelangelo. Being exposed to corpses made him a quick-tempered person drawing him into various conflicts with his superiors. The high expectations also made him selfish and uncompromising.

The first days of Michelangelo at the palace were probably exciting. However, his temper and aggressiveness were never calmed. He was often in quarrels with people. His behavior might have been influenced by the expectation people had of him or his frequent visits to Greece and other countries. At a particular point, Michelangelo devoted a year to curving silver statues for a neighboring king (Wallace). The sculptures lasted for only three years. The incident must have been highly stressful to the artist. Although he was a genius, he was many people did not like him and found him intimidating. The only thing that made Michelangelo happy was working at the quarry. He never had a family, nor had he heirs who would take over after he would die. During his solitary life, Michelangelo developed the art of poetry by writing poems reflecting various events in his life and his feeling of loneliness. Although he had his weaknesses, Michelangelo was one of the greatest artists to have ever lived during his time.

Areas of Creativity

Michelangelo as an Architect and His Great Projects

Michelangelo was a poet, sculptor, and architect. He began as a sculptor. His poetic skills were developed due to his experiences in life. Later, at the age of forty, he became an architect. The decision to become an architect was influenced by his prowess in curving sculptures (Sohm). Most of the projects he designed were assigned to him by prominent personalities, such as the Pope and numerous politicians. Being an architect, Michelangelo supervised the construction of rather modern buildings. A characteristic feature of his projects was that they were all symmetrical. He wanted to construct buildings as symmetrical as the human body (Strickland and Boswell). All his works bore the characteristic of humanism, which was the evidence that he intended to use art to represent the human body and experience.

There are significant projects that were designed and constructed under the supervision of Michelangelo. One of them is the Rome’s St Peter Cathedral, the reconstruction of which he supervised. He designed the Capitoline Hill in Rome, which emerged as the first great Renaissance Center. He was commissioned by Pope Leo X to create a new façade of the family parish church of San Lorenzo in Florence. He also designed the Medici tombs for the royal family. Michelangelo insisted on the symmetrical nature of his plans, and although few scientific measurements were used, the buildings were strong.

Several of Michelangelo’s buildings were left unfinished since he was assigned to work on another project or started painting. His various designs of the construction were, however, taken into account, and sometimes, a building could be finished according to Michelangelo’s plans even after his death.

Realization of the Artist in Painting

Michelangelo’s desire to become an artist was inspired by watching a painter paint a local church when he was a young boy. His main job was, however, connected with sculptures, and he considered painting as a minor activity, which he did as a pastime. Nevertheless, Michelangelo was asked by the Pope to decorate the ceiling of Sistine Chapel (Strickland and Boswell). The Pope requested the artist to paint a few grape trees, but Michelangelo decided to redesign it and make the ceiling of the chapel the way he wanted it (Sohm). Now, the painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel represented the human history. He divided the ceiling into nine sections, and on each one, he painted a different image. The Bible inspired all the images. Each image was based on a unique event depicted in the Bible primarily connected with the origin of human beings. It is through his painting that his Renaissance humanism was revealed. In the Sistine Chapel, for example, the images he painted portrayed people as social beings that were created with particular weaknesses, which made it difficult for them to resist temptations. Many people could not perceive the point of the painting on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Michelangelo just wanted to tell people about their past and origin.

In another painting, Michelangelo pictured the Last Judgment on the wall of the chapel, portraying Jesus Christ as a vindictive judge avenging the sins of those who are unfaithful. The painting at the Sistine Chapel is considered to be a monumental achievement for the artist since he accomplished the work single-handedly (Strickland and Boswell). There are also other paintings by Michelangelo, such as the Christ on the Cross currently housed in the London museum and the Battle of Cascina, which represents a medieval battle that Italy won. According to Michelangelo, artists paint using their minds and not hands. In all his paintings, Michelangelo portrayed images that were created in his mind. His worst characteristic, however, was that he did not wish to share his painting knowledge with anyone. He led a solitary life mainly because he thought he was the only one who could do the job perfectly. Michelangelo was also highly criticized for painting naked people. Some of the church members thought that the paintings were inappropriate for such a holy place. On the other hand, Michelangelo was spreading his humanism beliefs by using the paintings of actual human beings to convey a message. The images painted by Michelangelo reveal the importance of such a unity as people. An example is an image of three women applying oil to the body of Jesus when he was in the tomb.

Humanist Masterpieces of Sculpture in the Period of Renaissance

Sculptures were the main pieces of art that defined the Renaissance humanism. The artists used marble to carve statues that represented their thoughts or with the help of which they tried to send the message to the society. Before that time, human beings were considered evil, and everything that they did was seen as a sin. However, as time passed and things changed, Renaissance humanism began to take root. It marked the change in the way people viewed themselves. The change was reflected in the sculptures curved and the paintings done by various artists. From that period, there are exceptional pieces of art that have withstood the test of time and are present even to date. The masterpiece sculptures were created by talented artists who used skills to deliver exceptional work. In order to sculpt a statue, an artist used a variety of skills and tools. The chess was used together with a hammer to cut the marble, which is an excellent material for making sculptures. According to Michelangelo, the statues are trapped in the stone and an artist does the work of opening them up. However, sculptures have a wider appeal to the public than the beauty of the marble.

Humanist Elements in the Sculpture of Michelangelo

Michelangelo was a talented artist who did outstanding work in carving sculptures. In his life, he created a number of sculptures that are viewed by many as great advocates of humanism. His pieces convey the theme of respect for the human body, religion or politics. The majority are carved based on the stories from the Bible. Examples of Michelangelo’s sculptures that reveal humanism are the Battle of Centaurs, David, Crucifix, Pieta, and Madonna and Child. He also sculptured many saints, such as Saint Paul, Mathew, Pius, and Peter. Besides, Michelangelo curved various sculptures of slaves, both young and old. Some of his sculptures reveal the agony of slaves and other humans, such as the coughing boy.

Made of marble, majority of Michelangelo sculptures were produced with the help of a basic carving technique. Although a few of the sculptures are made of bronze and some others made of wood, the skills used are similar. The sculptures were all made with an intention to deliver a particular message. The majority of the statues convey a message of hope or warning to the society. Others are made to honor exceptional individuals, such as great religious leaders. Michelangelo’s sculptures bear resemblance in that they are all depict ordinary people. None of the sculptures represents a god or any other supernatural being. They represent the ordinary human beings in their healthy environment, such as the Dying Slave or the Florentine Pieta.

In an attempt to share his humanism ideology, Michelangelo made a sculpture that showed beauty of the human body and demonstrated that it was possible to overcome challenges – it was the Genius of Victory. In other sculptures, Michelangelo sought to empathize with the people facing challenges. An example is the statue Christ Carrying the Cross. In this piece of art, the artist showed the suffering of Christ, and by His example, Michelangelo tried to inspire others to bear challenges courageously. The Battle of Centaurs is also an important piece of art that demonstrates the ordinary life of soldiers on the battlefield fighting for the good of the society. The sculpture serves as a reminder of the respect that people owe soldiers.

The Statue of David

The statue of David is probably the greatest piece of art created by Michelangelo. It stands at the roofline of the Florence cathedral in Italy. Michelangelo sculpted the statue in a span of four years. It was inspired by a religious story drawn from the Bible about a hero of the same name. The sculpture represents a nude man standing on a stone pole with his hand cluttered and his head looking aside. The man is ready to act, but is still deeply in thought. The size of the figure is that of an ordinary person. In the original story, David is readying for a battle with Goliath, a giant that is feared by everyone else except him. The initial plan for creating such a statue was to place it on the rooftop of the cathedral where it was created. However, it was too heavy, so a decision was made to put the sculpture at the entrance of the gate facing Rome. Over the years, the statue was moved several times to avoid destruction during war and ultimately was put in a safe place. There have been many imitations of the original sculpture. Many are set in different countries, but the original work can be found at the Florence cathedral.

The sculpture is a masterpiece of the Renaissance humanism that demonstrates human beings as conscious beings who are willing to make the calculated risk for the sake of others. The man depicted in the statue, David, is a rather small person who is prepared to wage war with a giant. For him to succeed, he needs to think thoroughly and create a plan. The sculpture indicates that he is very thoughtful. The sling in his hand is a weapon used by David to defeat the enemy. The arm shows the nature of human being as being able to use ingenuity to overcome even big challenges. The aspect of nudity of the statue is important in humanism. Although David is depicted as a hero, the artist decided to curve him naked. The idea was to demonstrate the public that human beings are beautiful in their way. The artist tells people to be proud of their bodies. The statue deviates from the classical way of making sculptures where heroes in the society were depicted as supernatural beings with massive bodies and dressed in royal attire. Although David eventually became a great king, the artist chooses to depict him as a courageous young man who is willing to confront challenges that others are afraid of.

The Ideals of Humanism in Other Sculptures of Michelangelo

The statue of David seems to be particularly superior in promoting the humanistic ideals. However, other statues by Michelangelo are equally important and carry a similar message. The sculptures of slaves are an illustration of the challenges that human beings encounter. Although it is not clear whether the artist supported slavery, he empathized with the slaves in their plight. In several statues, he curved them going through hard times, such as suffering and dying. The sculpture of a rebellious slave depicts the human nature of rebellion against torture and pain. The slave is represented as having had enough and being ready to fight for their rights.

Several statues are created in the honor of prominent Christians. The size of the figures, however, also measures the size of an ordinary person. The artist is communicating a message that even the great and prominent people are no different than any other person. Therefore, anyone can achieve great success if they have the will and determination. Other sculptures are inspired by major religious events, such as the death of Jesus. The artist curved those involved in the burial of Jesus when they were taking His body off the cross. The statue indicates empathy among human beings. The idea of the artist to curve Jesus’ dead body held by His mother is a symbol of the great compassion humans have for one another. The sculptures inspired by politics, a war and prominent leaders fit in the humanism idealism in the sense that people respect those they choose to be leaders. They also indicate that conflicts are inevitable in a community.

There is a number of sculptures that reveal grief and depict people as social beings. The aspect of coming together is indeed an act of humanism, which does not focus on anyone else but people. In the Palestrina Pieta, for example, grief draws people together. The artist even went further to put facial expression on the people depicted in the statue. Before the Renaissance humanism began, such pieces of art could never appear since artists were concerned about illustrating supernatural forces in their work.

Many of the Michelangelo’s statues are so skillfully created that they appear real. The statue of Moses looks almost like it is a living human being. The technique was the intimate knowledge that Michelangelo had about the human body. He was able to manipulate the conditions of the marble used to make a statue real. This is the case with the sculpture of David. His well-built body seems so real that one can even see blood vessels on the statue.