Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Michelangelo: Gifted Artist, Lover of Male Beauty, and Secret Reformer of the Church


You may want to tune-in tonight at 7:00 p.m. to your local PBS station for the program Secrets of the Dead. Here (with my added emphasis) is how tonight’s episode, Michelangelo Revealed, is being billed:

Throughout his masterful career, Michelangelo glorified the Catholic Church, etching its ideals into sculptures and artwork that defined religion for the masses. Now, 500 years after his death, art historian Antonio Forcellino has found evidence of Michelangelo’s involvement with a clandestine fellowship that aimed to reform the Catholic Church from within. The group’s radical ideas and accusations of corruption were considered heretical and punishable by death; Michelangelo’s involvement put him at dangerous odds with powerful officials who held his livelihood — and life — in their hands. “Michelangelo Revealed” examines incongruities in Michelangelo’s works, painting a stunning new picture of religious expression, personal vendettas, careful cover-ups, and a gifted artist desperately trying to reconcile his loyalty to the church with his own beliefs.

Wow! The great and revered Michelangelo involved with a group trying to “reform the Church from within”! Definitely sounds like something I can relate to! And aren’t you glad that, as a friend of mine reminded me, the “punishable by death” bit is now “off the table.” Who says the Church can’t and hasn’t changed?!

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475-1564) was, of course, as one webite notes, “a brilliant Italian artist who is best known for such masterpieces as the triumphant sculpture David, the controversial Last Judgment, and his paintings on the magnificent ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. [He] was a master sculptor and a reluctant painter. Inspired by the works of antiquity and his own religious faith, Michelangelo created some of the most remarkable sculptures in history. His obsession with physical beauty and the nude male form influenced much of his work, and his sculptures, paintings, and buildings continue to inspire and awe art-lovers today.”

I remember visiting Florence with my parents in the summer of 2005 and being enthralled by the beauty of the city and by Michelangelo’s “David,” which is housed there. The original is safely indoors and, upon entering to view it, visitors are told that photography is strictly prohibited. However, as you’ll see from the images below, at least two replicas of the famed statue can be seen (and photographed) in other parts of the city.

Here’s what I wrote in my journal about my time in Florence:

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

I’ve paused in my wandering through the streets of Florence to enjoy a cool lemon soda at Caffé le Torri, a little streetside café.

One of the first places we visited upon our arrival was the gallery that houses Michelangelo’s incredible “David.” What a beautiful work of art it is. I’d never been that impressed or moved by photos of it, yet seeing it in the flesh, so to speak, is something altogether different. And in many ways, it is like seeing living human flesh – in all its detail and sensuality.

4:20 p.m.

I now I sit before the church that houses the bones of Michelangelo. I feel quite tired from walking around the old city and am content to sit for a while in the shade on the pavement that is still radiating the heat of the day. And it has been a hot day – as was yesterday in Rome.

I’m on my tenth roll of film! I’ve tried to be sparing in what I photograph [during this European tour] yet find it difficult to resist some really beautiful and interesting shots. Some views, however, have remained potential shots. I’m thinking of the many beautiful European men I’ve seen on the streets, in the hotels, and in the cafés. Today, for instance, I observed a workman pausing in his labour beside his cement mixer. The man was posing naturally and beautifully – a rival to “David.” No, bettering David, for he truly breathes, moves, sweats.

It seems that Michelangelo would have shared my appreciation of and attraction to the male form. Notes Wikipedia:

Fundamental to Michelangelo’s art is his love of male beauty, which attracted him both aesthetically and emotionally. In part, this was an expression of the Renaissance idealization of masculinity. But in Michelangelo’s art there is clearly a sensual response to this aesthetic

The sculptor’s expressions of love have been characterized as both neo-platonic and openly homoerotic; recent scholarship seeks an interpretation which respects both readings, yet is wary of drawing absolute conclusions.

. . . The greatest written expression of his love was given to Tommaso dei Cavalieri (c. 1509–1587), who was 23 years old when Michelangelo met him in 1532, at the age of 57. Cavalieri was open to the older man's affection: “I swear to return your love. Never have I loved a man more than I love you, never have I wished for a friendship more than I wish for yours.” Cavalieri remained devoted to Michelangelo till his death.

Michelangelo dedicated to him over three hundred sonnets and madrigals, constituting the largest sequence of poems composed by him. Some modern commentators assert that the relationship was merely a Platonic affection, even suggesting that Michelangelo was seeking a surrogate son. However, their homoerotic nature was recognized in his own time, so that a decorous veil was drawn across them by his grand nephew, Michelangelo the Younger, who published an edition of the poetry in 1623 with the gender of pronouns changed. John Addington Symonds, the early British homosexual activist, undid this change by translating the original sonnets into English and writing a two-volume biography, published in 1893.

The sonnets are the first large sequence of poems in any modern tongue addressed by one man to another, predating Shakespeare’s sonnets to his young friend by a good fifty years.

. . . It is impossible to know for certain whether Michelangelo had physical relationships (Ascanio Condivi ascribed to him a “monk-like chastity”), but through his poetry and visual art we may at least glimpse the arc of his imagination.

Finally, Michelangelo is currently in the news as the Associated Press is reporting today that “the Kimbell Art Museum will soon be the only U.S. museum to display a Michelangelo painting after acquiring his earliest known work, a rare treasure that was tucked away and doubted as authentic for more than a century.”

The work is “The Torment of St. Anthony,” described as “a 15th-century oil and tempera painting on a wood panel that depicts scaly, horned, winged demons trying to pull the saint out of the sky.”

According to some art historians, Michelangelo painted it when he was twelve or thirteen. I have to wonder what attracted a boy of that age to create such an image. Was he himself feeling tormented? And was this torment related to his dawning awareness of his appreciation for and attraction to the male form?

Anyway, to read the news story about the Kimbell Art Museum’s acquisition of Michelangelo’s “Torment of St. Anthony,” click here.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Inherent Sensuality of Roman Catholicism
The Catholic High Mass: Beautiful and Inherently Gay?
The Archangel Michael as Gay Icon
Real Holiness

Image 1: "Leonardo Da Vinci and Salai" by Ryan Grant Long. Writes Long: "The Renaissance master artist and inventor Leonardo Da Vinci must have loved his studio assistant Gian Giancomo Caprotti da Oreno (nicknamed Salai, which means 'little devil'). After living with the young hellion for a year, Da Vinci listed Salai's vices, calling him "a thief, a liar, stubborn, and a glutton." Salai stole money and valuables, and his art was inferior, yet clearly something about Salai endeared him to Da Vinci since he kept him around for 30 more years and featured him in several drawings and paintings."
Image 2: Michelangelo by Jacopino del Conte (1540).
Image 3: “David” by Michelangelo (photographer unknown).
Images 4-10: Michael J. Bayly (August 2005).
Image 11: “Ignudo” by Michelangelo.
Image 12: “The Torment of St. Anthony” by Michelangelo.


Liam said...

It will be interesting to see how Michelangelo gets depicted as a crypto-Protestant, since his style of art was repugnant to Protestants of his day. Michelangelo's sacred nudes were the object of reformers in the Council of Trent - so if anything, Michelangelo's style was, artistically, *not* on the reforming side of things. This is no secret, but well known.

Perhaps the author is making the exceedingly false assumption that, in the 16th century, reform=Protestant. Actually, most of the reforming folks stayed within the Church. Pope Paul IV - who had been a reformer earlier in his career - was so paranoid about reform getting out of hand in the Council of Trent that he underminded reformers. (Recall that this was the pope who had Michelangelo's nudes dressed up to conform to the Council, ostensibly, just showing that reforming zeal within the Church had conflicting flavors).

Of course, PBS loves to write program descriptions designed to entice folks who imagine fictions like the Da Vinci Code, commentary by people like Professor Pagels and articles by a debased National Geographic on the Gospel of Judas (which was later the subject of something of a professional scandal) represent cutting-edge discoveries.

Caveat lector.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Liam,

Thanks for your comment.

I too will be interested in seeing how this topic is addressed - though I'll probably have to catch the program on Channel 17 at some later date, as I have a Catholic Coalition for Church Reform meeting tonight at 7:00, which is perhaps kind of appropriate/ironic.



crystal said...

Interesting post. I had something about Florence a while ago too. The David is beautiful but I also like the Greek statues of the classical period.

Emily K said...

I studied in Rome for a semester, and as I was an art student, it was very meaningful. But I hesitate to apply any kind of sexuality to any work. I know from my own personal work that even a piece created out of (or for the expression of) a deep affection for someone is not necessarily sexual. (I'm a queer and have been "out" since I was 15). Sometimes I wonder if people are so eager to apply sexual meaning to that which is so much more complex simply because it is the verboden thing to do. (a crucifix with Jesus dressed in leather garb? gasp!! how daring!! etc.) People are quick to point out how "sexual" Bernini's "St. Teresa in Ecstacy" is. But I don't think you can put such simple labels on feelings created by art, or on the attempt of the artist to express those feelings. What if the elation St. Teresa experienced in her spiritual visions and the elation some feel during sexual acts is actually the same kind of universal feeling that doesn't belong to any one thing? That the feeling that people strive to achieve through different ways, often with opposite paths from one another, can't be owned by any one person or thing or theory.

It's comforting for many to say, "see? ah HA!! he was really making a GAY masterpiece, not just a religious one!" but I think in doing so, many will miss what I believe is the point of the fine arts as a whole - to express what is un-expressable through simple words and explanation. And in the end, whether we artists like it or not, releasing a piece of art to the world gives the whole world license to feel whatever it wants to feel when viewing it. Long after I'm dead, a portrait I've drawn of a girl might be interpreted as a slight against her character or a deeply loving honest portrayal - and I won't be around to "correct" anyone.