Michelangelo’s Immortality

“Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own.”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

The soul-stirring dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica, designed by Michelangelo towards the end of his life, was his crowning achievement. He died before it was completed but only after leaving detailed instructions, which were followed to the letter. I have recently read a fascinating biography dedicated to the last years of the artist’s life. You can read an inspiring and more detailed review of the book here.

The book is dedicated to various projects Michelangelo was working on during the last years of his life. Starting with the magnificent Moses, whose “accusatory stare” accompanied the artist in his private quarters. The two virtually lived together. According to a legend, Michelangelo once demanded from the sculpture, “Why don’t you speak?” Why Moses seems like such a irresistible force of nature can be perhaps explained by a quote from the book, which describes how Michelangelo chose the marble for this project:

“As he looked at the scarred mountain face, he was inspired to carve a colossus, using the entire mountain as his raw material.”

Apparently, Sigmund Freud was mesmerized by the statue, which he called “inscrutable.” He quotes an art critic, who muses over the reason why this rendition of Moses has the head of Pan. According to Freud, Moses here restrains himself from leaping to his feet and smashing the tablets of the Ten Commandments on the ground. It has been explained that the horns were probably a result of an incorrect translation of the Exodus, which described Moses as coming down from the Sinai with two “rays” on his forehead. The Jewish words for rays and horns are apparently very similar. Still, what Freud described as “a violent gust of passion” depicted in the sculpture harmonizes well with the horns of a wild pagan deity featured on the prophet’s head. The hand touching the beard is, according to Wallace, “one of those unconscious gestures that one sees repeatedly in Michelangelo’s art, subconscious thought animating unconscious, nervous movement.”


When Michelangelo was 72, he began working on another magnificent sculpture – the Florentine Pietà. It was never finished; when you look closer you will notice than one of Christ’s legs is missing. Nonetheless, there is so much love and poignancy in the way in which the three figures – Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene (on the left) and Nicodemus support the body of Christ. The centrality of Mary Magdalene in Christ’s life is visible in the composition, says Wallace:

“The Magdalene kneels on the privileged right hand of her Lord and savior. She helps to sustain his dead body; his right arm and hand fall across her shoulder, and his fingers lightly brush her back.”

The artist wanted the sculpture to adorn his grave and for this very reason he was afraid to finish it. It stayed in his quarters for a larger part of the rest of his life.


Florentine Pietà

Yet it is St Peter’s Basilica and most importantly its dome which have granted Michelangelo immortality. The detailed description of the structure form one of the best passages of the book. Here are just a few:

“There are sixteen vertical ribs. From any vantage point, just eight ribs are visible. The number eight, symbolically, suggests the Resurrection, and a dome is a metaphor of heaven.”

“Against the sky, the dome attracts the eye like a buoy on a boundless blue sea. Birds are drawn to it: cawing gulls in the morning, silent swifts in the evening. At night the dome is more beacon than buoy—a light in a vast ocean of darkness. It is seen from everywhere in Rome.”

“The dome both contains and concentrates vertical forces. It is a mountain rising above the sacred ground of the Mons Vaticanus.”

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9 Responses to Michelangelo’s Immortality

  1. this is awesome to contemplate

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jeff Japp says:

    Nice post, Monika. I got to experience some of Michelangelo’s work when I visited Italy some years back. Pictures just do not do them justice. He was a genius the likes of which we may not see again.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Monika,
    I enjoyed this piece. But I’m actually writing because I have a couple questions. I’ve been researching the American Art Nouveau artist Louis Tiffany. Though he is best known for his stained glass windows and his lamps, he was proudest of his vases, and many critics have long said that this is where he reached the pinnacle of his art. I think he was subconsciously on a lifelong search for the sacred feminine, and this all came together in his vases (and bowls, cups, and other blown glass objects). It seems to me that these object are the meeting point of two very potent symbols: the vessel and glass. So I wonder if you have some ideas for where I might look to find writing about the symbolic powers of vessels (chalices, bowls, cups, etc.) and glass. Glass feels to me to contain a feminine psychic energy: it’s mysterious, translucent or transparent, flowing, changing, growing; it is transformed from sand and powder within a womb-like kiln; etc. But I may be way off…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you so much Monika!
    I ordered the Book of Symbols — but thank you so much for the offer of scanning the page!
    Thanks also for sending links to your posts on these topics. I really appreciate it. Glass is a complicated symbol because it is so rich, but its meaning has changed so much in recent centuries. To the Egyptians and Babylonians, glass didn’t mean windows, mirrors, and of course not telescopes, microscopes, eyeglasses, etc. As you write, they had “mirrors” but not flat glass ones like we do. But what they could do with glass was amazing. Their glass vessels are incredibly beautiful.
    Speaking of which, you have a picture of a lion from the Ishtar Gate of Babylon. There was a fascinating exhibit about that in NY recently. I didn’t see it, and I wish I could afford the book about it! What was so interesting is that they really delved into the world of the craftsmen:
    Lastly, I love that line from Borges: “mirrors and copulation are abominable since they both multiply the number of men….” I remember reading that years ago in grad school. I never forgot that line!
    All the best,

    Liked by 1 person

  5. One other question…
    I’ve been looking at the ARAS website (it seems they’re the ones that published the Book of Symbols). They use some abbreviations that I think refer to works of Jung, but I can’t figure them out. I’d like to read the whole section in the Jung work. Here are the two that I’m stumped on:
    ML p.164 and CW6 para. 401.
    Do you know what these refer to? Thanks!


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