Michelangelo’s Approach to the Ordeal
The marble not yet carved can hold the form
Of every thought the greatest artist has,
And no conception ever comes to pass
Unless the hand obeys the intellect.
— from “Sonnet XV”
His hammer plinked lightly the cold stone chisel. Tentatively. Awkwardly. A flake of stone fell to the earth, and the boy marveled. He’d been given a discarded scrap of marble with which to try his hand, for he held an idea in his mind, an image—an ambition. He repositioned the chisel and again swung the hammer, this time less tentatively, a bit less awkwardly. A second flake fell to the earth. Then a third.
Now the Philistines gathered together their armies to battle. And the Philistines stood on a mountain on the one side, and Israel stood on a mountain on the other side: and there was a valley between them.
The gardens of the Medici Palace were alive with art in the eyes of young Michelangelo di Lodovico di Buonarroti Simone. His father’s family was counted among the lowest of Florentine nobility, the very fringes actually, but his mother Francesca hailed from among the richest of that city’s wealthy merchant class, having made their fortune importing the plant used in making the purple dye for which Florence was famous. Alas, Francesca died after a prolonged illness in 1481, when Michelangelo was but six years old, leaving the boy bereft and brokenhearted. As an infant, he had been suckled by a wet nurse, a stonecutter’s wife in Settignano, a quarry town set in the hills just above Florence. Thus Michelangelo’s awakening had been among stoneworkers who quarried the fine macigno sandstone so prized for building and sculpting in nearby Florence. The elder Michelangelo would always look back upon his start in life as providential, the first sign of his artistic destiny, yet his father would have none of it. As the boy grew, he demonstrated some aptitude, if not genius, for sketching, but his father continually rebuffed the boy’s yearnings, severely beating him for neglecting his studies in Latin school, and sternly insisting that no Buonarroti was going to become one of those contemptuous artisans who turned out replicas for a living. Michelangelo could not have agreed more, and finally prevailed upon his father at age fourteen to be apprenticed to the studio of Domenico and Davide Ghirlandaio, one of the busiest replica shops in Florence, while boarding in the home of Il Magnifico himself, Lorenzo Medici, statesman and ruler of the Florentine Republic, who was always on the lookout for budding artistic talent.
And there went out a champion out of the camp of the Philistines, named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span.
And so it was that young Michelangelo came to find himself in the Medici Gardens, surrounded by some of the greatest examples of classical art of Renaissance Italy. By day he learned his craft in the Ghirlandaio’s studio, copying the work of artists greater than himself, while by night he dined with Florentine nobility, including Il Magnifico’s second son, Giovanni, who would one day occupy the Holy See as Pope Leo X. Young Michelangelo was tutored by the greatest intellectuals of the day and treated like one of the Medici family. Best of all, he was allowed to work some of the scrap stone that lay in the Garden calling him to set out upon his life’s ambition, and so he conceived of his first true piece of art: Madonna of the Stairs.
I know not if it is imagination
Which makes the light that every man can feel,
Or if from mind or memory will steal
Some other glorious illumination.
Or maybe in the soul the scorching fire
Of heaven still burns, and has the power to draw
Our thoughts into an ardent, fierce desire
For truth itself, the one compelling law.
Oh may I always search for what is true,
Although, without a guide, this fire I seek.
Yet still I feel that someone points the way.
— from “Sonnet XL (II)”
The small marble stone that he was given gradually gave way to a piece of rilievo schiacciato, or flattened relief, in which the stone is carved in so shallow a manner that it is really more like drawing in stone. Yet Michelangelo’s drawing all but leaps out of the stone to reveal Madonna and Child at a moment of incredible vulnerability. Mother Mary, seated on a throne, has been nursing the Baby Jesus, her head surrounded by a halo befitting the Mother of God, when suddenly four cherubs appear on the stairs that lead our eye up to the landing upon which the angels have just arrived in the background. Mary sees them too, so she moves to cover her baby and breast with her gown. Jesus has stopped suckling and twists away to look upon the intruders. Or is he, rather, returning to the comfort of the teat? For the moment the cherubs are focused on their task of bearing a sheet, a burial shroud, into the room. In an instant, Mary comprehends the approaching ordeal and seeks to protect her child, who remains mysteriously unperturbed—whether unaware or simply resigned, we cannot say.
And Goliath stood and cried unto the armies of Israel, and said unto them, “Why are ye come out to set your battle in array? Am not I a Philistine, and ye servants to Saul? Choose you a man for you, and let him come down to me. If he be able to fight with me, and to kill me, then will we be your servants: but if I prevail against him, and kill him, then shall ye be our servants, and serve us.”
Madonna of the Stairs is but the first of many examples of Madonna and Child that Michelangelo would produce. He was, in fact, working on his final example at the time of his death more than seventy years later. In the rough-hewn Rondanini Pietà, a downcast Mary lowers the body of Christ from the Cross. The sculpture’s lack of polish leaves some to consider it unfinished, while others suggest it is actually a work in continuous process.
And the men of Israel said, “Have ye seen this man that is come up? Surely to defy Israel is he come up: and it shall be, that the man who killeth him, the king will enrich him with great riches, and will give him his daughter, and make his father’s house free in Israel.”
For Michelangelo considered sculpting a subtractive art, as opposed to the additive art of painting: One forms from hard mountain stone a living figure, which grows more as stone grows less. In this way, sculpting for Michelangelo was clearly a metaphor for the tension between body and soul, between earthly matter bound by time and heavenly form freed in eternity.  Who but God can say when the sculpture is complete, that is, when sufficient material has been removed to reveal the spirit within?
And David spake to the men that stood by him, saying, “What shall be done to the man that killeth this Philistine, and taketh away the reproach from Israel? for who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?” And Eliab his eldest brother heard when he spake unto the men; and Eliab’s anger was kindled against David, and he said, “Why camest thou down hither? And with whom hast thou left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know thy pride, and the naughtiness of thine heart; for thou art come down that thou mightest see the battle.”
One day some of the boys in the studio had taken a field trip out to Santa Maria del Carmine to study the lifelike frescoes of Masaccio, the 15th century master of movement and perspective. Now, some say that Michelangelo’s peers had become jealous of his rapid rise in society at the Medici household; others claim that they were peeved by his constant mocking of their work. Regardless of who taunted whom, what no one disputes is the account of one student, Torrigiano, who later said, “I made a fist and gave him such a sock on the nose that I felt bone and cartilage crumble like a cracker. He will bear that mark as long as he lives.” And the truth of this statement can be clearly seen in the crushed nasal septum that is sported by Michelangelo in every portrait of the artist known to exist.
And Saul said to David, “Thou art not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him: for thou art but a youth, and he a man of war from his youth.”
While Michelangelo was a lifelong and fiercely patriotic Florentine, the times dictated that he remain mobile and available for work and safety in both Bologna and Rome, the latter being where he spent most of his very long life. One who intended to survive in Renaissance Italy needed fleet feet for evading plagues and invading armies, not to mention answering the call of patrons and popes. Michelangelo also spent many months in the marble quarries of Carrara, personally overseeing the selection, extraction, and transport of the huge slabs of marble required for his various commissions.
And David said unto Saul, “Thy servant kept his father’s sheep, and there came a lion, and a bear, and took a lamb out of the flock: And I went out after him, and smote him, and delivered it out of his mouth: and when he arose against me, I caught him by his beard, and smote him, and slew him. Thy servant slew both the lion and the bear: and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be as one of them, seeing he hath defied the armies of the living God.” David said moreover, “The Lord that delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear, he will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine.”
And Saul said unto David, “Go, and the Lord be with thee.”
One such commission was offered while Michelangelo was still working on his David in Florence. The Arte della Lana (Wool Guild) commissioned him to sculpt the twelve apostles for the cathedral, and the ambitious artist eagerly accepted the work, along with several other projects as his fame quickly grew. The first apostle he chose to immortalize in stone would also be the last: St. Matthew.
If my rough hammer makes a human form
And carves it in the hard, unyielding stone,
My hand is guided, does not move alone,
But follows where that other worker came.
Yet the first worker, God, remains above,
Whose very motion makes all loveliness.
To make a tool I need a tool, but his
Power is the first cause and makes all things move.
— from “Sonnet LXI”
In this sublime example of contrapposto, in which divine inspiration is expressed solely through body motion, a stalwart Matthew emerges from the background stone as though we have just caught the apostle in a moment of transcendence: that eternal moment when matter becomes spirit. In his left arm he cradles a stone tablet that is also emerging from the foundation behind and beyond them. The tablet is blank—tabula rasa—since Matthew is illiterate and unlettered. Yet something has captured his attention. He turns his great, bearded head as if listening to something behind him in the stone, for legend had it that an angel whispered the gospel into Matthew’s ear so the apostle could transcribe it for the world. We can almost hear God’s messenger now:
THOU SHALT LOVE THE LORD THY GOD WITH ALL THY HEART, AND WITH ALL THY SOUL, AND WITH ALL THY MIND.
THOU SHALT LOVE THY NEIGHBOR AS THYSELF.
Matthew’s right arm hangs loosely by his side, his hand still largely encased in unworked stone, and there is something else—something emerging with the apostle’s fist. Could it be the chisel with which he will inscribe the Two Great Commandments, having received them through divine intervention?
And Saul armed David with his armour, and he put an helmet of brass upon his head; also he armed him with a coat of mail. And David girded his sword upon his armour, and he assayed to go; for he had not proved it. And David said unto Saul, “I cannot go with these; for I have not proved them.” And David put them off him.
Though the artist may seem to have abandoned the work in pursuit of other projects, Michelangelo’s St. Matthew is not unfinished; rather, it eternally portrays the emergence of Matthew’s gospel through ongoing inspiration. The artist was finished, yet the art carries his vision forward. In this way, St. Matthew strides eternally in approach to the ordeal, a three-dimensional portrayal of the soul moving through four-dimensional spacetime. Just as Moses inscribed the Ten Commandments on stone tablets as dictated by God atop Mount Sinai, Matthew will write the Two Great Commandments on the tablet he carries when the angel has finished whispering in his ear.
And he took his staff in his hand, and chose him five smooth stones out of the brook, and put them in a shepherd’s bag which he had, even in a scrip; and his sling was in his hand: and he drew near to the Philistine.
And Michelangelo was himself the recipient of divine representation whispering in his ear. The military leader turned Holy Father, Pope Julius II, had a number of projects he wished accomplished, one of which was a frescoe to adorn the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The artist’s call to adventure came in the form of a letter from a friend with ties to the Vatican. Michelangelo promptly refused the call, complaining that he was a sculptor not a painter, all the while suspecting that rivals in Rome had suggested him for the job in order to prevent him from obtaining any better commissions. Nevertheless, Julius prevailed, and Michelangelo attacked the work with his usual zeal.
What better reason can there be to love,
Than to give glory to the God on high?
He who is pleased with you dwells up above,
And every good heart he will purify.
— from “Sonnet LX (I)”
The Sistine Chapel of the Basilica of St. Peter was consecrated in 1483 by Pope Julius II’s uncle, Pope Sixtus IV. Its unusual dimensions were dictated by those given for the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Solomon: 134 feet long by 44 feet wide by 68 feet high, so Michelangelo was quite literally giving glory to God on high when he ascended the scaffoldings erected to paint the vaulted ceiling while lying on his back some 60 feet above the heads of congregants and priests attending and serving Mass far below. The ceiling had originally been painted sky blue with gold stars, but by 1508 large cracks had formed in the plaster, and their subsequent patches distracted from any hoped-for celestial grandeur. So Michelangelo would spend the next several years applying fresh plaster and his own concept of heavenly glory.
And the Philistine came on and drew near unto David; and the man that bare the shield went before him. And when the Philistine looked about, and saw David, he disdained him: for he was but a youth, and ruddy, and of a fair countenance. And the Philistine said unto David, “Am I a dog, that thou comest to me with staves?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. And the Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give thy flesh unto the fowls of the air, and to the beasts of the field.”
Julius had originally thought to place the twelve apostles on the ceiling, but Michelangelo dismissed that idea, arguing that depictions of such poor men could result only in a paltry frescoe. Papal infallibility does not take such dismissals lightly, yet Julius acquiesced and gave the artist free rein to make the ceiling glorious. In return, Michelangelo gave us God, Christianity, and the Bible, with all of their narratives occurring simultaneously and eternally in the ever-present now. Crossing the threshold upon entering the chapel and bearing all our imperfections, we look up to see not the beginning of the world and the earth without form and void, as our time-bound, mortal perspective would expect, but the beginning of the end: Noah, drunk with wickedness, the waters of the flood upon the earth, and Noah’s family making a sacrifice after the receding waters have destroyed all the sinful creatures of the world. Proceeding into the center of the chapel we see above us the expulsion of Adam and Eve, man and woman running naked from the Garden of Eden for having eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, next the creation of Eve by God and a phalanx of angels from the rib of Adam, who lies sleeping upon the Garden floor, then the iconic image of the animation, the humanization, of Adam by a spark of God’s energy from on high. Only then, as we approach the ordeal over the altar, do we witness the separation of earth from the waters, the creation of the sun, moon, and planets, and the division of light and darkness as God points here and there in a Big Bang of creative frenzy and flies across the universe like an ancient bearded zephyr. And we are not the only witnesses, for each scene is also viewed by hosts of angels, prophets, oracles, and other figures, many of them naked and precariously perched on the edge of gravity, while others are enthroned and pointing to passages in scripture foretelling this mighty scene, this momentous act of God.
It passes from the eyes into the heart
In a split second. Thus all beauties may
Find by this means a wide and generous way;
And so, for countless men, desires start.
— from “Sonnet LVII (II)”
Even as Michelangelo frantically painted up above, there was an uproar among the philistines gathered on the chapel floor over the propriety of having so very many naked bodies floating above their heads, where only God and the prophets are clothed while lower orders are unabashedly portrayed in the nude. And this is as it must be, for we are all naked before God, while He remains veiled, eternally hidden by the raiment of mystery. And then we look ahead to the Last Judgment above the altar, and take in the revelation foretold by all that comes before it: the Second Coming of Christ, still bearing the fresh wounds of crucifixion. Around Him breaks a stream of mortals in all possible states of pathos as Christ dispassionately dispenses judgment with the wave of a hand. Some are disputatious, others resigned; most are sent falling into the depths of Hell below, where they will forever writhe among shades and skeletons.
Then said David to the Philistine, “Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied. This day will the Lord deliver thee into mine hand; and I will smite thee, and take thine head from thee; and I will give the carcasses of the host of the Philistines this day unto the fowls of the air, and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel. And all this assembly shall know that the Lord saveth not with sword and spear: for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give you into our hands.”
We have now heard the lessons for the day, old and new, psalms and proverbs, parable and epistle; chanted in unison the profession of our faith; and are prepared to take and eat the Body of Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, experiencing personally His Second Coming and our own rebirth as Christians. For, though life is lived linearly, moment by moment, and the Bible is read sequentially, word by word, both must be understood mythically—holistically, fractally, and eternally—seeing all at once, as it is portrayed above us and before us in the Sistine Chapel. Just as every sentence in the Bible is a key to the Bible as a whole, every element of Michelangelo’s work is a key to the whole of Christianity. We then rise and go in peace, humbly observing the marble floor as we exeunt the chapel, completing the cycle that began as we entered the sanctuary, looking up at Creation, and made our way to the altar to confess our imperfections and share the Host before exiting anew. In Michelangelo’s fresco we experience two-dimensional space transcending four-dimensional spacetime in a three-dimensional structure. The Sistine Chapel thus becomes ritual itself, ongoing and ever awaiting our participation.
Already now my life has run its course,
And, like a fragile boat on a rough sea,
I reach the place where everyone must cross
And give account of life’s activity.
Now I know well it was a fantasy
That made me think art could be made into
An idol or a king. Though all men do
This, they do it half-unwillingly.
The loving thoughts, so happy and so vain,
Are finished now. A double death comes near –
The one is sure, the other is a threat.
Painting and sculpture cannot any more
Quieten the soul that turns to God again,
To God who, on the cross, for us was set.
— “Sonnet LXV”
Michelangelo had withstood the sting of public scorn, had bested his artistic rivals, and had even stood up to the Pope himself in order to realize his vision in the Sistine Chapel. He would go on to beautify the very face of Rome as architect of her magnificent Capitoline Hill. Yet it was back in Florence that he had shown the world the scope of his genius. No longer a gangly teenager chipping away at discarded scraps of stone, the 26-year-old sculptor had come into his prime as an independent artist who pursued his own vision, won his own commissions, and owned a spacious workshop, where he led his own staff. Not for him the tedious life of a mere craftsman, an artisan turning out replicas in another man’s studio! And so the chips began to fly as the artist attacked the stone, muscles well defined and taut from years of working chisel and hammer, and after three years of sweaty, dusty effort, his masterpiece, his David emerged from the stone as if he had always been there, eternally waiting to be animated, even humanized, by God. For David is in a constant state of readiness, the very moment of deciding to act; we see it clearly in his furrowed brows. What is less clear to any potential foe is that his boyishly nonchalant pose, twisted ever so slightly in contrapposto, belies the fact that this youthful body is already in motion. In his right hand he loosely holds the stone, a mere creek pebble, but the veins in his arm and hand and especially his neck are already bulging with blood pumped by a fiercely beating heart. His prominent Adam’s apple is pulled up in a determined swallow. The shepherd-king’s pupils are dilated with insight as he sizes up the opposition; his scrotum is tightening with anticipation, his nostrils flaring with inspiration. How many flakes of stone had fallen to earth in Michelangelo’s ambitious pursuit of this God-like point of view, this vision of humanity? In animating David’s approach to the ordeal, Michelangelo gave life to his beloved,* his art, bringing honor to his name and adulation to God for centuries to come.
And it came to pass, when the Philistine arose, and came, and drew nigh to meet David, that David hastened, and ran toward the army to meet the Philistine. And David put his hand in his bag, and took thence a stone, and slang it, and smote the Philistine in his forehead, that the stone sunk into his forehead; and he fell upon his face to the earth.
So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and smote the Philistine, and slew him; but there was no sword in the hand of David.
 Michelangelo, Sonnets, trans. Elizabeth Jennings (New York: Routledge, 2002), 15.
 Miles J. Unger, Michelangelo: a life in six masterpieces (New York, Simon & Schuster, 2014), 8-19.
 Michelangelo, 43.
 Unger, 61.
 Michelangelo, 68.
 William E. Wallace, Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man, and His Times (Cambridge, UK, Cambridge UP, 2010), 61-62.
 Michelangelo, 66.
 Unger, 147.
 Michelangelo, 63.
 Michelangelo, 72.
* In Hebrew, David (דָּוִד) means “beloved,” which, in English, is ultimately the past participle verb form of “love.”