It is difficult to say who is the “greatest” artist of all time, whether it be in art, music or literature. What are the criteria? Each age had its own standards, its own opportunities, its own limitations, its own difficulties. Each age has its own tastes, which in turn favors some artists, while hindering others. Likewise, each artist works in his own medium, which may be out of favor only a few years later. The artist tends then to be forgotten, or at least neglected. So categorizing different artists from different eras is a subjective game at best.
However, if we were to create a pantheon of artists, it would be agreed by all that perhaps primus inter pares within that pantheon would be Michelangelo. As far as sheer output, I really cannot think of another artist who produced the volume and quality of work that he did, for such a long period of time. He lived from 1475-1564 and was productive throughout his entire adult life. I won’t get into a detailed description of his art here, only to say that he was the greatest figure of the Renaissance in art, and this was a period in which Leonardo and Raphael were his chief rivals. He produced masterpieces in nearly every area of art: sculpture, painting and architecture. His greatness can be seen in everything from his Pieta, sculpted when he was only twenty four, to the Sistine Chapel, to his David, to the Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. And this is only a small sampling of his herculean output. What is even more amazing is that he considered painting a rather effeminate and inferior art to sculpture, and, in an age when most artists had apprentice help for most of their big projects, he painted the Sistine Chapel without any help at all. To top it all off, he even wrote some good sonnets.
But what interests me perhaps the most about Michelangelo besides his great art are two things: his deep melancholic nature–he was someone who also suffered from depression–and his deep Catholic beliefs. Some of the greatest works of Catholic art were created by this man. And as far as great art in the history of the world, no institution can compare with the Catholic Church for sponsoring and inspiring so many great creations, not only in art, but also music and architecture as well. He never married, never had children, and devoted his entire life to his art. In this way he is the prototypical artist, the model for all types whether in painting, music, or literature, or whatever, someone who was driven beyond all belief to create, and to create at the expense of other things in life, the things that most others desire, such as marriage and family.
As a great Catholic artist, Michelangelo’s sexuality is a mystery. Although later in life he is said to have been in love with the Italian noblewoman Vittoria Colonna, and wrote about her in his sonnets, there is clearly a homoerotic quality to his devotion to the male nude, as seen in his David and in his Sistine Chapel paintings. He clearly loved the male form. As someone who loves the female nude, I can appreciate this. After his death and especially during the Counter-Reformation, many of his works received a careful going over, such as certain sculptures, as well as many figures in the Sistine Chapel, being deemed a bit too lewd by the Cardinals. Fig leaves became popular at this time. Only recently under John Paul II were many of these works restored to their original form, the form Michelangelo intended. Even then, I believe, it created a bit of a controversy. During his lifetime he was accused of being obscene, even pornographic in his tastes. He was often called in Italian “inventor delle porcherie” which translates literally as “inventor of pork things” or more idiomatically, “inventor of obscenities”. If anyone has ever seen the David statue in person, it is always amusing to see the reaction of the female spectators, usually giggling when their eyes move down the perfectly sculpted torso. I am sure many today would still consider it a bit pornographic.
Whatever Michelangelo’s actual physical relationships were with men, we will never know. Some of his poetry hints at physicality. In the end this does not matter to me, what matters are the works he created, works created not only out of a deep sense of aesthetic beauty, but also out of a deep religious beliefs as well. As I said, his art is too great and varied to talk about in one blog post, perhaps I will write about different pieces in separate posts. What intrigues me about him at this moment is his love of beauty, his deep religious beliefs, and his melancholic, reclusive nature. He must have been tormented by all these things, especially his erotic attractions to physical beauty, his spirituality, and his melancholia. His art must have been some sort of cathartic means for him to deal with all these conflicting currents. Today one would become an instant multi millionaire if he owned a piece of his artwork. This speaks to the power of that work which in its day was considered controversial, even obscene, yet works which were created out of deep spiritual, sexual and mental anguish. I guess I can relate to that, in my own very limited way.
And one final note: last Sunday I was at Mass and the thought of Michelangelo popped into my mind. I wondered if he was in heaven, and of course I could never know for sure in this life, but my sense, or at least hope, was that he is. After creating such a great visual witnesses to Christianity, it seems only just that he would be.