Uncovering Michelangelo; Mary's 1st Portrait

The Truth Beneath the Centuries

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ROME, JULY 9, 2009 (Zenit.org).- The last works of Michelangelo were often perceived as old and world-weary, the artistic rumblings of a man who had had his fill of Rome and the papacy. This week, however, the unveiling of the restored Pauline Chapel dispelled that myth by wiping the years of grime and faulty restorations from Michelangelo’s final painting and allowing his masterful hand and his startling palette to shine forth.

The Pauline Chapel, situated close to the Sistine Chapel, was constructed under Pope Paul III Farnese in 1539 in honor of his name saint. In 1541, the Pope awarded the decorative commission to a 66-year old Michelangelo, fresh from his labors on the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.

The pairing of the subjects was unusual. Tradition dictated that the death of Peter mirror that of Paul. But in this case the martyrdom of St. Peter found its complement in the Conversion of Saul, for each, the pivotal moment of witness. Stretched across some 445 square feet, the fortunate few of the papal court privy to the private chapel watched these enormous dramas play out as they approached the altar.

Centuries of huge candelabra set up for the Forty Hour’s devotion, atmospheric damage to the wall and heavy alteration to the chapel had dimmed the colors and buckled the surface to represent a dingy mass of barely comprehensible figures.

Art history, taking its cue from the introspective, heart-heavy poetry of the aging artist, saw in the work evidence of a painter who had lost his spark, the vast ambition of the Last Judgment dissipated into a few figures gathered in the lower part of the panel.

Historian John Symonds, in his biography of Michelangelo, wrote, “We cannot refrain from regretting that seven years of his energetic old age should have been devoted to work so obviously indicative of decaying faculties.”

Now, the loving five-year restoration by Maurizio de Luca has brought to light not a tired artist of swiftly degenerating talents, but a recharged and rejuvenated Michelangelo, ready to face new challenges and offer yet  more innovative inspiration for future painters.

The most striking element of the work is the brilliant color palette. After the flesh tones against a lapis sky of the Last Judgment, Michelangelo used a rainbow of hues for his images of St. Peter and St. Paul. According to Maestro de Luca, the deep mulberry, sunflower yellow and flashes of poppy red recall the 15th century works illustrating the lives of Christ and Moses lining the walls of the Sistine Chapel.

Included among the prestigious painters who worked on the panels in 1480, when Michelangelo was a mere child of 5, was Domenico Ghirlandaio, in whose studio the young Florentine would first learn to paint. These painters favored the technique of “buon fresco,» a layer of fresh plaster quickly painted with water soaked pigment to form a kind of colored stone. The principal pigments were made from inexpensive organic materials, so to render their works more precious, studios added more costly colors “a secco” or on dry wall. Malachite for green, and lapis lazuli for blue, were two colors guaranteed to garner attention and favor from viewers, while gold leaf was a surefire dazzler.

In the Sistine Chapel ceiling where he had painted almost 30 years earlier, Michelangelo eschewed the secco pigments and copious gilding for the most part, preferring his work to be admired for more than its weight in gold. In the Last Judgment, he lavishly covered the wall with lapis, but then rigidly limited his palette for the figures. Only in this last fresco does Michelangelo return stylistically to the studio where he first took a brush in hand, by using vivid jewel tones throughout both the stories of St. Peter and St. Paul.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Michelangelo generally avoided adding portraits to his paintings. His old master Ghirlandaio, on the other hand, was famed for the amount of contemporaries he could squeeze into any given sacred scene.

In the Pauline Chapel however, he made several exceptions. In the Conversion painting, Saul is seen as an older man, when indeed he would have been about 30 at the time of this event. The aged face of Saul appears to be a portrait of his patron Paul III, looking quite similar to the famous portrait of the Pontiff executed by Titian. Michelangelo also added his own image in the painting of St. Peter’s martyrdom, arms folded in the lower left-hand side, gazing sadly upon the murder of the first Pope.

Michelangelo made a career of challenging the pictorial space. His figures always seem to occupy three dimensions, suspended between our world and theirs. Michelangelo’s Pauline painting enhanced this dynamism, with horses running into the distance and figures running from distant hills, while other personages seem to lean out into the chapel. Michelangelo’s St. Peter turns from his cross and challengingly glares at all who enter the chapel. Conversion, like that of Saul, ultimately means witness, like that of Peter.

The intensity of these works, from the sharply foreshortened Christ flying through space to the groups of emoting onlookers, project far more spiritual tension that his cycle on the Sistine vault. This Michelangelo, in the heat of the Reformation, seems to be remembering another aspect of his youth, the fiery sermons of conversion and repentance of Girolamo Savonarola, whose work, Vasari tells us, Michelangelo “kept in great veneration.”

As Michelangelo painted these works, controversy and conflict raged around him. The Reformation was in full swing, the Church had lost people and prestige. Yet Michelangelo drew from the traditions and piety of his youth to present a vision that would speak powerfully to the future, the very definition of a masterpiece.

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Luke’s other story

In the same century that Rome nurtured the genius of Michelangelo, the city also took steps to ensure a succession of well-trained and successful artists by founding the Academy of St. Luke. Although the age of Pope Sixtus IV had seen the first tentative statues for a “University of Painters and Miniaturists,» the official foundation dates to 1577, the reign of Pope Gregory the XIII. The Pope gave the fledgling academy a first home on the Esquiline Hill in the Church of St. Luke, patron of painters.

Luke the Evangelist was something of a Renaissance man himself. According to tradition, the saint was not only a doctor and best-selling author, but also responsible for painting the first image of the Madonna and Child.

A close friend and collaborator of St. Paul, Luke was also a Gentile, which opened the door for the rich artistic tradition of the Greco-Roman world to lend its gifts to the spread of God’s word. This tradition highlights how Luke evangelized with words and images, setting a lofty goal for Christian artists.

Raphael reputedly immortalized this story in a painting that still graces the Academy’s present headquarters of the Palazzo Carpegna by the Trevi Fountain.

Luke’s painting, on the other hand, had another fate. Tradition has it that Luke sent the portrait to Antioch with the text of his Gospel. It remained there until the middle of the fifth century, when it was taken to Constantinople and placed in a monastery. Finally, the icon was brought from Constantinople to Cyprus during the 12th century and is present now at the «Holy Royal Monastery of Kykko Founded with a Cross» in Cyprus. The Madonna Salus Popoli Romani in St. Mary Major is believed to be an ancient copy of the work.

The Academy was furthered and assisted by several popes, particularly Urban VIII Barberini. Some of history’s greatest artistic stars were inducted into the Academy. Annibale Carracci, Bernini, Guido Reni, and even Velasquez and David n
umbered among the members. Two women, Lavinia Fontana in the 17th century and Angelica Kaufmann in the 18th, were admitted into the elite group.

While the principal function of the Academy was to offer lectures and lessons for artists, particularly in drawing, the backbone of Italian art, the spiritual side was never neglected. The members met in the Church of San Martina and San Luca by the Forum, rebuilt after Pietro da Cortona, the prince of the Academy, found the remains of the virgin martyr Martina in the crypt while preparing a place for his own burial. Pope Urban VIII, thrilled by the discovery, funded the rebuilding by Pietro da Cortona and the result was the first Baroque church.

After 1870, the Academy dwindled in importance, but still remains active today sponsoring lectures and restorations. But sadly, St. Luke remains only in name; the evangelizing spirit that fueled his brush is long gone.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic studies program. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org

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