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?

5 thoughts on “Pointing to Jesus with Michelangelo

  1. I know that artists have a different perspective on these masterpieces, and study them in detail, but as a Christian, I hesitate to agree with your assertion that these iconic oil paintings “guide us to meditate on our salvation.” I can appreciate the techniques and symbolism of the paintings….and that is where I stop. They are entirely subjective and idealized representations with little reference to reality. To use them to spark meditation is idolatry.

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    1. I would have to disagree with you, John. I think meditation sparked by a God-given talent is exactly what the LORD wants us to do. In fact, God is an artist Himself. He is The Artist, The Creator, if you will. And He made us in his image, so that we can cultivate this earth and be creators as well. I think it is impossible to know Michelangelo’s purpose or meaning behind the painting, but if we use it to meditate our hearts on Christ, we are not being idolatrous, but praising Him for the beautifully creative world God has given us.
      Hillary made a beautiful point. No matter the intentionality or purpose behind a painting, if it helps align your heart to Jesus, that is all we could possibly want from a painting in our church.

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      1. Tallie, the reason God did not allow representations of Himself in wood or stone is because He knew that people would create gods of their own imagination and worship them. The Catholic Church, being the first cousin of Lutheranism, disobeyed this Old Testament sanction by not only encouraging iconic art, but increasing the reverence value of other objects, like relics, pieces of skin and bone removed from the corpses of designated and canonized Catholic saints. Do you really think that a painting of Our Lord Jesus on a mural or in framed artwork, showing Him with long flowing hair and wearing robes of finery and surrounded by chubby cherubim is a true reflection of reality? Our Lord likely dressed as most Jewish men of His time, with hair worn short, a small beard, and His robes usually were dusty and soiled from walking the paths and roads of Judea. We have a painting of Jesus on the wall of my church. He is wearing long hair, and it is windblown. It is straight out of central casting and trite. I can appreciate some church art, but not iconic reoresentations of Our Lord, which I think are irreverent, unrealistic, and uninspiring. That is my own opinion only. I know many of you disagree, and it is your right to do so.

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  2. John,
    Thanks for your honest desire for Christ to be displayed in artwork or otherwise in a way that reflects reality. I wonder if Michelangelo considered the same facts you have; that Jesus was a Jewish man, probably with short hair and dusty robes. I wonder if Michelangelo started again and again to sketch out the characters and the scene, each time only to crumple his attempts in frustration and cast them aside. Because in addition to a Jewish man, dirty and worn, the reality is that Jesus is ‘the blessed and only sovereign, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords’. That’s a pretty tall order to commemorate in a painting. How would you represent that reality?
    On my wall at home, the pictures of my family do not show the rumpled pajamas and tangled hair after a long night of tossing and turning with a stomach virus. They don’t show tears of frustration after a long homework session, or a tense disagreement.
    But the reality they do show is one that causes me to look with admiration and love upon them. I can only hope for the same for my Lord Jesus Christ.

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  3. Excuse me, Karl, but before ending my own thoughts on this issue, I must say that I do not suggest that it is acceptable to display the Lord’s image realistically any more than artistically rendered from our own imaginations. It is wrong to do either. It is still creating a graven image. God speaks in the Old Testament and commands that we are to create no image of “things in Heaven” and He meant explicitly no artwork depicting His image. Now you are free to ignore the Biblical scriptures which do not conform to our own desires, but He said what He said, and it cannot be denied. You and others have their opinions on this, and I have mine. We must simply agree to disagree.

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