The Agony and Ecstasy of Michelangelo

I just finished reading Irving Stone’s 664-page tome The Agony and the Ecstasy, about the life of Michelangelo. Yes, there’s agony, and plenty of it. Michelangelo is a man who desires only to be free to pursue his calling, to carve into pure white Carrara marble, which he considers “the heart of the universe.” And yet, again and again, forces bigger than himself thwart him. It’s heartbreaking, really, and the feeling is like going on a quest, getting past one obstacle, taking a breath, thinking now our Florentine genius can carve his David, only to come face-to-face with an armed Roman soldier around the next bend. Aargh! The young sculptor’s father opposes his choice of profession, his beloved mentor dies, and rivals malign and attack him with increasing rancor. One even punches in his nose, crumbling it into his skull. Michelangelo survives periods of poverty, the plague, wars, the sacking of his studio, an attempt on his life, and a circus of narcissistic Popes who bend him to their will, taking years away from his fruitfulness.

On the other hand, the world would not possess the marvel of the Sistine Chapel ceiling if it were not for Pope Julius II forcing Michelangelo to abandon sculpture in order to paint. When Michelangelo finally returns to marble after four long years, the misery of separation has given way to the ache of wisdom. “As he stood in the center of his allegorical blocks, he divined that time too was a tool: a major work of art required months, years for its emotions elements to solidify. Time was a yeast; many aspects…which had eluded him before now seemed clear to him, their form matured, their definition resolved.”

But wait, there’s still more agony. Michelangelo spends ten years working on a tomb for Pope Julius II, only to have the next pope, Leo X, stop him cold. Michelangelo begs to complete it, “You must not stop me. It’s a crucial moment for me. Holiness…I implore you not to do this terrible thing to me….Give me time…but I must not be tormented in mind and spirit.” Pope Leo X is unmoved and adamant, “A Medici artist should serve the Medici…we wish you to undertake a façade for our family church… We will protect you against the Roveres.” Years later, after Leo’s death, however, Julius’s relatives, the Roveres, enact their revenge, accusing Michelangelo of defaulting on the contract, and going about trying to ruin him.

Michelangelo despairs, “What am I to do? I’ll be bankrupt, my life savings swept away…How could it have happened? When I started out so full of love for marble, so consumed to carve, to work at my craft? When I have never wanted anything else in the world?” He’s forty-seven years old at this time, struck with deep anguish, wanting to give up, and believing he’s at the end of his career. Despite all his success, he must reckon with inner demons, with anger and sense of unfairness at the world, and with the sick feeling of being abandoned by God. “I have talent, energy, enthusiasm, self-discipline, singleness of purpose. What am I missing? Fortuna, luck? Where does one search for the leaven of luck?”

After such defeat, where does he turn? Back to trusting in a divine order, for the God whom he accuses of desertion is the very same divinity that sings through him as he carves. So Michelangelo returns to his marble. And this is the sweet ecstasy. “For him the milky white marble was a living, breathing substance that felt, sensed, judged… In the back of his mind, a voice said: This is love…Marble was the hero of his life; and his fate. Not until this very moment, with his hands tenderly, lovingly, on the marble, had he come fully alive.”

It is love then, love for his stone, love for fellow human beings (he never married but loved three women and one man deeply), and love for God that lifts him up again and again. Despite the many obstacles he must face in the long, exhausting quest of his life, he creates Genesis and The Last Judgment in the Sistine, and carves the Pietà in St. Peters, his David, Moses, Day, Night, Dawn, Dusk, and dozens of other sculptures that stir our collective heart. His entire life is a haunting dedication to the belief and stubborn insistence that “the forces of destruction never overcame creativity.” For an artist, for all artists, that is all we can ever ask.


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