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Undoubtedly one of the most influential figures in Western art, Italian painter and sculptor Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni remains one of the world’s most celebrated artists today more than 450 years after his death. We explore some of Michelangelo’s most important works from the Sistine Chapel to his David sculpture.
Mention Michelangelo and one work that instantly comes to mind is the artist’s stunning fresco painted on the ceiling of the Vatican City’s Sistine Chapel. Commissioned by Pope Julius II and created between 1508 and 1512, the work – which depicts nine stories from the Book of Genesis – is considered one of the greatest works of the High Renaissance. Michelangelo himself was apparently reluctant to take on the project, as he saw himself as a more accomplished sculptor than painter, but the work nevertheless continues to enthrall today with around five million people flocking to the Sistine Chapel every year to see his masterpiece.
Quite possibly the world’s most famous sculpture, Michelangelo’s David was sculpted over the course of three years, beginning when the artist was just 26 years old. Unlike many earlier depictions of the biblical hero which portray David triumphant after his battle with Goliath, Michelangelo was the first artist to show him in a tense, alert position prior to his legendary fight. Originally positioned at Florence’s Piazza della Signoria in 1504, the 14-foot sculpture was moved to Galleria dell’Accademia in 1873 where it remains today, displayed under a skylight specially designed for the work by 19th-century Italian architect Emilio de Fabris.
Michelangelo’s first large-scale sculpture Bacchus is, alongside Pietà, one of just two sculptures that survived from his first days in Rome, and one of the few works the artist created focusing on pagan, rather than Christian, subjects. The statue – which depicts the Roman god of wine in a drunken, lolling stance – was originally commissioned by Cardinal Raffaele Riario but was eventually rejected by him; by the early 16th century, though, it found a home in the garden of banker Jacopo Galli’s Roman palace. Since 1871, Bacchus has resided at Florence’s Museo Nazionale del Bargello, and is displayed alongside other works by the master including his Brutus bust and his unfinished sculpture, David-Apollo.
Madonna of Bruges was the only Michelangelo sculpture to make its way out of Italy during the artist’s lifetime; it was donated to its current home, Bruges’ Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady), in 1514 after the Mouscrons– the Belgian cloth merchant family – purchased the work sometime in the early 16th century. On two occasions, the sculpture has been removed from the church, first during the French Revolutionary Wars, after which it was returned in 1815, only to be looted again by Nazi soldiers during World War II – an episode dramatized in the 2014 film The Monuments Men, directed by and starring George Clooney.
Texas’ Kimbell Art Museum has the pleasure of owning The Torment of Saint Anthony – the first known painting by Michelangelo – believed to have been produced when the artist was just 12 or 13 years old and based on an engraving by 15th-century German painter and printmaker Martin Schongauer. Created under the tutelage of his older friend Francesco Granacci, The Torment of Saint Anthony has been cited by 16th-century artists and writers Giorgio Vasari and Ascanio Condivi – Michelangelo’s earliest biographers – as a particularly accomplished piece that creatively embellished upon Schongauer’s original engraving and achieved widespread recognition from peers.
The Doni Tondo (also known as The Holy Family) is the only known surviving panel painting by Michelangelo. It was painted for the wealthy Florentine banker Agnolo Doni, most likely to commemorate his marriage to his wife Maddalena, daughter of the prominent Tuscan noble family, the Strozzis. Still hung in its original frame, a beautifully ornate wooden piece designed by Michelangelo himself, the work has resided at Galleria degli Uffizi since 1635 and is the only painting by the master in Florence. The Doni Tondo’s iridescent hues and the unnatural posing of its subjects are said to have laid the groundwork for the later Mannerist art movement.
Alongside David, Michelangelo’s late 15th–century work Pietà is considered one of the artist’s greatest works and certainly one of his best-known. Originally made for the funeral tomb of French Cardinal Jean de Bilhères, the evocative sculpture depicts the Virgin Mary holding the body of Christ after his crucifixion – a common theme for funeral monuments in Renaissance-era Italy. Moved to St. Peter’s Basilica during the 18th century, Pietà is the only artwork Michelangelo signed, and it has sustained considerable damage over the years, most notably when Hungarian-born Australian geologist Lazlo Toth took to the sculpture with a hammer in 1972.
Located in Rome’s beautiful Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli, Moses was originally commissioned in 1505 by Pope Julius II as part of his funeral monument, but it was not completed until after his death. Chiseled from marble, the sculpture is notable for its inclusion of a pair of horns on Moses’ head – thought to be the result of a literal interpretation of the Vulgate, a Latin translation of the bible – and was intended to be joined by other works including the Dying Slave and Rebellious Slave, housed in the Louvre in Paris.
Another Michelangelo masterpiece located within the Sistine Chapel, The Last Judgment appears on the altar wall of the church and was executed some 25 years after the artist had painted his awe-inspiring ceiling fresco. Often cited as one of Michelangelo’s most complex pieces, the magnificent work portrays God’s final judgment of mankind and was initially quite controversial in its depiction of nudity; in fact, the Council of Trent condemned the fresco in 1564 and ordered Mannerist painted Daniele da Volterra to cover up certain parts considered obscene.
The Crucifixion of St. Peter, the final fresco Michelangelo would paint during his lifetime, resides in the Vatican Palace’s Cappella Paolina and was originally commissioned by Pope Paul III in 1541. In contrast to many other Renaissance-era depictions of the saint, Michelangelo’s work focuses on a much darker subject matter – his death. A five-year-long, €3.2 million restoration project that began in 2004 revealed a very interesting aspect of the fresco: researchers now believe that a blue turban clad figure in the upper left-hand corner of the painting is actually the artist himself, which if correct would make The Crucifixion of St. Peter the only known Michelangelo-painted self-portrait in existence.