Michelangelo’s Only Low Relief

The Madonna of the Steps. Casa Buonarroti. Florence)

Michelangelo made this low-relief when he was a boy. If he weren’t the author it would have been dumped long ago. Why did HE hang onto it? Because it reminded him of the good times when he knew so little and yet tried so hard. He smiled at those beginner’s defects.

The Virgin, dressed like a Roman matron from classical times, sits there stiffly. That is the influence on the boy of the Massacio frescoes he had been copying or of some old Roman gravestone figures. But the drapery is unusually alive. Except for her face, her hands and feet, the Virgin is completely covered and yet defined everywhere by the cloth, which is as restless and as playful as a living thing. Everywhere it “does things”. It sits in a little pile of folds on the Virgin’s shoulder and hangs down her back, ready to be pulled closed like a curtain once the Child is finished nursing. It stretches out flat on her thigh, then rests on the seat awhile before falling off the step—and not very freely even then. It gets caught on the corner of her seat. It winds around her ankle. It plays on and on.

Michelangelo smiled again when he saw how the perspective trick had failed.
He had had those doors of Ghiberti in his head—he thought he would put some of that much-praised new linear perspective into his first relief. He drew the Virgin and some angels (or boys) on the marble slab. How about having a stairway? The angels could be at the top of the stairs, high up in the frame. The steps would become slightly smaller as they rose to the top, and the bannister would taper. The eye would then be fooled into believing that those angels were behind the Virgin, playing while she was daydreaming at the foot of the stairs.

But the perspective lines failed; they didn’t do their trick.
The enthusiastic young Michelangelo had remembered that if you were looking at the angels from downstairs, you wouldn’t be able to see their feet, and so he very properly, following the logics of the illusion, drew them cut off at the knees. That was all right. The problem here was that, though you might believe those angels are horsing around behind the Virgin and that the biggest on the left is calling to the one on the right (to get him out of bed?), they and the big seated Virgin have nothing to do with each other. The excited angel on the stairs is so close to the Virgin’s head that, until you see how you are supposed to understand the relief, it looks as though he is talking to her.
There was another problem with the steps themselves: shouldn’t the tops of some of them (the lowest) be visible?

Besides the great concert of folds, what is outstanding in the relief is the beautiful Michelangelo-esque back of the Child, which reminds you of the big Giorno in the Medici Chapel, carved forty years later.

And the Virgin’s hands, though they are very big.

Michelangelo learned his lesson here. Seeing the dangers of those perspective lines in a relief, he never tried them again. Wisely.

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7 Responses to Michelangelo’s Only Low Relief

  1. wrjones says:

    Great description. I was painting a cup with napkin this weekend. Forced to move my setup I painted from memory (what was I thinking). I asked my daughter what she thought and she said it looked like the napkin was taller than the cup. I did not agree so I recreated the setup to show her the error in her thinking. Of course, she was right, the perspective was WAY off.

    Well, it is easily fixed with oil paint, and hard to imagine the pain of discovering such an error in marble.

  2. 100swallows says:

    That’s why sculptors make a clay or wax model for any really complex design–to work out the big problems. You solve the little ones while you work, which is part of the fun.
    Remember what Bernini said (Bernini was famous for working from the merest sketches): a statue shows what the sculptor knew before he started whereas a painting shows what the painter knew before he started AND everything he learned while painting it.

  3. I would have never seen all those “defects” if you wouldn’t have them pointed out… for me it’s a very beautiful bassrelief, with the folds, for instance, remarkably “airy”(?) delicat and “transparent”… But then, I’m no sculptor myself…

  4. 100swallows says:

    But sculpture isn’t only for sculptors, Danu! I hope I didn’t spoil any of your enjoyment of the relief by pointing out what I consider “errors”. What you say is true: the drapery is very airy and delicate and transparent. What makes the relief a beginner’s work for Michelangelo is that those folds are so unlike the ones he sculpted later on when he had found his own style. Typical Michelangelo folds are big and clear, not thin, vague wrinkles.

  5. Jasmine says:

    I think this is a very exquisite masterpiece….it is very interesting to know that he was
    only a boy when he did this and I think it is a pretty good artwork.I don’t know when the year was though.

    • 100swallows says:

      Jasmine: Thanks. No one knows the date of this relief, though it was done while Michelangelo was living at the Medici palace as a young man. He was probably fifteen or sixteen.

  6. Anonymous says:

    it would be better if more details were given on relief work and also more relief sculpture if was possible as it will help me more on my research

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