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Chapter IV

The Transfiguration of Death

The Medici Chapel

John W. Dixon, Jr. 1997
All Rights Reserved


The Sistine Chapel is complete; the Medici Chapel is not. The architecture of the Chapel is complete and the architecture is an important actor in the drama but the sculptural program is incomplete and the paintings planned for several parts of the Chapel were not begun. There is no scholarly agreement about many important details of Michelangelo's plans for completing the Chapel. Therefore, it is not possible to take the Chapel "as it instantly and evidently is". It is necessary to begin with a descriptive account of the Chapel and, both at the beginning and during the argument, attempt reconstruction of some of the important details that are missing.

From the outside, the Chapel is an unprepossessing mass of masonry. It is a pendant to Brunelleschi's Sacristy on the other side of the choir and, apparently, was to have duplicated the form of the earlier work. Michelangelo, inheriting the plan, raised it one level higher. Brunelleschi's is called the "Old Sacristy" and Michelangelo's the "New Sacristy" but his never functioned as a sacristy. It is a funeral chapel for members of the Medici family. (Brunelleschi's Sacristy contains the tombs of earlier Medici but inconspicuously, not interfering with its function.)

The proper entrance to the Chapel is through the doorway opening into the choir of the church; the priests entered from the church to say the Mass for the Dead. The present entrance was opened when the Chapel was converted into a kind of museum. In either case, whoever enters, priest or tourist, confronts the altar on the far wall.

To the left of the proper entrance (to the right of the present entrance) a plain marble box contains the tombs of the great fifteenth century Medici, Lorenzo the Magnificent and his murdered brother Giuliano. There is much dispute about Michelangelo's intentions for this, the most important tomb in the Chapel. Surviving sketches suggest that he intended a double tomb with the group of the Madonna and Child in a niche lifted above the two sarcophagi. Now the statue stands on the tomb, flanked by statues of the Medici patron saints, Cosmos and Damian, executed by assistants from Michelangelo's designs.

The two more nearly completed tombs are those of minor Medici dukes whose deaths was the occasion for the Chapel. To the right is the tomb of Giuliano, Duke of Nemours, (died 1516), to the left that of Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino (1519). The two ducal titles were dubious since Giuliano was Duke of Nemours only by marriage and Lorenzo was Duke of Urbino by a usurpation that lasted only a short time. But theirs were the first ducal titles in the Medici family and these two men had been the focus of family hope; even Machiavelli had a deluded hope that this Lorenzo could be the Prince to unify Italy.

With eminent good sense, Hartt has reminded us of the most immediate circumstances of the Chapel: it is a Christian funeral chapel, not an illustration of a philosophic program (Hartt 1979: 548). In endowing the Chapel, the two Medici popes intended the glorification of the Medici family (Hartt 1951).

There is a genuine poignancy in this second intention since, with the death of Lorenzo, the direct Medici line stemming from Cosimo the Great was extinct. "Henceforth we belong no more to the House of Medici but to the House of God!", cried Pope Leo. (Hartt 1951: 149) It is less a political program directed toward the future than an elegy for what might have been. This may account a little for the tone of the sculptures.

The glorification of the Medici family was an attempt to give legitimacy to their dynastic claims to the lordship of Florence; while various Medici had been rulers of Florence in fact, they did so behind a facade of republican independence and were subject to the effective consent of the citizens of Florence. There is still a question about glorification; what the popes wanted and what they got are not necessarily the same thing. How much does it help to think of the Captains as glorified?

Pope Leo X, himself a Medici, first broached the idea of the Chapel and assigned general supervision of it to Cardinal Giulio de' Medici. When the Cardinal became Pope Clement VII in 1523, he continued his interest in the Chapel and retained general supervision of it. The design and most of the work were done in the 1520's, interrupted by the terrible siege of Florence and continued in the early 1530's. When Michelangelo finally left Florence in 1534, many figures were strewn around the floor and were not assembled in their present positions until 1545.

As a funeral chapel, it was, appropriately, dedicated to the Resurrection. Masses for the dead were said daily in the Chapel until the 18th century. Many who study the chapel fail to take seriously this liturgical use and the liturgical function of the Chapel as a work of art. If we are to understand the Chapel, it is as part of the liturgical drama enacted within it. (On this, see Ettlinger: 1978.)

Thus the bare description of the Chapel. It is necessary now to describe the elements of it in detail, first the architecture, then the sculptures of the tombs.


The Architecture

The architecture as we see it is essentially complete. This is not incidental. The architecture is not simply setting for a sculptural program but is a major actor in the drama of the Chapel. The Chapel can be understood only as a unity of architecture, sculpture, the missing paintings and the liturgy. It is not strictly true to say that the architecture is complete. The architectural framework of the tombs is part of the architecture of the room, so the absence of the tomb on the entrance wall makes it hard to see the Chapel as Michelangelo intended.

Michelangelo designed and placed the altar. He organized the space from "behind" the altar, from the point of view of the priest who is saying mass on the far side of the altar, looking out into the room. Understanding this placement is vital to the understanding of the program and the performance of the Chapel.

The architecture is not simply one actor in the drama of the Chapel. There are two architectural systems that need to be seen independently and as intimately related to each other. The first system comprises the dark elements, the famous Florentine "pietra serena", the bluish gray stone that is so widely used in Florence. The second comprises the marble elements inserted within the frame of the pietra serena.

The framework of dark stone uses the characteristic Florentine vocabulary of forms first established by Brunelleschi. Michelangelo adapts Brunelleschi's vocabulary and syntax of forms but the resulting rhetoric is his and not at all the serene calm of Brunelleschi's Sacristy.

Brunelleschi derived his vocabulary from the classical but used it in a wholly unclassical manner. Instead of three dimensional forms set in rhythmic freedom in space, he used flattened forms set against a white wall; the dialectic between dark and white is an essential part of the Brunelleschian syntax. He created a spatial cage that is descended from Gothic space but uses the tightly disciplined forms derived from the ancients. The wall is the powerful wall of Florentine medieval architecture, now lightened in whiteness and stretched between the sustaining framework of pilasters. Brunelleschi's architecture has been derided as "pencil architecture", as though it were simply drawing on a white surface. This misses entirely the dialogue that is so vital to a Brunelleschian building, which generates a serenely containing, quietly proportioned space. It is Florentine Gothic transposed into a new key.

Michelangelo has been faithful to the Brunelleschian conception and to much of its detail but has made a radical change. Brunelleschi based the pendentives for his dome at the same level as the arch that defines the lunettes. The result is a building that does not emphasize any one dimension at the expense of another, a room balanced in all its dimensions. Michelangelo has inserted a story between the lower level and the dome. This made it possible to enlarge the windows beside the lower lunettes and add four more windows in the large lunettes above; the sides of these windows incline toward the center. The principal consequence of this addition is to raise the height of the room considerably, placing primary emphasis on the vertical axis.

While the dark framework is still within the Florentine tradition, the white elements are wholly Michelangelo's own. Michelangelo clearly derived his vocabulary from the ancients but reshaped it to his own purposes; for those who consider the traditional forms normative, these new forms are "bizarre", suggesting the term "Mannerism". Michelangelo was never a Mannerist, which usually applies to the use of non-traditional forms for their own sake (see Introduction). Michelangelo always has both an expressive and a communicative purpose for his forms, however unusual they may be. They are unusual, not merely to be unusual, which is the Mannerist problematic, but because he had something unusual to say.

The white elements are independent compositions placed between the framing dark elements. Those containing the eight doorways violate normal proportion and reverse the normal vertical relation; the tabernacles above the doors are larger and more prominent than the doorways below. In turn, the segmental arches that form the pediments extend to the edge of the framing pilasters. From any point of view, most of them visually overlap the pilasters and the architrave above.

The Brunelleschian dialogue between dark framing and white wall now has a third member but the immediate impression is the tension between the assertive independence of the marble composition against the discipline of the dark framing. At this point an account of the actual structure interlocks with the affect, which means that no account can offer itself as universally valid; the temperament of the observer will determine much of the response.

This structure and its corresponding affect have to be read horizontally and vertically. Horizontally, the effect is enclosure, but not a simple enclosure. There is a steady rhythm around the room, white counterpointed against dark, a rhythm that goes back into the depth of the wall and comes forward into the room. For some observers, this sense of enclosure might be deeply disturbing, claustrophobic. Clearly, the intended affect is decisive separation from the world outside and a serene, harmonious containment, a serenity achieved out of struggle.

In part, this is a consequence of the vertical ordering and its affect. Including the smaller segmental arches on either side of the dukes, there is a rhythmic vertical relation of arches spreading from center to side, up and back to the center, up to the largest arch sweeping over the whole. There is a steady increase in size going up. The consequence is not some sort of mannerist reversal of gravity but a grave and powerful ascent.

The light is integral to this effect. It is controlled to direct appropriate illumination onto the statues below. The light as we see it is much as Michelangelo intended it to be. This is not incidental, even incidental to the architecture that controls it, for the light is another major actor in the drama. All the windows are high and some are blind; Michelangelo placed the light where he wanted it to be and carefully controlled its intensity. To be in the room, attending to the things that are going on in the lower section of the room, is to feel, not height but depth. There is an even, serene, pearly light pouring down into the room. Looking up is a little like looking up through water to the open sky above.

This light, as much as anything else, contributes to the profoundly harmonious unity of the room. It is a polyphonic harmony. Each element exists in the integrity of its own character and quality, yet each is a part of the rhythmic modulations of forms throughout the room. The space is single but the three axes are distinct. The two major horizontal axes—altar to the Madonna and Child, across from tomb to balancing tomb—are the controlling core of the rhythm of interchange around the walls. The ascending movement from floor to lantern is the center of the careful vertical modulations on the walls. All is brought into singleness, not only by their firm interrelation and interlocking but by the light pouring down from above, encompassing all, spectators (worshipers) and statues alike.

This profound spatial and formal unity of the architecture is the first essential in grasping the meaning of the room. The continuity from part to whole, from whole to part, makes vain all interpretations that try to divide the Chapel programatically into levels. This is not an image of the universe, Platonic or Neoplatonic, but a realization of the continuous order between earth and heaven.

The Tombs

Two principles should govern looking at the tombs. The first is implicit in the account above: the tombs are not independent works but parts of a whole. Looking at them separately distorts their meaning unless their function within the whole is part of the intent of looking. The second is the constant necessity in understanding Michelangelo: it must be a true looking and not a seeing controlled by the sense of a verbalized, intellectual program. Michelangelo worked to his own purposes within the conditions of the commissioned purpose.

Each tomb is itself a unity. The sarcophagus with its reclining figures of the Times Of Day forms a pyramid, rising to its apex at the head of the seated Captain. Michelangelo had planned personifications of rivers below the tombs; sketches and a model suggest a little of what they were like. The rivers would have broadened the base of the pyramid and placed it securely on the floor. Since we can't start looking at the lowest level, we begin with the figures on the sarcophagi.

They are paired in several ways, Night and Day, Dawn and Twilight. Night and Dawn are female, Day and Twilight are male. Night and Day are closed within themselves, Dawn and Twilight are stretched out and open. Night is a mature woman with the pendulous breasts and slack stomach muscles of a woman who has borne children. Dawn has the erect breasts and tight muscles of a maiden. Day is violently wrathful, Twilight lax and submissive.

The names are authentic; Michelangelo called Night and Day by those names and the other two names were used during his lifetime. Such references suggest that they are allegories. Despite their idealization, they have little of the abstractness usual with allegories but are shown as living forms. At this point we meet an issue of complexity and importance that is not altogether germane to this argument.

Allegory was very much a part of the Renaissance intellectual enterprise. Unfortunately, the word itself is difficult to define and still be adequate to its complexities. Sometimes it serves to make the abstract concrete and vivid with no intent to conceal; the great example in English is Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Often it is used in a deliberate attempt to conceal meaning from all but the elite; there are Renaissance paintings using allegories of such complexity that they still cannot be convincingly deciphered.

Michelangelo may have made use of some allegorical program in his work, even though there is little scholarly agreement on what it might be. I would assert, again, that if there were such a program and if we knew what it was, we would be no closer to accounting for the work as we actually see it.

In his magisterial study of the language of art in Michelangelo's day, David Summers offers this admirable resolution of the issue: "If allegory is understood broadly as a kind of vertical metaphor, in which higher conceptual meaning is displaced in sensible form, then Michelangelo's figural composition seems to me to have been habitually allegorical." (Summers 1981: 454) This considerably (and, to my mind, acceptably) broadens the definition of allegory. Summers prefers the word "poetic", which he defines, in part, according to the Renaissance usage "truth set out in a fair and appropriate garment of fiction".

He illustrates his point with the representations of the Captains which don't in the least resemble their subjects. This is not at all an idealization "in the sense of a supertemporal, abstract and generic reality..." "The intention was rather to make what might be called a transcendental individual, an image embodying the intellectual and visual qualities that had combined to produce an individual, and embodied them with a clarity and perfection that only art could achieve." (All references on p.454.)

I would prefer the word "symbol", which immediately plunges the discussion into an intricate and subtle debate. In lieu of any attempted review or resolution of that discussion, I will refer only to the usage, common in Coleridge and formulated with memorable simplicity by the theologian Paul Tillich: "A sign points to what it signifies. A symbol participates in what it symbolizes." That is, there is some structural or processual correspondence between the symbol and the thing symbolized so that grasping the one is a way of grasping the other. This is the key to the word "participation" that I have regularly used as the key to Michelangelo's purposes. There is an integral and intimate relation between the symbol and the reality symbolized. However unlike they are in appearance, it is this fundamental likeness that enables them to function together.

This makes understanding more difficult, not less. Allegories and other signs are accessible to the rational intelligence and are, therefore, the substance of scholarship. A symbol is truly grasped only by the apprehending organism. It is, finally, impossible to talk about the symbol since its function is to give body to a reality that is not otherwise accessible. The sign is replaceable by the thing signified or by the interpretation. The symbol is not replaceable and the symbolized can be grasped only within the symbol. The best we can do is to describe them as accurately and as fully as possible.

The Times of Day are not parts of any philosophical system. They are the symbols of time as the reality of time in Michelangelo's presentation of it. To be in the presence of these figures is not to be instructed in ideas but to reproduce empathetically, in the body, the very forces of time itself.

Their nudity is reminiscent of the ignudi but there is nothing else in common; only Dawn, the most sensual of Michelangelo's nude female sculptures, could be described in terms of bodily beauty. The ignudi exist only within the energies of their bodies and their actions have little dramatic or psychological coherence. The Times of Day are sentient beings whose bodies are the outward manifestation of the state of their souls. They are, therefore, as disturbing as the ignudi but for different reasons.

The energies of time are the energies of pain. These are feeling, intelligent beings, capable of coherent action to a chosen purpose, but their acts are only those of pain and frustration. Night and Day have the magnificence of physical power that Michelangelo's figures so often have but now it is power locked within itself. The bodies turn against their own strength. Night's left leg is drawn up sharply, the right arm bent sharply against the leg, pulled forward and then back in the greatest discomfort. Her head is forced forward onto her chest. All is strain and frustrated energy. Day's left leg is lifted forward over his right leg but his right arm twists and circles in the other direction and his left arm is wrapped back paralyzingly. His wrathful head looks back over the twisted shoulder.

On the other side, Dawn takes no joy in the beauty and desirability of her powerful young body but wearily, painfully, drags herself awake almost like a dead body being dragged unwilling back to life. Twilight is a flabby old man, sinking down in resignation, all his former strength now spent and useless.

The erotic was present as a latent energy in the figures of the Sistine ceiling, part of their natural existence. It is present here in the Times of Day, but now as part of the drama of their earthly life.

Michelangelo had done a painting of Leda and the Swan for the Duke of Ferrara. It is now lost but several copies survive. The positions of Leda and Night are strikingly alike. The positions of the arms and the right leg are different but the head, torso and left leg are much alike (the torso of Night is turned more frontally). Leda's head bends forward to receive the kissing beak of the swan. Her thighs are spread to receive the bird's body to her own, much as in Yeat's poem:

How can those terrified vague fingers push

The feathered glory from her loosening thighs.

W. B. Yeats, Leda and the Swan.

Here there is no resistance to the onslaught of the bird, only relaxed acceptance, a quiet surrender to the god.

Re-use of a figural motif does not necessarily indicate repetition of content, but the association of position is too marked to pass by. Leda was the mother of the fateful Helen, stolen away in the night. Michelangelo's Night is the mature, exhausted woman; the owl of night stands watchfully at the entrance to her body.

There is no such direct allusion in the other figures, only states of living bodies caught in the passion of time. Day is all wrathful male power, however much frustrated. Dawn can be seen as the satiated young woman, awakening to the disillusioning day. Twilight is the deliquescent old man, sinking downward, spent and exhausted.

Again, it is not easy to say if any of this was conscious to Michelangelo or whether such images emerged from the depths of his imagination to stimulate the range of imaginative responses that accompany these figures. In their fumbling, all such responses are relevant so long as they are not identified as programmatic.

This is not simply Time as an abstraction. It is the deadly passage of human experience. Earlier Michelangelo could make such a figure as the David, whose strength is controlled and open, both powerful and directed. Now, strength is locked up within itself, frustrated, made futile.

Where is the beauty of the holy and glorious flesh that was so important for the understanding of the Sistine Ceiling? It is present but more subtly qualified than on the ceiling. On the ceiling, the vision of the transfigured body was qualified only by the corrupt will. In the Medici Chapel, the body is subject to the passage of time, which is history.

Now the rivers become intelligible, at least in principle. They are nearly always called "river gods" and, since Panofsky, often identified with the rivers of Hades. There is no evidence for this identification. Michelangelo referred to them only as "the rivers". There is no certainty but they surely were not "gods". Probably they represented (allegorically) actual rivers of Medici domains as the physical earth, the spatial setting of time.

The processes of time within the spaces of the earth are history, the realm of human experience. These, then, encircle the sarcophagi containing the bodies of the Captains. The lids of the sarcophagi have pulled apart and the representations of the Captains are seated in their niches above. They are above history, and beautiful. They have intelligence and will. What they don't do is act.

Much modern scholarship divides them as the active and the contemplative life (Panofsky 1962: 208). If Giuliano is the "active life", it is surely a most inactive activity. In a strange and disquieting contraposto, his left side is down and forward, his right side up and back, his head turned sharply to the side. His right hand limply holds the general's baton, his left hand just as limply holds coins. His neck is unnaturally long, his head youthfully beautiful, tilted down and to his left, with an empty, somewhat yearning, expression.

Lorenzo on the other side is, if anything, more positive in his action. His left side is closed off by the firmly planted leg and the arm bent, supporting the head, with the finger crooked over the mouth in the gesture of silence. His right side is open toward the Madonna, but the leg is limply crossed over the other at the ankle and the hand is turned with its back against his thigh, its strength denied.

They are looking toward the Madonna and Child. This group is, as Tolnay put it, the "spiritual focus" of the Chapel. It is the object of the gaze of the dukes and the literal attention of the living priest.




The Madonna and Child

This figure belongs in the whole extraordinary series of the Madonna and Child, with the differing modes of Michelangelo's constant meditation on that great theme. Always the subject is part of the salvational process. Here it functions specifically as the crucial point of the Resurrection.

Mary is lifted above and apart from the Captains by her involvement in the occasion for their attention. Humanly, she is as much involved in the paralyzing pain of time and history as they are. Rarely has Michelangelo's formal language so precisely served as the spiritual content. His basic formal principle uses strong external contours to enclose equally strong counter-acting forces within. Here, Michelangelo clearly established the defining edges of the original stone. The two figures fill it up tightly. The circumscribing contours of the figure are clear. Her left leg comes forward, crossed over the right, whereas her right shoulder is drawn up and back as she braces herself on her hand. Her left side counteracts this movement, with both the shoulder and the head coming down and forward, paralleling the movement of the right leg. These rhythmic movements set up a powerful interchange within the figure that is intelligible only as completed by the interaction with the child. Her face looks downward with the ineffable sadness that is part of the Florentine tradition of the Mother who has foreknowledge of the fate of her child.

She is often described as the nursing Madonna. This is not quite true, for the mouth of the child is inches higher than the breast and closer to the sternum. It is not an inappropriate designation; the effect is that of nursing. More to the point is his whole act. His body is powerful enough to grow into the mighty Christ of the Last Judgment. His is the only freely moving figure in the chapel as he turns in a powerful upward spiral, gripping the mother's legs with his thighs and fastening himself against her body, drawing his nourishment, not simply from her breast but from her whole being. Her right arm is sometimes described as dangling. It is not. She supports herself on her right hand, bracing her body against this consuming action, while gently, maternally, holding his shoulder with her left hand. She, from whose body this giant baby emerged, yields her body to him in maternal wholeness. The act of nursing alone would have been too simple for these figures. She is his daughter. He takes possession of her body as mother and as wife.

Those who think Michelangelo was indifferent to the experiences of women cannot have looked carefully at such works as this. It is powerfully sensual, carnal, not in the sense of the erotic, or even the sexual, except as maternity is of its nature sexual. It is not so simple as "The Incarnation" in a doctrinal sense, the Word made Flesh. It is a realization of a deeper meaning than the doctrinal. The enfleshed Word has not simply come down from heaven. It has come out from the living flesh of the woman. It is still flesh of her flesh, nourished on the life of her body.

Hers is the tragic pain of human existence, transfigured and fulfilled in the life that has gone out from her. She gently, lovingly, holds the powerful body that is spiraling upward, to go away from her.

The priest at the altar would look past the cross to see this group. Looking up, he would see the painting in the lunette above. What that painting would have been cannot be said with certainty. Probably, the two side lunettes would have represented the story of the brazen serpent in the wilderness, that traditional prefiguration of the redemptive crucifixion. The third, central, lunette would have had the painting of the Resurrection.

During this period Michelangelo made several drawings of the Resurrection. One or two may refer to the painting of the resurrection that had been proposed for the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. One shows the figure of Christ weightlessly floating up out of the tomb in an almost unprecedented interpretation. Plate shows the drawing most probably associated with the Medici Chapel, since it approximates the shape of the lunette. In this one, Christ is visibly bursting out of the tomb in a turning movement that carries him upward. It is the fitting conclusion to the powerful upward spiral of the Christ child below.

Thus the priest, officiating at the altar, would have looked across the room to the child, whose action carries the eye of the worshiper up to the ascending Christ in the lunette above.


The Chapel as Liturgy: The Action of the Whole

The action begins at the altar, in the act of the priest. This is a Christian funeral chapel that was meant not only for the glorification of the family but the perpetual saying of the Mass for the salvation and repose of the souls of those buried there. Since this service is the central meaning of the chapel, it is the beginning of the action and the point of origin for the experience of the spatial order.

In defining this spatial order, it is necessary to attend to the fusion of sculptural action with that space. The sculptures are not set into the Chapel like objects in a box. They are an inseparable part of the space. The action of the sculptures gives the fullest and most meaningful (and most moving) coherence to the space. In both his great Chapels, Michelangelo achieved a "gesamtkunstwerk", a total art work beyond anything Wagner was able to accomplish.

The priest standing at the altar looks straight across the room to the Madonna and Child opposite him. If he looks to either side, he sees Dawn or Night. The figures are, from this point of view, not straight on the sarcophagi but placed so their lower bodies are further forward, toward the altar. The gaze of the priest can follow up along their bodies, over to Dusk or Day, down and in toward the center. If he should let his gaze rise along the figures to the seated Captains he sees their closed sides, their attention carrying his attention over to the Madonna and Child.

All the complex movements of vision in the Chapel come to a focus, actual and spiritual, on the Child.

The child is the only freely moving figure in the chapel, the body with its holy and glorious flesh spiraling upward. The eye of the priest, following that great movement, would have risen to the lunette above and its painted Resurrection, the triumphant Christ leaping from his tomb, reaching upward. The eye, again rising as directed, moves upward. The window above has inclined sides, in line with the ribs of the dome. The eye moves up the window to the dome, up the dome to the lantern and its light leading out of the top, rising through the light to the Light that is above.

The Chapel is not merely dedicated to the Resurrection, nor does it simply illustrate the Resurrection. It is the re-enactment of the Resurrection in the body of the worshiper. The Church, the priest at the altar, is the necessary beginning point, the point of entry, but the act of the Church is not the redemptive act itself. That is reserved for the Child, the Incarnate Word and the Risen Christ above, death now overcome in the resurrection of the holy and glorious flesh. Death is transfigured into light.

The normal place for an altarpiece is on or immediately above and behind the altar. Michelangelo has here created something altogether new and original, a three dimensional altarpiece. It is not merely the setting for the liturgy, designed to facilitate the liturgy. It is part of the liturgy. It is itself sacramental in its working.

Here, again, everything focuses on the Christ, whose being and action are essential to the whole.

In this Chapel as in the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo completes and fulfilled the Florentine program initiated by Giotto. The Medici Chapel is an enactment of the Resurrection, a mystery in which the worshiper is caught up into the sacred event, a work that requires participation. Michelangelo has reversed Giotto's movement, but it is the same definition of the function of the work. By empathy, Giotto trains the worshiper to the dynamics of the action. Michelangelo here takes the worshipers from their rooting in this world into a vision of the next.

The direction of his composition also reverses the movement defined by Giotto's style. The conviction that motivates the earlier work in its full intentionality is that the sacred or the divine has entered the earthly experience and transformed it. The statics and the dynamics of the dramatic interaction then carry the movement out into the world of the worshiper. In the Medici Chapel, on the other hand, the movement starts with the officiating priest, goes through the sculptures, through the architecture, up and out, beyond. Nevertheless, the function of the art work is the same: not to be the occasion for devotional instruction but to integrate the physical processes of the worshiper into the sacral order and to reshape the imagination to the fullness of the liturgical act.

Florentine religious art is not merely the connecting link between the human and the divine; it is an active part of the operation. In linking and relating the human and the divine, the work was intended to transform the human situation. In a work by Giotto, the transformation is achieved by the empathetic involvement of the body in the sacred act. Michelangelo extended the limits of the transforming action; the faithful are drawn into the sacred reality that has been defined by the work.

There are profound theological-liturgical implications in this analysis. In traditional Catholic architecture, the altar is itself the link between heaven and earth. The movement is properly from the people, by their prayers and sacrifices, through the action of the priest with the altar, up.

Michelangelo has considerably modified this ordering, which now starts at the priest and the altar, goes through the earthly experience (the Dukes and the Times of Day), to the Madonna, through the person (the Child) and the work (the Resurrection) of Christ, to heaven.

Thus the Eucharist on the altar is not the culmination but the beginning of the liturgical action and of the redemptive process. It is the place of entry into the experience of the Christ, not the sole container of it. This is not a Protestant definition of the Eucharistic action, although the dogmatically orthodox found much in Michelangelo's work that was deeply disquieting. Without displacing the priestly role, it subordinate that role to the worshipers' decisive participation in the defining work of the Christ. This is not the isolated contemplation that began in some types of medieval piety, for the Christ is a part of a liturgical action that does not simply take place in an ornamented room but is inseparable from the architecture.

Thus an action that had been traditionally the role of the priest—the reenactment of the Resurrection—becomes the consequence of the architecture. Since it began in completeness at the point of the priestly office it is not to any degree a Protestant denigration of the priest in favor of the laity. Neither is it a traditional priestly ordering of the sacred acts. Priest and laity are involved with each other and with the action in a different mode.

In defining the role of the layman, it is necessary to remember that this is a Requiem Chapel, not intended for congregational worship. It is part of the record that, for unexplained reasons, Vasari successfully resisted Ammanati's desire to put benches in the chapel. The only laymen who rightly participate in the action are the dead men. Thus an action that traditionally is carried upward only through the action of the priest, here begins with the action of the priest, encompasses the life of people in the world of time, through the Christ to the heaven above.

The Chapel cannot be fully apprehended by a spectator but only by those who, in belief or in the willing suspension of disbelief, participate in the total movement of the work. By participation, the worshiper reenacts the Resurrection that goes from the painful fatalities of time and history through the Child who, through the body of the Mother, is part of time while transcending it, and finally through the represented Resurrection to the light above.


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