Michelangelo and the Risen Christ

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.

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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.

50854859_9b53780fde_zThe 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.

WARNING: the exhibition closes on 25th June 2017

PS, Happy Easter!

Michelangelo and Sebastiano

A couple of weeks ago, thanks to a very good friend, I was lucky enough to attend the Member’s Preview Day of the National Gallery’s latest exhibition: The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Michelangelo & Sebastiano. Rather than merely displaying examples of each artists’ masterpieces, the gallery has focused on and emphasised the friendship and collaboration between the two Italians. With in-depth information accompanying each work of art, an extraordinary story is told.

It goes without saying that Michelangelo is the more famous of the two – his name is well known regardless of whether people are able to bring his paintings or sculptures to mind. Sebastiano, on the other hand, is probably only heard of by those in the know – the artistically educated.

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) was a man of many talents and highly influential to the Renaissance era. Living primarily in Florence, he was respected for his sculpting, painting, architecture, draughtsmanship and poems, although is mostly remembered for the former two. Due to his exceptionally long life, Michelangelo’s career spanned more than 70 years, and as a result, was the leading figure in Italian art.

Art historians are exceptionally lucky, particularly regarding the lack of preservation methods of the time, that so much is known about Michelangelo. Not only have innumerable artworks survived, a multitude of written correspondence is also still in existence, providing a great insight into his career and personal attributes.

Michelangelo’s first major piece of work is arguably David (1501-4, Accademia, Florence) – a larger than life statue sculpted from marble and erected outside the Palazzo Vecchio. This statue has since become a symbol of Florence and Florentine art. Michelangelo could have had many other equally significant works during his time in Florence, however a great number of his commissions remain unfinished, largely in part to summons to Rome from Pope Julius II – something that occurred with later Popes, too.

It was Pope Julius II who commissioned one of Michelangelo’s most significant achievements: the frescoing of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508-12). It can be surmised from letters and so forth, that Michelangelo was rather reluctant to take on this project, since he viewed himself primarily a sculptor. The finished painting shows representations of biblical characters, particularly those found in the book of Genesis, as well as the most important figure, Jesus Christ.

This brief account of Michelangelo’s life is typical of art books and encyclopaedias, but fails to mention the significance of his unaccounted for friend.

Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547) was a Venetian painter, although worked predominately in Rome, where he incidentally met Michelangelo and formed a strong friendship and professional relationship. It was through this connection that Sebastiano became known, developed his painting style, and picked up commissions as a result.

Although Sebastiano owes Michelangelo for a large part of his success, his early works prove that he already had an exceptional gift. His impressive painterly skills can be observed in Judith (or Salome?) (1510, National Gallery, London) in which he expressively demonstrates the character’s beauty.

Sebastiano may have been overshadowed by the great Michelangelo, however he was recognised for his portrait artistry, a skill that supposedly had no rival. Sebastiano painted portraits of a number of significant figures, including Pope Clement VII.

Initially, Michelangelo sought out Sebastiano with the intention of making his rival, Raphael, jealous. By providing Sebastiano with drawings and designs to use as starting points, Sebastiano was constrained to Michelangelo’s particular style and method.

As you walk around the exhibition, it is almost impossible to distinguish between the two painters. Sebastiano perfectly replicates Michelangelo’s distinctive approach to painting, causing him to rise in popularity and receive just as many commissions as his more experienced contemporary.

Michelangelo and Sebastiano became favoured artists of many noteworthy individuals, including various popes. As a consequence, other up and coming artists began to mimic the method, resulting in Michelangelo’s original approach being adopted as the new Roman style of painting – something that continued long after their deaths.

Wandering the gallery rooms of the exhibition, it is highly noticeable that the two painters were very keen on religious scenes, particularly the death and resurrection of Jesus. This will come as no surprise to historians due to the fact the Catholic Church dominated over most of Western Europe during the 1500s. Also, the demand for paintings would have come from those who could afford them – for example, the Pope – and the majority of commissions were requested to decorate churches and chapels.

As the pair’s careers progressed, they were often separated. Michelangelo was called to Florence whilst Sebastiano remained in Rome, however they did not let this hinder their partnership. As evidenced within the exhibition, Michelangelo and Sebastiano kept in touch through letters. These reveal the intricacies of both their friendship and professional relationship, often updating one another on the progress of their current commissions.

Unfortunately, Michelangelo and Sebastiano’s relationship was not to remain amicable for the entirety of their lives. Michelangelo continued painting until his death, whereas Sebastiano began to wind down in his old age – something that Michelangelo deemed as laziness. After Sebastiano’s death, his so-called friend made malicious comments about him, thus suggesting their friendship may not have been quite as it appeared.

The National Gallery have done a fantastic job at curating their latest exhibition. Although the most famous artworks could not be displayed (David and Sistine Chapel, for instance), the paintings, drawings and sculptures on display exude a phenomenal sense of awe and intrigue. The scale of some of the paintings are quite remarkable, and go to show the talent both Michelangelo and Sebastiano had.

The exhibition continues until 25th June 2017, so there is plenty of time for Londoners to visit these unforgettable artworks, and, as a bonus, learn about the artists themselves.

Caravaggesque: the Master and Beyond

If you visit the National Gallery’s current exhibition Beyond Caravaggio, you will only get to view a handful of paintings by the powerful 17th century painter. The majority of the artworks are by other respected artists who, either through direct contact or posthumous influence, replicated Caravaggio’s original style.

Often, paintings produced during Caravaggio’s era were mistakenly accredited to him due to the similar techniques and subject matter. Caravaggio’s works are recognised by their darkness with dramatic usage of light. Some of the pieces painted by his followers do not quite replicate the ethereal beauty he achieves with his depiction of naturalistic lighting. If the scene relies on a visible light source, it is not a Caravaggio, for he never painted candles or fires.

So, the National Gallery shows us Caravaggio’s influence on other artists, but who was Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio?

Born in Milan, 1571, Caravaggio, despite having such a great influence on his contemporaries, only had a very short career. Due to his death in 1610 aged 38, Caravaggio only has about 60 surviving pictures to his name, however his naturalistic, bold style lived on for many more years.

It is hard to imagine Caravaggio struggling as an artist, but as a young man he spent many years enduring hardship in Rome until he was finally recognised as an artist with potential by Cardinal Francesco del Monte, who subsequently became his first patron. Through del Monte, Caravaggio slowly began to get the attention he deserved, eventually receiving his first public commissions. Caravaggio’s first documented works were for the Contarelli Chapel in S. Luigi dei Francesi: Calling of St Matthew and Martyrdom of St Matthew (1599-1600).

The choice of religious scenes – familiar stories – produced with immensely dramatic lighting and shade, established Caravaggio as the most exciting artist of his time, overshadowing the previously admired artists of the day.

Caravaggio’s fame spread throughout Italy as a result of self-inflicted exile after he accidentally killed someone during a fight over a wager of a tennis match. Although constantly on the run, Caravaggio had the opportunity to work on important commissions, influencing many local artists with his poignant artwork.

Unfortunately, Caravaggio died of a fever (possibly brought about from a infected facial wound) before he got the chance to see his influence in action. His legacy lived on for the remainder of the 17th century with many artists imitating his revolutionary approach to painting.

The Caravaggisti (Caravaggio’s followers) is a term applied not only to Italians, but other European artists who flocked to Rome to witness Caravaggio’s form of Realism. Some believed his previously unseen style to be a kind of miracle, and being keen to paint as pure a picture, painstakingly copied his brushstrokes, lighting and tones. Eventually the style broadened out as each artist added their own twist – for instance including candles, fires etc – until the movement gradually faded away during the 18th century.

Other than being a drastically different approach to painting in the 17th century, what did the Italian art world find so fascinating about Caravaggio’s masterpieces? Perhaps the key thing that stood out for them was the chiaroscuro (lit. bright-dark) technique. Most artists rely on contrasting light and dark colours to make their paintings work, however the contrast between the shades in Caravaggio’s works are so strong – it is almost as though a light has physically pierced the picture. It is this aspect that is most noticeable regardless of subject matter.

When standing in front of a Caravaggio, it feels like the light source shining in the picture is situated behind you. As a result, it is almost as though you are part of the scene laid out before you. You are not just looking at a painting, you are interacting with the characters depicted.

Having been to see the Beyond Caravaggio exhibition, I have another theory as to why Caravaggio became such a celebrated painter. Firstly, I was struck by the realistic representation of material and clothing worn by the characters in the displayed scenes. It was so accurate, it could have been a photograph. Secondly, speaking of photographs, the paintwork was so smooth it was impossible to see the brushstrokes – it was so flat that, apart from the slightly flawed facial and head shapes, it could have been a photo.

I particularly like Caravaggio’s choice of colour. Of course the dramatic lighting is attractive, but I was also drawn to his use of reds – it made each painting extremely powerful and contrasted well with the dark backgrounds.  Nonetheless, I agree that it is the light – the chiaroscuro – that makes a Caravaggio a Caravaggio. My favourite painting is The Taking of Christ (pictured above) in which Caravaggio has produced a realistic shine on the Roman soldier’s armour. Absolutely phenomenal. I wish I could paint like that.

If you have time to go to London before 15th January 2017, I recommend taking a look at the National Gallery’s exhibition. Caravaggio’s paintings are impressive when looked at online, but to get a sense of awe, you need to see them first hand.