Essay: The Art of Michelangelo — A selection of works

Class: Art History 300
Assignment: Academic Paper
Date: Nov. 25, 2012

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni or more commonly known as simply Michelangelo was an Italian Renaissance[1] poet, sculptor, painter and architect who is viewed today as one of the most influential men to have ever lived and one of the greatest artists in the history of the world. From his fresco paintings to his many sculptures, writings and other artwork, his work is more well-known than most other artists throughout history.

Michelangelo’s work can be seen in much of the world, whether it be in its original form or in museums. His work is said, by scholars, to have inspired the work of many members of the arts for centuries to come. The work of Michelangelo is undeniably beautiful and when viewed among other works, can be pretty easily identified as his work. While it shares many of the aspects of other artwork from the period he lived, Michelangelo’s work is unique to him and that is part of what makes it so interesting. Much of Michelangelo’s work was inspired by the Bible, like most of the work of the Italian Renaissance, but his work captures the thoughts and opinions that he held of such ideas and stories in a way that is special and significant to him.  

            His most famous works are probably those that adorn the ceiling and west wall of the Sistine Chapel. According to, the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (The Vatican) are the best known frescoes of Michelangelo, but he’s most famous for his sculptures. The fact that he was able to perfect several art forms wasn’t uncommon at the time Michelangelo lived. Many artists perfected many types of art, though most probably focused their energy on one or two (All-Art). “The high regard for the Sistine ceiling is partly a reflection of the greater attention paid to painting in the 20th century and partly, too, of the fact that it, unlike many of the artist’s works in the other media, was completed,” (All-Art, Page 1).

            The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel has always been an intriguing work of Michelangelo’s because of its sheer size and the overwhelming feeling it must give a viewer upon seeing it for the first time. Much of the Sistine Chapel’s artwork is made up of fresco paintings, which is, “a painting using fresh, moist plaster with pigments dissolved in water,” (Farlex) by Michelangelo and other artists of the period. These various fresco paintings depict scenes from the Bible and show the many people who appear throughout it as well as the depiction of many angels. “[The Sistine Chapel is a] papal chapel in the Vatican Palace that was erected in 1473–81 by the architect Giovanni dei Dolci for Pope Sixtus IV (hence its name). It is famous for its Renaissance frescoes by Michelangelo,” (All-Art, Page 8).

One of the many frescos, which were painted from 1508 – 1512 with others completed between 1535 – 1541, (All-Art, Page 1) on the ceiling of the chapel depicts the creation of man as told by the Bible, and shows God reaching his hand out to Adam as if to say that he is giving the Earth to man. “The Creation of Adam” was completed in 1510 and is 280 by 570 centimeters, (All-Art). God is surrounded by what appears to be angels and there is a clear amount of sky around God, who appears on the right side of the painting, from the viewer’s perspective. Adam is on some sort of green grass-filled mountain top, which clearly depicts that he is on Earth.

            Another painting that is part of the ceiling of the chapel depicts the eating of the forbidden fruit by Eve in the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible. “The Fall and Expulsion from Garden of Eden” is also 280 by 570 centimeters and was completed in 1509-10, (All-Art). On the left side of the painting, Michelangelo shows the before with Adam and Eve sitting by a tree as Eve reaches for the forbidden fruit. There is a tree-trunk in the center of the painting that acts as the dividing line in the before and after idea. Wrapped around the tree is the snake that the devil shows him as in the story in order to lure Eve into eating the fruit. At the top of the tree-trunk, and where the head of the snake would be, is a man that represents the devil. Adam’s arm is extended out and pointing at the devil as if to show him trying to stop Eve from eating the fruit. On the right-hand side of the painting is the devil as he reveals himself, and Adam and Eve walking away in shame. Eve also looks sickly to show that God has given the world disease and famine and other such sicknesses as a result of her eating the fruit. The painting does an extravagant job of telling the entire story of the Garden of Eden from the Bible.

            “Nearby the scene of the creation of Eve shows her with God and Adam, compressed within too small a space for their grandeur. This tension has been interpreted as a token of a movement away from the Renaissance concern with harmony, pointing the way for a younger generation of artists like Pontormo, often labeled Mannerists. Michelangelo’s work on the ceiling was interrupted, perhaps just after these figures were completed. When he painted the second half, he seemed to repeat the same evolution from quiet stability to intricacy and stress. Thus he worked his way from the quietly monumental and harmonious scene of the creation of Adam to the acute, twisted pressures of the prophet Jonah. Yet in this second phase he shows greater inward expressiveness, giving a more meditative restraint to the earlier pure physical mass,” (All-Art, Page 8).

            “The Last Judgment” is another painting in the chapel that was done by Michelangelo. This fresco painting was done at the end of his time working on the massive project and was completed in 1534 for Pope Paul III, (All-Art). The theme of judgment day had been a favorite among artists for many decades. The theme was used mainly for large end walls of churches in Italy during the Middle Ages. After about 1500, artists began to abandon the theme. It is believed that the new found liking of an age-old tradition came from the impulses of a counter-reformation under Paul III. The painting styles featured in the work of the Sistine Chapel is very different from the work that was common for the 25 years leading up to its creation, (All-Art). “The pervasive color harmony is a simple one of brown bodies against dark blue sky. The figures have less energy and their forms are less articulate, the torsos tending to be single fleshy masses without waistlines. At the top centre Christ as judge lifts an arm to save those on his right and drops the other arm to damn those on his left, suggesting in the idiom of the period a scale to weigh men in the balance,” (All-Art, Page 8).

According to the same source, the bottom of the painting depicts the skeletal remains of the dead coming through from their tombs. This is thought to be from inspiration that Michelangelo had gotten from the work of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which is “a great work of medieval literature, a profound Christian vision of man’s temporal and eternal destiny. On its most personal level, it draws on the poet’s own experience of exile from his native city of Florence; on its most comprehensive level, it may be read as an allegory, taking the form of a journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise,” (All History). While these are just a few of the works of Michelangelo that can be seen in the Sistine Chapel, and while there are many others like “Sacrifice of Noah”, “The Erythraean Sibyl”, and the “Ancestors of Christ”,  as well as works from other artists, they are perhaps some of the most prominent and interesting, (All-Art, Page 8). The Chapel is truly an amazing work of art and should be considered one of the great accomplishments in the history of the world.

            Moving on to the sculpture work that Michelangelo created both prior to and following his work on the Sistine Chapel, one of his most famous is the “Battle of Centaurs” created in 1492 at 84.5 CM by 90.5 CM and located in Casa Buonarroti, (All-Art). “Inspired by a classical relief, [‘the projection of figures or forms from a flat background, as in sculpture, or the apparent projection of such shapes in a painting or drawing,’ (Farlex)] created by Bertoldo di Giovanni, the unfinished marble sculpture depicts the mythic battle between the Lapiths[2] and the Centaurs[3]. A popular subject of art in ancient Greece, the story was suggested by Michelangelo by the classical scholar and poet Poliziano,” (Wahoo Art). “Battle of the Centaurs” is a truly beautiful piece of work. It gave a glimpse of Michelangelo’s future in sculpture. This work showed the Michelangelo could work in multiple scales and not just a flat picture. It was also the first time Michelangelo had created a sculpture without using a bow drill[4] and it was the first time he had created a sculpture that used the chisel marks as a final surface. Michelangelo said that it was in his opinion, one of his greatest early works. It also serves as a strong reminder of the fact that Michelangelo definitely was better at creating sculpture are and should have focused even more energy doing so, (Wahoo Art).

The depiction in the work of bodies of the Centaurs and Lapiths basically on top of one another shows the struggle for power that takes place in any battle, whether it is metaphorically or literal. The work is particularly intriguing because as the style goes, it appears to be a flat surface like a painting, but with the three dimensional feel because the figures pop out of the background. This is heavily important in a work that is depicting this power struggle because it further shows the sheer number of bodies in the work. If it were simply a painting, the power struggle wouldn’t be as prevalent because everything would be two dimensional and it wouldn’t have the feeling of a battle to survive as it does without that three-dimensional depiction of how many bodies are involved. The fact that it was created the way it was created definitely adds to the message it is trying to portray, as with most art, the medium and technique are often times just as important as what is being portrayed because they usually help the viewer understand what is going on in the image.

            One painting by Michelangelo that is particularly interesting is “The Holy Family with the Infant St. John the Baptist”, which was created in 1506 using tempera on panel. Its diameter is 120 CM and it is located in the galleria Uffizi in Florence, Italy, (All-Art). “[Tempera is a] painting [style] executed with pigment[5] ground in a water-miscible medium. The word tempera originally came from the verb temper—(“to bring to a desired consistency”). Dry pigments are made usable by “tempering” them with a binding and adhesive vehicle. Such painting was distinguished from fresco painting, the colors for which contained no binder. Eventually, after the rise of oil painting, the word gained its present meaning,” (Britannica).

            “This painting is known as the Doni Tondo. Agnolo Doni was a rich cloth merchant in Florence, and a tondo is a round painting. [Michelangelo] probably commissioned this painting at the occasion of the birth of his first daughter. It is the only panel that with certainty can be attributed to Michelangelo. The tondo has a magnificent wooden frame, probably carved by members of the Tasso family. The five heads depict Jesus, two prophets and two sybils,” (Art Bible).

According to the same source, the piece of work depicts the changing from the Pagan times to that of Christianity. Mary is shown in the picture holding the baby Jesus as she takes him from the arms of Joseph. John the Baptist is in the painting in the background in the water used for baptism (at the right side of the image) and this is the symbol of the changing of the views from Paganism to Christianity, (Art Bible). Perhaps the most interesting element of this painting is the brightness in the garbs of both Jesus and Mary but the darkness in the color of Joseph as well as the low lighting in the background on the naked Pagan children and John the Baptist. The pink in the top that Mary is wearing could depict her femininity while the blue on her lower half may depict her warm, caring nature as a mother.

The yellow of the garbs of Jesus, which are actually the garbs of Joseph but are wrapped around Jesus, though they appear darker on Joseph than on Jesus, could be portraying that of royalty or power as he was seen in the Bible as the king being that he is said to be the son of God. The yellow could also stand for hope. The lesser vibrant colors on Joseph and the figures in the background could be to symbolize that they aren’t as important to the viewer or to keep Mary and Jesus more prominent. It seems as if Michelangelo also depicted baby Jesus atop Mary and Joseph’s arms to show his power and reign over the rest of mankind.

Though Michelangelo’s paintings are world-famous, he is probably best known for his sculptures. The sculpture entitled “David” is another of Michelangelo’s most famous works of art. The “David” sculpture, created circa 1504, (All Art), depicts David of the Bible after his victory over the giant, Goliath. It is made out of marble and stands at an amazing 14 feet tall or about 426 CM, (All-Art). “The Board of Works for the Cathedral of Florence commissioned Michelangelo to sculpt ‘David’ from an enormous block of marble that they had left over from another project. It was commissioned with the idea that it would stand in a niche on one of the cathedral’s buttresses, way up high. Of course, when Michelangelo was finished, they realized that it was far too beautiful to be placed up high, and so it was decided to build a base for the sculpture and to place it right in front of the main government building of Florence (like putting it outside the capital building in Washington D.C.),” (History). Today, the statue stands tall and proud among other sculptures of Michelangelo in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, Italy, (History).

According to a video from Khan Academy’s (“A not-for-profit with the goal of changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere,” (Academy)) partner site,, the statue is a symbol of the republic of Florence because the story of David represented their views of a political freedom. The video’s commentators also pointed out the vast knowledge of the human body that Michelangelo would have needed to possess in order to create the sculpture. They talk about how he correctly depicted the lean on the right leg and the way the muscles and veins react to such a stance. They point out the muscles in his right hand and the slight bend, which shows that David is in the act of gripping the stone he uses to defeat Goliath. In his left hand, the video points out, David is holding the slingshot for which the rock is used. Lastly, David is looking off to his left with a confident and focused look as if he is gearing up in order to fight Goliath. David is depicted nude because the Bible story says David fought Goliath with no armor, however, it doesn’t say he’s nude, but it is obvious this is how Michelangelo interpreted the Bible’s use of the idea of no armor, (History).

A sculpture of Michelangelo that is also very famous is that of “Moses”. “Moses” was created circa 1513 – 1515 out of marble and stands at 215 CM. It is located in S. Pierto in Vincoli, Rome, (All-Art). “[The sculpture,] ‘Moses’ by Michelangelo…was to be part of the tomb of Pope Julius II. The posture is that of a prophet, posed on a marble chair, between two decorated marble columns. His long beard descends to his lap and is set aside by his right hand, which also leans on the plates. This posture of the seated prophet also appears in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes from a year earlier. In fact, here we have a rare example of Michelangelo as the painter of the Sistine Chapel influencing Michelangelo, the sculptor. Moses found his people worshipping the Golden Calf – the false idol they had made. His anger, profoundly [sculpted] by Michelangelo, defies the prison of stone, the limits of the sculptor’s art,” (

The sculpture was supposed to be part of a massive project as a tomb for Pope Julius II but the tomb was never finished because of what is believed to have been financial restraints. “Michelangelo once wrote, ‘that a true and pure work of sculpture, by definition, one that is cut, not cast or modeled should retain so much of the original form of the stone block and should so avoid projections and separation of parts that it would roll downhill of its own weight.’ These words reflect Michelangelo’s love of quarried marble and his reverence for the very stone that lies at the heart of his chosen art form of sculpture. In the ‘Moses’ sculpture, a respect and total understanding of his materials and his own abilities combine to create the masterpiece hewn from marble by a 38 year old, at the height of his genius,” (

This work of art, though not as large or prominent as “David”, is certainly a masterpiece and a wonderful representation of the grandiose abilities and works of Michelangelo. The detail in the face, the beard and the robe in the lap of the figure show the abilities of a true artist. “The ‘Moses’ [sculpture] encapsulates Michelangelo’s own courage and passion at a time when he was fighting to be able to complete the tomb of Pope Julius II. The continual battles waged with ‘lesser’ mortals was a constant companion in the life of Michelangelo. Fighting to create the work he envisaged, in the manner and style he felt was given to him by God. It is true he never completed the Pope’s tomb, but in ‘Moses’, we can see once again his restless genius at play. He considered it his most important work,” (

For many, “Moses” is another one of the literally larger than life reminders of a time when art took precedent over so many other things in society. It should also remind us of the importance of literature and its inspiration to not only the arts but the morals, beliefs and ideals of humankind. This sculpture depicts one’s interpretation of such literature, but represents what can be learned and known about a culture by the words and the art it produces. It not only represents what, in literature, can be used for good, but with Michelangelo’s feeling that he was above the people he was being paid by because of a power given to him by his God, the “Moses” statue and the anger in its body and face show how literature’s misinterpretations can cause hate.

The final two pieces of work that must be examined in understanding the grand scope of Michelangelo’s tremendous career as an artist and his impressions he left on the world throughout his 89 years on the planet are “Pieta” and “Pieta Rondanini”. “Pieta”, which is a word that means representation of the dead Christ, attended by the Virgin Mary or by holy women and angels, (Farlex), was created circa 1499 out of marble and is 174 CM high and 195 CM at its base, (All-Art). Today it resides in Basilica di San Pietro at the Vatican, (All-Art). “A statue was commissioned for the tomb in St. Peters of the French cardinal Jean de Billheres, who was a representative in Rome. According to the formal agreement, the Pieta` was to be ‘the most beautiful work of marble in Rome, one that no living artist could better.’ Michelangelo was neither daunted nor intimated by such a request and upon its completion the world declared that Michelangelo’s Pieta ‘surpassed not only the sculptures of his contemporaries but even those of the ancient Greeks and Romans themselves; the standards by which all art was judged,’” (

The lamentation of Christ was popular among artists in Northern Europe beginning in the fourteenth century. This type of art traditionally focused on the pain of Mary and Jesus. However, the sculpture by Michelangelo shows Mary holding the dead Christ, which is a great dedication to the ideals held about Biblical times by the Renaissance Humanist movement. Michelangelo used the ideas of beauty and physical intrigue to show a moment in time to show the power of Mary. This statue shows her ability to be strong through a very difficult time and keep her beauty and power regardless of the situation, ( “Michelangelo worked the piece in the round, using a drill for speed and achieving a highly polished sheen that made it fairly impossible to believe the sumptuously sculpted figures began as a block of cold stone. Michelangelo’s mastery of composition is evident in the unique triangular shape that conveys a stunning grandeur, and a profound knowledge of human anatomy served him well in his creation,” (

According to the same source, the depiction of Mary holding her hand out in the sculpture represents her reaching out to the viewer, and to the people of her time, and asking them to share in the feeling of pain she feels for the death of her son. At the same time it shows her strength and that she is proud of her son. This again shows the intrigue and inspiration by the events of the Bible that had been so prevalent for Michelangelo.

The “Pieta Rondanini” was created circa 1552 – 1564 and is an unfinished marble sculpture that stands at 195 CM. It is located in Castello Sforzesco, Milan, (All-Art). The statue looks very similar to Michelangelo’s previous Pieta work, but this one depicts Mary standing up and holding Jesus in her arms in a standing position over her right arm. This sculpture, though unfinished is much less detailed than “Pieta” and it isn’t nearly as interesting to look at. “The ‘Pietà Rondanini’ is considered to be the final sculptural masterpiece by Michelangelo. In this work, the theme of compassion, which had been approached various times by the artist, is particularly moving; the sculptor had worked on it for many years without completion. The sculpture, as we see it today, is the final elaboration of an idea initiated, presumably, in 1552. Some of the features from the first work can still be easily identified: the smooth legs of Christ, his right arm broken off from the body and the face of the Virgin facing a different way, [recognizable] from an outline of the eye and nose on the left side of the head. Around 1555 the maestro reworked this project significantly modifying the composition: the figures assumed the actual lengthened shape in which Christ and the Virgin seem to mould into one in a pitiful embrace. The marble assemblage is placed on a Roman altar; the same upon which the sculpture was found when it was in the Rondanini Family collection,” (Milano City).

Michelangelo lived from March 6, 1475 to February 18, 1564, (All-Art). He painted many paintings, crafted many sculptures, created poems and drawings and even architectural structures. His work is remembered and seen as some of the best artwork ever created because of the passion and inspiration that is evident in every piece of work he completed—and didn’t complete. He is among the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and Rembrandt in terms of his abilities and legacy. His work is all around us and even in places like America, a nation that didn’t form until centuries after his death; the inspiration of his work is seen daily. Michelangelo’s works cannot be summarized fully in an essay. They cannot be condensed into any number of words, for Michelangelo’s works must be experienced. They must be seen to be truly appreciated. It should be the goal of any and every person alive to glance upon just one work of a legend such as him, an understatement for sure. Though Michelangelo lived during a time when hand-crafted art was a much more common practice than it is today, he was a standout artist and one who took charge of his craft. Michelangelo should truly be remembered for what he was, above all else, a genius.   

Works Cited (Bibliography)

All biographical information and artwork creation dates, sizes, materials and current day locations are from The information contained on this website came from Encyclopedia Britannica, according to a citation at the top of each All-Art page.

Academy, Khan. “Khan Academy – About.” Khan Academy . Khan Academy. Web. 21 Oct 2012. <;.

All-Art, Page 1. “Michelangelo, Page 1.” History of Art – Early Renaissance. All Art. Web. 21 Oct 2012. <;.

All-Art, Page 8. “Michelangelo, Page 8.” History of Art – Early Renaissance. All Art. Web. 21 Oct 2012. <;.

All History, . “Dante “The Divine Comedy”.” All History. Web. 21 Oct 2012. <;.

Art Bible, . “Michelangelo Buonarroti 1475 – 1564.” Art and the Bible. Art and Bible Information –, n.d. Web. 21 Oct 2012. <;.

Britannica, Encyclopedia. “Definition of Tempera Painting .” Encyclopedia Britannica – Facts Matter. Encyclopedia Britannica . Web. 21 Oct 2012. <;.

Farlex, The Free Dictionary. “Definition of fresco.” The Free Dictionary by Farlex. Farlex, n.d. Web. 21 Oct 2012. <;.

Farlex, The Free Dictionary. “Definition of pieta.” The Free Dictionary by Farlex. Farlex, n.d. Web. 21 Oct 2012. <;.

Farlex, The Free Dictionary. “Definition of relief.” The Free Dictionary by Farlex. Farlex, n.d. Web. 21 Oct 2012. <;.

History, Smart. “Smart History – David.” Smart History. Smart History presented by Khan Academy. Web. 21 Oct 2012. < >.

Milano City, . “Pietà Rondanini .” Milan is Tourism . Milano City, n.d. Web. 21 Oct 2012. <!ut/p/c0/04_SB8K8xLLM9MSSzPy8xBz9CP0os3hzS0O_QGcLEwP_ICNTA08D_2APT1dHYwMDE_3g1Dz9gmxHRQCvgnB_/?WCM_PORTLET=PC_7_791NQC840OR250I0OSHIEA3007_WCM&WCM_GLOBAL_CONTEXT=/wps/wcm/connect/en/situr/home/artecultura/capolavori/opere/opera280 >., . “Michelangelo’s Moses.” – Michelangelo’s Moses., 21 2012. Web. 21 Oct 2012. <;., . “Michelangelo’s Pieta.” – Michelangelo’s Pieta., 21 2012. Web. 21 Oct 2012. <;.

Wahoo Art, . “The Battle of the Centaurs.” Michelangelo Buonarroti . Wahoo Art. Web. 21 Oct 2012. <;.

Works Cited (Footnotes):

Farlex, The Free Dictionary. “Definition of Bow Drill.” The Free Dictionary by Farlex. Farlex, n.d. Web. 21 Oct 2012. <;.

Farlex, The Free Dictionary. “Definition of Centaurs.” The Free Dictionary by Farlex. Farlex, n.d. Web. 21 Oct 2012. <;.

Farlex, The Free Dictionary. “Definition of Lapith.” The Free Dictionary by Farlex. Farlex, n.d. Web. 21 Oct 2012. <;.

Farlex, The Free Dictionary. “Definition of pigment.” The Free Dictionary by Farlex. Farlex, n.d. Web. 21 Oct 2012. <;., . “Italian Renaissance.” . The History Channel Network, n.d. Web. 21 Oct 2012. <;.

Images (In order of appearance in the essay):

“The Creation of Adam” by Michelangelo

“The Fall and Expulsion from Garden of Eden” by Michelangelo

“The Last Judgment” by Michelangelo

“Battle of Centaurs” by Michelangelo

“The Holy Family with infant St. John the Baptist” by Michelangelo

“David” by Michelangelo

“Moses” by Michelangelo

“Pieta” by Michelangelo

“Pieta Rondanini” by Michelangelo

[1] Toward the end of the 14th century AD, a handful of Italian thinkers declared that they were living in a new age. The barbarous, unenlightened “Middle Ages” were over, they said; the new age would be a “rinascità” (“rebirth”) of learning and literature, art and culture, (

[2] One of a Thessalian tribe who at the disastrous wedding of their king defeated the drunken Centaurs, (Farlex).

[3] One of a race of monsters having the head, arms, and trunk of a man and the body and legs of a horse, (Farlex).

[4] A drill worked by a bow and string, (Farlex).

[5] Dry coloring matter, usually an insoluble powder, to be mixed with water, oil, or another base to produce paint and similar products, (Farlex).

About Daniel Wilson

Daniel has been a writer for over 25 years and recently earned his Bachelor's degree in journalism. Portfolio:
This entry was posted in College Work, Sacramento City College and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.