A brutal example of the relationship between art and justice
A truly worthy artist knows how to paint well and imitate nature. Michelangelo Merisi from Caravaggio.
In the history of Western painting, Caravaggio occupies a unique place. Few geniuses had such an influence on the later development of the visual arts without, yet, leaving a school of their own.
Master of the chiaroscuro technique, Caravaggio anticipated modern painting by nearly three centuries, by bringing to the center of art the reality of human drama as experienced by common people. As the result of his turbulent life, Caravaggio’s art unveils the intricate relationships between creative genius, law, and diplomacy.
Born on September 29, 1571, in Milan, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio experienced human suffering early. In 1576, his family was forced to move to the city he adopted as his surname — Caravaggio — to escape a pandemic that devastated the Milanese population at the time.
We can only imagine what he went through. He lost his father and grandfather on the same day in 1577. The boy was only five years old. Less than ten years later, at the age of thirteen, Caravaggio would lose his mother, in the same year of 1578, in which he would begin his apprenticeship in the studio of Simone Peterzano, a pupil of Titian. We can say that a tall tree takes root in hell.
And that tree didn’t take long to grow and bear fruit. Fruits full of thorns. Caravaggio had a bohemian spirit, irascible and violent. He made history for his notorious inability to control his aggression. In short, dear reader, Caravaggio was arrogant, short-tempered, and a troublemaker.
He didn’t take shit home. He was the perfect type of indomitable genius, which led him to develop an intimate relationship with the court system at the time. The first trouble that is known is that, in 1592, at the age of twenty-one, Caravaggio would have attacked a policeman in Milan. This would have forced him to flee to Rome, with the clothes on his back.
Some evils come to the good, the saying goes. In Rome, a miserable Caravaggio found shelter with a stingy fellow, known as “Monsignor Salad”. The name exists because of the lousy provision he offered his guests. Caravaggio has a falling out with him and ends up homeless. So strong was Caravaggio’s genius and character that a few months after the incident he was already working in the studio of Giuseppe Cesari, Pope Clement VIII’s favorite painter. It was the beginning of his conquest of Rome.
Before long, Caravaggio fell in the favor of one of the leading diplomats of the time, Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte (1549–1627), who became his patron. In 1599, influenced by the cardinal, Caravaggio was commissioned to decorate the Contarelli Chapel, in the Church of San Luigi Dei Francesi, and presented two masterpieces: “The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew” and “The Vocation of Saint Matthew”.
Those pieces made Caravaggio the most famous artist in Rome.
From them, in an impressive procession of artistic genius, Caravaggio painted one masterpiece after another until he died in 1610. His success, however, was accompanied by growing brutality. His life was full of gambling, women, and unhealthy habits. But Caravaggio’s unlimited freedom would be the very mark of his art.
Hence its symbiotic relationship with the Italian law and judicial system at the time. Rome’s police archives are still being researched to reconstruct Caravaggio’s story. Yet, it is known that he was present in at least 11 legal proceedings, most of them for assaults and illegal possession of weapons. This one is particularly valuable.
Caravaggio’s fame and his unique style of unprepared painting — he painted directly on the canvas, without doing preparatory studies –, attracted some imitators. Caravaggio hated them. He even circulated offensive verses, in which he ridiculed Giovanni Baglione as a plagiarist. Baglione, who would later become his first biographer, sued him for libel in 1606, offering Caravaggio an opportunity, not realized, to record for posterity the principles of his theory of art.
The reader can imagine the historical importance of such a well-conducted and recorded court case. The State Archives in Rome contains the most vivid history of that artistic period, without which it would not be possible to understand the motivations, alliances, and relationships that spawned some of humanity’s greatest works of art.
Caravaggio wrote nothing, neither about himself nor about art. But, in judgment, he gave immortal statements like the following: “being a man of value is to deeply understand painting, as I do, is to be able to reproduce reality, the natural (…) I leave the arrogance of empty words to others, I let my works speak for me”.
Caravaggio invented the humanization of art, reproducing saints and biblical characters in the most brutal nudity of their most sincere and true humanity. And this was unheard of and scandalous until then.
And it is at this point that we are able to realize the immense diplomatic impact of Caravaggio’s work. It was the period of the Protestant Reformation, a time when the West had been fragmented with the wars of religion, which broke out, among other reasons, because the Catholic Church had alienated itself from the daily lives of common people.
In reaction to the Protestant revolts, the Church launched the Counter-Reformation, a movement of rebirth and restructuring, which aimed to bring Rome closer to the human experience as we lived in this world. The clash turned into a veritable culture war, in which no one understood and represented the Counter-Reformation worldview better than Caravaggio.
In his work, the saints are portrayed in the fragility of their most human aspect, creating such a strong identification with the viewer that many, at the time, could not even look at their canvases. Caravaggio was the absolute genius of Counter-Reformation cultural diplomacy.
There is an extra point, which connects Caravaggio to the legal world in an ever-current theme. Due to gambling debt, on May 28, 1606, Caravaggio involved himself in a duel with Ranuccio Tommassoni, which ended in his death. The episode forced Caravaggio to flee to Malta and then to Sicily, where he was commissioned to make many other masterpieces.
The case went to trial, and Caravaggio was sentenced in absentia to the death penalty, which in his case would have been by decapitation. Caravaggio, then, in search of mercy, paints the masterpiece “David with the Head of Goliath”, in which the biblical hero is portrayed with a look of mercy at the extracted head of the giant, which is, in reality, an autoportrait of Caravaggio with the mark of the damned on his forehead. The work is perhaps the greatest manifesto in art history against the death penalty. For Caravaggio, death is not a punishment, but a release.
The 450th anniversary of Caravaggio’s birth, finally, invites us to reflect on the intricate relationships between art, law, and diplomacy.
Caravaggio’s work was so intense that it was removed from the general public for three centuries, having only been rehabilitated in the 20th century, from the moment when Picasso, when painting the “Guernica”, declared that he wanted to be able to portray the horse throughout. its animality, as Caravaggio had done in the “Conversion of São Paulo”.
Caravaggio acted as a bass continuo, influencing the artists, but away from the public. Time, as it is, did him justice. Tandem Obtinet (Justice triumphs ).
The Italian painter gave Christianity a real messiah
When I was growing up Christian, nobody told me the religion took its key images of Jesus from queer painters.
How ironic, I’d realize later, for a religion that hated the dreaded “gays” to love Michelangelo, Leonardo, etc. Christians loved the movie The Passion of the Christ. The director, Mel Gibson, spoke of his inspiration:
“I think his work is beautiful. I mean it’s violent, it’s dark, it’s spiritual and it also has an odd whimsy or strangeness to it. And it’s so real looking.”
The Italian painter Caravaggio had shown Christians how to see Jesus as a physical man. It took a homosexual to do that?
I’m learning only now about Caravaggio’s influence on Christianity.
He was born—Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio—in Milan in 1571. Not a lot is known about him. A recent biography, by Peter Robb, begins with a warning that the evidence is mostly:
“…lies to the police, reticence in court, extorted confessions, forced denunciations, revengeful memoirs, self-justifying hindsight, unquestioned hearsay, diplomatic urbanities, theocratic diktat, reported gossip, threat and propaganda, angry outburst — hardly a word untainted by fear, ignorance, malice or self-interest.”
In a world that Christianity had made, in other words, there were mostly lies and shaded truths. As Caravaggio began an art project which struck his contemporaries as astonishing, and horrifying.
He would paint actual people.
There were no halos or heavenly visions.
There were no deities hovering above the earth, with odd smiles. He painted Bible scenes as if they had occurred on earth.
“He preferred nature as his best — and only — teacher,” notes the scholar Joseph Ostenson. “It was an approach to mysticism grounded in the physical — the real—realm.”
To read Christian history about this time, one is given details about the “Counter-Reformation” and ongoing wars of Catholics and Protestants—each calling the other “sodomites” as the worst insult they knew.
Meanwhile, Caravaggio was thinking about real people.
The subject of Caravaggio’s sexuality has been a difficult one for Christianity.
Little about him was known until the 1950s, when art historians began to assemble the pieces. Many would note, as the scholar John Champagne writes, that Caravaggio’s male figures “present eroticized male bodies.”
The women — not so much. He never painted a female nude. He never married. The Italian public has tended to reject talk of the matter. An 2012 Italian newspaper declares: “Caravaggio Was Not Gay, He Was Normal.”
But there seems to be a coherent narrative of a male partner. Caravaggio seems to have met Francesco Boneri as a 12-year-old. Born around 1588, ‘Cecco’ may have been sent to him as an apprentice.
After awhile, Caravaggio is painting him — over and over — in works that Robb notes are “most remarkable and deeply felt and radically intimate paintings,” works full of “joyeous and untrammelled sexual energy.”
Cecco becomes an angel, and John the Baptist.
Years later, an English writer met Cecco, who was working as a painter, and recorded that he’d been Caravaggio’s “owne boy or servant that laid with him.”
Cecco had by then taken the name ‘Cecco del Caravaggio’.
This boy becomes a means of staging a discussion of predatory male sexuality.
Over and over, Cesso is cast in the most difficult dramas. He is Isaac about to be sacrificed by Abraham—with that rather phallic-looking knife.
But Cesso is also a divine force. As X-rays of the painting revealed, the angel who tells Abraham not to do it was originally Cecco as well.
In David with the Head of Goliath, Cecco re-appears as the young David — as Caravaggio gave his own face to the severed head of the giant.
The drama of the older and younger man replays over and over — as the younger man prevails, and brings a new consciousness into the world.
Scholars too can resist an effort to describe Caravaggio as ‘homosexual’.
A 2005 paper by Luiz Fernando Viotti Fernandes, “The Sexuality of Caravaggio and His Artistic Identity,” goes through some evidence, and purports to find it inconclusive—on the evidence that no one from the past can be called, by current standards, ‘homosexual’, and the “sex lives of Renaissance artists were probably often bisexual.”
John Champagne is a little more convinced. He reads many Caravaggio paintings as full of queer signs and suggestions. Look at Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ, he notes. Isn’t there an odd emphasis on the muscular buttock of one of the soldiers?—lit dramatically and wearing only a contrasting red and gold fabric.
The viewer is prompted to look at—the ass of a Roman soldier?
Seemingly in control, the soldier is himself sexually vulnerable.
All of Caravaggio’s paintings seem to have a certain queer subtext.
He had done a previous painting of the Old Testament scene of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. The scholar Graham L. Hammill reads it in a 2000 study, Sexuality and Form.
The bodies of the man and the boy, he notes, are positioned to suggest sex is about to happen—“which the angel of God attempts to terminate.”
The angel and the boy seem to have the same face—one lit in divine light, one in shadow. But where Isaac is held down, an object for sexual use, the angel as a divinity forces Abraham to look at him.
The message is: you need to see me as a person.
I take Caravaggio to suggest that all male interactions have a whiff of homoerotic energy. It was a world, certainly, where the sexual use of boys was considered ordinary.
Even if he had done this himself, he wants it to stop. This dehumanization, the use of others, must stop, the angel says—even if done in the name of “religion.”
Caravaggio’s paintings suggest a new kind of sexuality.
In a world that saw sex as an “act” to be done—with little concern for the partner—he shows real people as illuminated, bodies that are spiritually charged.
They are penetrable, but the body being entered is divine. We see this, for example, when Jesus guides Thomas’ hands to touching his body — an intimate moment of physical exploration.
“Caravaggio’s depiction of the wound and Thomas’s probing finger is particularly explicit: Thomas inserts a finger deep inside the cut, unlike many earlier Italian versions of the subject in which this contact is less invasive.”
Allow a real person to be divine, might be the suggestion?
Caravaggio’s Jesus can be curiously sexy — certainly not the weird, withered, emaciated form that many paintings had offered.
As in The Flagellation of Christ, this messiah is nearly a male stripper.
We look as well at the men in shadow who are being so mean — even as they’re just being ‘men’.
The new message: being ordinary — isn’t good.
After Caravaggio died, Cecco continued his own career as a painter.
He frequently did works on Biblical subjects—often with odd positioning of muscular male bodies.
I find myself wondering if his own Penitent Magdalene—a portrait of the fallen women—could be a self-portrait as a woman.
His greatest work would appear to be The Resurrection, supposedly about the Second Coming, though a critic notes the imagery “seems more concerned with muscular legs and coy glances than any action involving the return of Christ from the dead.”
It seems to me that both angels—these strange, floating, voguing, half-naked men—might also be inflected with his self-portrait.
A man, a woman, an angel—a Cecco who is a divine everything.
Where would Christianity have been without its queer artists?
Thinking of a religion without Michelangelo, Leonardo, Caravaggio, or Cecco del Caravaggio—I’m left musing about an alternate world that would be, really, a wasteland of ordinary people.
But thankfully, they got a little help from their friends. 🔶
For centuries, our attention has largely been focused elsewhere in the small (77 x 53cm/30 x 21in) oil-on-poplar panel, which Da Vinci never fully finished and is thought to have continued to tinker with obsessively until his death in 1519 – as if the painting’s endless emergence were the work itself. A preoccupation principally with Mona Lisa’s inscrutable smile is almost as old as the painting, and dates back at least to the reaction of the legendary Renaissance writer and historian Giorgio Vasari, who was born a few years after Da Vinci began work on the likeness. “The mouth with its opening and with its ends united by the red of the lips to the flesh-tints of the face,” Vasari observed in his celebrated Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, “seemed, in truth, to be not colours but flesh. In the pit of the throat, if one gazed upon it intently, could be seen the beating of the pulse.” He concluded: “In this work of Leonardo, there was a smile so pleasing, that it was a thing more divine than human to behold, and it was held to be something marvellous, in that it was not other than alive.”
Many scholars have been fascinated by the mystery of Mona Lisa’s smile (Credit: Alamy)
The mesmerising mystery of Mona Lisa’s smile and how Leonardo magically leveraged it into creating “a thing more divine than human” and yet “not other than alive” would prove too intense for many to bear. The 19th-Century French art critic Alfred Dumesnil confessed to finding the painting’s paradox utterly paralysing. In 1854 he asserted that the subject’s “smile is full of attraction, but it is the treacherous attraction of a sick soul that renders sickness. This so soft a look, but avid like the sea, devours”. If legend is to be believed, the “treacherous attraction” of Mona Lisa’s irresolvable smirk consumed too the soul of an aspiring French artist by the name of Luc Maspero. According to popular myth, Maspero, who allegedly ended his days by leaping from the window of his Paris hotel room, was driven to destructive distraction by the mute whispers of Mona Lisa’s engrossingly gladsome lips. “For years I have grappled desperately with her smile,” he is said to have written in the note he left behind. “I prefer to die.”
Walter Pater sees past the seductive snare of the portrait’s smile to a larger vitality that percolates as if from deep below the surface
Not everyone, however, has been content to locate the centre of Mona Lisa’s magnetising mystique in her enigmatic grin. The Victorian writer Walter Pater believed it was the “delicacy” with which her hands and eyelids are rendered that transfix and hypnotise us into believing that the work possesses preternatural power. “We all know the face and hands of the figure,” he observed in an article on Da Vinci in 1869, “in that circle of fantastic rocks, as in some faint light under sea”. Pater proceeds to meditate on the Mona Lisa in such a singularly intense way that in 1936 the Irish poet William Butler Yeats found himself compelled to seize a sentence from Pater’s description, break it up into free-verse lines, and install them as the opening poem in the Oxford Book of Modern Verse, which Yeats was then compiling. The passage that Yeats couldn’t help co-opting begins: “She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants, and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes.” The portrait “lives”, Pater concludes, “only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands”.
Some viewers are as transfixed by Mona Lisa’s hands as by her face (Credit: Alamy)
Pater’s description still astounds. Unlike Dumesnil and the doomed Maspero before him, Pater sees past the seductive snare of the portrait’s smile to a larger vitality that percolates as if from deep below the surface. Contending that the painting depicts a figure suspended in ceaseless shuttle between the here-and-now and some otherworldly realm that lies beyond, Pater pinpoints the mystical essence of the panel’s perennial appeal: its surreal sense of eternal flux. Like Vasari, Pater bears witness to a breathing and pulsing presence – “changing lineaments” – that transcends the inert materiality of the portrait’s making. Key to the force of Pater’s language is an insistence on aquatic imagery that reinforces the fluidity of the sitter’s elusive self (“faint light under the sea”, “a diver in deep seas”, and “trafficked… with Eastern merchants”), as if Mona Lisa were an ever-flowing fountain of living water – an interminable ripple in the endless eddies of time.
Da Vinci’s subject has a strangely submarine quality to her that is accentuated by the algae green dress she wears – an amphibious second skin that has only grown murkier and darker with time
Perhaps she is. There is reason to think that such a reading, which sees the sitter as a shape-shifting spring of eternal resurgence, is precisely what Leonardo intended. Flanked on either side by bodies of flowing water that the artist has ingeniously positioned in such a way as to suggest that they are aspects of his sitter’s very being, Da Vinci’s subject has a strangely submarine quality to her that is accentuated by the algae green dress she wears – an amphibious second skin that has only grown murkier and darker with time. Pivoting her stare slightly to her left to meet ours, Mona Lisa is poised upon not just any old bench or stool, but a deep-seated perch known popularly as a pozzetto chair. Meaning “little well”, the pozzettointroduces a subtle symbolism into the narrative that is as revealing as it is unexpected.
By placing Mona Lisa on a ‘little well’, surrounded by water, Da Vinci could be drawing on earlier spiritual connections with springs (Credit: Alamy)
Suddenly, the waters we see meandering with a mazy motion behind Mona Lisa (whether belonging to an actual landscape, such as the valley of the Italian River Arno, as some historians believe, or entirely imaginary, as others contend) are no longer distant and disconnected from the sitter, but are an essential resource that sustain her existence. They literally flow into her. By situating Mona Lisa inside a “little well”, Da Vinci transforms her into an ever-fluctuating dimension of the physical universe she occupies. Art historian and leading Da Vinci expert Martin Kemp has likewise detected a fundamental connection between Mona Lisa’s depiction and the geology of the world she inhabits. “The artist was not literally portraying the prehistoric or future Arno,” Kemp asserts in his study Leonardo: 100 Milestones (2019), “but was shaping Lisa’s landscape on the basis of what he had learned about change in the ‘body of the Earth’, to stand alongside the implicit transformations in the body of the woman as a ‘lesser world’ or microcosm.” Mona Lisa isn’t sitting before a landscape. She is the landscape.
Drawing from a well
As with all visual symbols employed by Leonardo, the pozzetto chair is multivalent and serves more than merely to link Mona Lisa with the artist’s well-known fascination with the hydrological forces that shape the Earth. The subtle insinuation of a “little well” in the painting as the very channel through which Mona Lisa emerges into consciousness repositions the painting entirely in cultural discourse. No longer is this a straightforwardly secular portrait but something spiritually more complex. Portrayals of women “at the well” are a staple throughout Western art history. Old Testament stories of Eliezar meeting Rebekah at a well and of Jacob meeting Rachel at the well went on to become especially popular in the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries, as everyone from Bartolomé Esteban Murillo to Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo to William Holman Hunt tried their hand at one or other of the narratives.
There are many depictions in art of people at wells, such as Christ and the Samaritan Woman (1310-11) by Duccio di Buoninsegna (Credit: Alamy)
Moreover apocryphal depictions of the New Testament Annunciation (the moment when the Archangel Gabriel informs the Virgin Mary that she will give birth to Christ) as occurring at the site of a spring were a mainstay among Medieval manuscript illustrators, and may even have inspired the oldest surviving visual portrayal of Mary. An endlessly elastic emblem, as Walter Pater intimated, Mona Lisa is doubtless capable of absorbing all such reflected resonances and many more besides. There is no one she isn’t.
But perhaps the most pertinent parallel between Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and pictorial precursors is one that can be drawn with the many representations of a biblical episode in which Jesus finds himself at a well, engaged in cryptic conversation with a woman from Samaria. In the Gospel of John, Jesus makes a distinction between the water that can be drawn from the natural spring – water which will inevitably leave one “thirsty” – and the “living water” that he can provide. Where water from a well can only sustain a perishable body, ‘living water’ is capable of quenching the eternal spirit. Notable depictions of the scene by the Medieval Italian painter Duccio di Buoninsegna and by the German Renaissance master Lucas Cranach the Elder tend to seat Jesus directly on the wall of the well, suggesting his dominion over the fleeting elements of this world. By placing his female sitter notionally inside the well, however, Da Vinci confounds the tradition, and suggests instead a merging of material and spiritual realms – a blurring of the here and hereafter – into a shared plane of eternal emergence. In Da Vinci’s enthralling narrative, Mona Lisa is herself a miraculous surge of “living water”, serenely content in the knowledge of her own raging infinitude
The invention of oil painting was an enormous turning point in the story of Western art. It enabled artists to represent the world around them with a level of detail never seen before. And because of the ability of oil paints to be layered in semi-transparent glazes, works of art became luminous in their depth and resonance of colour.
The important thing to remember about oil painting is that it really refers to the “medium” of the paint rather than to any special aspect of the pigments used to make the colours.
The “medium” is the liquid substance that holds the pigment and dilutes it. Before they are mixed with a medium, a paint pigment is usually in the form of a finely ground powder. Traditional sources of pigment were various: for instance, the colour known as ultramarine (a vivid blue) came from the ground-up rock lapis lazuli, whereas the colour vermilion (brilliant red) was originally made from the powdered mineral cinnabar.
More unusually, the colour Indian yellow was once produced by collecting the urine of cattle that had been fed only mango leaves. In more recent times, natural pigments have given way to synthetically derived colours, but the principle remains the same.
From egg to oil as the carrier medium
Before the adoption of oil as the medium, artists used other liquids to play the role. Tempera was popular, where an emulsion of egg yolk and water was used to make the pigment usable as paint. Tempera was capable of producing very fine paintings, often onto wood, but had the drawback of drying quickly and with a matte, opaque finish.
When oil painting arrived, artists made immediate use of its slow drying nature, which meant they could work more patiently over the finer details of their work. They also utilised the fact that oil paint can be thinned and then applied in semi-transparent layers, otherwise known as “glazes”.
With glazes, paint can be built up with one colour overlaying another. When light penetrates the paint layers, it reflects back the full spectrum of layered paint, giving a more resonant and luminous feel.
For a long time, it was thought that oil painting was invented in Northern Europe in the 15th century, by the painter Jan van Eyck in particular. But in fact oil painting had been in use in Middle Eastern countries like Afghanistan since at least 650AD, and in Europe since the Middle Ages.
Still, it was Jan van Eyck and his contemporaries from the Netherlands who, in the 1400s, took oil painting to new heights. Take a painting like Portrait of a Carthusian by Petrus Christus, painted in 1446. Christus was based in Bruges in present-day Belgium, and was active between 1444 and 1476 — the year he is thought to have died.
The extraordinary naturalistic detail of paintings like Portrait of a Carthusian was a profound innovation in European art.
To underline the realistic possibilities of his oil paints, Christus added a telling detail to his portrait. Look towards the bottom edge of the painting and notice a small fly perched on what appears to be the picture frame. This lower ledge, along with the inscription, is all painted invention.
From pigs’ bladders to tubes
Early artists mixed their own pigments with heat-bodied (gently-heated) linseed oil, derived from crushed flax seeds, sometimes adding beeswax to prevent the paint from darkening as it dried. They worked through a patient process of grinding the powdered pigments into the oil to achieve a smooth, honey-like consistency.
Up until the mid-1800s artists would typically transport their mixed paint in a pig’s bladder. Such was the case with the French painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, who adopted an effective practice of travelling and painting outdoors during the summer months, making studies and sketches directly from nature.
Yet this was not an easy situation. Bladders didn’t travel well and frequently burst open. And to get at the paint, Corot would have to prick the bladder with a pin, after which the hole was difficult to completely plug.
In 1841, the portrait painter John Goffe Rand invented the metallic paint tube. Soon enough, manufacturers of oil paints began to offer paint in tubes with screw caps to preserve the paint.
This simple development allowed artists to more easily carry their paints with them, opening up the possibilities of painting on location for many more artists. The artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir is quoted as saying: “Without paint in tubes there would have been… nothing of what the journalists were later to call Impressionists.”
Moreover, with paint in a more accessible form, artists began to enjoy a greater flexibility of brush marks, from thick impasto (thickly textured paint) to finer details. This dexterity of oil paint has left a permanent mark on the course of Western painting.
Artists as wide-ranging as Vincent van Gogh and Willem de Kooning, utilising the versatility of modern tube-based paints, learned to use paint expressionistically. Their paintings forged an imprint of the very moment of creation, and with it, an indelible record of the artist’s response to the world.
Nothing is more unvaried than paintings without hidden meanings.
People are mostly drawn to paintings for two reasons. They are aesthetically pleasing, and it is hard to turn your eye away from these paintings without fully speculating and admiring them. Two, because of the meaning that they hold, the stories they tell, and the reasons behind why they were painted.
Although paintings are purely subjective and can be interpreted in several ways, here is a list of hidden meanings in 6 famous paintings that will definitely blow your mind.
1. The Old Fisherman by Tivadar Csontvary Kosztka — An Illusion Within The Painting
This painting, the Old Fisherman, was painted in 1902 by the Hungarian artist Tivadar Csontvary Kosztka. At first glance, the painting seems like a pretty normal one. In fact, you’d even think that the painter was not good at drawing symmetrical figures because of how the old man’s face is shaped.
The right side of the painting is mirrored, you see an evil old man sitting in front of a very gloomy sky and a very stormy sea, adding a sinister touch. When the other side is mirrored, you see an old man clasping his hands as if he was praying, in front of a calm sea.
The artist purposely did this to portray how there are two sides to every person. He wanted to paint the bipolarity of human nature, how we all have both a good and a bad side to us. The right side of the painting portrays the good side and the left side portrays the left side.
2. Bill Clinton’s Presidential Portrait by Nelson Shanks — A Scandal Exposed Through Art
In 2001, American artist and painter, Nelson Shanks, was commissioned to paint the portrait of the 42nd president of the United States, Bill Clinton (D-Arkansas).
The portrait features Bill Clinton leaning against a mantlepiece with a weird shadow visible nearby. The painting was proudly hung up in the National Portrait Gallery which led to many people asking what exactly was that shadow depicting. After a couple of years, Nelson Shanks revealed that the shadow depicted Monica Lewinsky. Monica Lewinsky was the president’s former mistress. It was Shank’s way of reminding people of Bill Clinton’s scandalous past.
Shanks said that it was hard for him to paint the president because he was a liar and a cheat. He wanted the portrait to depict that side of him.
3. Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time by Agnolo Bronzino — A Depiction of Chronic Bacterial Disease
Agnolo Bronzino painted the Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time in 1545. Many people believe that it is jealousy and lust that this painting depicts but taking a closer look at it says otherwise. The painting seems to be a warning about syphilis and sexually transmitted diseases.
Art theorists at the London National Gallery suggest that the rather ill-looking man at the bottom left side of the painting is not there to depict jealousy. Neither is he depicting the heartbreak and agony you feel after being deceived. In fact, he is suffering from a chronic bacterial disease. His fingers are clearly swollen and red. One of his fingernails is missing. His hair has clear signs of syphilitic alopecia. All of these symptoms hint towards syphilis. Also, his almost empty gums could be pointing towards mercury poisoning.
During the Renaissance period, the closest thing people had to treatment for sexually transmitted diseases was mercury. So, the missing teeth of the man could be because of the mercury treatment.
4. The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein The Younger — An Eerie Skull Illusion
This particular painting was composed in 1533 by Hans Holbein The Younger. At first glance, the painting seems quite boring, just two very well-dressed gentlemen looking at you.
They’re wearing their dress attire and just standing there. However, if you look closely at the bottom middle of the painting, you can see a skull in anamorphic perspective. It seems odd when you look at it from the front. When you tilt the painting, the skull transforms its shape and looks like a proper skull.
It is said that The Ambassadors was hung up on a stairwell so that as people stepped up or down the stairs, they could see the skull. The skull serves as a reminder of mortality and portrays that death is looming over your head all the time, it is inevitable.
5. The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo Buonarroti — Brain Anatomy Within Art
Michelangelo is perhaps one of the most well-known artists of the Renaissance period. A lot of his work is still applauded to this day! He is known as a brilliant artist but what a lot of people don’t know is that Michelangelo had a curious mind and was very much into human anatomy.
At the age of 17, he started dissecting corpses that he got from a church graveyard. He did this because he wanted to draw anatomical sketches. So, he was aware of human anatomy.
In 2010, two American neuroscientists found an image of the brain cleverly disguised in Michelangelo’s workThe Creation of Adam. It is not only the outer structure but the inner as well that is cleverly disguised in the representation of God’s neck and chin. Many art theorists believe that Michelangelo incorporated anatomical sketches in his paintings in an effort to attack the church’s contempt for science.
6. The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck — The Painter Himself Hidden In The Art
The following portrait was composed by the artist Jan Van Eyck in 1434. It is believed to depict the Italian merchant, Giovanni do Nicolao Arnolfini, and his wife in their home in Bruges.
Now, you might be wondering what is so unusual about this specific oil painting. If you were to take a closer look between the couple and pay attention to the mirror placed on the wall, you’d notice that there is something written above it.
The Latin inscription reads “Jan Van Eyck was here 1434.” Also, in the mirror, you can notice two figures who seem to be spectators of this scene. One of the figures is Jon Van Eyck himself, waving his arm. Many believe that is why the merchant has his hand raised.
The painter wanted to show that he was being greeted by his subject, Giovanni do Nicolao Arnolfini. Jon Van Eyck was known for entering secret and witty messages into his paintings and compositions.
How many of these hidden meanings were you able to spot when you first looked at these paintings?
The symbolic language of art is a language of intrigue and meaning.
Did you know that a lily means purity, or an ostrich egg signifies virginity? (More of that later).
One art historian, Erwin Panofsky, likened the language of artistic symbols to that of gestures between people. He imagined walking along the street and being greeted by an acquaintance who lifts his hat in friendliness:
“This form of salute is peculiar to the Western world and is a residue of medieval chivalry: armed men used to remove their helmets to make clear their peaceful intentions and their confidence in the peaceful intentions of others.”
We don’t lift our hats anymore, probably because we don’t wear hats or else we don’t want to mess our hair up. The point is that signs and symbols communicate ideas, and those symbols have a wonderful history.
For me, one of the great pleasures of visiting an art gallery is in exploring the possible meanings of the works on display. After all, every picture tells a story, yet for many visitors the language of art is a mystery.
For centuries, artists have drawn on a rich collection of stories, from ancient Greek and Roman myths to the stories told in the Old and New Testaments. As the centuries passed, a language of symbols developed so that artists could tell these stories with deeper and more intricate emphasis.
People still read the classics of Greek and Roman literature, and thanks to blockbuster films, the names of ancient gods and characters such as Jupiter, Achilles and Helen are still alive in our imaginations. The Bible too — upon which so much of Western art is based — continues to be read. Yet for the understanding of art, it is useful to know not just the stories but also the ‘rules’ that artists followed (and sometimes broke) in order to depict these stories.
It also makes a trip to an art gallery far more enjoyable.
Legends and Lore
As a student of art history, one of my biggest delights was to come into contact with some of the more esoteric sources of pictorial conventions. One such text, for instance, which had a huge influence on Christian symbolism, is the Golden Legend.
Written around 1275 by a Dominican friar called Jacobus de Varagine, the Golden Legend is a compilation of the lives of the saints and legends of the Virgin, as well as other stories relating to the Christian calendar.
Since the Golden Legend is a collection of traditional folklore about the saints; you won’t find these stories in the Bible. The tales of martyrdom and heroism were widely read in medieval Europe, and as such entered the vocabulary of artists and the conventions of their work.
To give an example, if you see a figure in a painting holding a palm leaf, then they are almost certainly a martyred Christian saint whose story is told in the Golden Legend.
Here is a painting of St. Lucy by the Italian painter Francesco Zaganelli. The green palm leaf she is holding in her left hand tells us straight away that she is saint who came to her death because of persecution.
The association of palm leaves with saintliness comes from the feast of Palm Sunday, a celebration in Christianity commemorating Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem when palm branches were placed along his path.
The symbolism of the palm branch in fact stretches back to the ancient world, where it was a symbol of victory and peace. A victorious athlete competing in ancient Greece, for instance, was awarded a palm as a symbolic prize. The palm also has a place in the Muslim tradition where, as a symbol of peace, it is associated with heavenly Paradise.
In the Western artistic tradition, individual Christian saints such as Lucy and Catherine can be further distinguished by objects they tend to be holding or stood beside. These items are known as ‘attributes’.
Let’s examine the case of St Lucy in a bit more detail, since she offers a good example of how pictorial traditions actually help embroider stories.
St Lucy lived in Italy, and died around 304 during a widespread persecution of Christians under the Roman emperor Diocletian. She was a real historical figure, yet her depictions in art tend to focus on legends.
As the above image shows, Lucy holds a palm leaf to indicate her martyrdom. Sometimes she is shown at the moment of her death, which was said to have occurred by a knife to the throat.
Not all depictions of Lucy are quite so gruesome, however. Since her name comes from the Latin lux, meaning ‘light’, she is sometimes shown holding a candle or oil lamp. Most common of all, she is shown holding a pair of eyes, sometimes held between her fingers and sometimes resting on a plate in her hand or else sprouting from a stalk. Originally the eyes were given to her simply as an allusion to her name, and developed as a convention since she became associated with the protection of people’s eyesight. Legends were later developed to give additional meaning to the eyes: in one story she was said to have had her eyes gouged out by a tyrant; in another she plucked them out herself to subdue an admirer who would not stop praising them.
As with all symbols in art, the rules are never hard and fast. A palm leaf indicates a martyred saint, but sometimes a palm leaf is used as specific attribute of an individual saint too: in depictions of John the Evangelist, who is the presumed author of the fourth gospel, he is sometimes shown holding a palm leaf. This relates the Virgin Mary on her deathbed, at which moment she is said to have handed him her palm. Again, this is an apocryphal story – in other words, it doesn’t appear in the Bible.
Look at this painting of the Death of the Virgin by Andrea Mantegna. We can now identify the figure on the left in the green robe as John the Evangelist, since he is clearly holding a palm leaf. With a bit more detective work, we could probably identify all the other figures surrounding the dying Mary. One thing is for certain: they are all holy or sanctified people, because of the halos hovering above their heads.
As well as a palm leaf, another item of flora that is often seen in association with the Virgin Mary art is a lily flower, the presence of which indicates her purity.
One theme of the Virgin’s life in which a lily is nearly always present is the Annunciation, as painted by Leonardo da Vinci, for example. The Annunciation was the moment that the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced she would conceive and bear a son.
Sometimes the lily is in a vase; at other times the angel is shown carrying is, as in Leonardo’s painting. Why a lily? Well, since the event occurred nine months before the Nativity, the events of the Annunciation were calculated to have occurred on 25 March. The spring setting gave rise to the motif of the flower, which later refined to a lily. Leonardo decided to give his painting an all-over spring feel, with a lush carpet of flowers beneath Gabriel’s feet.
The Virgin Mary became deeply revered during the late medieval and Renaissance periods. For the Christian Church, the Virgin Mary emerged as the Purissima or ‘most pure’ of figures. It’s for this reason that she appears often as the subject of art, sometimes through episodes of her life, as we have seen, and sometimes as the mother figure of Christ.
In Western art, paintings of the Virgin and Childwere extremely popular. They are so numerous that it is impossible to find a single set of conventions to which they all accord. Here is just one detail which is always worth looking out for.
The symbol of an apple was sometimes taken up by painters when depicting the infant Christ, for instance, in this painting by Quentin Matsys, which shows the Christ Child held by his mother. Now, if you look closely to the left side of the painting, at the bottom of the column is an apple.
Why an apple? In fact, apples are one of the most prevalent fruit in all of Western art, and have several meanings depending on the context. Probably most well-known of all apples is the one that Eve offered Adam in the Garden of Eden.
According to the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve were the first humans, created by God in his own image. God placed them in the Garden of Eden, an earthly paradise where the only rule was not to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Unfortunately, a serpent tempted Eve to eat some of the ‘forbidden fruit’, and when she also gave some to Adam, they both recognized their nakedness and covered themselves with a fig leaf. This symbolic act was in recognition of their shame at disobeying God’s orders.
In paintings of this scene, the forbidden fruit is typically shown as an apple, sometimes proffered by the snake hanging down from a tree, and sometimes held in Eve’s hand as she passes it to Adam.
So what about Christ’s apple? The purpose of showing the Christ child with an apple is to connect Him to the story of Adam and Eve: if Adam and Eve were responsible for the ‘fall’ of humankind, then Christ is suggested as being the redeemer. The symbol of an apple is a way of uniting the stories into a grander narrative, reaching back in time and stretching into the future.
The history of art is replete with symbols both commonplace and cryptic. To end this cursory look at symbols in art, I thought I’d share one of the more obscure reverences in the tradition, and one of my favorites too.
Take this painting by Giovanni Bellini. It shows Mary and Christ surrounded by fours saints, positioned symmetrically about the throne. The overall style of painting is known as a sacra conversazione, a tradition in Christian painting where several saints are gathered together around the Virgin.
Among the riches of this painting, one fascinating detail is at the very top of the picture, so easy to miss: an ostrich egg hanging from a chord.
What is an ostrich egg doing hanging in mid-air like that? Well, how much do you know about incubation habits of ostriches?
It is now known that ostriches lay their eggs in communal nests, which consist of little more than a pit scraped into the ground. The eggs are incubated by the females in the day and by the males at night.
However, in medieval times, the ostrich — a much admired bird at the time — was commonly believed to bury its eggs in sand and allow the heat of the sun to carry out the incubation. On account of the young emerging without parental involvement, it was thought that the ostrich egg was an ideal symbol of the virginity of Mary — a theologically tricky concept for which parallels in nature were sought.
So the ostrich egg was a symbol Mary’s virginity, which is why it has pride of place at the very top of this painting.
Next time you’re at a dinner party, see if you can squeeze that one into the conversation
He is, by far, one of the greatest and most influential artists in history ever known. Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti was the best know Italian artist of his time. Michelangelo’s works were breathtaking, he was out of traditional poetic skills, an expert draftsman, and an incredibly skilled painter whose impact in the creative world knows no time boundaries.
Michelangelo Buonarroti, Creation of Adam, c. 1508, Rome, Sistine Chapel
He has a long history of rivalry with Leonardo da Vinci which is well documented. He is known to have stormed out of the Sistine Chapel in anger, but despite some of his somewhat bad reputation, his artwork is so good, nothing could hold him down. To his contemporaries, he was known as II Divino, translated as the divine one. This was so because they deemed his handyworks unmatched among any merely mortal human.
Join me in this artistic journey today, give your eyes some of the rarest sights the world has ever known, get your brains challenged as we dive deep into the roots of creativity, to remember this great one through seven of the topmost incredible creative Michelangelo’s works. So, let’s get started, shall we?
1 – The Sistine Chapel: the most famous of Michelangelo’s works
When you think of Michelangelo, one of the first things that ring in your mind is Michelangelo’s incredible artwork that now remains painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling in Vatican City. He was commissioned to do this work by Pope Julus the second.
Michelangelo was not particularly interested in taking up this job because he was, after all, not a painter but a sculptor. He came up with what today remains one of the most sacred pieces of art in western history. It attracts an average of five million people annually who flock to the Sistine Chapel to admire his handy work.
It is a tale of the creation story. It shows God extending His finger toward a newly created man, Adam, about to shower him with life. To other viewers, the red color at the back of the drawing of God’s shape resembles the human brain, and to them, this means that God is about to give Adam the gift of life and infuse him with consciousness. Eve watches this event from the other side of God’s arm. In the same red cloud surrounding God are angels and cherubim. This is a rare tale of the creation story. Very few artists in all history have been able to bring out the Genesis creation narrative as dramatically as Michelangelo does in this show-stealing painting.
What makes this painting stand out from all others is that, unlike every others artist’s depiction of God as supreme and outrightly removed from any connection with man, Michelangelo brings out a whole different viewpoint. He paints God to be having an intimate relationship with man, a creation of his image. Even in today’s contemporary society, this painting has been monotonously used to tell the entire story of genesis. It has several times been cited and even borrowed and expanded on in other arts for its religious meaning.
2 – David: the most iconic of Michelangelo’s works
This is possibly the world’s most famous sculpture that came at the peak of Michelangelo’s career. This sculpture was created when Michelangelo was 26 years old, and it took him three years to bring it to completion. There have existed other statues of the biblical hero, David. However, these sculptures paint David as a victorious hero from his battles.
What makes this piece of Michelangelo art stand out is that David is brought out in a tense and alert manner before his famous Goliath battle. While others have painted David as a little man, Michelangelo chooses to portray him as a muscular man, well prepared for war and confident. The 14-foot sculpture was primarily positioned in Florence at the Pizza Della Signoria in 1504. It was then moved in 1873 to Galleria dell ‘Accademia, where it remains to this day. The sculptor has captured the attention and interests of renowned women like queen Victoria. During one of these visits, a detachable fig leaf from plaster was strategically added at the private parts’ top.
Michelangelo picked up this marble project from another sculptor who had given up on it to take upon another because the marble’s structure was compromised. This, however, did not stop him as he had to find a way to make it bring out the best of what he had in mind, a piece of art that was controversial and at the same time the same thing that elevated him to the top.
During the early renaissance,
Donatello had revoked Michelangelo’s nudity and had come up with his sculpture. However, Michelangelo’s work version remains the most iconic and continues to attract attention to this day. Some traveling exhibits of the statue have portrayed accurate resemblance to the original sculpture and are in favor of the many who cannot travel to Italy to view this masterpiece.
On a different occasion, however, when the municipality of Jerusalem was marking the 3000th anniversary of King David had conquered the city, religious groups in Jerusalem urged for the decline of David’s sculptor, claiming that it is pornographic due to its being nude.
3 – Bacchus: the most controversial of Michelangelo’s works
Michelangelo Buonarroti, Bacchus, c. 1496, Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bergello
This was Michelangelo’s first-ever forays into large-scale sculpturing. This also marks one of the few works he has done that has no Christian background.
Completed in 1497, the statue portrays a Roman god, the God of wine, drunk, and lazy. The God is holding a goblet in one hand, posturing to bring it to the mouth to have a drink, and on his head, wears an intertwined ivy.
He carries a lion’s skin, the symbol of death borrowed from Hercules’ myth, in his other hand. At the back of his left leg is his demigod companion, which signifies Bacchu’s cult, which often symbolizes a lusty, drunken woodland being.
This piece of art also sprouted a lot of controversies. Cardinal Raffaele Rario initially commissioned it. The inspiration behind this sculpturing was a lost bronze description sculpture by Praxiteles, an ancient sculptor.
However, after Michelangelo finished his handy work, Cardinal Raffaele Rario rejected it because it was inappropriate to see the final product. At the start of the 16th century, the sculpture was sold and found a home in the Roman palace of Jacopo Galli, Michelangelo’s banker.
Even though the piece has a twisted past, it still holds the creative ingeniousness that Michelangelo held. One of the most famous descriptions that this sculpture gets is from Vasari, who says that the artwork keeps a young man’s slimness but the woman’s skin texture.
Michelangelo’s unique depiction of a Roman god in a socially unacceptable drunken and swaying state is a one-of-a-kind artwork that remains one of the benchmarks of creativity and originality.
Today, the sculpture resides in Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence. It has been stored alongside other Michelangelo works like the incomplete sculpture called David Apollo and another complete Brutus bust.
4 – La Pietà: the most moving of Michelangelo’s works
Have you ever come across an image of Mary cradling Jesus when he was taken down from the cross? I bet you have at some point while browsing the internet, maybe in a scene in a movie, a picture painted on the wall somewhere, or maybe in a book?
Now that’s what is referred to as Pieta – La Pietà, in Italian. Together with his other work, David, the Pieta is considered one of Michelangelo’s best artworks and s without a doubt among the best known since its birth towards the end of the 15th century.
These sculptures were mainly known in the North of Europe and were a rare occurrence in Italy. Michelangelo saw this as an excellent opportunity to leave a mark that will forever. And true to that, the piece of art made people know him and talk about his artworks on a broader scope.
It was primarily created to be placed at the tomb of Jean de Bilheres, a French cardinal. After he was crucified, Mary’s image holding Jesus in her arms was a common funeral theme during Italy’s renaissance period.
The Pieta is one among the seven sorrows of Mary, contained in the Catholics’ devotional prayers, and it also brings to life what had been prophesized by prophet Simeon.
It was commissioned by Jean de Bilheres. Being that the sculpture’s commission emerged from France, Michelangelo had the opportunity to do something a little different and bend more on the French artistic styles than the usual Italian. While talking to Michelangelo, Jean said that he wanted to acquire the most beautiful artwork, made of marble. An artwork that no other artist in that time and the history of humanity could sculpt better. It took him two years to sculpt this masterpiece to completion using one block of marble.
Even though other Pieta sculptures emerged as religious monuments in the 1300s in Germany, the whole depiction had significant connotations in the Italian art Renaissance. Several artists attempted to translate the religious tales in a humanistic way by blurring divinity and humanity’s boundaries by humanizing the known biblical figures and freely exercising their freedom of expression. In most cases, Mary was used.
What draws clear lines between other artists’ works and what other sculptors made is that he portrayed Mary, not as a middle-aged woman but a rare youthful beauty. He at one point talking to his biographer that chaste women stay much fresher than the unchaste, hence his preference for the young beautiful virgin Mary.
Michelangelo also moved away from portraying Mary’s suffering, which was being shown in most of the time’s sculptures; he instead brought out the intimate sense of tenderness of a mother for her child. In the statue, too, Jesus’ hands have minor marks of the nails from his recent crucifixion, and so is the wound on his side. In this depiction, Jesus looks more like a sleeping child in the hands of his mother than being dead, which could be looked at as a symbol for his resurrection.
It should be noted that this is the only sculpture that contains Michelangelo’s sign. This was a response to a circulating rumor, claiming that the incredible artwork was created by one of his rivals, Cristoforo Solari. Michelangelo carved his name across and split it in two so that it read Michael Angelus. This can also be interpreted as a reference to another biblical figure, Angel Michael. This was a selfish act that he later came to regret and swore never to sign on any other of his artworks. This is why the Pieta is the only Michelangelo’s work signed.
Following its completion, the Pieta instantly acquired its fame and was a cornerstone to his fame. An attack in 1972 caused damage on the virgin Mary’s arm and face but was later restored. The sculpture continues to strike awe in the eyes of every one of goes to visit.
Michelangelo’s work includes other sculptures closely related to the Pietra. They include Rondanini Pieta, The Deposition and the Palestrina Pieta.
5 – Moses: the angriest of Michelangelo’s works
Moses was initially commissioned by Pope Julius the second in 1505 to be a part of his funeral monuments. This came after the fame that followed Michelangelo soon after the completion of his artwork, David. Pope Julius made this commission but was, however, not completed until he died in 1513. The 235cm high sculpture was completed later in 1542.
Michelangelo Buonarroti, Moses, c. 1515, Rome, San Pietro in Vincoli
This sculpture captures a moment in the bible in the Exodus story of Moses. You recall the whole story of how Moses journeyed with the Israelites from the land of Egypt? I’ve got your back, listen in, let me give you a bit of history so we can be on the same page here.
In this sculpture, Michelangelo captures when Moses had witnessed his people turn against God and have begun to worship a pagan god, the golden bull. Remember that this was when Moses had just walked down from the mountain called Sinai to receive the ten commandments and carried the stone tablets written on them. The stone tablets were heavy, and the sight of Israel’s people worshiping a pagan god had greatly angered Moses. I’m sure we are now together on this little history lesson.
It is that exact moment that Michelangelo captures in this incredible artwork. He aims to portray the anger that was on Moses’ face at that precise moment. He skillfully carves out the emotional moment in this eight-foot sculpture of Moses in a seated position. Without a doubt, this is the angriest masterpiece of Michelangelo’s works.
Michelangelo captures this moment with Moses in the seated position, facing the left, while his beard shifts to the right, indicating a moment of movement. His left leg and hip are shifted to the left, and his built trunk faces the right, bringing in a moment of immense tension and great power.
The notable prophet’s sculpture is marked with great emotion behind it, but he also brings out fine details of the cloth Moses is wearing with great perfection and a final authentic look. See, this is a real-life moment brought out with a lot of emotion and perfection, all of which is captured in stone. Incredible.
This particular artwork has attracted a lot of analytical attention to the heights of it all, including Sigmund Freud. He purposely dedicated three weeks of his time in 1913 to study this sculpture’s emotional details. He later gave his opinion on the same, noting that it was a predominant sight of self-control. He was also aware that the statue cared more secular than religious meaning, symbolizing a man who stood for the inward passion searching for a higher cause.
A controversy was born from what appears to be horns protruding from Moses’ head. Some people interpreted it as a symbol of his anguish, while to others, it was a Latin misinterpretation of the bible so that instead of having bright rays of light shining on the great prophet, they have horns growing from his head. This could have stemmed from the Hebrew word; Keren, which is interpreted as illuminated light or had grown horns.
6 – The Last Judgement: the most emotional of Michelangelo’s works
Moving back to the Sistine Chapel, we meet another masterpiece of Michelangelo’s works, The Last Judgment.
Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Last Judgement, c. 1541, Rome, Sistine Chapel
It is located on the walls of the altar in the church. This outstanding piece of art was completed 25 years after the completion of the Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco. This artwork is one of the final pieces commissioned by pope Clement the seventh when the great sculptor was 62 years old.
The masterpiece depicts the second coming of Jesus when he is delivering God’s last judgment to humankind. It took five years to complete the artwork, which comprises well over 300 human figures. It is one of the most complex pieces of artwork that portrays a violent scene body movement. Of the approximately 300 masculine human figures in the painting, some are mortals ascending to heaven. In contrast, others on their way down to hell, and others were immortal beings engaged in violent actions.
The intensity in this rare piece sparks out a lot of emotions in the viewers. Awe and fear are the dominant emotions brought out in the scene. At the core of the whole fresco is the image of Christ, with his hands exposing the wounds he suffered from being crucified. He gazes down on the humans as each takes on their judgments.
On the right-hand side of Jesus is the virgin Mary looking upon the saved souls ascending to heaven. On the opposite sides of Jesus stands John the Baptist and Peter with the keys to heaven’s gates in their hands. Most of the mage saints are identifiable by the distinguished marks they got as a sacrifice during their time on earth serving Christ. An excellent example of this is Bartholomew and whose face is said to be the portrait of Michelangelo. It also reveals seven angels who are blowing trumpets and can be interpreted in Revelations’ book, where it talks about the world’s end.
The artwork received a lot of controversy for the massive amount of nudity that it portrays. In 1654, the fresco was condemned by the Council of Trent and ordered the nude parts to be painted Daniele da Volterra. His depiction of Jesus being beardless was also unwelcome, as t was mainly identified with figures from Greek mythology.
7 – The Dying Slave: the less-known masterpiece
Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Dying Slave, c. 1516, Paris, Louvre Museum
The dying slave was primarily meant to accompany another sculpture of a rebellious slave and, together with Moses, be a part of the sculptures at Pope Julius the second’s tomb. Michelangelo set out to the quarries of Carrara to handpick the perfect marble and begin working on the statue. On his return, however, pope Julius canceled his commission.
This is one of the less-known masterpieces of Michelangelo’s works.
The dying slave only counts as one among the six sculptures of slaves that Michelangelo created over many years for the Pope. These were all to make the perfect resting place for the Pope when he begins his journey to the afterlife. However, the project was never fully realized, which utterly disappointed Michelangelo, considering that he spent the whole year in a quarry to accomplish this project. What a waste!
It would have been one of Michelangelo’s showcases of perfection in the craftsmanship and the portrayal of his understanding of the human anatomy. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? The sculpture of the slave portrays a human figure frustrated by the circumstances in his surrounding, right? It could have been anything at the time. Come to think of it, this sculpture of the seemingly frustrated slave could as well be portraying Michelangelo’s situation when dealing with these projects for Pope Julius the second and his struggles to find the authentic materials to use.
Titus Livius (Livy) is a household name in the Classics canon. Born in 64 or 59 BC, Livy is famous for writing an impressively long history of Rome — from the mythical founding of the city in 753 BC up to his own day — called the Ab urbe condita (‘From the Founding of the City’). The text is a mainstay of the UK Classics curriculum whether in translation, as a set text, or as the basis of adapted Latin passages in textbooks such as Latin to GCSE and Latin Beyond GCSE.
So what’s the connection between the city of Florence and Livy’s Ab urbe condita? Florence was a key site of transmission and reception for classical texts throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Here are 4 ways in which the city, and some well-known Florentine citizens, played a role in the textual tradition and visual reception of Livy’s history.
1. Livy and Petrarch
Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) was born in 1304, to parents who had been exiled from Florence. Petrarch was a poet, scholar and admirer of antiquity and it is largely thanks to him that we have Livy’s Ab urbe condita in its current form. In fact, Petrarch has been described as ‘the deciding factor in carrying the tradition of the Ab urbe condita from the Middle Ages over into the Renaissance.’¹
Petrarch sought out and compiled manuscripts containing Livy’s fragmented text into a collection that became the most complete of his time, totalling thirty books. It wasn’t until 1527 that five more books were discovered, taking us up to the number we have today. Petrarch wrote a letter to Livy, as if to a long-lost friend, telling him: ‘We know that you wrote one hundred and forty-two books on Roman affairs. With what fervour, with what unflagging zeal you must have laboured; and of that entire number there are now extant scarcely thirty.’²
How did so many of Livy’s books go missing?Firstly, due to its monumental size, it was condensed into summaries or ‘epitomes’ even during antiquity. As mentioned in an epigram by Martial: ‘Huge Livy has been slimmed down to a few volumes / My bookcase hasn’t room for all of him.’³ Post-antiquity, the Ab urbe conditajourneyed in multiple manuscripts via divergent channels through to the Middle Ages. Many parts were damaged, lost or forgotten along the way. The work that Petrarch did to assemble and critically annotate Livy’s surviving books influenced the way it was read by later scholars and paved the way for its entry into libraries and schools.⁴
2. Livy and Histories of Florence
Livy’s Ab urbe condita and certainly the first ten books (which had the clearest and most untroubled textual transmission) influenced the creation of histories or ‘chronicles’ of Florence. In particular, Florentine writers seized the opportunity to engage in similar myth-making for their own city, from its legendary origin up to their own times.
The earliest is the Nuova Cronica by Giovanni Villani in the 14th century. He was inspired by a personal pilgrimage to Rome and, in his own words, “[by] reading the stories and great doings of the Romans, written by Virgil, Sallust, Lucan, Titus Livius… and other masters of history.”⁵ Villani claimed that Julius Caesar ordered the building of Florence in 70 BC and that Fiesole was founded by the Trojans.
Later, Leonardo Bruni wrote an ‘official’ History of Florence in Latin (Historiarum Florentini populilibri XII) which was published by the governing Signoria in 1442. He rejected fables about Trojan foundations and instead argued that Florence was originally an Etruscan settlement and later a military colony under Sulla. Livy, Virgil and Pliny the Elder had all written about the Etruscans’ wars with Rome. Bruni used these sources to imply Etruscan (and therefore contemporary Tuscan) superiority within Italy.
3. Livy and Machiavelli
Niccolò Machiavelli is best known as the author of The Prince, but he also wrote a commentary on the first ten books of Livy’s Ab urbe condita. The text is known as the Discourses on Livy (Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio) and was written and published in the 16th century.
Machiavelli explores the notion of Republicanism, which had enflamed earlier humanists and Florentine citizens with glorified ideas about tyrant-slayers. Informed by his own experiences in the Florentine political system and his reading of Livy’s history, Machiavelli maintains that the founder of a Republic must obtain absolute power if the regime is to last.
4. Livy and Renaissance Artists
But Livy’s text was not only known to educated men and women of the Renaissance. Stories from Livy also flourished in 15th century domestic artwork in Florence. This is suggested by the surviving evidence of cassoni (‘wedding chests’) and spalliere (‘decorated backing boards’) painted with scenes from Livy’s history about women such as Cloelia, Virginia, Tarpeia, Lucretia and the Sabine women. As well as those about men, such as Horatius Cocles defending the Bridge, Mucius Scaevola and Coriolanus.
These pieces were often commissioned for newly-wed couples and the subject-matter depended on the intellectual and moral interests of the patron(s). Domestic art not only reflected the popularity of stories from Livy in Florence, but also served as a method of its visual transmission. As Jillian Robbins notes, ‘Tuscan domestic painting was instrumental in making themes from the Ab urbe condita a familiar and almost ubiquitous presence.’⁶ It is only later, in the 16th century, that we begin to see stories from Livy’s Ab urbe condita depicted in large scale paintings, such as those by Titian, Artemisia Gentileschi and Elisabetta Sirani.
 G. Billanovich, ‘Petrarch and the Textual Tradition of Livy’ in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 14, №3/4, 1951, p. 182.
 Petrarch, ‘To Titus Livy’ in Fam., XXIV, 8.
 Martial, 14.190.
 See Footnote 1, p. 176.
 D. R. Kelley, ‘Renaissance Retrospection’ in Faces of History, 1999, p. 137.
 J. C. Robbins, ‘The Art of History: Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita and the Visual Arts of the Early Italian Renaissance.’, 2004, p. 113.
Also known as the “Holy Family” or the “Doni Madonna”, this rare piece is the one and only intact wood panel painting of Michelangelo from the year 1507 to have survived to this day. Among Michaelangelo’s other works, this one is quite peculiar. It is shaped in the form of a ‘tondo’, which is Italian for ‘round’. This is a shape that has constantly been associated with the renaissance period of domestic ideologies.
Looking at the painting, Mary is the most prominent figure in the composition, taking up much of the center as she appears to be sitting/kneeling directly on the grass ground. Above her, Jesus depicted as a young toddler, and Joseph can be seen. Joseph appears to be in the middle-ground of the painting, between the Holy Family and the background. Behind the Holy Family is a noticeable horizontal slab that somehow divides the whole piece into two particular sections while at the same time including an image of a boy whom experts believe to be John the Baptist. Behind John, the Baptist are five naked men whose physiques are heavily emphasized which appear to be aesthetically proportioned and built as seen in the way their bodies are curved, the texture of their skins, and the way they resemble entities from earlier times or even mythological eras. At the farthest part of the artwork behind the 5 men, it shows a somewhat mountainous ridge as the painting’s distinct background. Proceeding to the artwork’s circular frame — tondo, there are 5 noticeable three-dimensional head figures which are believed to be a figure of Jesus, two prophets, and 2 civilians. Another element found in the circular frame of the artwork is the carvings that can be seen around it. These carvings are in the form of crescent moons, stars, vegetation, and lion heads which somehow shows the story of the (Agnolo) Doni, the patron of Doni Tondo, and (Maddalena) Strozzi family which can be seen throughout the rest of the frame. All in all, these are the aspects that are easily noticed when looking at the Doni Tondo.
As a way to further discuss what the Doni Tondo really conveys, let us first discuss the different noticeable elements and principles of arts that are inherent to the piece. Initially, we can see how the value of the colors of the Holy Family’s clothes greatly differs from the other elements of the piece giving the viewers an idea of where to look. The use of olive green, light blue, light pink, orange and dark blue somehow provide contrast on the color used for the skin of John the Baptist and the 5 men alongside the mountainous ridge. The element of value is also shown as a way to provide a sense of depth in the piece. This can be noticed when we compare how vivid the colors are in the elements in the foreground compared to the background. The colors present somehow exhibit a triadic harmony since the piece plays with the colors of blue, green, and orange. In addition to the colors, we can see how the different textures were really shown in the Doni Tondo. This is shown through the difference in appearance of the silk-like cloth used by the Holy Family and the rough, natural texture of the soil and foliage. This could also be seen through the cloth of the Holy Family which is somehow smoother in appearance compared to the cloth used by John the Baptist. This element of texture also contributed to the sense of depth present in the piece as the elements found in the background appear to be less smooth than the elements in the foreground. The element of shape is subtly incorporated within the piece. Geometric shapes could be seen when evaluating how the pieces of elements were placed. For example, the heads of the Holy Family actually form an inverted triangle and in evaluating their arrangement, it also leads us to an upright triangle having its base parallel to the legs of Mary going upwards converging towards the head of Jesus and Joseph. Organic shapes are also present in the forms of the leaves found on the ground and the mountainous ridge found in the background.
Proceeding in the principles of arts found in Doni Tondo, we will immediately notice how Michelangelo used the principle of balance towards the whole piece. He successfully used all the negative spaces behind the Holy Family through the inclusion of John the Baptist and the 5 men in the piece. Notice that the number of people behind the Holy Family is not divided equally but they are positioned in an asymmetrical manner while still promoting a sense of balance. Given that the Doni Tondo is a tribute to the Holy Family and the birth of Christ, the principle of emphasis was obviously used to highlight a specific aspect or image of the Holy Family that is somehow different from the common images that we see of them. This specific aspect or image will be discussed later on. Another principle that could be seen in Doni Tondo is scale and proportion. Knowing that the piece is composed of a foreground and a background, the use of scale and proportion is highly observable when looking at the size of Jesus, Joseph, and Mary compared to the size of John the Baptist and the 5 men, including the mountainous ridge which simply suggests the sense of depth that is present in the artwork. In terms of the principles of harmony, unity, and movement, these can be seen in the two parts of the piece which is the foreground and the background. In the foreground, the elements used in the Holy Family promote a sense of harmony and unity as shown in the colors used, the contrast present, and how they are shaped which is somehow reflective of an upright triangle. The movement present within the Holy Family either shows that Mary is getting Jesus from Joseph or the other way around. In the background, we can see how the use of monotonous colors worked and provided a harmonious feeling with the help of how they are placed horizontally or side by side with each other. The movement present in the background somehow suggests that the 5 men are discussing as seen in the way their heads are tilted towards each other. On the other hand, John the Baptist’s movement as seen through the way his body is oriented and his head tilted suggests that his attention is focused on the Holy Family.
According to Gibson (2001), “Every real form attests to an ideal form which it more or less resembles, the idea of which, however, it never perfectly actualizes.” Evaluating the Doni Tondo, it seems that Michelangelo is trying to portray a different aspect of how we, as humans, should perceive the Holy Family. Contrary to the usual images of the Holy Family that we commonly see which incorporates elements of holiness such as halos, subtle suggestions of perfection, and a sense of serenity. Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo gives us a more human approach in picturing the Holy Family. In Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo, he depicted the Holy Family in the most natural and human form they can be — without the halos and the majestic glow. We can see how playful and human the image of a baby Jesus was portrayed as he appears to be climbing up the shoulders of Mary. On the other hand, Mary appears to be a complete contrast of the images usually incorporated into her. In this piece, she is depicted as a physically adept woman which is actually logical since she helps Joseph in his woodworks. Joseph is given the chance through this piece to actually show how much he is focused and serious in raising Jesus as his son. The way he supports Jesus’ back and the way he looks at him with so much attention suggests a sense of fatherless at the end of Joseph.
Barolsky, Paul. “Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo and the Worshipful Beholder.” SOURCE: Notes in the History of Art 22, no. 3 (2003): 8–11.
Buzzegoli, Ezio (December 1987). “Michelangelo as a Colourist, Revealed in the Conservation of the Doni Tondo”. Apollo: 405–408.
d’Ancona, Mirella Levi (1968)
Gilson, Etienne. Forms and Substances in the Arts. Commonwealth Secretariat, 2001.
Deconstructing the reasons behind Michelangelo’s “men with breasts”
Michelangelo wrote in one of his poems, “I’m ugly.” He believed he did not meet societal beauty standards.
Despite this, he spent his entire life in pursuit of sublime perfection.
Michelangelo’s David is indeed the most perfect statue in the world. It exudes the aesthetics of high Renaissance art and the technical prowess of Greek sculpture.
Giorgio Vasari, described the statue’s perfection in an essay in 1550 — “For in it may be seen most beautiful contours of legs, with attachments of limbs and slender outlines of flanks that are divine; nor has there ever been seen a pose so easy, or any grace to equal that in this work, or feet, hands and head so well in accord, one member with another, in harmony, design, and excellence of artistry.”
But when it comes to Michelangelo’s women — why do they seem to be imperfect and apparently masculine? Why does the female anatomy seem unladylike?
Let’s deconstruct the possible reasons behind Michelangelo’s “men with breasts.”
Consider Michelangelo’s Night. A nude reclining on the sarcophagus at Giuliano di Lorenzo de Medici’s feet. The woman has an angelic aura but as we slide down, her body looks muscular. For instance, her left breast looks misshapen and stiff.
As we move further down, she has sturdy contoured legs.
Definitely, a mismatch between her divine face and the rest of her body.
On the other hand, Dawn, Michelangelo’s other masterpiece seems to have curvy bosoms but she has a muscular physique too.
Erwin Panofsky, a contemporary art historian said, “Dawnwas a young woman’s easily life — softened yet firm, full of vigor and energy, not yet hardened by life. Panofsky even uses the word virginal to describe her. In direct opposition, then, there’s Night.
Panofsky says that Night’sbody has been distorted by childbirth and lactation.”
Similarly, if we take a closer look at the Sistine Chapel and analyze female prophets from the twelve apostles, you might be convinced that Michelangelo represented women with androgynous attributes.
Imagine Cumaean Sibyl with her gigantic body and hefty biceps. Although Libyan Sibyl’s face looks ethereal, her physique resembles an Olympian.
Cumaean Sibyl (Left) and Libyan Sibyl (Right)
Delphic Sibyl (Left) and Persian Sibyl (Right) in Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo illustrated the female prophets as monumental as their male prophets but something was clearly off with the female bodies.
Why Michelangelo’s women were so unwomanly?
Jill Burke, a lecturer in Italian Renaissance art history at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, says that during the Renaissance period, nude female models were not readily available. It wasn’t considered appropriate for a female to be nude in front of an unknown painter.
And so, a painter like Michelangelo who literally witnessed anatomical dissections first hand might not have imagined a woman’s figure very well. While this is the most accepted theory, Burke contradicts herself.
Raphael, Michelangelo’s contemporary counterpart painted St. Catherine of Alexandria with a curvy body, supple bosoms, and a sensual aura. How did Raphael know how to paint a woman?
Another theory that seems relevant is the patriarchal nature of the Renaissance period. Historian Thomas Lacquer has written, “there was only one canonical body and that body was male.” This means that a male prototype was the most superior and everything else was considered imperfect.
Historians have argued at length that Michelangelo was naturally inclined to male bodies. So, in response, to portray a beautiful woman, he’d simply design her to appear as close to a man as possible. This does not mean he was misogynistic. In fact, Ascanio Condivi, Michelangelo’s official biographer, wrote that he had a close relationship with his mother and a devoted relation with a widow named Vittoria Colonna. He might not have been sexually attracted to women but it’s highly unlikely that he despised them.
Medical justification of the sculpture ‘Night’
In November of 2000, a letter was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine by a physician named James Stark. He visited Medici Chapel in Florence with an art historian Jonathan Katz Nelson. And just like others, he was drawn to the weird appearance of Night, especially her left breast.
The excerpts from Stark’s letter.
“I found three abnormalities associated with locally advanced cancer in the left breast. There is an obvious, large bulge to the breast contour medial to the nipple; a swollen nipple-areola complex; and an area of skin retraction just lateral to the nipple… These features indicate a tumor.
These findings do not appear in the right breast of “Night” or in “Dawn,” another female figure in the Medici Chapel, or in the many other depictions of women in works by Michelangelo.
We suggest that Michelangelo carefully inspected a woman with advanced breast cancer and accurately reproduced the physical signs in stone. Even if he did not see the disease in a model, he could have studied the corpse of a woman; moreover, autopsies were legal at that time.
Given that Michelangelo depicted a lump in only one breast, he presumably recognized this as an anomaly. Many doctors in his day could probably diagnose this condition in a woman.
Historians of breast cancer agree that the disease and its treatment were discussed, often at length, and described as cancer by the most famous medical authorities of antiquity and by several prominent medieval authors.
For these reasons, there is a strong possibility that Michelangelo intentionally showed a woman with disease and that he may have known that the illness was cancer.
If Michelangelo indeed depicted “Night” as having a consuming disease, this would complement the imagery in the Medici Chapel of life and death, and further help us understand his study of the female body.”