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In the Tuscan sunlight, meeting Michelangelo

Pamposh Dhar | Updated on November 06, 2020 Published on November 06, 2020

Top notch: Michelangelo was at first reluctant to paint the ceiling of Sistine   -  REUTERS/ CHRISTINNE MUSCHI

To ask, did you hide feminine symbols in the patriarchal Church of the time?

I was in my teens when I saw the Sistine Chapel for the first time. I was blown away by the beauty of the frescoes on the ceiling — not just the depictions of the creation of the world, and of Adam and Eve — but also the prophets and sibyls in the corners where the ceiling curved down to meet the walls.

I fell in love with this chapel in the Vatican, and the artist who had decorated it with the most magnificent frescoes. There was — and is — a large fresco on the altar wall too, depicting the Last Judgement. But it was the ceiling that fascinated me. And the stories of how Michelangelo Buonarroti, essentially a sculptor, had been dragooned into this mammoth task against his will, how he had created special structures to allow him to paint directly on the ceiling. The result has amazed millions of visitors for over 500 years.

Not that he was not a magnificent sculptor as well. He had already created the Pietà, which is also housed in the Vatican. It depicts a beautiful Mother Mary, gentle, graceful, sorrowing — and yet somehow untouched by everything, even the loss of her son, whose body she holds in her lap. The moving sculpture in white marble was finished in 1499 when Michelangelo was just 24.

Much as I marvelled at the paintings and the sculpture, most of all I became curious about a man who could excel at both painting and sculpture. Was he born to sculpt? Or was he born to paint? In addition, he was also an architect and a poet. I have always thought that just as much as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo was a true Renaissance man.

If only I could go back in time, to the 16th century, and have a meeting with this remarkable man. Perhaps we would meet in a stone quarry near Florence. I can imagine the wonderful Tuscan sunlight as I travel to the quarry. I know Michelangelo will be there, picking up the block of marble for his next sculpture. He was very particular about the stone he used and he carved from a single block of marble. He would first envision his sculpture in that block and then chisel away the extra marble to set his vision free.

In the quarry, I would attempt to strike up a conversation with a man known to be rather anti-social. But perhaps he would relent when I toldhim I had travelled across five centuries to ask him about his work. To understand from him how he was able to see people and scenes in a block of marble. See them so clearly that he simply freed them from the stone and unveiled them to a world that still gasps at the power of his David, the gentle beauty of Mother Mary, or the imposing figure of Moses.

Talking of Moses, I would surely ask him why he gave the prophet horns! Such a magnificent statue of a respected prophet — and with two clearly visible horns, one on either side of his head. The usual explanation for this is a mistranslation. Moses was said to have two rays, which apparently got translated as two “horns”. I would dearly like to confirm if this was what happened. It seems odd that the man who gave us abiding images of god, Adam and God’s creation of Adam would be taken in by a bit of mistranslation!

I am pretty sure this is not the case, but I would still like to double-check: Michelangelo, this wasn’t like one of those “secret messages” you are said to have hidden in the Sistine Chapel paintings, was it? And while we are at it, would you shed more light on those messages in the Sistine? Do God’s draperies really depict a brain, implying that creation started in the mind of God? In the patriarchal Church of the time, did you hide feminine symbols? At a time when the Church of Pope Julius II looked with disfavour upon Judaism, did you deliberately hide Hebrew letters among the paintings?

We know that you had strong disagreements with the Pope, who was not known to brook dissent. Is it true that Pope Julius II wanted you to paint a figure of Christ over the front door? You, of course, painted Zechariah instead. And was it to avoid the Pope’s wrath that you gave Zechariah the face of Julius II?

I have so much more to ask you — we haven’t even touched on your architectural ventures and your poems. But you are already looking impatiently towards the marble, so I will bid you arrivederci.

Pamposh Dhar is a writer and editor based in Singapore

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Published on November 06, 2020
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