by Miguel Carter Fisher
I recently read Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King. The book, which admirably balances fluid story telling with a comprehensive perspective, tells the story of Michelangelo and Pope Julius II during the years the Sistine Chapel Ceiling was painted.
There are many passages which are worth reflecting on, but the portion of the book that seems to have struck me the hardest was about Michelangelo’s rival Raphael’s reaction to the unveiling of the first half of the ceiling.
Over a year had passed since Raphael completed the School of Athens, and yet after viewing the chapel ceiling, Raphael went back to the fresco and added the fifty-sixth figure. This figure, as seen below, which resembles Michelangelo is thought to be the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Some have interpreted this to be an homage in admiration of Michelangelo and his achievement in the Sistine Chapel.
If Michelangelo was in fact the model for Heraclitus, the compliment was double-edged. Heraclitus of Ephesus, known as both Heraclitus the Obscure and “the Weeping Philosopher,” believed the world to be in a state of constant flux, a proposition summed up by his two most famous sayings: “You cannot step into the same river twice” and “The sun is new every day.” But it is not this philosophy of universal change that seems to have inclined Raphael to lend him the features of Michelangelo; more like it was Heraclitus’s legendary sour temper and bitter scorn for all rivals. He heaped derision on predecessors such as Pythagoras, Xenophanes, and Hecataeus. He even abused Homer, claiming the blind poet should have been horse-whipped. The citizens of Ephesus were no more popular with the cantankerous philosopher. Every last one of them, he wrote, ought to be hanged.
King continues with one of my favorite paragraphs in the book which describes the aesthetic difference between the two artists.
One way to understand the differing styles of the two artists is through a pair of aesthetic categories developed two and a half centuries later by the Irish statesman and writer Edmund Burke in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, published in 1756. For Burke, those things we call beautiful have the properties of smoothness, delicacy, softness of color, and elegance of movement. The sublime, on the other hand, comprehends the vast, the obscure, the powerful, the rugged, the difficult attributes which produce in the spectator a kind of astonished wonder and even terror. For the people of Rome in 1511, Raphael was beautiful but Michelangelo sublime.
The word beautiful in conversation often refers to everything from attractive women, to pastoral landscapes, but generally refers to something pleasing to the senses. It is an adjective which implies human desire and satisfaction. The sublime is that which is powerful but not necessarily a reflection of human need. The sublime can be both a blessing or terrible. The same sun that gives warmth and life can also burn and dehydrate. The sublime humbles us.
Raphael was clearly disposed towards beauty and desire. When one looks at Raphael’s biography one sees an individual who was a popular instructor, sociable, handsome, and not so pious as to refrain from various love affairs. He seems to have lived in pursuit of the pleasures of life and even died by them. When he passed on his 37th birthday Vasari states that the cause was that he “indulged in more than his usual excess.”
Michelangelo, in contrast, had a disposition towards the sublime. I believe that this disposition may be an unappreciated cause for comparison to Heraclitus. If one agrees that “you cannot step into the same river twice” than you are accepting the inherent instability of existence. Meditation on this instability may drive one’s aesthetic inclinations toward the sublime. While Heraclitus rooted this existential instability in the perpetually changing universe, Michelangelo rooted his own existential instability in fear of God.
As an adolescent Michelangelo was inspired by the sermons of Girolamo Savonarola, a friar famous for his fiery sermons calling for Florence to change its sinful ways or suffer the wrath of God. Michelangelo became deeply pious and rather than focusing on the forgiving God of the New Testament like many of his peers, he focused on the punishing God of the Old. King writes:
He was fascinated, instead, by tragic, violent narratives of crime and punishment such as those -complete with hangings, plagues, propitiations, and beheadings…
This disposition is reflected in his depiction of the prophet Jeremiah, which like Heraclitus is also thought to be an image of Michelangelo:
If Raphael built upon the aesthetic achievements of the earlier Renaissance masters such as Leonardo, Ghirlandaio, and Perugino. Michelangelo marked the beginning of a new aesthetic trend which would influence later artists, known as the mannerist, such as Jacopo da Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino.
Now, nearly five centuries later, I think about the world as it is today, and I speculate about my own work and that of my peers and wonder who we resemble more, Raphael or Michelangelo.