updated 7:10am 4.4.21 SDD
Michelangelo’s Impressions of the Crucifixion
AVA 4370: The Art of Michelangelo
Dr. William Jensen | Presented 8 December, 2008

“Never in Christian art has Christ’s sacrifice received a more exalted expression.[i]” Michelangelo’s crucifixion drawings, like many of the works produced in his lifetime, present a beautiful rendering of form to express meaning and emotion. As Michelangelo approached the end of his life, he desired to grow further spiritually. Several of Michelangelo’s artworks convey this desire, however his crucifixion drawings particularly for Vittoria Colonna and those in the late series portray a Christological devotion that was sought before the artist’s death in 1564.
Michelangelo is not only known as an accomplished draftsman, he was a revolutionary painter, sculptor, and writer. His artistic ingenuity is still recognized by aspiring artists who have the opportunity to study his works. In addition to commissioned works, Michelangelo composed a number of sonnets, some of which express “a profound absorption of Christ’s sacrifice and man’s hope of salvation.[ii]” Michelangelo writes:
“Painting nor sculpture now can lull to rest
My soul, that turns to His great love on high,
Whose arms to clasp us on the cross were spread”[iii]
This sonnet conveys Michelangelo’s submissive attitude toward Christ’s infinite love and power as he died for the sins of mankind. It is believed that Michelangelo began to regard his artworks as idols above the love of Christ.
Near the end of his life, Michelangelo sought to reject his artworks as idols and sought a deeper relationship with Christ. Leo Steinburg’s vector analysis of the Last Judgment serves as an example of Michelangelo’s shift in attitude toward his faith. Steinburg suggests that Michelangelo depicts himself as being judged by placing his supposed self-portrait on a key axis of the work, which runs through its most important characters.[iv] Michelangelo is judging himself spiritually through the colossal work. If the dates on the crucifixion drawings are correct, the works would fall near the end of the Last Judgment’s completion.[v] Therefore, Michelangelo’s religious transition/judgments would have carried over into his drawings, significantly affecting their content and/or meaning. 
In the 1530s, around the completion of the Last Judgment, Michelangelo started to grow in his faith.[vi] One passionate source of religious inspiration was the widower Vittoria Colonna. Colonna was a spiritually devout woman who chose to set aside the commitments of modern society “to be able to serve God more tranquilly.[vii]” Charles De Tolnay claims that Michelangelo elevated her to the “spiritual transfiguration” of Dante’s Beatrice[viii] whom is believed to appear in the Last Judgment above Christ (Fig. 1). Michelangelo was in constant contact with Colonna and drew two works for her: Crucifixion, (fig. 2) and Pieta, (fig. 3). These two drawings serve as a basis by which Michelangelo derives his later, more expressive series of crucifixion drawings.

Figure 1 and Figure 2

Figure 3

Crucifixion (fig. 2) depicts Christ as alive looking upwards toward God. This point of time during Christ’s crucifixion is not commonly represented iconographically[ix]. The scene is described in Matthew 27:46: “And about the ninth hour, Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying: Eli, Eli, lamma sabacthani? That is My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?[x]” This drawing is considered to be the last of its kind in its precise handling and finish.[xi] Christ is placed between two figures, which are believed to be angels. Fredrick Hartt identifies these figures as personifications of the sun and moon, darkened by the crucifixion.[xii] A skull is placed below the crucifix to identify the scene as Golgotha (the place of the skull) where Christ was crucified. One might speculate that the placement of Christ above the skull presents Christ as the second Adam. Also, the blood of Christ has the ability to drop on the surface of the skull referring to Christ’s cleansing of man’s sin through his blood. This drawing is an early visual representation of Michelangelo’s devout spirit. Its sharp, detailed modeling and powerful realism portrays the suffering Christ in a manner that elicits the emotional and religious responses of the artist.
Michelangelo’s Pieta (fig. 3) for Vittoria Colonna is equally intriguing and impressive in its handling and composition. A dead Christ is placed in the lap of a grieving Mary that stares upward towards the heavens. Two small angels support the dead body of Christ and crown of thorns is lightly sketched below his feet. Christ and Mary are arranged in a direct antithesis in both pose and gender. Christ’s pose is reminiscent of a figure in the Deluge of the Sistine ceiling (fig. 4). There is an inscription on the crucifix from Dante’s Paradise: “NON VI SI PENSA QUANTO SANGUE COASTA- They think not how much blood it has cost.[xiii]” The quote refers to the unwilling recognition of Christ’s sacrifice by those who witnessed as the event transpired. The reference to Dante in this particular drawing could be seen as an emphasis on De Tolnay’s position of Michelangelo’s inspiration from Colonna’s spiritual qualities. Also the inscription shows Michelangelo’s constant application of antiquated sources.[xiv] The sorrow of Mary is clearly presented and emphasized by Christ’s lifeless body. The figural arrangements coupled with the inscription from Dante once again recall Michelangelo’s religious response to the crucifixion.

Figure 4

Michelangelo’s late crucifixion drawings date tentatively from 1500s-1550s. All of the drawings are done in black and white chalk and depict a dying/ dead Christ crucified, some with surrounding characters, identified primarily as the Virgin Mary and St. John. Two quotations from scholars on Michelangelo drawings are worth mentioning with the introduction of these late crucifixion drawings:
“The likeliest explanation of these drawings, unfinished as they are, is that Michelangelo made them for himself, and that, like his late religious poetry, they are confessional meditations, here given visual expression.”[xv]
“…Michelangelo’s late religious drawings, which are, so to speak, monologues on the Passion of Christ, and secondly in the sketchy nature of their simplified shapes, which immediately invite the beholder to forget form and concentrate on the religious essence.”[xvi]
Hirst claims that these later drawings, like Michelangelo’s poetry are personal responses of Christ’s sacrifice in visual form. De Tolnay argues that despite the fact that the drawings depict a historical scene, anatomical accuracy and finish are not of utmost concern, which then leads the viewer to see the works as more religiously expressive in their handling.
Crucifixion with the Virgin and St. John (fig. 5) depicts Christ on a Y-shaped cross next to St. John and the Virgin Mary. Pentimenti[xvii] surround the body of Christ and nearby figures. Mary crosses her arms, echoing the crucifix and the pose of the Virgin in the Last Judgment (fig. 6) and the Crouching Venus (fig 7), with which Michelangelo frequently uses to identify Mary. St. John steps toward the viewer; his head is drawn in two different positions. The drawing could be depicting one of Christ’s seven last words: “After that, he saith to the disciple: Behold thy mother. And from that hour, the disciple took her to his own[xviii].”

Figure 5

Christ’s hands (in fig. 5) are treated in a unique manner. Christ’s right hand is open, in a gesture that is reaching up toward heaven. This is a reference to the saved side of humanity, as seen in the Last Judgment (fig. 8). Christ’s left hand is in an emphatic fist given movement by the use of pentimenti. This gesture refers to the damned side of humanity, also seen in the Last Judgment (fig. 8).
The use of a Y-shaped cross in the drawing (fig. 5) is a significant change from others in the series which use T-shapes. Y-shaped crosses were prevalent in Italian art of the thirteenth century and frequently seen embroidered on chasubles[xix]. The crossbar implies a relation to doctrine on the Trinity[xx]. The inscription appears on the crossbar (I.N.R.I.) which is historically described in John 19:19 “And Pilate wrote a title also: and he put it upon the cross. And the writing was: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS.[xxi] However Michelangelo has reversed the N on the inscription, possibly commenting on the birthplace of Christ. Fredrick Hartt explains that “the Y-cross was a superb solution to the formal dilemma, since Michelangelo never liked excessive projections.[xxii]” One other drawing in the series shares the same Y-shaped configuration: Crucifixion with the Virgin and St. John (fig. 9).
The drawing (fig. 5), in its handling and use of correction, elicits a strong emotional appeal in which Christ seems to be physically tormented. This characteristic captures the viewer and allows them to focus on the weight and emotion associated with Christ’s sacrifice for mankind.  The drawing has significant water damage, which does not cripple its features, but rather enhances emotive power. Michelangelo’s religious perspective is seen through these captivating qualities. As the viewer’s eyes dance across its surface, they cannot help but recognize its creator’s sympathetic attitude toward the scene.
Another drawing of the series, Crucifixion with the virgin and St. John (fig. 10), is very unorthodox in its representation and has given rise to many different interpretations. Christ hangs dying on the cross, flanked on each side by a figure. The main concern with this work lies with identifying the figures around Christ. According to Robinson, Berenson, and Frey, the figure on the right side of the drawing is the Virgin Mary and the left, St. John. De Tolnay states that this would be against standard tradition that “dictates that the Virgin shall stand to the right of Christ in a crucifixion.” Thode speculates that the figure on the right side of the page is St. John while the left depicts Mary in masculine form. This androgynous technique is a reoccurring motif in Michelangelo’s figural representation. Goldscheider interprets the figure on the left of the page to be St. Peter denying Christ and on the right, St. John. Finally, De Tolnay believes the two figures to be soldiers, the left Stephaton the centurion and the right Longinus. If this was in fact true, De Tolnay believes Michelangelo was holding to a tradition of the middle ages in which two soldiers near the crucifixion occurs frequently[xxiii].
Through a rigorous study of Michelangelo’s art, one would find that he enjoys creating artworks with complex compositions, renderings, color use, and other techniques that frequently go against standard iconography. Unfortunately, this drawing and those of the series do not provide answers to the speculations raised by a variety of scholars. What is true about these two surrounding figures is that they are significantly affected by what is presented before them. One figure cradles his head in agony while the other seems to inspect the body of Christ to see of he is in fact dead. Regardless, the pentimenti applied to the figures allow them to resonate with profound emotion. The viewer of this drawing can envision Michelangelo’s faithful response to the most significant event in history.
Michelangelo’s Crucifixion (fig. 11) is a powerful example in the series of a crucified Christ that is represented alone on the page. Christ hangs “in utter loneliness”[xxiv] from the cross, beautifully composed on the page. The soft and dynamic handling in the body of Christ sends the eyes through its surface. De Tolnay identifies the movement of the drawing as the spiral ascending which he then connects to the Crucifixion for Vittoria Colonna (fig. 2)[xxv]. The weight of humanity is felt on the arms of Christ. The struggle of representation through the core of Christ conveys the pain and anguish that the cross induced. Michelangelo may have concerned himself with presenting the pain and abandonment associated with Christ’s death. Nevertheless, the drawing technique further conveys Michelangelo’s spirituality. Fredrick Hartt believes this to be one of the last drawings of the series in which:
“The age hand shakes, the contours shift and change, form and atmosphere can scarcely be distinguished from one another, substance is shadowy and melts, yet in these broken chords the ultimate shape and the ultimate meaning come through with overpowering clarity.”[xxvi]
Crucifixion with the Virgin and St. John (fig. 12) presents a more devout grouping of the three figures. Christ seems to have just expired while Mary and John embrace the cross with great emotion and piety. Mary, on Christ’s right side, presses her cheek and right arm on Christ’s leg. St. John wraps his arm around the cross and looks upward into the face of Christ. The three figures contain “vibrating contours” (pentimenti) that connect the group “uniting them as by an aura”[xxvii]. This is the only drawing in the series where the figures are treated in a grouped manner. The arrangement of the figures reminds one of the layered compositions of Leonardo da Vinci (fig. 13) by which Michelangelo was exposed to and imitated (fig. 14, fig. 15).
Michelangelo’s religious perspective is emphasized not only by pentimenti, but also by the actions of the two surrounding figures. Both of the figures embrace Christ in passionate display of grief and piousness. The viewer feels the weight of the sacrifice as they relate to each of the surrounding figures and integrate themselves into the composition.
Michelangelo’s crucifixion drawings are expressive, religious, original, inventive, contemplative, and mysterious. One can imagine the overwhelming inspiration of Christ’s death, which stimulated these works and called for a rough, expressive rendering by the artist. The study of these fascinating and powerful drawings sheds light on Michelangelo’s inner struggle to seek and develop his relationship with Christ prior to his passing.

Figure 6

Figure 7
[i] Hartt, Fredrick. Michelangelo Drawings. New York, 1970. 293
[ii] Hirst, Michael. Michelangelo and His Drawings. New York, 1988. 58
[iii] Hirst (1988), 58
[iv] Steinburg, Leo. “The Line of Fate,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 6, no. 3 (Spring 1980), 411-54
[v] Hartt (1970), 288
[vi] Hibbard, Howard. Michelangelo. 2nd ed. Cambridge, 1974. 255
[vii] Hibbard (1974), 255
[viii] Hibbard (1974), 255
[ix] Hibbard (1974), 258
[x] Latin Vulgate. Trans. Douay-Rheims. 6 Dec. 2008 <http://www.latinvulgate.com>. Matt. 27:46
[xi] Hartt (1970), 288
[xii] Hartt (1970), 289
[xiii] Hibbard (1974), 258
[xiv] Joannides, Paul. Michelangelo and His Influence: Drawings from Windsor Castle. N.p.: BAS Printers Limited, 1996. 92
[xv] Hirst (1988), 58
[xvi] Tolnay, Charles de. Michelangelo. Vol.5. Princeton, (1943-60). 148
[xvii] pentimenti: alteration evidenced by traces of previous work.
[xviii] Latin Vulgate. John 19:27
[xix] chasuble: a sleeveless outer vestment worn by the officiating priest at mass
   Merriam-Webster Online. 2008. 7 Dec. 2008 <http://www.merriam-webster.com>.
[xx] Hartt (1943-60), 292
[xxi] Latin Vulgate. John 19:19.
[xxii] Hartt (1943-60), 292
[xxiii] De Tolnay (1943-60), 224
[xxiv] Hartt (1943-60), 293
[xxv] De Tolnay (1943-60), 225
[xxvi] Hartt (1943-60), 293
[xxvii] Hartt (1943-60), 293

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