Shortly after his election to the papacy in October 1534, Pope Paul III visited Michelangelo in his workshop accompanied by eight or ten cardinals. Michelangelo was under contract to complete the tomb of Pope Julius II, begun almost 30 years earlier and originally requiring 40 sculptures, but the new pope wanted him to paint the Last Judgement in the Sistine chapel. Standing beside its marble Moses (fig. 1), the Cardinal of Manuta observed ‘This statue alone is enough to honour the tomb of Julius’.
We do not need to have studied the genesis of Michelangelo’s mighty marble figure to respond to the power of its presence. This Moses is not only larger than life: his powerful limbs seem to embody a lifetime of struggle, and that face is ‘full of spirit and vivacity, composed in a manner to induce both love and terror, as was doubtless the case’ (Condivi (1553), p. 53). ‘Well may the Hebrews continue to go [to San Pietro in Vincoli]’, wrote Vasari in 1550, ‘as they do every Sabbath, both men and women, like flocks of starlings, to visit and adore that statue; for they will be adoring a thing not human but divine’.
The human Michelangelo displayed all the flaws to which humankind is prone: he was proud, jealous, socially insecure, money grasping, and unwilling to acknowledge an artistic debt. Yet his works have always been recognised as ‘divine’, Homer’s word for the Quality that seems to lie beyond human competence. If we find the models he adopted and adapted to fashion this Moses, we might isolate something of that divinity.
Of all the classical sculptures that Michelangelo could have seen, very few are seated. Most ancient figure sculpture is standing (the original meaning of statua), and the social elite of the ancient world reclined at their leisure. Only when we look closer to home do we find a key to understanding his Moses. Early in the quattrocento the facade of Florence cathedral had been embellished with four seated evangelists, which the young Michelangelo had ample opportunity to study (fig. 2). In 1587 that Gothic frontage was replaced by a painted classical design (eventually replaced in its turn by the current neo-Gothic facade), but its sculpted figures were preserved. If we look closely at the young Donatello’s St John the Evangelist (1408–15), we may decide that this is the model that Michelangelo took as the starting point for his Moses (fig. 3).
Looking up at the St John from the street, Michelangelo would have been impressed by the heavy folds of drapery that fall over the evangelist’s knees. But Donatello’s saint is relaxed, while Michelangelo wanted to instil in his Moses something of the prophetic power that was his to command. This he could do through the turn and thrust of the limbs, undisguised by the clothing. So Michelangelo lifted the drapery over Moses’ massive knee, framing the gartered leggings with its folds, and showed the other leg pushing forwards, thereby creating the dynamic that animates the body and is completed by the turn of that mighty head.
The hand that St John rests on his gospel suited Michelangelo’s purpose well, so one of Moses’ ponderous arms rests on the tablets of the law. St John’s other arm is frankly slack, so Michelangelo leaves the equivalent arm on his Moses bare, revealing the latent power of those sinews and bones for all to see. The chest of Donatello’s saint also lacks sculptural interest, and here Michelangelo introduced his most striking device, the heavy coils of that magnificent beard, casually pulled to one side by the fingers of the resting hand. Ancient river gods came with beards heavy with weeds and water, but none sported locks as long or as thick as these.
Shortly before his death, Vasari tells us, Michelangelo burnt many of his drawings, so that no one should see the labours he endured to achieve his divinity. In practice we are far more likely to recognise an artist’s ability when we can reconstruct the quality adjustments he made to his models.
Ascanio Condivi, ‘The Life of Michelangelo’, trans. George Bull, in Michelangelo: Life, Letters, and Poetry (1553; Oxford World’s Classics, 1987). Condivi is generally regarded to be Michelangelo’s mouthpiece.
Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, trans. Gaston de Vere (1550; London: Everyman’s Library, 1912; 1996).
THIS EXAMPLE DOES NOT FEATURE IN THE TRUTH ABOUT ART.