For six or eight hundred years the Christian perspective of the human form had prevailed. Then for some reason or for many of them, men began to look back with nostalgia to classical times. Some say it was the rediscovery of Aristotle and the old Greek philosophers. Some say this discovery already showed dissatisfaction with the Church view of the times and that a new worldliness had been picking up momentum for two or three hundred years, since the Gothic revolution, and that the new Humanism was just the next step.
Whatever caused it, it gathered steam and couldn´t be stopped.
In Michelangelo´s time they began to dig in old Rome, looking for beautiful ruins. One of the most surprising discoveries was the Laocoön.
Michelangelo himself went to see it lifted out of the dirt that had covered it for a thousand years and more. It was a sculptural group from Hellenistic times showing the old priest and his sons being killed by snakes. Laocoön twists in agony and despair. Yet his body isn´t the miserable puppet that the artisans of the Middle Ages might have made of him, but the proud encarnation of the old gods, with all its noble architecture and dignity. It was the greatest example Michelangelo had ever seen of the nude perceived as sublime, and it impressed him so much that there is a trace of this Laocoön in all the statues he carved after seeing it.
A modern specialist has even come up with the theory that the Laocoon was carved by Michelangelo himself. See this article published in the Guardian:
Is the Laocoon a fake by Michelangelo?
Michelangelo gave his figures the old touch of divinity—terribilitá. That was their uniqueness, his stamp. His David is a god; Bernini’s David is a guy struggling with a strap.
That look of godliness was exactly what he wanted, what he felt, what he himself wanted to show in his work. Man was that great, wasn´t he? He could do anything. The earth was his. Wasn´t he the supreme creation of God? Hadn´t God made man in His own image and likeness?
Greeks: gods are like men; Michelangelo: man is like a god:
Man was the most beautiful of God´s creations. He was divine, even theologically, since his soul would live forever.
>>>> Next: The Classical Ideal of Beauty