SLAVES by Michelangelo Buonarotti - Paul Hansen

DYING SLAVE (1513-1516)


Prior to painting the world famous ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo was commissioned by Julius II to produce a magnificent tomb that was to be located in the new Basilica of St. Peter’s. The original project was to include more than 40 figures. However, after a mounting shortage of money and difficulty locating the necessary Carrara marble, the project was put aside in favor of the Sistine Chapel. When returning to work on the tomb, Michelangelo redesigned his plans on a much more modest scale. Some of his greatest works were created during this time and many other statues were left unfinished, either due to dissatisfaction or because they were no longer in his plans. Included among these were the series of six distinct slaves, with some being completed and others left unfinished (although some scholars may dispute this).

Although difficult to see in this picture, a barely chiseled-out figure of a monkey holding a round object in its paws can be seen.

There have been many interpretations of this particular detail of this significant detail:

Displays simia naturae, which is a symbol of the art of painting which "apes" nature.

An illusion to the animal-like inferiority of man, whose soul is chained to a body.


The Louvre

This particular sculpture was considered the most frontal of the slaves. The belief is that it was probably intended to placed in front of a pilaster to the left of the middle of the tomb. It is widely believed that this figure is not dying at all, but rather absorbed in a dream-like state that is somewhere between the "languorous sensuality of an adolescent ephebe and the wistfulness of a captive restrained none to convincingly by bonds girding his chest and shoulders." Notice how the body stands in a precarious balance and the gesture made by his left arm is very similar to that of a Venus revealing her charms. Charles de Tolnay once described this piece as "a dreaming adolescent trying to shake off the bonds of sleep." If nothing more, this is one of the many examples of the sexual ambiguity that characterizes so many of Michelangelo’s nudes.

Rebellious Slave (1513-1516)

The next sculpture has been paired with the Dying Slave at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. This work of art has long been applauded for its realism and dynamism closely resembling Roman sculpture. Once again, near the left knee, a profile of a monkey’s head can be seen. The statue as a whole seems more down-to- earth and closer resembles the figures of prisoners on the arches of triumph of Imperial Rome.

Noticing the body position, it seems that with the violent juxtaposition of its arms and the bonds around its back, that it represents a prisoner of a mysterious constraint. In particular, the figure’s left arm twisted behind its back and the right foot firmly planted on the base seems to express a resolute effort at breaking free. As in many of his works, Michelangelo used the formal principle of an ascending spiral to make the figure dynamic. Along with the Dying Slave, these two sculptures allude to a state of bondage, a situation of extreme constraint from which they must at all cost escape. In other words, they express a determined aspiration to spiritual, aesthetic and political freedom. This theme mirrors the life of Michelangelo because he was bound by social, human and worldly limitations, he remained essentially free through his artistic expressions.

Atlas (1519), Awakening Slave (1530-1533), Young Slave (1530-1533), and Bearded Slave (1530-1533)

An observer’s initial response is to understand the meaning behind their poses, which seem rather unnatural. They do not fit any set of poses that one can readily fit into a logical sequence of movements. Another relation between these four works is their unfinished state. This leads scholars to read into an opposition between finito and non-finito or rather between the more or less fully formed bodies or limbs and the formless material of the marble untamed by the sculptor’s chisel. These works have often been compared to representations of Titans in the Greek myths due to their struggle with all their might to free themselves from an unbearable physical and mental condition. Some classical Graeco-Roman references include:

  • Titans relegated to Hades
  • Prometheus chained to a rock
  • The processions of prisoners on Roman triumphal arches


Some believe that the diagonal strip that runs across the chest of the Young Slave as well as the same bands that appear on the Bearded Slave could symbolize bondage of material or spiritual nature. The figures of the Awakening Slave and Atlas seem to be prisoners of the formless block of marble itself (it has often been questioned whether this was purposely done by Michelangelo or if they were just unfinished).

These statues present not only a great complexity of forms, gestures and poses, but also a "disquieting impression of primal fears countered only by muscular effort." Charles Sala describes the group of statues to be the "protagonists of [a] sculptural drama [who] are prisoners of their own bodies and poses, Atlas unrelieved by any discernible opposing force."

Bearded Slave

Awakening Slave

Young Slave

Many people question the motives behind Michelangelo’s decision to leave his six slaves unfinished (rather than incomplete, which suggests a level of neglect or abandonment). In reality, most of Michelangelo’s works, particularly his sculptures, remained in an unfinished state due to their visible grindings of chisel and pickax, which displays Michelangelo’s vigorous style. These rough characteristics were crucial to the overall feel and significance of the sculptures. The lack of finish and presence of surplus marble all melded together allows the spectator to comprehend the levels of artistic effort invested in the creation of sculpture. The release of an effigy, a likeness, and an idea from an inanimate rock by the human hand and intellect is an essential belief to Neo-Platonic thought. Michelangelo was advancing Renaissance understanding of human artistic creativity and elevating the artistic mind.


De Tolnay, Charles. The Tomb of Julius II. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1954.
Beck, James. Three Worlds of Michelangelo. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.
Sala, Charles. Michelangelo. Paris: Editions Pierre Terrail, 2003.

All appropriate pictures were found at the following web address:

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