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
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.
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
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
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
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."
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,
All appropriate pictures were found at the following
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