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What was new about Michelangelo's treatment of religious themes in sculpture?

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Introduction

What was new about Michelangelo's treatment of religious themes in sculpture? During his lifetime, 1475 - 1564, Michelangelo was arguably the most representative artist of the Italian Renaissance. Like Leonardo da Vinci he was extremely versatile, being equally capable not only as a painter and sculptor, but also in the art of poetry, music, engineering and architecture. He lived to the extraordinary age, for the time, of eighty-nine. He was not only a great master of the High Renaissance but was also responsible in part for the development of Mannerism, a style that became predominant in Europe during the last three-quarters of the 16th Century. Although monumentally gifted in the art of painting, it is Michelangelo's chosen medium of sculpture for which he will forever stand alone. The most impressive of Michelangelo's religious themes, examples being the 'Pieta' and 'David', are universally hailed as some of the greatest works of art ever produced by mankind. However, it was Michelangelo's imagination in composition and readiness to break from tradition in subject matter that first brought him notoriety in the field of sculpture. Even from his very earliest works, it is this never seen before ability to "lay bare his soul to the spectator's gaze"1 that provides the intense emotion within the Michelangelo religious themes. It is this ability to project his emotion onto the stone that must be examined in a response to this question. ...read more.

Middle

The work is a complete contrast to earlier works upon the theme, such as Sansovino's Bacchus, which demonstrate a reverence that was deemed appropriate to the treatment of such a figure. That Michelangelo's work is not so again demonstrates the imagination and innovative nature of the artist. Arguably the greatest example that can be given of the individuality of Michelangelo's religious themes in sculpture can be seen with the 'Pieta' of St Peters, Rome. Argued by some critics to be the greatest work of art ever produced, the 'Pieta' was Michelangelo's first important religious commission5. The composition of the piece is individual to Michelangelo. The piece is remarkable for the easily overlooked lack of literal realism. In scale and proportion the piece is physically wrong in nearly every dimension. The figure of the Christ lies limp and lifeless across the Virgins lap. The figure is very human and very inglorious, the twisted body lying heavily and uncomfortably. If scale were correct, there is no way that the Virgin would be able to hold the body in such a way. This is only achieved in stone by the manner in which the 'exquisite' sharp chiselled flowing drapery seems to increase the size of the Virgin, so as to allow her to bear the burden. The piece has been criticised and acclaimed for the personal treatment of the piece and the lack of reverence that goes hand in hand with it. ...read more.

Conclusion

Although the subject matter was not original, a strikingly similar David having already been produced by Donatello, the piece is remarkable for the conveyance of "an eternal image of spiritual courage and physical energy." 7 The personality of the piece is striking. Unlike the Donatello David, Michelangelo's work does not carry the sword; the easily overlooked sling over the shoulder the only real indication as to the identity of the figure. However, it is the overbearing dignity of the figure that lends such personality to the piece. In comparison to the afore mentioned 'Bacchus', the 'David' is stood upright and alert, his face set in determination. The personality is distinct. It is this that once again distinguishes Michelangelo's treatment of religious themes. Many more examples could be given of Michelangelo's work in confronting such a question. Works such as the 'Christ Risen' and the 'Bruges Madonna' to name but two are both remarkable for their treatment of religious themes. However, this is simply not possible in so short an essay. Michelangelo's religious themes in sculpture broke the conventional mould and set the man aside in his medium of choice. His intensely personal treatment of the subjects led critics to describe him as opening up his soul to the spectator. This is a highly accurate description given the intense emotion and personality of the pieces. That Michelangelo's statues were the physical embodiment in stone of his imagination is an accurate summing up of his work. It is this that was new about Michelangelo's treatment of religious themes in sculpture. ...read more.

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