Michelangelo: Gifts of the Divine

Michelangelo: Gifts of the Divine

Michelangelo was one of the first artists to achieve world fame, and his life was a story of acclaim, drama, and agony.  As a teen prodigy, Michelangelo made his name with a skillset that rivaled artists many years his senior.  At 19, he was hired by a con man to forge an ancient sculpture that was sold to Raffaele Riario, a Catholic Cardinal.  The falsehood was soon discovered, but Raffaele was so impressed by Michelangelo’s talent that he pardoned the young sculptor, and introduced him to Rome’s socialites. Patrons rushed to sponsor his work.  

Around the turn of the 16th century, Michelangelo turned heads with his first major commission, The Bacchus, a depiction of the Greek god of wine.  But it was his second major sculpture, The Pieta, that cemented Michelangelo’s reputation as a master.  The work indicated the artist’s growing attention toward spirituality; his depiction of Mary cradling a crucified Christ showed staggering technique and emotional depth.  

A third work, his 17-foot sculpture of David, made Michelangelo the toast of Italy.  Upon completion, the work was so celebrated that officials competed to determine its location.  It was ultimately placed in the most prominent spot possible — outside Florence’s City Hall.   

Michelangelo would go on to complete many great commissions for popes and luminaries, including painting the Sistine Chapel and drafting St. Peter’s Cathedral.  But he always identified himself as a sculptor … and a man of God.

As his fame grew, many colleagues became jealous of Michelangelo’s abilities, and he was accused of indecencies and false crimes.  Some said his genius was the result of demonic possession or pacts with the Devil.  Others recognized his talents as “gifts of the Divine,” a compliment that echoed the artist’s beliefs.   When Italy’s elite rallied to honor him, he urged his fans to focus their attention instead toward his Heavenly Creator.  

As he aged, Michelangelo’s health began to deteriorate: decades of hammering in stone and painting on his back had taken a toll.  But he continued working and rarely mentioned his pains.  Instead he said that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was a constant inspiration for his own grueling work.

In a deathbed letter, he said, “I give my soul to God, my body to the earth, and my worldly possessions to my nearest of kin, charging them to remember the sufferings of Jesus Christ.”

It’s easy to imagine what was in Michelangelo’s mind’s eye when he wrote those words:  the tender scene that he carved in his Pieta so many years before, a heartbroken mother and her slain son, brutally crucified for the world’s retribution.