“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.
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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