Pointing to Jesus with Michelangelo

By Hillary Asbury

Michelangelo Buonnarotti’s “Holy Family” is also referred to as the “Doni Tondo” in reference to its round shape (“tondo”) and the family that commissioned it (the Doni family).

It is perhaps one of my very favorite oil paintings in history. It resides at the Uffizzi in Florence, Italy, and the first time I saw it in person, I was enchanted, though I couldn’t say why at the time. I remember being pulled in by the rich colors and smooth brush strokes first, and then being carried away by the sweeping composition.
When I began to really look at the painting, I realized how odd it was. Mary, Joseph, and the Christ child seem awkwardly tangled up together; it’s almost impossible to tell whether Jesus is falling into His mother’s arms or being hoisted into Joseph’s. Then there are the strange figures in the background, many of which seem to flaunt their gratuitous nudity.

I spent a long time staring at that painting but couldn’t quite figure it out.

Some years later, I began studying oils myself, my very first attempt being a study of a small section of the Doni Tondo (which was probably quite overambitious of me if I’m honest). I started to look into its context and symbolism and found that it is the only surviving panel painting which Michelangelo saw through to completion (he did not see himself as a painter and was also very, very prone to leaving pieces unfinished); he finished the commission right before trudging off to Rome to grudgingly start work on the Sistine Chapel.

The meaning behind the painting’s components is widely debated.

Some claim that the nude figures in the background symbolize Christ’s dethroning of paganism. Others say that they are repentant sinners hoping for the saving waters of Baptism (it seems Vasari believed Michelangelo included them simply to show off his skill). Some think the grass under the holy family symbolizes new life and salvation (or is grass sometimes just grass?).

The beauty of religious art is that these details are open to interpretation and can spark thought and meditation in the viewer.

The second time I encountered this painting in person was five years after that first meeting. I was studying at the Accademia di Belle Arti and living about half of my life in the museums of Florence. My classmates and I were touring an empty Uffizzi with a professor. When we reached the Doni Tondo, I spent as much time as I could with it before the risk of being left behind pulled me away.

This time I noticed something different, something more important and poignant.

As I stood there staring at a painting that had commanded my admiration and respect for years, I saw something I hadn’t seen before: Every other figure in the composition is somehow pointing to the Christ Child. Mary and Joseph are solely focused on the babe. The figures in the background seem to lean in his direction. And just to the right of the holy family, a young John the Baptist looks up to Jesus with the faintest hint of a smile, with hope for salvation, his small staff cutting a line that points directly at the face of the Savior.

And isn’t that just what we want from art in the church: work which will focus us on Christ, point to our hope, and guide us to meditate on our salvation?