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Michelangelo painted the Sistine chapel between 1508 and 1512. Later a student of his, Giorgio Vasari, writes that when the work was thrown open the whole world came running to see what Michelangelo had done and certainly it was such as to make everyone speechless with astonishment”(Gillgren,(2001). The Sistine chapel is profoundly Christocentric. It was not made as a form of intellect but as a form of worship. It is not an argument or an Iconic display, although both of these are present in the painting. The critical examination of the chapel at times loses the simplicity that this is just great art (Dixon, (1988).
The focus of Michelangelo’s art was man, which on the surface seems to confirm Burckhardt’s analysis of the Renaissance. Neo-Platonism, however, provided a framework for reconciling secularism with Christianity. The Neo-platonist’s interest in man stemmed from his belief that man was that element which tied the universe together. His interest in beauty, as reflected in Michelangelo’s preoccupation with the nude, arose from his identification of beauty with the highest good. Far from being worldly in content, the Neo-Platonist argued that the body was the dungeon of the soul; Michelangelo’s contorted figures symbolize the struggle of the soul to free itself from matter and achieve a vision of God (Robb, N. (1935).
In his book Painting of the High Renaissance in Rome and Florence, S J Freedberg made an effort to define the art of Michelangelo in relation to Neo-Platonism. It is said that can the art of Michelangelo in the Sistine chapel be reduced to concepts like Neo-Platonist or Christian. An iconological understanding must acknowledge both, and also recognize that with the human form is not made from tradition and a lot is Michelangelo’s own interest in Classical
sculpture and to the very particular culture of humanist Italy at the beginning of the Sixteenth century.
Upon entering the chapel, one can see historical scenes close to the entrance. These sides are filled with figures, while the scenes close to the altar only show a few figures. The Prophets and the Sibyls by the entrance are smaller than the ones by the altar. Even as the architecture is expanding, the first Prophets and Sibyls are seated steadily on their thrones. The latter ones further in almost seem to be gliding down the wall toward the floor (Gilgren, (2001). There are two competing explanations for this. One thought is formalistic and the other one iconological. Then there is a third, a quite uncomplicated explanation has really not been given its due consideration: The crescendo makes it possible for the spectator entering the chapel through the old entrance (not the present one, where most people enter today) to see the whole work in just one gaze. The figures close by are smaller and the scenes more crowded, the ones further away are larger and more sculptural-and can therefore be seen all the way from the entrance. While taking in this view is easy to understand the crescendo as a means toward making the work available to the spectator. It is a way to communicate (Gilgren, (2001).
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Michelangelo and the thought of the Neo-platonic Academy suggest that the Renaissance was not as secular or as pagan as Burckhardt would have us believe. Christianity was still a potent a force. The modes of expressing it in the Renaissance, however, were different from those of the Middle Ages. While Saint Bernard and the Benedictine tradition urged the Christian to abandon life in the world, Renaissance Neo-Platonism found God in beautiful things. The Renaissance man did indeed tend to worship the world, but at least for the Neo-Platonist, this was part of the worship of God. Michelangelo once said that art is brought from heaven. Only divine inspiration could have created the David and the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and it was to the divine that Michelangelo wished to appeal (Robb, N. (1935).
The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in a way follows a similar pattern. When the ceiling is divided it is done so in a series of squares, triangles and circles. There are three zones to the ceiling division. The lower zone where very little light is received is defined by De Tolnay as “peopled by a race enduring variations of the human condition”. According to Fleming, the middle zone is a mix of Old Testament prophets and some pagan symbols that “have knowledge of the Divine and mediate between man and God”. The contrast of the pagan symbols and biblical prophets suggests a idea which is not completely Christian. The use of prophets and pagan examples side by side kind of suggests that Michelangelo was looking at the qualities they shared as being important instead of the specific beliefs they stood for. They are according to Fleming the “inspired men and women who, through the exercise of their minds and imaginations, became the mediators between the human and divine spheres”. Angels would have been representing these symbols in most of the other traditional Christian art.
The ceiling of the chapel is perhaps the most famous. In the center the story of many and his relationship with God is shown. The famous finger to finger painting in the center is very well known and everywhere replicated in the world today. It looks like the ceiling is a portrait of biblical history from creation and then ending with the Last Judgment. The first scene which is the Drunkenness of Noah is consistent with Neo-Platonism. Neo-Platonism will often show the lowest state of a soul by drunkenness. The panels of the ceiling go on to show man in his low state to creation. In the panel the Creation of Adam, there are two under the arm of God. As De Tolnay states “One is a girl, who “represents the Platonic idea of Eve, preexisting in the divine intellect”. The last panel, God Dividing the Light from Darkness, shows what a depiction of a complete pure being is. In the Creation of Eve, Michelangelo portrayed God as a human. If you start with at the beginning with the Drunkenness of Noah, the painted story goes through biblical history to where freedom finally and forever is achieved. The panels, because of this progression may then be interpreted as a Neo-Platonism manifesto (Vess, D. (1998).
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