Art History 101: The Divine One

By Austin Bowes

via  Wikipedia
via Wikipedia

All right, kids, back to school! Today, we’re returning to the Renaissance (ooooo!) with one of my great pals, Michelangelo – not the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, but one of the most magnificent artists of his time.

Just like our friend Leo, Michelangelo was quite the Renaissance man. He was a sculptor, painter, architect, poet, etc. He was often called “Il Divino” (“The Divine One”) to his face (wowza). He was the first Western artist to be alive when his biography was published (written by Giorgio Vasari, the first art historian). His style was exaggerated upon by other artists, growing into the next art movement after High Renaissance, Mannerism (it’s actually just a theory, but I believe it).

My first interaction with Michelangelo was in my hometown of Sarasota, Florida. Our museum, the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art, has a bronze cast replica of Michelangelo’s statue of David. These replicas are now more common than one might think, but it is iconic in my city, as it is the centerpiece to our city’s flag and logo. In any case, David stands tall in the Ringling Museum’s courtyard, staring out into the distance. I remember learning about David and Goliath while I gazed in awe of the musculature of his body. (I also recommend standing behind the statue to witness the most well-sculpted booty in all of history, just sayin’.)

It was a lot to take in. Even though it was a copy, I still tried to imagine how Michelangelo carved the original out of marble. The original, of course, stands in Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia, conserved in all of its beauty. It’s a huge tourist attraction and will undoubtedly be an Instagram obsession of my own when I visit Florence.

As a young boy, Michelangelo was sent to study grammar in Florence. Michelangelo did not like school, preferring to instead copy paintings. At thirteen, he apprenticed Domenico Ghirlandaio, one of the great artists of the Renaissance. He was paid as an artist, not an apprentice. This was highly unusual for the time and speaks for Michelangelo’s artistry at such a young age. The apprenticeship brought him closer to the ruler of Florence, Lorenzo de Medici.

There were many years in which Michelangelo moved around Italy, all while still creating his magnificent artwork, until one of his works impressed a Cardinal who invited him to Rome to work. Here, Michelangelo was commissioned and created one of his most famous works, the “Pietà.” It depicts Mary holding the body of the deceased Jesus, with a naturalistic and classical beauty. Although entirely out of proportion (Jesus’s body can fit into Mary’s lap) and unrealistic (Mary is shown as a young woman and Jesus shows few signs that he was crucified with only small holes in his hands and feet), this dramatic scene in Christianity is one of Michelangelo’s greatest works and can be seen today in St. Peter’s Basilica.

(I will now fast-forward to talking about Michelangelo’s contributions to St. Peter’s, skipping the statue of David and his friendship with Leonardo, so look it up for extra credit.)

In 1506, the newly elected Pope Julius II made the bold decision to tear down the old and neglected St. Peter’s and reconstruct it with Donato Bramante as its architect. At the same time, Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to construct the Pope’s tomb, an honor for any artist, which made Bramante jealous. In his resentment, Bramante wanted to embarrass Michelangelo by making him paint, a medium he was unfamiliar with, so that he would fail. Thus, the Pope commissioned Michelangelo for the Sistine Chapel.

As one can assume, Bramante failed at embarrassing Michelangelo.

Michelangelo painted the Creation, the Fall of Man, the genealogy of Christ, and many other Biblical stories. Twenty years later, Pope Clement VII commissioned him to complete his fresco on the Sistine Chapel altar wall, which was of the Last Judgment.

I could really go on and on. I feel bad that I didn’t get to cover his architectural work on St. Peter’s, or talk about his love life and poetry (Fun Fact: did you know he was bisexual? He wrote sonnets and madrigals to younger men and women that fancied him). An abstemious and introverted man, he is remembered as a giant in the Renaissance. Giorgio Vasari claimed him the pinnacle of all artistic achievement at that time – an opinion with which I completely agree.

Austin Bowes is a contributing writer. Email him at


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