Friday, 2 April 2010



We recently went to the Courtauld Gallery to see Michaelangelo's Dream an exhibition centered on Michelangelo Buonarroti’s masterpiece, The Dream, regarded as one of the greatest of all Renaissance drawings.

This complex work shows a nude youth being roused by a winged spirit from the vices that surround him...

The Dream
The Dream is thought to have been part of the celebrated group of drawings which Michelangelo made as gifts for Tommaso de' Cavalieri, a young Roman nobleman with whom he had fallen passionately in love.

With loans from international collections, the exhibition unites The Dream for the first time with these extraordinary drawings which include a range of subject material from the pagan to the sacred, including The Fall of Phaeton, the son of Helios the sun god (who was destroyed by a thunderbolt from Zeus for taking the chariot of the sun dangerously near the Earth) and The Rape of Ganymede, in which a similarly muscular youth to the one in The Dream is ravished by Jupiter in the form of an eagle...

The Rape of Ganymede
Also on show are a number of sketches for a portrayal of The Risen Christ...

The Risen Christ
Talk of Michaelangelo brings me, on this Good Friday, to another of his masterpieces, his Pietà...

Sculpted in 1499 and now housed in St Peter's Basilica, Vatican City, the work depicts the dead Christ, following his crucifixion, lying in the lap of his mother.

I find it amazing that an artist whose hands created such delicate artistry as the drawings shown above was, at the same time, capable of the the physical labour of liberating with chisel and mallet such a vivid image of poignancy hidden within the bulk of a vast chunk of marble.

There are many fascinating aspects to this sculpture which is so iconic that we almost fail to see it as it must have appeared to the first people to view it, not least the fact that the practical difficulty of presenting a female figure cradling the body of a full grown man means that the figure of Christ is sculpted to a different scale to that of the figure of his mother.

Also much discussed has been the Madonna's youthful appearance, for which a number of explanations - some theological, some literary - have been offered. One of the more fanciful - though unquestionably poetic - is that the sculpture creates an impression in the viewer's mind of a very different image: that of a nativity scene with Mary holding Jesus as a baby. So, it is suggested, Mary's youthfulness and her serene (and apparently unagonised) facial expression, coupled with the position of the arms suggest that she is seeing the once newborn child in the body of the now dead man...

Among Michelangelo's sculptures, the Pietà is unique because it is only one he ever signed - not when he carved it, but later on hearing that some of those who saw it thought it had been sculpted by one of his competitors.

Michaelangelo's Dream continues until 18 May at The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 0RN

Hours: Daily 10:00–18:00 (last admission 17:30)
Late Opening: Thursday 14 May: until 21:00
Admission: £5 (Adults) £4 (Concessions)

Photo of Michaelangelo's Pietà by Ralph46 of Other images uploaded via my flickr Photostream.


Suzanne said...

I was extremely touched by the intepretation of Mary's youthfulness... How can anyone who has not lived through that have any idea how we would react to holding a dead son in our arms? We concentrate so much on the Crucifixion that I think most people don't give a thought to what Mary must have been through as a Mum! It's such a beautiful statue.

Eudora said...

I could not add anything to what Brian has taught us, is a brief but substantive analysis. Miguel Angel is my favorite sculptor, such as Bach in music, Michel Angelo is the father of the sculptors.
How lucky are you with that exhibition, must be very interesting.

Sheila said...

Thank you for the Pieta video. I went to Rome when I was a teenager and seeing the beauty of that sculpture is the memory that has remained with me from that time.

I agree with your comments about Michelangelo's amazing diverse talent of delicate skill with a pencil and with a hammer. He describes his view of the art of sculpture in the poem Non ha l'ottimo artista alcun concetto. In Peter Porter/George Bull's translation, the first 4 lines read:

No block of marble but it does not hide
the concept living in the artist's mind -
pursuing it inside that form, he'll guide
his hand to shape what reason has defined.

Brian Sibley said...

SUZANNE and EUDORA - It was something that had never occurred to me before reading that explanation, but I feel I have seen Nativity paintings where Mary is in a similar physical attitude, bowed over the manger containing the Christ Child.

The apparent passivity of Mary is particularly interesting, I think. As one commentator has noted: there is more drama in the folds of Mary's robes than in her face.

Here are a few other interpretations of Mary's youthful appearance:

"...One is that her youth symbolizes her incorruptible purity, as Michelangelo himself said to his biographer and fellow sculptor Ascanio Condivi: 'Do you not know that chaste women stay fresh much more than those who are not chaste? How much more in the case of the Virgin, who had never experienced the least lascivious desire that might change her body?'"

(A curious side-note here: this suggestion highlights the centuries-old debate over whether or not - as seems to be suggested in various New Testament texts, Jesus had siblings. Those with a fascination for such controversies will find the pros and cons here. Anyway, to continue...)

"Another explanation suggests that Michelangelo's treatment of the subject was influenced by his passion for Dante's Divina Commedia: so well-acquainted was he with the work that when he went to Bologna he paid for hospitality by reciting verses from it.

"In Paradiso (cantica 33 of the poem) Saint Bernard, in a prayer for the Virgin Mary, says 'Vergine madre, figlia del tuo figlio' (Virgin mother, daughter of your son). This is said because, being that Christ is one of the three figures of Trinity, Mary would be his daughter, but it is also she who bore him.

"A third interpretation is that suggested by Condivi shortly after the passage quoted above: simply that 'such freshness and flower of youth, besides being maintained in by natural means, were assisted by act of God'."

Brian Sibley said...

SHEILA - Thank you for sharing that. We both bought copies of Michaelangelo's poems at the gift shop afterwards, didn't we, and - like me - you obviously found them as exquisite as his drawings and sculptures. It's a daring thing to say, perhaps, but I think the sonnets are on a par for beauty and profundity with those of Wm. Shakespeare Esq.

The drawings in the exhibition are really quite small (we were lucky that it wasn't too crowded as you really do need to be up close and personal to fully appreciate them) but they are immensely powerful.

What struck me was the way in which his lines (and it is equally true of his written lines) succeeded in combining a sense of heavenly vision with earthly passion and sublime spiritual insight with a very human awareness of sexual physicality.

Matt J said...

Remarkable drawings-I saw them on my previous trip to London at the beginning of the month. Did you see Van Gogh at the RA yet?

Brian Sibley said...

MATT - I saw you commented on the 'Dream' on your blog. I found Michaelangelo's drawings incredibly intense - both in the way they had been created and in what seemed to have been emotionally invested in them.

Thanks for the reminder about VVG: we really must get there before it ends.