The current exhibition at the National Gallery, Michelangelo & Sebastiano (I wrote about this a few weeks back) emphasises the impact Christianity – mostly Catholicism – had on artists of the early Renaissance. The Renaissance era itself, a word that means rebirth, was a European movement that brought about the rediscovery of Classical Greek Philosophy, thus painters began refocusing on mythological stories. However, Florentine art during the years of Michelangelo (1475-1564) was still greatly influenced by the Church and papacy.
Whether as a result from commissions, or his own personal preferences, Michelangelo’s artwork suggests a fascination with the resurrection of Christ. Naturally, other biblical scenes were also popular, the birth of Christ for instance, but it is the death and resurrection that was most prominent in the choice of artwork exhibited.
The way Michelangelo chose to depict the body of Christ goes against all logic. Putting cultural misrepresentation aside, the paintings portraying the crucifixion are far too pure and clean, diminishing the pain and horror of death. Rather than presenting a realistic account of events, Michelangelo painted an impression of the immortal soul, rather than flawed, damaged physique. Instead of blood, sweat and tears, Christ is a symbol of celestial beauty and grace.
As well as paintings, Michelangelo turned to sculpture to demonstrate his version of the Risen Lord. At the beginning of the 16th century, Michelangelo produced two marble statues of The Risen Christ (The Giustiniani Christ). The first attempt was abandoned after a vein of black marble became visible in Christ’s face, thus making it less than perfect. An unknown artist finished the job in the early 17th century.
The second version, located in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, is slightly different. Christ is positioned in a different stance, stepping forward on one foot, suggesting a continuation of the Easter story, rather than concluding it with the resurrection.
In both statues, Christ is portrayed nude – presumably because he has only that moment risen from the tomb – clutching a linen cloth and holding up the cross, as if posing in triumph over death.
Michelangelo was not trying to be provocative in his decision to sculpt Jesus nude, he wanted to give the impression of perfection by using this classical form. Unfortunately, this has resulted in unintentionally making Christ appear like a pagan god.
Primarily known for his solo work, Michelangelo held great influence over his Italian contemporary Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547). As a result, Sebastiano shares Michelangelo’s aesthetic visions and almost replicates the exact same style. Often the pair would collaborate on a commission, Michelangelo providing initial sketches, and Sebastiano executing the final outcome.
The Borgherini Chapel Project (1516-24) is a significant example of the work produced when the two joined forces. Pierfrancesco Borgherini commissioned Sebastiano to decorate the chapel located in the San Pietro in Montorio church in Rome, however Michelangelo also contributed toward the masterpiece.
The plan was for Michelangelo to provide Sebastiano with sketches of the design, however due to another commission, Sebastiano was largely left to his own devices. Michelangelo only provided drawings for the lower section, The Flagellation of Christ, but Sebastiano was just as capable of tackling the remaining sections alone.
The resulting artwork has been labelled as the most influential of their joint works, and has resulted in countless interpretations. The National Gallery has recreated the masterpiece through means of 3D printing, which successfully conveys the atmospheric effect of the original.
As with Michelangelo’s statues and paintings of Christ, Sebastiano has retained the god-like aura when painting Jesus’ body. The idea of the artwork is that Christ appears twice, thus telling parts of his death and resurrection: the Flagellation and Transfiguration. In the upper dome, Christ is depicted in a dazzling white, symbolising his purity and flawlessness of character. His disciples look on in awestruck wonder, whilst Moses and Elijah, prophets of the Old Testament, regard the event from either side.
In contrast, the version of Christ in the lower half, the Flagellation, is much darker and distressing. Shown here is Jesus chained to a pillar, being flogged by Romans. Stripped of clothing and in evident pain, his suffering is distinctly illustrated. Yet, Christ is still represented as a superhuman character. His toned body and strong muscles betray Michelangelo’s visualisation of Christ in the same vein as an Ancient Greek or Roman god. Although this is an inaccurate portrayal of the biblical record, it does help to emphasise the primary intention of the artwork. The Flagellation emphasises the corrupt state of Christianity in the early 16th century, whilst the Transfiguration provides hope for a more glorious future.
Were Michelangelo and Sebastiano right to depict Christ in such god-like proportions? Some would argue yes, for he was the son of God. Others would be less inclined to agree. With the latest versions of technology at our disposal, artists and film makers of the 21st century have created more realistic imagery of the New Testament, going as far as to show a convincing amount of blood and emotion. Unlike the angelic Christ of the Renaissance, Jesus has been shown as human, like each and every one of us.
Whether or not you agree with Michelangelo’s unblemished form of the son of God, or you prefer to witness the blood, sweat and tears, it goes without saying that the paintings of the past are shrouded with awe and reverence. It is definitely worth seeing the artworks for yourself – nothing compares to standing directly in front of an original masterpiece.
PS, Happy Easter!