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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Michelangelo's Encore

Entertainers delight in doing encores. Painters do them too, though usually with somewhat less panache' than their initial performance, and often with no small amount of dread, having already done their best, just in trying to match their original effort. Put yourself in Michelangelo's place in 1536. He's 61 years old. He would live to be 89, but even at that, his days of nimbly scaling scaffolding were rapidly waning. Following the death of Pope Clement VII, he was called back to Rome from Florence by the new pope, Paul III, to do another fresco (a medium which he hated). Worse than that, he was being asked to do an encore performance in the very room bearing his greatest artistic masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel. The wall behind the altar had been in a state of ugly disrepair for a generation or more. Even while the ceiling painting under Julius II, there had been discussions of what to do about it. However given the state of Julius's health, his tomb had seemed more pressing, so the matter was put on a back burner.

The Last Judgment, 1536-41, Michelangelo
When Michelangelo arrived in Rome, he came thinking the scene would be a resurrection, only to find that, with the change of popes, there had also been a change of concepts as well. Pope Paul III wanted a last judgment. Very well, whatever popes want, they generally get, and Michelangelo, even at sixty-one years of age, was never one to shrink from such a challenge. He would do an encore with such a powerful explosion of dramatic images as to make his ceiling seem to be merely a warm-up exercise. He must have reasoned that a last judgment could be such a cataclysmic spectacle as to dominate even Genesis and the story of creation itself. He started to work in 1536 and poured five long, hard years of his dwindling life into the masterpiece. And like everything else he ever painted, the work was as controversial as it was wondrous. When it was finished and unveiled in 1541, it was received with equal parts of awe, shock, and praise.

One might think that painting a mere wall, even one seventy-some feet tall, would seem like child's play for a painter who had labored flat on his back for four long, excruciating, turbulent years painting a ceiling more than twice as large. Perhaps, but the wall was not without its difficulties. First of all, two windows had to be removed, the old frescoes torn down, and even two lunettes of his supposedly sacrosanct ceiling (containing the first seven generations of Christ's lineage) had to be destroyed by the artist's own hand no less. What a traumatic experience that must have been. Moreover, once he began, he encountered a visual problem unlike any he'd had to deal with in the ceiling work. The Last Judgment would be seen from the floor of course, but unlike the ceiling, which was a uniform distance from that floor, the wall ranged from a mere ten feet at the bottom to the full 70 feet at the top. It meant painting the lower figures (the damned) about half life size while those near the central figure of Christ were nearly twice life size. Of course, all these trials and tribulations would quickly be forgotten once the painting was finished and the praise and adulation he'd experience in the completion of the ceiling began rolling in.  Wrong! Times had changed. The Counter-reformation had set in. About half the people who saw the scores of writhing, naked figures in the finished fresco hated it.

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