Tag Archive: Michelangelo


See Where All Our Follies are Led

As with most cases, I find myself going back to Michelangelo and Renaissance Italy.  This is his Last Judgement Fresco from 1536-41, on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel.  We have Jesus in the center, painted to appear like Apollo, the sun god (Los?).  At first glance there appears to be chaos with the Last Judgement, but if you look closer, you’ll see that the saved souls are being lifted from the earth on Jesus’ right hand side (the left side of the painting for us), and the damned are being dragged downward into Hell, or onto a boat that would take them to Hell.

Hm…so how is Milton/Satan? He says “I in my Selfhood am that Satan: I am that Evil One!” / He is my Spectre! in my obedience to loose him from my Hells/ To claim the Hells, my Furnaces, I go to Eternal Death.”  (ll. 30-32, p. 162).  In the illustration provided in the book, Satan is pushing Urizen down into the water (as these figures are being torn down from the sky into water before entering the fire), as we’ve seen with the post on O Brother Where Art Thou by kathcal.

Now I want to look at one of the most interesting details of the painting.

This is supposed to be St. Bartholomew, whose skin was flayed from his body, and Michelangelo used this figure as a self portrait.  He holds the skin that looks sickly and sallow, and what is left (albeit old), is a muscular figure–perhaps Bartholomew’s true emanation, and maybe even Michelangelo’s.

(Side note: all the figures in the Last Judgement were originally painted nude, then somebody came along and decided that the Pope’s chapel didn’t need such lasciviousness…question for all of you is whether you think that now the cloths should be removed to reveal the original painting the way Michelangelo intended it to be.  Keep in mind that this is fresco, and therefore removing may cause more damage.  This is an ongoing debate today over this painting).

Is the skin the “self-hood?”  It has been annihilated; in fact, torn from his body.  The self-hood drops down towards Hell, but Bartholomew/Michelangelo stays on the cloud close to Jesus/Los.  If the self is “unannihilated,” then Milton will be “siez’d & giv’n into the hands of my own Selfhood.” (ll. 23-24).

The self must be annihilated in order to escape being entrapped by it.  The presence of water indicates cleansing, maybe cleansing of the self before true judgement.

I’m going to go ahead and post the song “Down by the Water” by The Decemberists.  They start off the song with “See this ancient riverbed/ See where all our follies are led/Down by the water.”  Enjoy.

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Reynolds vs Blake

After reading Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses on Art, I felt as though he contradicted himself.  At the beginning of Discourse III, he states that a “mere copier of nature can never produce any thing great,” and argues for the captivation of the imagination, through one overarching mode of painting.  He believes that one can achieve “Ideal Beauty” if he studies the ancient masters long enough.  The ancient Greeks and Romans, (as evidenced by the Belvedere Torso, one of the few unearthed statues in Rome around the time of Pope Julius II, or the beginning of the 16th century), ascribe to imitate nature down to the last muscle.

Sir Reynolds cannot say that “Ideal Beauty” can be learned, while also claiming that “Nature herself is not to be too closely copied.”  If we take a look at some of his own Portrait Paintings, it is clear that he had no qualms against copying nature, and personally I don’t see any elements that speak to the imagination.

In fact, his paintings are all very realistic, so I was cheering along when Blake calls Reynolds’ Discourses to the Royal Academy the “Simulations of the Hypocrite who Smiles particularly where he means to Betray,” full of “Self-Contradiction and Knavery.”  (463-464).

Where Blake differs from Reynolds is his belief that man is already born with “Ideal Beauty;” that genius is innate, and not acquired.  Blake’s main argument is that you cannot learn to be a genius, or as he puts it, “by Thieving from Others become a Michelangelo.”  (464).

Blake admires Michelangelo, for his clear delineation of figures, the musculature built up so as to be almost three-dimensional.  However, how can he argue that Reynolds is a hypocrite and copies directly from nature when he himself copies Michelangelo? Granted, the medium used is different, but the precise definition of Newton’s body seems to mimic the ideal male form Michelangelo was obsessed with, perfected in Adam in the Sistine Chapel Ceiling.

Let’s compare.

From Jonathan Roberts’ William Blake’s Poetry, Chapter 4, he notes that Blake prefers “sharp definition and edges,” and that the “Venetian and Flemish practice is broken lines, broken masses, and broken colors” (81).  With regard to this statement I think that Blake’s mode of thinking that the “best” form of art (that which constitutes figures that are heavily outlined), is a little narrow minded.  However, in the search for form, he also searches for truth–the figures cannot escape the lines, they embody their form.  The actual process of engraving creates rigid lines, and Blake made sure to color inside those lines.  Blake’s Philosophy of Art is not to become the next Michelangelo.  Despite his emulation of the Renaissance artist’s style, he speaks of innate genius that manifests itself independent of anything seen in the visible world, therefore striving to become William Blake, the artist, attempting to visibly manifest his poetic genius through his engravings.