Michelangelo the Humanist

The philosophers that Michelangelo heard at Lorenzo de Medici’s table were called “Humanists” because they made a hero out of Man. They put aside the abstruse considerations of the Middle Ages about God and concentrated on Man, on his achievements and on his place in the divine plan of the cosmos. Everything from the “human” point of view, hence “Humanism” their doctrine.

What place does man occupy in the chain of being that God created, from angels down to the beasts? Why, he is the summit, the very purpose, of God’s creation. He is the link between the worlds, heaven and earth, the divine and the human. Even the angels up above had better envy him because he was made with the capacity to choose his destiny.

Michelangelo’s David is that proud Man of the Humanists, of the Renaissance—no longer a boy but newly a man, a man awakening from thousands of years of childhood, of servitude; a man independent, beautiful, and strong. He scowls as he makes a choice, the choice that is his own unique prerogative. Never again will man see himself so enlarged, so wonderful—never again could he. In the Middle Ages he was a part of an ashamed, sinful community, lowly as a worm, shapeless as a pig. Just look at the men and women in Giotto’s hell:

Detail of Giotto’s Last Judgment in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua (a Wikigallery public domain photo)

or at the poor wretches on the walls and choir stalls of the old Romanesque and Gothic churches. In fact, the artist couldn’t even look at them, at himself. None of those nameless artisans even seems to have looked closely at either sex, which were mere cartoons. They painted the Devil with more precision and curiosity.

Another detail of the Giotto’s Last Judgment

And in after-years Man became a captive again with no real options. By our time he was a bundle of complexes and a powerless pawn in some human scheme. We saw him starved, broken apart, tossed onto piles like garbage. He was nobody again, less than nobody. A modern David pounding his chest is as silly as King Kong.

In a way, Michelangelo’s heroes were too large for the world, who never knew what to make of them once the Humanist philosophy had died out. There wasn’t enough of tenderness in them or homey prettiness, not enough of the doll. So they stood revolving, shining like magnificent heavenly orbs, far away and unintelligible.

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10 Responses to Michelangelo the Humanist

  1. Pingback: Michelangelo’s Most Famous Statue « The Best Artists

  2. sellphone says:

    I tried to see the ugly wretches that you say, but I could not find a good reproduction of the complete Judgment day except here http://www.wga.hu/tours/giotto/padova/index24.html
    and there aren’t any wretches! There are lots of angels and Saints! But the devil is very well painted.

    I think you should give a picture of the wretches and also several of the devil because that is of more relevance nowadays or more topical, though wretches I must admit there are also many that I have seen in my life.

  3. I would like to bring attention on some alternative interpretation of MA oeuvre; first example; the central vault panel on the sisitine chapel in Rome. We have been told this is God “breathing into adams nostrils the breath of life” It more seems to me that it really depicts Man’s direct relation with God, at the tip of the fingers, if he does desire, no church to meddle with, no clergy in between. This is no Adam, usually depicted without belly button.

  4. duvalbydesign
    duvalbydesign says:

    Very well said: “There wasn’t enough of tenderness in them or homey prettiness, not enough of the doll. So they stood revolving, shining like magnificent heavenly orbs, far away and unintelligible.” I’m a huge Michelangelo admirer, and I appreciate this post!

  5. Anonymous says:

    I am studying this in Art History as I write this so its very topical for me. I too am a huge fan Michelangelo and his humanist approach. I could never ever tire looking at the workmanship of the wonderful David. Just beautiful.

  6. Frankie says:

    Thanks for the advice

  7. Anonymous says:

    This was very helpful thank you

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