Today was mostly quiet; we had class for an hour before heading back to Santa Maria sopra Minerva to discuss Michelangelo’s Risen Christ, considered by some to be “Michelangelo’s chief and perhaps only total failure” in the words of Linda Murray, and “The coldest and dullest thing he ever did…common-place and uninspiring.” to quote Romain Rolland, a French art historian active in the early 20th century. To be fair, it does not have that je ne sais quoi of many of Michelangelo’s other sculptures, but this does not impact its undeniable success as a devotional object. Commissioned for the Dominican Order in 1514, to be housed in S. Maria sopra Minerva, this sculpture faced problems from the very beginning. Michelangelo actually had to carve it twice as the first block of marble was flawed – a thick black vein ran through the center of Christ’s face – yikes! In any case, the sculpture was finally (mostly) completed and delivered to S. Maria in 1421, installed by Michelangelo’s assistant, Pietro Urbano. Urbano was charged with finishing the details of the digits and creating an appropriate pedestal for the piece, but this, too, was problematic. In a letter to Michelangelo (still in Florence), Sebastiano del Piombo writes “[Urbano]ruined everything… the fingers of the hands…don’t look as if they were made of marble, but made by someone who makes pasta.” This is the section of the letter most often cited by critics of the work, as an excuse for what they feel is poor craftsmanship, but the letter continues on and Sebastiano reassures Michelangelo that these faults “can be easily remedied.”
In any case, most critics feel that the proportions of the body are alarmingly off – a thick torso spans broad hips, connected to spindly legs – particularly when viewed from the right side (Christ’s left), a view which has been described as an “unpleasantly thickset figure with monumental buttocks.”, according to William Wallace, who argues that the piece was not meant to be seen from this angle at all. Wallace argues that the piece was designed for a niche set into a pier on the northern side of the nave, with the feet of Christ at or above shoulder level (Christ’s right foot was of particular devotional importance was, at one point, covered by a gilt bronze slipper to protect it from zealous pilgrims.)
In any case, no matter where the Risen Christ was meant to be viewed from, the theological problem lies in Michelangelo’s presentation. Now, the scene represented is a transient moment between the Resurrection and the Ascension – Christ clutches the cross in his right hand, also grasping a rope, sponge and bamboo rod – all elements of the Arma Christi. The original contract for the commission stipulated “a marble Christ, large as life, nude” and that is just what Michelangelo did. Unfortunately, Christ’s nudity and Classicizing beauty became a problem for critics almost immediately, and the work was attacked for being immodest, inappropriate and in violation of basic decorum. (For the record, the Dominican patrons, a very conservative Order, loved it.) As early as the late 16th century, gilt bronze loincloths of varying coverage have adorned the marble statue – even today, one of the smaller gilt bronze swags still covers Christ’s nudity. To be perfectly honest, while the art historian in me is totally offended – the part of me that was in the church, sitting in a pew and looking up at this statue, now just to the left of the high altar, is pretty grateful.