Updated: Jun 20, 2020
Although there is a wealth of resources concerning Michelangelo and his life, little notice has been given to the subtle ways in which he speaks about himself through his work. Consequently, relatively little has been written about how his signature on his Pietà and his self-portrait in his Deposition reveal information about Michelangelo, his views of himself, and his theological beliefs. Or, more specifically how these personal details relate to one another. Consequently, this paper will seek to prove the connection between these two sculptures, and the autobiographical elements that they each posses, as well as to demonstrate what they reveal about Michelangelo and his life-long development.
Over the course of Michelangelo’s life his theological views and, consequently, his views of himself transformed greatly. This is manifested in how he chose to include himself in his Vatican Pietà (Fig. 1) and in his Deposition (Fig. 2). His relation to the crucified Christ varies drastically between the two works. He goes from relating to Christ through the Virgin Mary, in his Vatican Pietà, to directly touching Christ, in his Deposition. Michelangelo’s choice of where to position himself in his work indicates a change in who he views as his mediator, the one in whom he could find redemption and salvation. This conclusion can be reasonably proven by looking first at the context and content of each of these works, then identifying Michelangelo’s references to himself in these pieces, and lastly by seeing how his signature in his Pietà and his self-portrait in his Deposition fit into context with one another and within the framework of Michelangelo’s life.
Michelangelo’s first Pietà in St. Peter’s in Rome marks the beginning of his career and thoroughly reflect traditional and contemporary religious imagery of that day. This sculpture was made from 1498 to approximately 1500. It was the first significant Roman commission that he had. Jacopa Galli managed to procure the commission for Michelangelo from the Cardinal Jean de Bilhàères on the 27th of August 1498. The Cardinal, who was currently ambassador to the Pope from the King of France, originally intended for the piece to be placed on his tomb in the Santa Petronilla Chapel. Michelangelo would continue to do commissions for major Church figures throughout his life, which undoubtedly affected the content and style of his work. Regarding this piece in particular, Jacopa commented in anticipation of Michelangelo’s work that it would be, “The most beautiful work of marble in Rome, one that no living artist could better.” His words were prophetic and to this day it is difficult to find a marble sculpture that can contend with the elegance and splendor of Michelangelo’s Pietà.
The product of Michelangelo’s careful process, attention to detail, and dedication to this piece was spectacular and demonstrates the way in which he catered his work to his Catholic patrons. His contemporaries were stunned with his work and lauded it. The well-known ancient historian Vasari wrote the following concerning Michelangelo’s Pietà:
"Do not think it possible to find a death scene more realistic than this. Here there is a very tender posture of the head, and such a concordance in the muscles of the arms and those of the body and legs, the finely worked wrists and veins, that we are amazed that a man has been able to make so divinely and well such an admirable thing in an extremely short time."
Vasari makes note first of all about the convincing depiction of Christ and Mary. Christ is represented as truly dead. Both Christ and his mother seem real and are exquisitely detailed. Lastly, Vasari points out Michelangelo’s hand in this work and recognizes the great skill of the artist himself. The work is truly stunning, but its effect digs even deeper into the viewer. Regarding this the historian Condivi wrote, “Sitting on a stone, where the cross was raised, with her son on her lap, of so great and rare beauty, that anyone seeing it is moved to piety.” This vision of Mary produces a reverence and awe within the viewer. It centers the mind upon Mary’s grief and produces penitence within the observer.
Michelangelo masterfully combines the aesthetic and the symbolic in his figures, in this case to exemplify traditional Catholic imagery. In this Pietà there is a significant scale difference between Christ and Mary such that if the figures were standing next to one another Mary would be much taller than Christ. Michelangelo purposefully decided to amplify Mary’s size. There are several reasons for this. First of all, it works aesthetically since it creates a solid composition. If Christ were on the same scale as Mary, the visual effect would have been awkward and unbalanced. In multiple sculptures from the North Christ is depicted at a realistic scale, but his relation to Mary is aesthetically disconcerting (Fig. 3). The second reason is that through this stylistic choice Michelangelo symbolically and aesthetically makes Christ look weaker and magnifies his suffering. This reminds the viewer of Christ’s helpless state, arousing remorse and penitence, as Condivi described. Lastly, another interpretation of this symbolism is that Michelangelo has converted Mary’s body into an altar upon which Christ has been laid. Each one of these explanations shows the masterful intentionality that Michelangelo exhibits in his work and demonstrates his reverence towards Mary as his mediator since she is the foundation and focal point of the Pietà.
In stark contrast with his Vatican Pietà, one of Michelangelo’s last works is the later, unfinished Bandini Pietà, his Deposition. The interpretation of this work has been the source of much controversy, but the facts surrounding its production, destruction, and restoration are fairly certain. Condivi recorded in the early 1550s that, “At present he has in hand a group in marble, which he works at for his pleasure, as one who, full of ideas and powers, must produce something every day. It is a group of four figures, larger than life – a Deposition.” The process of making this sculpture was an exercise for Michelangelo and allowed him to pass the time in a manner valuable and satisfactory to himself as an artist. Since this sculpture was made during the latter part of Michelangelo’s life, it is possible that he may have considered that it would be one of his last works. In fact, Michelangelo had planned to place this sculpture upon his tomb. Condivi said the following regarding this:
"Let it suffice; I tell you it is a rare thing, and one of the most laborious works that he has yet done […] He intends to give the Deposition from the Cross to some church, and to be buried at the foot of the altar where it is placed."
It was a painful process for Michelangelo to craft the work he had intended to mark his own grave. He worked on it for nearly a decade and encountered many difficulties in the process, mostly because of complications with the marble. This may explain why Michelangelo eventually tried to destroy the piece; however, there is still no conclusive answer as to why he ultimately took a hammer and chisel to it. According to Vasari, he had gone to get a drawing from Michelangelo for the Pope and, while he was waiting for Michelangelo in his studio, his attention was drawn to the Deposition. As he looked closely at the Deposition, Michelangelo dropped his lamp, plunging the room into darkness. Michelangelo then said to Vasari, “I am so old that death often tugs my cloak for me to go with him. One day my body will fall just like that lamp, and my light will be put out.” Shortly after this, Michelangelo severely damaged the work, leaving it in pieces.
In comparison with Michelangelo’s Vatican Pietà, his Deposition differs in subject matter and style. In his Deposition he includes two additional figures. There is Mary Magdalene, who is kneeling on Christ’s right side. Likewise, there is a hooded man who both Vasari and Condivi identify as Nicodemus. Nicodemus is not as close to Christ physically as the Virgin and Mary Magdalene are and the only connection he has to Christ’s body is where he holds the arm of Christ, the arm that is laid over Mary Magdalene’s shoulder. Symbolically this implies that the connection Nicodemus has to his Savior is through Christ’s arm “that embraces the sinner.” The style has changed significantly as well. The Bandini Pietà, according to Crispino, has elements of mannerism in it. The figures are elongated and fluid and they seem less stable. They occupy space and time tremulously while the figures in Michelangelo’s Pietà fill time and space like a musical chord. Michelangelo lets go of the tradition of making religious imagery stable and unchanging and depicts a moment of instability and descent.
The symbolic aspects of the Deposition demonstrate how this work functions as a counterweight to Michelangelo’s earlier Pietà. The balance between the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene is crucial. The Virgin Mary symbolizes purity and holiness while Mary Magdalene is commonly considered as the symbol of a sinner justified by Christ. Christ’s body rests between them, simultaneously dead and alive. While he appears dead, his body functions in a lifelike manner. This can be seen in his arm that is resting around Mary Magdalene’s shoulders. Even while dead, the Savior embraces the ‘sinner.’
Amidst the qualities in both of these works there is a subtle message that speaks about Michelangelo himself. It manifests itself on the Vatican Pietà in the form of Michelangelo’s signature and on his Deposition in the form of Nicodemus. With each of these details he reveals certain characteristics that he sees in himself and these autobiographical details subtly reveal the transformation in his theology.
His signature on his Vatican Pietà is on the band that crosses Mary’s chest and says, “MICHAEL A[N]GELUS BONAROTUS FLORENTIN[US] FACIEBA[T],” as can be seen in Figure 4. This was the only time that he inscribed his signature upon a public work and there is an unmistakable level of intentionality present within it. Vasari stated that Michelangelo signed it “as something in which he was satisfied and pleased for himself.”  But later Vasari shifted his explanation saying that Michelangelo signed it after the Pietà was admired and credited to another well-known artist of that time. Both of these explanations seem unlikely, first of all because of the inconsistencies in Vasari’s account and secondly because there is no clear purpose for the strap across Mary’s chest unless it was intended to be a space for Michelangelo’s signature. The level of intentionality that is present in Michelangelo’s works makes it incredibly unlikely that his signature was an afterthought and the details within the signature itself bear witness to this fact.
This signature reflects his theological views of that time in two ways: he writes in Latin, the language used predominantly by the Catholic Church, and splits his name in reference to his namesake, the Archangel Michael. There is significance behind both of these decisions. The use of Latin not only reflects Catholic traditions, but also imitates the signatures of ancient masters. According to Pliny, the masters would use the word “faciebat,” the imperfect form of the verb “to make.” This indicated that the work was not fully complete and functioned as a justification for why the work was imperfect. Few artists used the phrase “Ille fecit,” meaning “he made this.” This was generally looked down upon since it exhibited an excess of pride in the work. Michelangelo, likewise, uses the verb “faciebat” in his signature following his name. For one, this makes him appear more modest and humble. But it also leaves him in good company with the traditions of the Classical masters and with the linguistic traditions of the Catholic Church.
Likewise, it is necessary to notice that the verb itself is incomplete since Mary’s clothing hides the last letter, the letter “t.” Michelangelo chooses to cut off the last letter of the verb, visually and verbally reflecting how he intentionally crafted his signature and imparted it with profound personal reflection. Not only does it refer to the imperfection of his own work and the promise that he will continue to make better work in the future, but it also points back to himself and his process of personal reform. Michelangelo was deeply aware of his personal, particularly spiritual, imperfections and inadequacies.
In the same way that the use of the imperfect verb tense reflects Michelangelo’s theological views, the use of his name also relates to his religious background. He splits his name back into its Christian form in reference to its origin. His namesake is the Archangel Michael, who has a special connection to the Virgin Mary. According to the apocryphal writings, when Mary died it was the Archangel Michael who carried Mary’s body to and from her tomb. Consequently, he was crucial to the assumption of the Virgin. Her assumption was necessary for the process of redemption since, according to Catholic tradition, Mary needed to intercede for the Church. In splitting his name, Michelangelo refers back to its origin and personally reflects on Mary as his mediator in the process of redemption, placing himself on the band that crosses her chest.
Michelangelo could have placed his signature in any number of places on this sculpture, but he chose to position his own mark upon the Virgin herself, physically touching her. Michelangelo’s depiction of Mary bears significance because it is “a fulfillment of a truly Renaissance Christology. The themes are not new. Mary has regularly been identified with the church and the church seen as the bride of Christ.” The emphasis on Mary as the focal point of the sculpture is interesting in and of itself, but it is also crucial to keep in mind that Michelangelo connects himself to this piece and to Christ through the Virgin Mary, designating her as his mediator, since this correlation between Michelangelo, Christ, and the Virgin will appear again in Michelangelo’s Deposition.
Michelangelo reappears as a self-portrait in his Deposition as Nicodemus (Fig. 5). It is unclear as to why it was that he chose to include Nicodemus and why he used his own portrait as the personification of Nicodemus. In order to explain this, it is necessary to address Michelangelo’s personal views concerning religion. Michelangelo was a prolific writer and, based on various indications both from Michelangelo and from external sources, it has been concluded that he may have harbored sympathies for the Catholic Reformation. Both Hibbard and Shrimplin-Evangelidis state that Michelangelo eventually believed that salvation came solely through faith. As Dixon says, “He had been a true Christian and his work, properly understood, shows it. Nevertheless, there is a change at this time. In part, what he made now was in tune with the time. The Catholic Reformation was well underway.” Michelangelo was a highly religious man for most of his life and in keeping with this he began to look directly to Christ for mediation.
During the latter part of Michelangelo’s life he began to write poetry frequently and around 1540 he wrote the following sonnet:
"The wondrous and holy miracle by which,
through his mercy, I perceived two opposed beings,
one divine and one human, so fused into one
that God becomes a true man and man a true God,
causes my lowly desire to soar so high
and in the same way so inflames my chilly hope
that my free and candid heart no longer trembles
beneath the evil, worthless burdens of the world.
With this sweet, gentle, wounded hand
he has placed a yoke around my neck, and in the beautiful
clear light I see it as an easy weight to bear;
to all humble souls with his secret key
he opens up his treasure, jealousy guarded
from any heart inspired by proud ambition. "
In this sonnet Michelangelo describes the person of Christ as seen in the incarnation. Oddly enough, Michelangelo leaves out any mention of the Virgin Mary who almost always is referred to in connection with the incarnation since she played such a significant role in that process. Instead, Michelangelo focuses on Christ and his power to free him from the weight of earthly concerns and desires. This sonnet is one of many examples of how Michelangelo shifted his theological views from considering Mary as his mediator to solely looking to Christ for salvation.
Michelangelo’s theological views relate specifically to the Deposition because of his choice to include Nicodemus in particular. During the latter part of Michelangelo’s life there was a religious group who referred to themselves as the Nicodemists. They believed in finding a compromise between church traditions and reform. Based off of what can be known of Michelangelo’s views on these topics, it is likely that he may either have supported or had sympathy for this movement. With this in mind, his choice to depict himself as Nicodemus in the Deposition begins to make sense. It may have been a quiet statement about his positions and beliefs, which seems appropriate considering his plans to have the sculpture placed upon his grave. However, around the time when Michelangelo destroyed the Deposition there was a crackdown, an inquisition, against any people who were in support of reform. This would have put Michelangelo at a lot of risk and may explain why he attempted to destroy his Deposition. The connection between himself and Nicodemus would have endangered him. With all of this in mind, Michelangelo’s self-portrait becomes remarkably significant.
However, there is even more to be said concerning the symbolism in Michelangelo’s Florentine Pietà. While his earlier Pietà reflects more traditional devotional imagery, his Deposition subverts this. There is one detail in particular that stands out in stark contrast to his earlier work and that is his physical placement of himself within the piece. In the Pietà in the Vatican Michelangelo embodies himself in the form of his signature, which is on a strap across the Virgin Mary’s chest. His only association with Christ is through the Virgin Mary. In the Deposition, on the other hand, there has been a shift. Now Michelangelo, in the form of Nicodemus, has physical contact with Christ. He is holding the arm of Christ that embraces Mary Magdalene (Fig. 6).
This is a massive shift. Previously Michelangelo identified himself alongside the Virgin Mary and associated with Catholic traditions. Now he is touching the arm of Christ that is extended to a woman who repented from a life of fornication. According to the biblical narrative, Nicodemus spent his life zealously upholding the Law before he met Christ. Now he is present to witness the crux of redemption, recognizing that his lifelong works were no longer essential to his salvation. In the same way that Nicodemus had pursued an excellent life, Michelangelo sought excellence in his life and profession. Like Nicodemus, Michelangelo began to realize at the end of his life the futility of his earthly accomplishments. One year before he destroyed his Deposition he wrote the following sonnet:
"My course of life already has attained,
Through stormy seas, and in a flimsy vessel,
The common port, at which we land to tell
All conduct’s cause and warrant, good or bad,
So that the passionate fantasy, which made
Of art a monarch for me and an idol,
Was laden down with sin, now I know well,
Like what all men against their will desired.
What will become, now, of my amorous thoughts,
Once gay and vain, as toward two deaths I move,
One known for sure, the other ominous?
There’s no painting or sculpture now that quiets
The soul that’s pointed toward that holy Love
That on the cross opened Its arms to take us."
In this sonnet Michelangelo expresses that his pursuit of art was a pursuit of an idol. It had become a god to him. As he approaches death he looks back upon his life and realizes that his soul can find no peace in art. The only respite for his soul is to be found in the arms of Christ. His theology and his perspective of himself had changed vastly since when he made his first Pietà. Although the beauty of the Pietà is nearly unparalleled, there is a passion and pain to his Deposition that is lacking in his previous work. After a lifetime of contemplation and professional practice, he began to see himself in a more meek and lowly manner. But he also realized that even a broken sinner such as himself could reach out and touch the Savior who gave him life.
Much happened in the fifty years that passed between when he made his Pietà and his Deposition. The formal aspects of his work evolved and developed; more importantly, however, his use of symbolism and the ideas that fueled that symbolism changed drastically. In the St. Peter’s Pietà his use of traditional imagery and his signature indicate that he fully accepted Church traditions and theology and recognized his own imperfections. By the end of his life, however, his theological views had changed and that manifests itself in the way he chose to include himself in the Deposition. Ultimately, he saw himself as a man whose only saving grace was through the redemption of Christ. Whether the proximity of death cleared or jaded his eyes is another topic altogether, but the significance of touch is irrefutable. Even though Michelangelo saw himself as a corrupted and depraved being, he still allowed himself to stand in Nicodemus’ place and touch the arm of “that holy Love that on the cross opened Its arms to take us.”
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