The Sublime and the Divine

In the history of Western civilisation, great art has often been created against all the odds. Yet today’s leading artists tend to be so cosseted by public and private patrons that their lives and work lack this heroic dimension. Last month, Francis Bacon’s triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud sold for a record price of $142 million (£90m) at Christie’s in New York. Bacon and Freud are perhaps the most admired artists of recent decades. Do their achievements survive comparison with their Renaissance counterparts? Were their lives epics — or merely sordid?

In his marvellous new biography of Michelangelo, Martin Gayford describes the titanic struggle of the artist throughout his eighth and ninth decades to redesign and complete what was then the largest and most expensive building project in the history of the world: the Basilica of St Peter’s in Rome. It wasn’t just the vast scale that made this achievement so extraordinary, but the fact that Michelangelo, despite his acknowledged pre-eminence as a sculptor and painter, was learning on the job. As he admitted: “I am not an architect and it is not my profession.”

Though work had been in progress for four decades by the time he took over in 1547, most of the fourth-century Roman structure was still standing. Michelangelo tore up the plans of his predecessor Sangallo, which meant demolishing much of what had already been built. In the lurid imagination of the painter of The Last Judgement, the dark corners of Sangallo’s projected interior would have concealed crimes “such as the hiding of exiles, the coining of money and the raping of nuns”. While claiming to return to the “luminous” design bequeathed by his old rival Bramante, he actually came up with something quite new: a fluid exterior surmounted by a soaring dome, quite unlike anything in the classical tradition. This was an architectural revolution — the “baroque” style in which Bernini would later lay out the vast piazza in front. As Gayford puts it, St Peter’s was “the prototypical baroque church”.

How was such a colossal achievement possible — even for Michelangelo, who had been the most admired artist in Italy for two generations? With so much at stake, it is hardly surprising that his enemies constantly sought to undermine him. They told him that he was “mad and foolish”, for Michelangelo had abandoned the pure geometry and aestheticism of the Renaissance in favour of a new, more “spiritual” art. He himself was close to Victoria Colonna, a great aristocrat with whom he exchanged love poetry but who was accused of heresy. An unfinished sculpture that he smashed in a fit of rage, a Pietà intended for his own tomb, includes a self-portrait as Nicodemus, the Pharisee who “came to Jesus by night”. As Gayford explains, “Nicodemites” in the 16th century were dissemblers who hid their beliefs for fear of the Inquisition. We can only guess at what Michelangelo might have had to hide.

In 1551 the clerical establishment confronted him, in the presence of Pope Julius III. Rome’s grand inquisitor Cardinal Cervini led the charge, accusing him of exceeding his authority and his budget, but Michelangelo was ready: “I don’t intend to discuss with Your Eminence or anyone else what I ought or intend to do. Your duty is to collect the money and guard it against thieves, and you must leave the task of designing the building to me.” He turned to the Pope: “Unless my labours bring me spiritual satisfaction, I am wasting all my time and work.” Julius knew he could not afford to lose Michelangelo: “Both your soul and your body will profit,” he replied. “Never fear.”

Michelangelo was by then the best-remunerated artist in Italy (when, that is, the Pope remembered to pay him) and, like Bacon and Freud, he died a rich man. There the resemblance ends. The liberties taken by Western artists today were impossible at the courts of the Renaissance. Michelangelo, Leonardo and Titian all lived long, productive lives, but some of their intellectual peers, such as Giordano Bruno (burned as a heretic), were less fortunate. Persecution was as common in Reformation Europe as artistic licence was uncertain.

Yet the achievements of a Michelangelo — those that have survived — simply dwarf those of the Bacons, Freuds and the rest, in spite of all the resources of modernity. What changed? Was it, in Max Weber’s phrase, the “disenchantment” of the world? Last month the New York Review of Books carried a previously unpublished talk by T.S. Eliot to a Cambridge literary society in 1924. In it, he defined modernity as “the movement which accepted the divorce of human and divine, denied the divine, and asserted the perfection of the human to be the divine”. Eliot registered his dissent: “On the contrary, the perfection of the human is Mr George Bernard Shaw.” 

Despite his Promethean humanism, which scandalised the prudish, Michelangelo was a deeply religious man. As he lay dying, his most devoted friends read to him from the Bible. Artists do not have to disdain the earthiness of humanity in order to transcend the merely human. But they do require humility. They must acknowledge that the greatest artist of all is the one who made us. As God says in Genesis, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” In the works of a Michelangelo, we encounter the sublime; in the newborn child, we encounter the divine. 

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