Contemporary culture is obsessed with the human body. It (that is, the body) carries so much responsibility. Weak, mortal, finite, it is made to bear burdens of eternity: it is made to be a sign of dignity, meaning and status that is somehow eternal. So, we punish it, whipping it into shape with brutal exercises. Or we carve it and bleach it, paint it and etch it, making it wan and squeezed. We might do this to meet social standards, sometimes, but I think we usually do it for a deeper reason. In fact, I think we’re grasping toward a birthright – a glimpsed memory from before memory. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” God told the prophet Jeremiah. It is this “before”-ness of the prophet, I think, that we dimly sense. This is the form-before-form, the me-spark, and we trudge back through time-waters to find it: vivid and vacant, finite and eternal, human and divine. We all have one, and we all long to grasp it. Thus: Who am I? We constantly ask. Body, become it, so I can see.
But for some of us, there’s never a glimpse. It feels hopeless. Because some of us are disfigured, whether by birth or by accident. And others of us suffer chronic pain or vie with dark enemies that seem to contaminate us from the inside (arthritis, cancer). Thanks to the natural aging process, most of us will decay into something we might not entirely recognize. We might look in the mirror decades hence (or we may look in the mirror now) and say: “That is not me. That is a shadow of what I was.” What immense cause for sorrow! For this alone, one could imagine, Jesus might have wept. Each of us, like Lazarus, is born with death already stored up in our limbs, and our only hope is a God to overcome it.
The Renaissance artist Michelangelo Buonarotti was someone who knew this viscerally, sharply, for the whole of his career. No one worshipped the perfect body – and the perfect face – more than Michelangelo. No one yearned more ardently for the prophet’s before-form, nor saw more clearly the meaning given our bodies by the Incarnate God. No one so completely linked physical beauty with divine destiny. Yet at age seventeen, Michelangelo’s nose had been broken irreparably by a professional rival. Smashed in and slightly askew, that nose was a constant reminder that the beautiful bodies the artist loved were heavenly ones – timeless God-ideations. Or perhaps they were primeval prototypes, like the Adam of the Sistine Chapel lounging in Edenic newness, just sprung from the mind of God.
Today – perhaps because we neglect the before and after and live only for the present – we do to ourselves what Michelangelo did in fresco. We chase for ourselves a fulfillment that Michelangelo only flung onto ceilings and then pointed toward, again and again. Why the difference? In Michelangelo’s time, there was (better, there was still) an acute consciousness of some glorious past and future gathered up together – and to which the present was a sorrowful exception. This was like the “eternal return” of religion theorist Mircea Eliade,1 or like the ancient notion of some other-dimensional (and maybe perpetual) Golden Age, still chugging along in secret and discoverable by children in mossy groves. But today, with no real trust in a heavenly future, we grasp for perfection in our flesh, and we are disappointed. Even more than Michelangelo, we lament our brokenness and droop with a longing we barely understand.
Michelangelo’s perfect Adam – so perfect that he is utterly relaxed and unselfconscious, like a Zen master – sits near the center of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He is the before-form. Several paces and one perpendicular away is his superior and double, the heavenly Christ of Judgment Day, who with vigorous arms lifts the dead. Some rise to be perfect like Him; others descend to an embodied torment, bearing (perhaps) broken noses forever, and other broken things besides. Michelangelo’s Last Judgment is all a welter of nude bodies, symbolizing the capacity of the human form to communicate every degree of moral sublimity or turpitude. These bodies – torqued, piling, straining – were the artist’s way of speaking eternal truths with the alphabet he knew the best.
My Art History survey class this quarter begins with the Renaissance. And to understand the Renaissance, I think, one must understand the melancholy lovelorn-ness of Michelangelo. During the Renaissance (thanks in large part to the rediscovery of ancient Greco-Roman sculptures), there was a mania to make artistic bodies contain every perfection, every sublimity. And not just the Olympian perfection of Athens – taut, muscular, poised – but the heavenly perfection of Christ, who was at once Man and transcendent God. In such an epoch of the world, when peace and wealth gave space for daydreams, that Before-Man and After-Man, the Christ of the Beginning and End, was approached with new curiosity and abandon. And the visceral experience of His perfection was sought with ever-greater ingenuity – until, in a gasp of futility, the whole enterprise blew apart.
Thus Michelangelo, for the decade of his seventies, labored on a sculpture he would never finish – the Deposition in Florence’s Duomo museum. This sculptural group perhaps captured the thrust of Michelangelo’s whole artistic life, and the Renaissance besides. In the foreground, a beautiful but crumpled Christ (just taken from the cross), is flanked by his Mother and the Magdalen. These forms are odd, almost grotesque: products of a desperate, last-ditch effort to rehabilitate (smash, reassemble) an idol. Christ, for his part, is bent wrong ways like a marionette, and Mary Magdalen is as emotionally blank as a pillar of salt. Meanwhile in the background, looming over all, is Michelangelo himself, looking downward from a face with a broken nose. Christ and the women are spent seed pods, husks cast, falling to dust from Michelangelo’s gnarled hands. Michelangelo himself is the monster who made them monstrous like himself. In the end, the artist seemed to admit, not even a flung perfection, remote on ceilings, was possible for mortals to grasp.
Michelangelo the perfectionist needed kindness. Perhaps that’s why he gave up work on his Deposition, and even tried to destroy it. The sculpture was an accusation, and after eight decades of wrestling like Jacob with the angel, the time for accusation was over. May the rest of us too, with our guilts and pains, be kind to ourselves. May we love our bodies with their aches and flaws all through. And may we patiently wait, like babes, until the God-Man comes, to gather up our sorrowful present and make all things anciently new.