Michelangelo’s Sculpture: The Ideas of Visionary Art Explained

Michelangelo held sculpture to be the highest form of visionary art. Michelangelo’s sculpture functioned as a spiritual excavation of non-descript forms to ones of beauty and pathos.

Oct 28, 2020By Fraser Hibbitt, BA English Literature
Genius of Victory by Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1532-34; Moses by Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1515; David by Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1504; Pietá by Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1550


Michelangelo’s influence in the Western tradition of visionary art goes without question; his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel have endured through the ages and hold unequaled cultural currency. Born in 1475 in a city fertile for the arts, Florence, Michelangelo began his career apprenticed in the studio of the painter Ghirlandaio. The cultural climate of Florence at the time would greatly influence his life and career as an artist. 


Michelangelo’s Sculpture And The Renaissance


Michelangelo’s penchant for sculpture was closely connected with the age in which he lived: The Renaissance. The Renaissance was characterized by a re-birth of learning and connection to the Classical world. Manuscripts of Classical writings were rediscovered to influence and give impetus to the artists, politicians, and philosophers of the time.



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Giuliano de Medici by Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1526-33, in the Sagrestia Nuova, San Lorenzo, Florence, via Web Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


The Classical world gave the idea of harmony; the seeking of harmonious proportions and essential forms in figure and architecture. These principles gave rise to experiments in the early Renaissance period with the formulations in linear perspective in visionary art, and bodily proportions in sculpture.


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By the time Michelangelo was born, the early Renaissance had shifted into its latest phase, namely, the High Renaissance.  The High Renaissance was the culmination of the earlier efforts to put these new ideas to practical use in the arts. It was in Michelangelo’s sculpture that we can see this vision of unity made manifest.


Michelangelo’s primary occupation was sculpture although he was equally expressive in fresco painting, poetry, and architecture. Michelangelo was ambitious and encompassed a typical Humanist of the Renaissance. Humanism evolved as a product of Renaissance thinking. It gives the individual a responsibility to create meaning for their own lives. It also consisted of a fascination for deciding man’s place in the universe. Man had, unlike animals, a choice to make.


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David by Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1504, photographed by Mateus Campos Felipe, via Unsplash 


Man could, like the animals, act in accord with his base instincts or, he could act with reason, morality, like an angel. Man had the ability to move up and down the chain of being; reason and morality brought man closer to God.


Art, for Michelangelo, was more than a means to wealth or fame but a gateway to express and make physical his vision of beauty. The male body figures in most of Michelangelo’s sculpture and through this he was able to give expression to his ideas.


Excavating The Form Of Beauty


After his famous David statue, Michelangelo was highly sought for projects in Rome. He was not interested in depicting the likeness of character. He wanted to represent the motion of beauty in figures; in his younger years, he found that the classical forms were ideal for this.


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Dawn by Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1524-31, in the Sagrestia Nuova, San Lorenzo, Florence


The Classical form involved positions of body and figure which were proportionate and intricate. Much like the myriad folds in a dress, we see the lean body with its dynamic of muscle and movement creating a contrast of shadows which gives it the depth of a wonderfully planned piece of architecture. 


The Classicism of Michelangelo’s early work is endowed with the philosophic spirit of the Classical Greeks. The Platonic theory of the Forms offers us an insight into Michelangelo’s method. The Forms, according to Plato, were the eternal substances of what we view on the earth. They must be discovered by reason and contemplation to reach this higher understanding of existence. 


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Pietá by Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1499, via The Art Renewal Center, Port Reading 


Michelangelo’s sculpture is much the same. He describes sculpting as releasing forms from their base matter: each block of marble is pregnant with beauty and truth which we then see upon his completion of the work. It also gives us insight when we look at his figures; they show no likeness to historical fact but are the meditation on the forms of beauty which he carves out for the viewer. 


Movement As A Visionary Art


However, beauty alone was not enough to convey the meaning which Michelangelo’s sculpture aimed for. It was with movement in static forms that gave his sculpture meaning. The subtlety of the gaze; the position of the feat; the turning of the body. All these nuances of the body Michelangelo worked in to create something beyond the sculpture itself. 


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Moses by Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1515, in the San Pietro in Vincoli, via Fordham University, the Bronx


We wonder where a figure is looking; where a figure is turning to; why a figure is posed in this way. Michelangelo would have his greatest experiment with the human form in his arduous and magnificent work in the Sistine Chapel.


The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was done in fresco painting; an art form Michelangelo wasn’t readily experienced in. Yet it is here that we see his experiments in the human form. Michelangelo’s work offers us some proof that the human form cannot be exhausted; Its expressiveness appears to be boundless under the hands of a genius. 

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Creation of Adam by Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1510, via National Geographic 


It was with these poses that Michelangelo could form his ideas on the body. It is precisely that sculpture allows an artist a dynamic between a frozen moment and the fluidity of the spectators’ imagination: what we expect next.


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Hercules and Cacas by Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1525, in Casa Buonarroti, Florence, via Google Arts and Culture


The human body for Michelangelo was a composition in itself. This took on layers of complexity with the enumeration of bodies in a composition. The dynamics of bodies create the mood and meaning of a composition to create an inexplicable whole. It is a fabrication that takes the viewer’s eye on a journey that Michelangelo has constructed. 


Michelangelo’s Unfinished Forms


The Slaves for the tomb of Pope Julius II have been a point of speculation for art historians and critics, as to their meaning and why they are there. But if we analyze their form, we can gather something of Michelangelo’s meaning. What is remarkable about these forms is that they have become something of a Modernist construction. These unfinished forms seem to be finished; in fact, they evoke emotion by the fact that they are not finished. 


awakening slave michelangelo buonarroti
Awakening Slave by Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1519-36, in the Galleria dell’Accademia, Rome, via Fordham University, the Bronx (left); with Young Slave by Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1519-36, in the Galleria dell’Accademia, Rome, via Web Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. (right)


In the ‘Awakening Slave’, Michelangelo sculpts his expression from the base matter. It is here that we can see that done in such a way that it is as though the form of the slave is stuck in limbo for eternity, struggling to be released, yet never being able to. Michelangelo’s visionary art considers the base marble, questioning the line between abandonment and completion.

Again, in the ‘Young Slave’, it is as though the young man is coming forth into life from a timeless slumber inside the marble. This technique of implementing the base marble with Michelangelo’s sculpture makes the viewer think of the connection between base nature and beauty.

This lack of need to ‘finish’ grew as Michelangelo aged. His ideas of form and beauty began to change, becoming less idealized and more heavy-set. Michelangelo’s visionary art did not need to correspond to Classical ideals to assume the form of beauty.


pieta michelangelo buonarroti
Pietá by Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1550, via Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence


In his later years, Michelangelo re-kindled his Christian spirituality. It was perhaps this that led to the change in figure. Michelangelo’s sculpture became more pious in nature and the Pieta subject was visited time and time again as though looking for some final work that would capture this spirituality. 


The Legacy Of Michelangelo’s Sculpture


Michelangelo’s anatomical interest in the body afforded him the opportunity to understand the mechanics of the body, and it was through this exploration of the body that allowed his figures to transcend their fictional reality.


Michelangelo’s sculptures and paintings inspired the next generation of artists to realize how the human figure could express itself. He was a precursor of the Mannerist movement in art, known for its fabricated and aesthetic means of displaying a subject


genius of victory michelangelo buonarroti
Genius of Victory by Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1532-34, in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, via Fordham University, the Bronx


Michelangelo’s sculpture was able to create compositions on a realistic framework that the early Renaissance lacked. Michelangelo’s achievement, however, lay beyond realism. It was his ability to represent canonical figures in such a way as to blend the realism of the everyday body with the spiritual essence that these figures embodied.


Michelangelo, in this respect, was showing the viewer what they could be. We can view his oeuvre as a kind of moral mission. When viewing Michelangelo’s sculpture of ‘David’ we are stunned by the beauty of its poise and integrity. The upright figure is about to face Goliath, a figure of treachery and stature that the elder men of the Israelites fear. David, however, is not afraid; he assumes divine confidence. 


Michelangelo’s visionary art brought down the forms of beauty to inspire the viewer. It is not important that we cannot attain such levels of composure in the face of the vicissitudes of life, but that our ideals are grounded in our beliefs. If the Humanist idea of man’s amorphous position in the chain of being is to be observed, then Michelangelo is urging us to reach towards beauty and God.

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By Fraser HibbittBA English LiteratureI received my BA in English literature. I enjoy reading and writing on literature, philosophy, cultural studies and art. I am a self-taught guitarist with an interest in music theory and composition. I have travelled widely having grown up in both the UK and Norway. Currently, I am based in Brighton, UK, where I finished my degree.