Friday, February 17, 2017

Michelangelo's Moses, Basilica San Pietro in Vincoli

As I wandered around the San Pietro in Vincoli, one of the few churches built by Michelangelo’s benefactor, Pope Julius II, I wondered what the great Renaissance artist would have thought of the current leaders of the free world. Julius was, afterall, a man to inspire fear and rage in all in his midst. And Julius was obsessed with his own self-importance, making most decisions based on the benefits to his ego. A pope who took more than his name from Julius Ceasar could not have been an easy man to work for. But Julius was also a benefactor of the arts. Whether his investments were motivated by an appreciation of culture or an assuredness in the longevity of his own legacy, it seems of little importance today. Irrespective of wrath, his unethical behavior, financial greed and megalomania, at least Julius gave us some extraordinary works of art.
Julius II
For me, Michelangelo’s Moses who sits at the centre of a very reduced version of what was to be Julius’ tomb in the Basilica San Pietro in Vincoli, is one of the great wonders of the western world. Like most great artistic treasures on display in Rome, Moses sits safely behind barriers, in the artificial illumination produced by a tourist euro in the meter. At the end of the day, when the tourists are gone home, and the light comes through the window above and behind him, Moses takes on a steely grey clarity, that has his skin sing in the late afternoon sun for which he was made. Julius lies above him, propped up on an elbow. Even though his figure is somewhat contemplative, it’s as though he had a sudden thought and raised himself up from the dead to deliver one final order. Of course, Michelangelo found him inside the marble alive. As was the custom, in death the pope is given eternal life and salvation on his tomb.
A reproduction of
Domenico Zampieri's The Liberation of St Peter, 
which was destroyed in 1944
However we interpret the image of Julius, it’s Moses beneath him that captures every aspect of our beings. Moses is perfect. Many before me have said this, but it’s true. Standing before him it’s impossible not to be seduced by his beard, the extraordinary detail and clarity of his robes, his arms, and the veins on his arms. This is no ordinary sculpture. Made with the same sweeping beauty as the prophets on the Sistine ceiling, the power of David and the tenderness of the Madonna in the Basilica San Pietro, Moses is heavenly and sensual in the same breath. I know everyone says this, but being with Moses in the flesh, it was as though I was the first to wonder that this perfect being could have emerged from a single rough piece of marble.

Angel of Death

Others have claimed that Moses is a self-portrait, the great artist imbued with heavenly perfection in marble. This claim has been dismissed as often as it is asserted. However, it’s true that Michelangelo’s famous figures always reflect the age that he was when he made them. Certainly, Moses could easily be around 40 years, Michelangelo’s age when he came back to Rome to finish the tomb. Given his own self-aggrandizement, and the placement of Moses emanating and reflecting the light of God in the centre of Julius II’s tomb, Michelangelo wouldn’t appear to acquiesce to the Pope’s rule. That is, if we read these details of the tomb as saying anything about the relationship between the ruler and the ruled. And so, while Julius might be protesting his placement on the tier above in relatively diminished form, Michelangelo’s creation lives on as a force in the imagination long after the one who had authority over the land.

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