The Second Commandment today looms large for a Protestant in Rome, assaulted on every side by breathtaking idolatry. It is even worse in Florence. One walks the halls of the Uffizi and marvels that so much talent and artistic brilliance could have been concentrated in such a small time and place, and marvel still further that it flourished in a vain attempt to image God. The Italian Renaissance, for better and for worse, is the ground upon which the Reformation was built, “woven”, as Jacob Burckhardt would characterize the times that preceded it, “of faith, childlike prejudices, and illusion”. We thank Simonetta Carr for bringing us this story, and for helping us to appreciate brilliance without being blinded by it.

 

MICHELANGELO AND THE ITALIAN REFORMATION

The intensity of Michelangelo’s religious convictions is indisputable. The nature and expression of his piety, however, changed and matured with time. In fact, this maturation was so affected by the religious ferments of his day that it’s impossible to understand Michelangelo’s art apart from his religious environment.

Born in 1495 in a stone house on the rugged hills between Arezzo and Florence, Italy, Michelangelo was duly baptized in the Roman Catholic Church and most probably continued to attend church—first with the family of stonecutters who took care of him while his mother regained rest after birth, then with his own family after they moved to Florence, although we don’t know how much time he spent admiring the astounding paintings around him, especially in his local church—the impressive bas-ilica of Santa Croce, a few blocks away from his home. Church attendance was pretty much a given for everyone in those days, whether out of conviction or to follow social conventions.

In spite of its profound influence on European economy and culture, Florence was still relatively small and could be walked across in about half an hour. Often, after school, he and some like-minded friends visited other churches around town to study and copy the deeply religious works of famous artists such as Giotto, Donatello, and Masaccio.

Early Influences

The first known record of the powerful effect of a sermon on Michelangelo’s conscience refers to the time when a friar named Girolamo Savonarola began to denounce the sins of greed and immorality that especially plagued the clergy and ruling classes. Michelangelo was deeply troubled by the friar’s messages and read some of his writings. In fact, in spite of his disagreements with Savonarola’s attacks on classical art, and in spite of the turn of events (Savonarola was eventually excommunicated and burned at the stake for his defiance against the pope), Michelangelo admitted, in his old age, of

Michelangelo

“keeping always in his mind the memory of [Savonarola’s] living voice.”

Most of Michelangelo’s works have obvious religious themes—from the quiet submission of Mary as she supports and offers her Son in the Pietà, to the powerful, calculated strength of the David, to the awe of creation and the terrors of God’s judgment in the ceiling and altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, to his final and anguished exploration of Christ’s sacrifice. In all these works, he was clearly inspired by both the Bible and Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, a poem in three books he reportedly knew by heart.

Visual art, however, allows for different interpretations. The clearest expression of Michelangelo’s religious feelings is probably found in his poetry, which also matured with time. His early poems are light, even facetious, with a strong resemblance to the rhymes of Francesco Petrarch, one of the most influential Renaissance poets. Some, however, contain echoes of Savonarola’s denunciation of the church’s corruption and abuses, as in these lines:

Here they make helms and swords from chalices
And sell the blood of Christ in cupped hands;
His cross and thorns are made into lances and shields,
yet Christ’s patience still rains down.

But let him come no more into these streets.
His blood would rise as far as the stars,
since now in Rome they are selling his skin,
and here the roads are closed to every virtue.1Spike, John T., Young Michelangelo: The Path to the Sistine, New York, The Vendom Press, 2010, p. 121-122 (adapted from Saslow, James M., The Poetry of Michelangelo, An Annotated Translation, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1991, p. 78).

This poem continues to compare the pope to the mythological Medusa who transformed mighty Atlas into immoveable stone. Feeling despondent and threatened by that paralyzing power, Michelangelo signed his composition, “Your

pope-julius-ii
Pope Julius II by Raphael, 1510

Michelangelo in Turkey”. Rome had become, in his eyes, an enemy of Christianity as much as Turkey was at that time.

The poem might have been directed against Pope Alexander VI, a clever politician and “godfather” of the Borgia family, famous for his lovers and illegitimate children, or else against Pope Julius II, who was nicknamed “the warrior pope” because he marched at the head of his troops in his shining armor to expand the territories of the church or bring to submission the regions that tried to rebel to his rule.

The Shadow of Death

As a sculptor, Michelangelo spent large portions of his time planning or decorating mausoleums for the dead. One of his first paid commissions consisted in two statuettes for a monument containing the remains of Saint Domenico, in the Basilica devoted to that saint, in Bologna. Pope Julius’s commission of an enormous tomb for his own burial kept the artist busy for over 40 years. In Florence, Michelangelo worked on the Medici family mausoleum (Medici Chapel) for about 10 years. These projects forced him to reflect on the brevity of time and the certainty of death.

Much of his poetic reflections on these themes is written on the same papers where he jotted down sketches and architectural drawings. The following verses were composed on the back of a document, together with some early sketches for a fresco for Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio and some drawings for the tomb of Julius II:

There isn’t a moving thing under the sun
that death does not defeat and fortune change.2Saslow, The Poetry of Michelangelo, p. 66

The reality of death hit ferociously home in 1528, when a plague epidemic claimed the life of his favorite brother Buonarroto. Soon after that, Buonarroto’s youngest son Simone died from an unknown illness. In 1531, Michelangelo’s father Ludovico came to the end of his life. Michelangelo was 56 years old, a fairly advanced age in those days. Many of his friends had also left this earth, and the shadow of death was looming closer than ever in his mind.
In his longest poem, commenting on the death of his brother and father, he wrote,

Death is not, as some believe, the worst for one
who, through grace, rises up on his final day
to his first eternal one near the divine throne
where, God willing, I presume and believe you are.3Ibid, p. 206

Some modern evangelicals, in a desire to make Michelangelo “their own,” have interpreted this type of writings as an expression of a belief in sola gratia. In reality, Michelangelo’s understanding of grace was at this time still in line with Roman Catholic teachings, as it seems clear in his “firm faith that one who lived well will settle better into death.”4Ibid, p. 205.

Hanging_and_burning_of_Girolamo_Savonarola_in_Florence
Hanging and burning of Girolamo Savonarola in Piazza della Signoria in Florence in 1498
by Michelangelo, 1498

The Italian “Spirituali”

The greatest impact on Michelangelo’s faith came from his involvement with a loose and varied Italian group known as “spirituali” (meaning “spiritual,” as opposed to worldly). This group had formed in different cities as a reaction to the problems of the Roman Catholic Church. Some of them, as Savonarola and many others before them, simply saw a need for moral improvement, greater biblical knowledge, and increased preaching in the church. Others, agreeing largely with the doctrinal teachings of German and Swiss reformers, the spirituali responded in different ways.

In this latter group, some continued to explore the questions raised by the Reformation and eventually moved across the Alps (such as Peter Martyr Vermigli, who attended the spirituali community in Naples for some time). Others, unwilling to make a radical break with a church they had learned to love and trust as unchangeable institution, hoping against hope, continued to seek for reconciliation between the two parties (in what we call today the Catholic Reformation). A few others pushed their independence from Rome to a dangerous limit (such as Bernardino Ochino, a famous Italian preacher who was repeatedly expulsed from Reformed German and Swiss cities for his strong individualism and his unorthodox opinions on the Trinity).

The member of the spirituali movement who was mostly instrumental in maturing Michelangelo’s theology was the noblewoman and renowned poet Vittoria Colonna. The two met around 1537, when Michelangelo was 62 and Vittoria 45, and immediately developed a strong bond of friendship and mutual admiration. The two continued to share many letters and poems about personal feelings, art, and religion until Vittoria’s death in 1547.

Vittoria had first met the spirituali in the late 1520’s and early 1530’s, most likely in Naples, in the circle of Juan de Valdés, a nobleman who had left Spain to escape the scrutiny of the Inquisition. At this time, the religious climate in Italy was still fluid and somewhat tolerant of different opinions. After all, Valdés’s emphasis on the Bible as the only source of truth, and faith as the only way to salvation was grounded in the Pauline epistles and Augustinian writings. At that time, the Council of Trent had not yet convened to draw a clear line of distinction between heresy and orthodoxy in matters of justification.

Foreign authors like Martin Luther, Martin Bucer, and Heinrich Bullinger were well known among the spirituali. In the early 1540’s, an Italian text entitled The Benefit of Christ’s Death became particularly relevant. Written by an obscure monk from Mantua, Italy (Benedetto Fontanini), and revised by the Italian humanist Marcantonio Flaminio, it sold tens of thousands of copies immediately after its anonymous publication in 1543. By this time, however, an overly zealous cardinal, Gian Pietro Carafa had reopened the Roman Inquisition, focusing particularly on the eradication of Protestant teachings. The Benefit ended up in the official papal list of forbidden books.

As the title implies, the focal point of the book is, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and what it accomplished for believers, as a full and permanent satisfaction of God’s wrath against sin. Because of this, believers are reconciled to God and can serve him in liberty, out of gratitude and not fear. This characteristic Lutheran message is flanked by strong references to Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, particularly regarding assurance of salvation.
This message is very clear in Vittoria’s poems, such as this:

Whene’er I look at my so great an error,
confused, to God the Father I can’t raise
the unworthy face, but to You who for us died
upon the wood, I turn a faithful heart.
Your pain and love are today my shield
against a wrath that’s ancient and yet new.
You are my only true and precious pledge,
turning to hope and joy anguish and dread.
As Your breath left you, You prayed for us: “O Father,
let those who believe join me in my kingdom.”
And now my soul at rest knows no more fear.
Now by Your mercy I believe, and know
Your burning Passion which razed all my guilt
forever, as it consumed You on the cross.

Now by Your mercy I believe, and know
Your burning Passion which razed all my guilt
forever, as it consumed You on the cross.5Colonna, Vittoria, Rime, Napoli 1692, my translation.

Michelangelo, who had been tormented by a sense of unworthiness in God’s eyes, repeatedly recognized his spiritual indebtedness to Vittoria. To her, he felt free to express his longings, questions, vacillations, and doubts. Most of the poems and drawings he created for her, however, reinforce the theme of Christ’s sacrifice. In line with the artist’s conception of art as “a copy of the perfections of God and a recollection of His painting,”6Hollanda, F. de, “Dialogos Em Roma” (1538), in Conversations on Art with Michelangelo Buonarroti, ed. G.D. Foliero Metz (Heidelberg 1998), p. 77. he used them as a means to further explore the meaning and implications of Christ’s Passion and death.

martyrdom-of-peter
Martyrdom of St Peter by Michelangelo, 1546 – 1550

Two of these drawings focus, respectively, on Christ’s crucifixion or removal from the cross. Characteristic of these works are the intense emotions of the subjects, representing a break from the composed expressions typical of medieval paintings, and even of Michelangelo’s first Pietà.

The focus also changes. In the first Pietà, Mary is passively and resignedly pointing to her dead son, leaving the viewer to quietly share her pain. Representing the same scene for Colonna, Michelangelo charges it with new energy. This time, the viewer’s eye rises from the crown of thorns which is cast on the ground to the listless body of Christ and then to the robust posture of Mary who, with arms outstretched, points toward heaven in a powerful expression of submission and faith. Above her, on the cross, Michelangelo added a short sentence from Dante’s Divine Comedy: “There is no reckoning of how much blood it cost.”

Breaking Conventions

Michelangelo’s art is characterized by bold choices which defy conventions. At a time when artists (and particularly sculptors) were still slightly above the rank of simple workmen, at the complete service of a pa-tron, Michelangelo held firmly to his presumed an-cestral nobility and demanded respect and creative freedom.

Standing by these demands was not always easy. He often had to bow his neck, even literally, to popes and rulers and acquiesce to work on undesired projects. In those cases, he invariably repeated, “One must have patience.”

Most of the time, however, he was able to do what he liked. His best patrons were those who understood his need for freedom and, maybe surprisingly, love. “Kind words and gentle treatment can gain anything from him,” wrote Piero Soderini, gonfaloniere of the Republic of Florence. “It is only necessary to let him see that he is loved, and is favorably thought of, and he will produce astonishing works.”7Spike, John, Young Michelangelo, p. 215, quoting Gaye, Carteggio inedito, 91–92

One of Michelangelo’s best patrons was Pope Paul III, who, interestingly, displayed a certain amount of tolerance toward the spirituali, allowing for some hope of reconciliation with Protestants. Under Pope Paul, Michelangelo produced some of his most theologically charged works—The Last Judgment, The Crucifixion of Saint Peter and The Conversion of Saint Paul. The piercing, angry gaze of a crucified Peter in the very place where cardinals met to choose a new pope (the Pauline Chapel) has been often interpreted as a rebuke to church leaders for forgetting Christ’s true call to his disciples. Even the anachronistic tonsure on Peter’s head seems to be representing a disdain for earthly goods that the cardinals had long abandoned.

Originally, Paul III had wanted Michelangelo to paint an image of Jesus giving Peter the symbolic keys of the church. Michelangelo, instead, chose the moment before the crucifixion of Peter, just as the cross is being raised head-down. He obviously had a different message in mind.

The Conversion of Saint Paul, also in the Pauline Chapel, is equally powerful and unconventional, as Michelangelo made Christ, not Paul, the protagonist of the scene. In the style of modern super-heroes, Christ descends from heaven head-first in a powerful beam of light, stretching his arm toward a powerless and literally blind Paul who can barely lift his hand to his Savior. This image was so revolutionary that one of Michelangelo’s critics considered Christ’s plummet from the sky “a scarcely honorable act,” “without any seriousness and any decorum.”8Frangi, Giuseppe, “The Cappella Paolina by Michelangelo,” 30 Days, August 2009 (quoting Giovanni Andrea Gilio), http://www.30giorni.it/articoli_id_21545_l3.htm

Michelangelo’s bold breaks with conventions are often useful to reveal his convictions and questions in the constant maturation of his theology.

What Michelangelo Didn’t Tell Us

As in the case of other spirituali, Colonna’s death in 1547 saved her from a possible prosecution by the Inquisition since,

st-peter-basilica
St. Peter Basilica Pieta by Michelangelo, 1498

just a few months later, the doctrine of sola fide she held so dear became officially heretical at the Council of Trent.
Michelangelo was distraught by her departure. “[She] was devoted to me and I no less to her,” he wrote. “Death deprived me of a very great friend.”9Buonarroti, Michelangelo, The Letters of Michelangelo, 2:120, my translation By that time, many of his other friends had died, and some had left Italy for religious reasons.

The same year, he began to sculpt a new pietà (known as Florentine Pietà), this time for his own grave. It was a challenging feat—an at-tempt to sculpt a group of four people from one block of marble. The group, arranged in a pyramidal structure, has Jesus at the center, being recently removed from the cross. At his right hand is his mother Mary, pressing her body against him so forcefully that her face becomes partially buried in his hair. On the other side is Mary Magdalene, gently balancing Mary’s tormented effort to support her son.

Behind Jesus, a large, older man, carries the bulk of his weight. Most critics agree this is Nicodemus, the teacher of Jewish

florence_pieta
Florentine Pietà by Michelangelo, c. 1547–1553

law who had first approached Jesus by night. In fact, this statue of Nicodemus is generally considered a self-portrait of Michelangelo.

Nicodemus had often been taken as an example of a secret believer. Apparently, it was the Reformer John Calvin who coined the word “Nicodemites” in a violent essay against those who talk about theology while sitting idly in the hope that “some good reform will be adopted.” Did Michelangelo identify himself with this description? This and many other questions about his faith may never be answered in this life, and don’t really have to be.

There are many grey areas in Michelangelo’s life, in spite of the abundance of letters, poems, and documents he has left us, together with a biography practically dictated by him to one of his followers, Ascanio Condivi. In many of his accounts, he has often embellished or concealed the truth for various reasons. Being totally transparent about his religious and political thoughts might have proved extremely dangerous for a man who was financed by popes and rulers.
On the other hand, his most intimate cries and persistent desire for religious devotion are obviously sincere—an honest description of his painful struggle against sinful propensities. One poem reminds us particularly of the struggle in Romans 7.

Fain would I wish what my heart cannot will:
Between it and the fire a veil of ice
Deadens the fire, so that I deal in lies;
My words and actions are discordant still.
I love Thee with my tongue, then mourn my fill;
For love warms not my heart, nor can I rise,
Or open the doors of Grace, which from the skies
Might flood my soul, and pride and passion kill.
Rend Thou the veil, dear Lord! Break Thou that wall
Which with its stubbornness retards the rays
Of that bright sun this earth hath dulled for me!
Send down Thy promised light to cheer and fall
On Thy fair spouse, that I with love may blaze,
And, free from doubt, my heart feel only Thee!10Buonarroti, Michelangelo, Sonnets, ed. John Addington Symonds, London, Smith, Elder, & Co., 1904, p. 84.

conversion-of-saul
The Conversion of Saul by Michelangelo, 1542 – 1545

Some have interpreted Michelangelo’s intense perception of his spiritual struggle as a proof of some specific inner conflict, particularly about homosexuality. While it is true that Michelangelo loved to sketch and paint the male body, and that he had a deep affection for one of his students—Tommaso de’ Cavalieri—these things are not a conclusive proof of homosexual tendencies, especially if taken in the context of his times. Most likely, he understood the horror of our human sinful nature in a way that is alien to most people today.

We can enjoy Michelangelo’s art and poetry without trying to satisfy all of our curious inquiries. On the other hand, an understanding of the religious and political ferment of his times can greatly enhance our appreciation of his works and prevent us from imposing our modern presuppositions and convictions on his mind.

His Last Years

Michelangelo’s last sculpture (known as Pietà Rondanini) is as far from his first Pietà as day is from night. With seemingly little consideration for classical aesthetics, it stands as an expression of desperate struggle against the stone with weakening eyesight and strength in a final attempt to achieve what he had already considered futile and even spiritually dangerous—”sculpting divine things.”

It’s obvious that Michelangelo reworked this statue many times, as both figures—Jesus and Mary—are worn out and thin. Jesus’s right arm, suspended outside the body and completely disproportionate to the rest, was probably sculpted before the numerous alterations. Both faces are rough and barely distinguishable. Most critics believe it was a way for him to meditate on Christ’s death and suffering, a meditation that continued until his last hours, on February 18, 1563, when he asked his friends to read him related passages from the Bible.

After his death, among his papers, someone found a last, unfinished prayer:

My dear Lord, you who alone clothe and strip
and with your blood purify and heal them
of their infinite sins and human urgings…11Ryan, Chris, The Poetry of Michelangelo: An Introduction, London, The Athlone Press, 1998, p. 217

Michelangelo lived almost ninety years, long enough to see the Sack of Rome, the final collapse of the Florentine Republic, the emergence of the Protestant Reformation and the crushing hand of the Roman Inquisition. He was not, however, just a passive spectator. He fought for Florentine independence, designing fortresses and defensive walls, and ardently embraced and expressed at least some Reformed ideals. He remained, however, a loyal subject of the papacy. In his late years, he continued to work tirelessly in the planning of St. Peter’s Cathedral (probably the epitome of the Counter-Reformation), “because many people believe,” he said, “as I do myself, that I was put there by God.”12“I have always been,” Buonarroti, Letters, 2:177, my translation

His life and art escape a rigid categorization. They are, however, distinctive of the fluid and changing religious scene of the 16th century, especially in Italy, where the Church of Rome had a particularly strong moral, intellectual, and psychological grip on its followers. The embers of the Protestant Reformation in Italy soon died down, but some of the Italians who left the country (for example, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Jerome Zanchi, and—as second generation refugee—John Diodati) left a permanent imprint on Reformed history and theology.


Simonetta Carr is the author of the children’s book “Michelangelo for Kids, His Life and Ideas,” published by Chicago Review Press.

Endnotes   [ + ]

1. Spike, John T., Young Michelangelo: The Path to the Sistine, New York, The Vendom Press, 2010, p. 121-122 (adapted from Saslow, James M., The Poetry of Michelangelo, An Annotated Translation, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1991, p. 78).
2. Saslow, The Poetry of Michelangelo, p. 66
3. Ibid, p. 206
4. Ibid, p. 205.
5. Colonna, Vittoria, Rime, Napoli 1692, my translation.
6. Hollanda, F. de, “Dialogos Em Roma” (1538), in Conversations on Art with Michelangelo Buonarroti, ed. G.D. Foliero Metz (Heidelberg 1998), p. 77.
7. Spike, John, Young Michelangelo, p. 215, quoting Gaye, Carteggio inedito, 91–92
8. Frangi, Giuseppe, “The Cappella Paolina by Michelangelo,” 30 Days, August 2009 (quoting Giovanni Andrea Gilio), http://www.30giorni.it/articoli_id_21545_l3.htm
9. Buonarroti, Michelangelo, The Letters of Michelangelo, 2:120, my translation
10. Buonarroti, Michelangelo, Sonnets, ed. John Addington Symonds, London, Smith, Elder, & Co., 1904, p. 84.
11. Ryan, Chris, The Poetry of Michelangelo: An Introduction, London, The Athlone Press, 1998, p. 217
12. “I have always been,” Buonarroti, Letters, 2:177, my translation