Michelangelo’s statues in the New Sacristy II

The Mask

The Night is based on the classic sarcophagus of Leda, which later disappeared. Only a drawing from the sixteenth century remains. A new feature is that Michelangelo lets the right arm run diagonally to the front of the block where the elbow rests on her left upper leg. Moreover, Michelangelo’s left arm almost disappears completely. The latter was not done intentionally, but was an emergency solution. The rough piece of marble directly above the mask is all that remains of what was first a part of the left arm and perhaps resembled Leda’s arm in a painting by Michelangelo that was lost, but of which there is still a copy. The statue of Ammanati, Leda and the Swan, is also clearly inspired by the disappeared painting with the theme of the same name by Michelangelo.

Michelangelo New Sacristy: Mask of Night
photos: George M. Groutas

 Leda and the Swan after Michelangelo’s disappeared painting
Ammanati ‘Leda and the Swan’ 1540s, height 50 cm

Leda and the Swan after Michelangelo's disappeared painting
photo: Sailko

Michelangelo ‘Night’

Michelangelo 'Night' New Sacristy
photo: Steven Zucker

Of the four statues that are lying down, the Night is the only statue that has been given attributes that leave no doubt about the meaning of this woman. A moon and a star are depicted on her headgear. Her hip shows an owl and her left foot rests on a bag of poppies. The mask as attribute is less clear. The biographers and contemporaries of Michelangelo, Condivi and Vasari, endorse the meaning of the Night and the Day. Condivi writes as follows:

Michelangelo New Sacristy: Night  detail: Owl

“The statues are four, placed in a sacristy erected for this purpose on the left of the church opposite the old sacristy; and although each figure balances the other in design and general shape, nevertheless, they are quite different in form, idea, and action. The sarcophagi are placed against the side walls, and above their lids recline two figures, larger than life—that is to say, a man and a woman, signifying Day and Night; and by the two of them Time, that consumes all things. And in order that his idea might be better understood, he gave to the Night, who was made in the form of a woman of a marvellous beauty, an owl and other symbols suitable to her; similarly to the Day, his signs; and for the signification of Time he intended to carve a rat, because this little animal gnaws and consumes, just as Time devours, all things. He left a piece of marble on the work for it, which he did not carve, as he was afterwards prevented. There were besides other statues, which represented those for whom the tombs were erected.” Source: Ascanio Condivi, ‘The life of Michelangelo’ Project Gutenberg p. 59

It is no big secret that Michelangelo could quote large parts of Dante’s ‘La Divina Commedia’ or work by Petrarca by heart and he used this knowledge for his art as shown in the following lines by Petrarca. ‘‘Death makes way for celebrity, but celebrity in turn makes way for death.’ Man is overtaken by the gnawing of time. Condivi – who wrote a biography about the life of Buonarroti, approved by Michelangelo – describes how Michelangelo carved a mouse out of a piece of marble. In his Lives, Vasari cites a poem about the Night and Buonarroti’s answer to it: ‘The Night, which you so sweetly see sleeping, was hewn out of this stone by an Angel; and there where she sleeps, she lives. Wake her up, if you don’t believe it, and she will speak to you’ To this, as a personification of the Night, Michelangelo replied accordingly: ‘Sleep is dear to me, even more dear to be made of stone, as long as adversity and shame last. Not to see, not to hear is my great happiness; Therefore, do not awaken me: Oh well, speak softly.” Translated from: Giorgio Vasari, ‘De levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue to Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, Deel 1I 1992, blz. 233-234 (originele editie 1568).

The Night is carved out of a slightly larger marble block than the other three personifications made out of blocks of the same size.

The four personifications spiral around the centre axis. Although they are rather muscular, they make a powerless impression. Only the Night sleeps. The body of the Day is based on the famous torso of Belvedère. This torso also had a great influence on Michelangelo’s painted Ignudi (Web Gallery of Art See also Rome: Sistine chapel ceiling scroll down). Lorenzo’s introvert attitude can be found in the two figures on the sarcophagus below him: Dawn and Twilight.

Michelangelo ‘Dawn and Twilight’

Michelangelo Dawn and Twilight New Sacristy

The body of the Dawn is much more feminine than that of the Night. The female personification of the Night in particular has a body that is more reminiscent of a man than of a woman. Her breasts look like attributes that have only been added to make it clear that the Night really must represent a woman. Besides, according to oncologist James Stark, there is something strange about the breasts that Michelangelo often uses for his women. An explanation for the way Buonarroti emasculates his women, something that you can also see in his frescoes in the Sistine chapel, for example, is found in the artist’s alleged homosexual orientation. However, literature writes and thinks differently about this subject.

Whatever the case, a muscular male body is considerably more difficult for a sculptor to carve than a female nude. After all, a considerable knowledge of tendons, muscles and veins directly under the skin is required, of which the young Michelangelo had already made a study when he dissected corpses in the morgue of the Santo Spirito. Did Michelangelo use the difficultà of a male body for the Night to show how well he could sculpt?

The figures on the tomb seem to slide off the lid. This is very clear to see at the Night and the Day, where the legs have no support from the lid. Moreover, the posture of the Day is very strange, imagine lying on a tomb in that way. At the back of the Day (bottom left) and the Twilight you can clearly see that one figure is straight at the bottom and the other has a round shape parallel to the round lid of the sarcophagus.

The Dawn       The Night

Michelangelo Twilight New Sacristy
photos: Frans Vandewalle

A possible explanation for this is Pope-Hennessy’s view that the shape of the lid of the tomb was later changed: the bottom and the size of the Day and Twilight are not the same. (Pope-Hennessy, J., ‘Italian High Renaissance& Baroque Sculpture’ volume III, Phaidon, London 1996 (2000 paperback edition) p. 55). It is striking that Michelangelo’s statues ignore the commandment of every Renaissance artist, namely to depict naturalistically. The proportions of the body parts to each other and to the whole body are no longer accurate. 

In the case of the Night’s most revered figure, the upper body exhibits an unexpected length, surpassing conventional proportions. Yet, this deliberate deviation attains a state of perfect concentration, a manifestation only within reach of an artist capable of transcending the confines of realism. The Dawn’s arm, too, undergoes a similar unnatural elongation. With a gentle motion, she unveils herself, establishing a flowing line that extends through her parted legs. This distinctive anatomical variation is a consistent feature across all the other sculptures. The transformation and distortion of the body, aimed at attaining a seamless alignment of physical and psychological movement, find credibility only in meticulous details. For Michelangelo, anatomical studies were not the ultimate objective of representation but rather the foundation for realizing an ideal where everything extraneous to the essence was omitted from the body (paraphrased). Source: Antonio Forcellino, ‘Michelangelo A restless life’, New Amsterdam/Manteau 2005 p. 215.

Michelangelo Giuliano New Sacristy
photos: Steven Zucker

Giuliano       In situ

The recesses with Lorenzo and Giuliano Capitani The two statues in the recesses are not of the Magnifici, but of the dukes or Capitani. Duke Lorenzo was commander of the papal army. Giuliano holds a staff and Lorenzo wears a strange helmet in the shape of something that resembles a sea creature. This kind of headgear comes from the Etruscans. Although the two statues do look towards the same side: towards Mary, they are in many ways an opposite of each other. Giuliano looks powerful, a seated variant of the David, and his body has a spiral-like contrappostoo. The left foot is withdrawn, giving the impression that he wants to get up. His whole posture shows that Giuliano is focused on something outside him.

Lorenzo       In situ

Very different is the attitude of Lorenzo. The hand at his chin and the slightly bent forward body show Lorenzo as someone who is turned in himself. Given the position of his feet, he would not even be able to take immediate action. Giuliano is a kind of compromise between a sitting and standing figure. A shadow falls on both figures in the New Sacristy. The figure Lorenzo was known in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the Thinker: the Pensieroso, there is much romantic literature about the deeper thought of this figure.

Both figures are certainly not portraits: neither physically nor psychologically. Often the two figures are interpreted as Active and Contemplative life. Michelangelo writes about Duke Giuliano: The Day and the Night speak and say: “We have, with our quick course, conducted the Duke, Giuliano, to death; it is well justified that because of this he worked revenge as he has.  And the revenge is this: that he, thus dead, has taken the light from us, who have killed him, and he has shut ours with his closed eyes, which shine no more over the earth.  What, then, might he have made of us, when living? Source: Translation of William Dennis.

Michelangelo Lorenzo New Sacristy
photos: Steven Zucker

Michelangelo has not provided any of the eyes of the statues in this sacristy with anything reminiscent of pupils. This makes it look like the ‘closed eyes’ he writes about. At the time, this was unique in the history of sculpture. A contemporary heard Michelangelo say about the portraits of Giuliano and Lorenzo: ‘but it gave them a greatness, a proportion, a dignity.which, according to him, brought more honour to them, in a thousand years’ time nobody will know that they looked different.’(Source: Andres, G.M., Hunisak, J.M., Turner, R.A., ‘The Art of Florence’, Abbeville Press, New York 1988 (reprinted 1994) volume II 1017). The dukes are thus clearly idealised and they are in fact immortalised by these statues.

Lorenzo, the inaugural Duke of Urbino, gained renown for his absence of military valor and his indulgence toward his highly ambitious mother. In this portrayal, he assumes the guise of a youthful Caesar, unparalleled in physical attractiveness and noble demeanor, alluding to concepts foreign to the superficial and nebulous young man in reality. Giuliano, traditionally frail with a delicate physical constitution, is depicted as a passionate military leader dismounting from his horse (paraphrased). Source: Antonio Forcellino, ‘Michelangelo A restless life’, Nieuw Amsterdam/Manteau 2005 pp. 196-197.

The Madonna with the Child opposite the altar in the New Sacristy

Michelangelo 'Cosmas Mary with child Damian' New Sacristy
photos: George M. Groutas

The least completed and most deviant statue in this sacristy is: Mary and her child. Through the glances of both dukes in the recesses, attention is quickly directed to Mary. The statue is based on a Roman copy of a Greek statue of Penelope. Originally there was to be a free-standing tomb in the middle of the sacristy. The Mary was planned as part of a group of statues. At first the child was standing between her legs and she looked down on her son. Michelangelo had already done something like this with his so-called: ‘Bruges Madonna‘. Three statues can now be seen on the south wall opposite the altar: Mary with child in the middle, flanked by Cosmas and Damian. These two saints are the patron saints of the Medici, which is why they are placed in the sacristy. Cosmas (left) and Damian (right) were not carved by Michelangelo, but by Montorsoli and Montelupo, but according to a design by the master.

Michelangelo 'Mary with child' New Sacristy
photos: Richard Mortel

Mary and Child       Zoom out

The Madonna looks rather sad: is she aware of the fate that awaits her son in the end? Jesus no longer has the stature and length of a baby like with the ‘Bruges Madonna’. The child turns away from the viewer and clearly wants to drink. This was quite a bold move, such a Mary Lactans, right in front of the altar where the priest commands mass for the deceased.

Michelangelo ‘Maria lactans’ detail c. 1503     Zoom out

Buonarroti made a bozzetto for this Madonna and Child (Casa Buonarroti). While in the preliminary study the child’s posture does look natural, this is not the case with the statue: the position of the child’s left arm is impossible.

According to Pope-Hennessy, this statue was probably carved around 1519 for the tomb of Pope Julius II. While working on the New Sacristy, Michelangelo also worked on his statues for the tomb. And so, the Virgin and child was actually supposed to look down on the tomb of the Pope and not look down at the middle of the floor as they do now.

The motif of the four statues that lie down, as described earlier, is how time ultimately destroys all that is earthly. Of course, the theme of the Resurrection of Christ fits in perfectly with this. Moreover, such a subject makes sense in a chapel where the dead lie buried. The deeper meaning of the Resurrection is of course that there is hope for man. In addition, a preliminary study was made in which the position of the feet and legs of Giuliano d’Medici are studied.

In 1976, more than one hundred and eighty drawings were discovered, at least ninety-seven of which were made by Michelangelo himself. These drawings were found in a long corridor under the altar, in the altar room itself and in the small room to the right of the choir room.

We now leave the New Sacristy and walk east to the Santa Croce where we go to see Michelangelo’s tomb ourselves.

Santa Croce

Continuation Florence day 4: Michelangelo’s tomb in the Santa Croce and his Pietà