An unpublished story, despite my best efforts. The format is a little offputting (a textbook excerpt), but I always thought it would go well with an illustration.


An Excerpt from "The History of Art"





By Daniel Hood

(From John Cardinal Gardiner's "The History of Art" Papal University of Cambridge Press, Boston, 1989)



"It can hardly be denied that the Middle Ages was a dark time for art. Faced with an antithetical principle and a determined Church leadership, the artist had little choice but to succumb. And thus it is that, between the glories of the Classical world as detailed in Chapters 1-4, and the artistic movements to be described later, art came to a virtual standstill. From the fall of Rome to the rise of the liberal-minded Popes of the 1500s, Christian and Western art lay in a virtual Dark Age. In fact, history shows that the first noteworthy revolt against the militantly oppressive Iconoclasm of the Middle Ages was the work of Michelangelo Buonarroti and that, despite his later achievements as an architect and sculptor, his real position in the world of art must derive from his acts as a rebel against authority rather than as an actual creator of forms. Without his daring act of resistance, Western art might never have advanced beyond the geometric patterns which still enslave the creative minds of Islam, and under which it had labored for almost a millennia.

"Strangely enough, the bold stroke that leads us to call Buonarroti 'The Liberator of the Arts' came about as something of an accident. Commissioned, as we have seen, to design and build an ornate tomb for Pope Julius II, Buonarroti returned to Rome in 1506 after having spent eight months combing Italy's quarries for suitable marble. There, to his amazement and disgust, he discovered that the pope had rescinded his commission for the tomb, and decided instead to set the artist to work on painting the ceiling of a crumbling chapel built for Pope Sixtus IV some 20 years before.

"Though he did not know it, Julius' confidence in him had been undermined by two of his rivals in the papal court, Bramante and Raphael. They had come into possession of a letter of Buonarroti's, praising the work of the heretic Giotto di Bondone (1237?-1305), who had been executed almost two centuries earlier for daring to portray human images in sacred paintings.

"Unaware of the reasons for his demotion, Buonarroti nonetheless accepted the difficult commission, and surveyed the chapel. As those few scholars who have actually seen Sixtus' chapel can attest, it is remarkably ill-suited to decoration, with numerous strangely-placed windows and a variety of conflicting surfaces, making a continuous pattern near-impossible.

"In addition to being dismayed by the difficulties presented by the setting, Buonarroti was disgusted with the text he was told to use as a guide. This was Against Images, written by the Byzantine Emperor Leo III (ruled 717-741), which was made into law in the Eastern Empire by his son Constantine the Iconoclast (ruled 741-775) after a titanic theological and political battle that engulfed all Christendom. The doctrine was triumphant in the East during Constantine's lifetime (aided by gold from the Muslim Caliph Yazid, many historians speculate) and spread from there to the West, where it was enacted into papal law by the early 800s. Drawing largely on Muslim theory, the book deals with the theological arguments against imagery, declaring in the end that '...thus it is entirely against the will and commands of the Lord that men shall rise up images of him, or of His saints; and that this presumption of the divine power of creation is a blasphemy unto the heavens....' Iconoclastically-inclined popes had in the centuries since reinforced these rules, to the point where, in 16th century Europe, no artwork of any kind was allowed to portray divine - or human - figures.

"It must be recalled that Buonarroti had little or no experience with painting before 1506, and when he tried to use this as an argument against the commission, the Pope (probably at the instigation of Bramante) gave him a copy of the book. While he knew about the proscription of images from art, Buonarroti had never actually read the theological reasons used to support Iconoclasm, even though it was the ruling spirit of art in his day. When he actually read the thin tissue of logic contained in Against Images, he was appalled by its speciousness and anti-humanistic stance, as one of his earliest biographers, Condivi, tells us. Of course, he was undoubtedly influenced in his anger by the rude treatment he had received at the hands of Julius II, and in the end he resolved to do something about it.

"This led to the first, and perhaps the greatest, of all social protests. For four years Buonarroti worked in complete secrecy, in arduous circumstances. Often required to lie flat on his back for hours at a time to reach a particular section of the ceiling, in poor light, straining his eyesight and his health, he painted the work that would eventually set the Western artist free to portray himself and his God.

"The Pope, perhaps regretting his harsh treatment of the gifted artist, tried often at first to visit the chapel, but Buonarroti refused him entrance. 'Michelangelo,' an old (and perhaps apocryphal) story has Julius saying at one visit, 'when will you let me see your work?' 'When you will let me see your God!' Buonarroti is supposed to have retorted.

"After four years of unremitting labor, in which his friends feared he had completely ruined his health, Buonarroti declared his work finished. He sent the Pope a letter asking him to come view it and then, prudently, travelled immediately to Florence to wait out the storm.

"Though millions travel to see St. Peter's, few but scholars today have actually seen Sixtus's chapel. It is a relatively unimpressive structure, and the murals and frescoes that once might have made it beautiful have long since faded. Nonetheless, enough of Buonarroti's paintings have survived for us to imagine the shock in store for Julius II when he surveyed the work he had commissioned and paid for.

"Instead of the standard geometric and floral patterns that the Medieval and Renaissance Christian (and Muslim, for that matter) took for granted in their cathedrals (and mosques), Julius beheld scenes taken straight from the Bible, and recreated with a vibrant use of color and realism. From the Garden of Eden through the Tower of Babel and the story of Noah, Buonarroti had portrayed in extreme detail a number of familiar stories, and then gone on to include pictorial descriptions of both the torments of Hell and the pleasures of Heaven...but all without human figures!

"His Garden of Eden was complete down to a half-eaten apple on the ground, except that Adam and Eve were missing; his Noah's Ark stood ready to sail, but without its cargo of animals or passengers; his Hellfire burned for no one, and his Heaven was depopulated.

"The Pope, it is said (again, perhaps apocryphally), nearly laughed himself sick. Regardless of his immediate reaction, however, it is a fact that Buonarroti never suffered for his rash act; he was, after all, given the commission to redesign St. Peter's. Sixtus' chapel, however, was sealed by papal order. Julius II may have taken Buonarroti's point to heart, but he died before he could do anything about the prohibition. It remained for his successor, Leo X, spurred by Julius II's legacy and Buonarroti's continued influence, to begin the gradual Catholic retreat from Iconoclasm, spurred on by the Lutheran reformers in Germany, who made Iconoclasm, with transubstantiation and the vernacular liturgy, one of their major points of contention with Rome. It would be nearly 100 years before the Church would officially recognize the use of images in art, and it was this final point that resolved the dangerous schism begun by the monk Martin Luther. Without that final concession, the Catholic Church might not have remained the strong, vital presence it still is today, and a potentially disastrous violent and disastrous splintering of Christendom might have been perpetrated in the name of Luther's 'reforms.'

"Nonetheless, it is distressing to think of the great artists and great works of art lost because of the prohibition against human imagery. While floral and geometric art can be raised to great heights, they require a skill with mathematics and the natural sciences that are not always found in those with a skill for portraying the human figure. And of course we can only imagine what the stained glass and ornamental friezes of the great Gothic cathedrals - like St. Peter's, or Notre-Dame de Paris, or Chartres - would have looked like had they been able to include the human figure among their decorations.

"One of the greatest ironies in the whole affair, however, is not in its outcome, but in its origins. Condivi reports that Buonarroti was inspired by another Florentine of the time, an unlucky artist and engineer by the name of Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci was commissioned in 1494 to paint a fresco for the refectory of a monastery in Florence and, like Buonarroti, insisted on working in private. When he had finished the fresco, in 1498, he allowed the monks to view his work, but made the mistake of remaining in Florence.

"Just as Michelangelo Buonarroti would some years later, he painted a Biblical scene without human figures, only da Vinci had chosen his from the New Testament -- the Last Supper. The great wall at the end of the refectory, Condivi recalls, showed an empty dining room after a meal, complete with crumbs on the spotted table cloth, half-empty wineglasses and a pile of thirty coins before the seat which was supposed to have been Judas'.

"The monks, lacking Julius II's sense of humor, ordered da Vinci's arrest for blasphemy immediately. He was speedily convicted, and burnt at the stake within a month. His guilt was further deepened, in the eyes of local clergy, by the fact that when arrested he was in the process of painting the portrait of the beautiful mistress of a highly placed de Medici. (Portrait painting was only slightly less blasphemous, in the Medieval canon, than depicting Jesus, the saints, or the angels.) Da Vinci fought with the soldiers sent to arrest him, apparently to allow the young woman to escape. The de Medici whose mistress she was, fearing the wrath of the Florentine monks, packed her off to the north German town of Bremen.

"In a final side note, the mistress is supposed to have changed her loyalties to a local burgher, and to have sparked a small artistic revolution of her own, when a number of bold young German painters competed to capture her features on canvas. The religious authorities, of course, suppressed the competition, but this Italian lady's beauty, and particularly her famous smile, is still a matter of legend in Bremen."





THE END