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Gentle Giants Essay, Research Paper

Michelangelo and Renaissance Religion

Michelangelo Buonarroti lived in a time when the medieval aspects of Christianity were overwhelmed by the upheaval of the Reformation. His art portrays this change in religious philosophy by discerning the major trends and objectives of the Renaissance. “His works show us…the changing world around him” (Richmond 4). In addition, Michelangelo seriously impacted generations of artists to come.

“The Renaissance was a rebirth that led to new ways of thinking in the sciences, philosophy, and architecture, as well as painting and sculpture” (Spence 6). This period of European history, beginning in the fourteenth-century, saw a renewed interest in the arts. It has been characterized by many as the birth of modern humanity and consciousness after a long period of decay, the Middle Ages. Until the revolutionary thinkers of the Renaissance, much of Europe was dormant and stagnant, immersed in the “Dark Ages” where the Christian God was viewed as a punishing and distant force. During the Middle Ages, Christian historians broke history into three divisions: the creation, the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the anticipated last judgement. Medieval scholars believed that they were living in the final age before the last judgement. The Renaissance brought a cultural break with medieval tradition known as humanism. This was the tendency of the time to attach great importance to classical studies and to consider classical antiquity as the common standard and model by which to guide all cultural activity. This ideology led Renaissance humanists to develop new divisions of history: antiquity, the Middle Ages and the golden age of rebirth. In contrast to their Dark Age counterparts, they adored the classical Greeks and Romans. They also condemned the Middle Ages as barbaric and ignorant, seeing their own superior age as one of light and the rebirth of classical heritage. A new image of God evolved. He was now seen as a compassionate, forgiving, and father-like figure who cared about His earthly and sinful children.

The Renaissance also brought drastic changes to the artistic world. The decisive break with medieval tradition occurred in Florence, Italy in 1420 with the invention of linear perspective. This innovation made it possible to represent three-dimensional space on a flat surface. In previous years, objects had been represented on the canvas as one-dimensional. This paralleled the one-dimensional thinking of the time and served to create rigid and unrealistic portrayals in art. Another ideal that evolved was the culmination of harmony and proportion. The human form was seriously analyzed for the first time. Careful attention was payed to minute details such as the shape of muscles and how they looked as they moved. This led to a more realistic and accurate reproduction of the human body. During the Renaissance “…the medieval aspects of the Christian religion were swept away, especially by the violent surge of the Reformation: No other artist managed, as Michelangelo did, to portray this change in his works…” (Heusinger 3).

Michelangelo Buonarroti was a sculptor, architect, painter, and poet. He was, perhaps, the most potent force in the Italian High Renaissance. His work exerted a tremendous influence on his contemporaries and on subsequent Western art. He spent the greater part of his adulthood in Rome, employed by the popes. “In the fourteenth-century the papacy had become weakened, and some of the wealth of the territory had been lost. Pope Julius was determined to restore its former glory, with the help of…Michelangelo” (Green 16). This patronage was a tremendous influence on his art.

The work of Michelangelo illustrated the upheaval of the Reformation by presenting Renaissance ideals as opposed to those of the Dark Ages. One of his most beloved pieces is the Pieta. In this sculpture, the youthful Mary is shown seated majestically, holding the dead Christ across her lap. It is “…graceful and innocent. Mary and Christ look young and unscarred by the tragedy of death” (Richmond 17). Michelangelo argued that the Virgin’s purity would not allow her to age. “This sculpture, as with all of Michelangelo’s work, embodied the idealized human form in the manner of the High Renaissance” (Spence 20). Had this been a sculpture from the Middle Ages, it would have been much more severe and less emotive. Mary’s tremendous pain would have distorted her features, leaving her ugly and aged. Michelangelo’s portrayal, in contrast, expressed the beauty of the sacrifice made by Jesus and the glory in His departure from this world. The Pieta also summarized the sculptural innovations of fifteenth-century artists while introducing the new monumentality of the High Renaissance style.

Standing over fourteen feet tall, the David is an equally famous statue by Michelangelo. The Old Testament hero who battled Goliath is depicted as a muscular youth, the very picture of physical beauty. It has been said that “David is very much like the ancient Greek statues…” (Richmond 19). This similarity to the art of the ancient, classical world shows the influence of humanism on Michelangelo’s work. By infusing formal beauty with powerful expressiveness and meaning, he recaptured the classical art of the Greeks and Romans; putting the unemotive work of the Middle Ages firmly in the past.

In 1505, Michelangelo was recalled to Rome by Pope Julius II to do the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The vault of the papal chapel was to include nine scenes from the Book of Genesis. “[The Sistine Chapel] was to be an outline of the Christian world: the lower level was dedicated to man, the middle level to the prophets and saints graced with Divine Bliss, and the top level to the surpassing of both former levels in the Last Judgement” (Heusinger 24). The scenes shown include God Separating Light from Darkness, the Temptation and Fall of Adam and Eve, and the Flood. These centrally located narratives are surrounded by the images of the prophets, other Old Testament subjects, and the ancestors of Christ. One particularly moving narrative panel is The Creation of Adam. It is “…one of the greatest icons of Western art. Michelangelo has depicted Adam as if just awakened and about to be charged with the energy of life through the outstretched arm of God, who is borne aloft by a cloud of angels” (Spence 12). Many of the panels of the Sistine Chapel continue to influence interpretations of Bible passages, sculpting the modern understanding of God. For instance, the commonly accepted image of a flame-filled Hell beneath Heaven comes from Michelangelo’s masterpiece.

In the 1500s, Europe was coming out of the Middle Ages and entering into a period of rebirth and new ways of thinking. The Roman Catholic Church was also experiencing a change. The Protestant Reformation, led by such men as Martin Luther, John Calvin , and Ulrich Zwingli, was radically altering the face of religion. In response to these reformers, the Church called the Council of Trent and started the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Decrees were issued on such topics as Church doctrine, practices, worship, and the sacraments. This tumultuous and chaotic period gave rise to new ways of thinking, new ways of seeing the world and God. Michelangelo Buonarroti portrayed this dynamic religious climate of the times in his works of art. For example,

[The Rosary of Hope] may be a reference to the need to adhere to the true teachings of

the Church rather than abandon it for the heresy of the Protestant faith, which had

abandoned the Rosary…[the fresco] may also refer to the Church and its wicked and

corrupt ways, which it was now attempting to change to counter the attacks it suffered

during the Reformation (Spence 23).

One example of Michelangelo’s departure from Middle Age technique is displayed in Christ Carrying the Cross in which “…he did not portray pain as redemption in the medieval way, but perfect beauty as the expression of its consequence” (Heusinger 58). This was a radical concept, unexplored up until this point.

By creating perfect physical beauty in his work, Michelangelo represented the essence of the supernatural and of the divine. In so doing, he employed the elements of classicism at the heart of the Renaissance, therefore portraying the change in religious philosophy at the time. Today, many of his works continue to impact the way we see God and the Catholic faith.

Green, Jen. Famous Artists: Michelangelo. Hauppauge: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc., 1993.

Heusinger, Lutz. Michelangelo. New York: Riverside Book Company, Inc., 1989.

Richmond, Robin. Introducing Michelangelo. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1991.

Spence, David. Michelangelo and the Renaissance. Hauppauge: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc., 1997.


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