Issue One

From Mummies to Michelangelo: Transformation of the Body in Art

Laurel Dugan Download Article

Lev, Elizabeth and José Granados, DCJM, A Body for Glory: Theology of the Body in the Papal Collections: the Ancients, Michelangelo and John Paul II (Musei Vaticani Publications, 2017).

In A Body for Glory, Elizabeth Lev and Fr. José Granados explore how humans have created artwork that reveals their self-understanding throughout history, culminating in Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and The Last Judgment. The central question under discussion is, “How has the human body been understood and portrayed throughout history?” Through 86 pages of explanation and photo references, Lev and Granados demonstrate how Michelangelo’s depictions of the human form reveal the new and deeper understanding man has of his own humanity because of the Incarnation.

The book opens with the statement by Antonio Paolucci, former Director of the Vatican Museums, “There are more naked men and women in the Museums of the Pope than in any other large museum in the world.” It is here, in the home of the Catholic Church, that we are given a visual framework with which to understand ourselves—our bodies, our lives, our meaning. Michelangelo, among other great artists whose work is displayed in the Vatican Museums, created a visual definition of what it means to be human.

Lev and Granados guide the reader on a journey from Egypt, circa 1250 BC; to Rome in the 16th century, where we meet Michelangelo; to our present, with the words of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. It is worth noting here that the restoration of the Sistine Chapel took place during Pope John Paul II’s pontificate, including the removal of fig leaves added to some of the bodies for “modesty” in the centuries following the original work’s completion. The Polish pontiff is also famous for his groundbreaking Theology of the Body, which articulates a theological anthropology of the body that draws on Scripture and his own studies in Personalism. John Paul II’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI understood that in great works of art, we meet God. He articulated a theory of Beauty as a way to God that has been all-too-neglected in modern life. With examples from the papal collections, Lev and Granados demonstrate how Michelangelo synthesized the work that came before him, built on it, and transformed it with a Catholic understanding of the human person—which, most recently, has been so clearly encapsulated in the writings of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

We are all familiar with the image of an Egyptian mummy. Egyptians cared lovingly for the bodies of their dead. However, the body only had beauty and value for them as a house for the spirit. They could not reconcile the paradox that Lev and Granados describe:

The human body presents an enigma. It shows us our frailty, but through the meeting with love also speaks to us about something that is stronger than death. In Egyptian art, the tenderly-preserved body illustrates this question, but in the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo will propose an answer.

The Ancient Greeks discovered a logos in the human body. They expressed this through depictions of the body in movement, slavery to instinct, and idealized beauty. They understood the body to be the highest object of contemplation on earth. Art historian Kenneth Clark notes that the Greeks were so successful in their art because they saw the body as a whole. “Nothing that related to the whole man could be isolated or evaded. This view of the human person, as an integrated whole, allowed them to make art that avoided both sensualism and aestheticism.

In Greek sculpture, for instance, we find illustrations of this view of body and spirit as whole. The book gives several good examples, but it is on the Aphrodite of Knidos that I want to focus. The sculpture shows a moment frozen in time: Aphrodite realizes she may be watched at her bath, and she grabs her robe to cover herself—but the motion is incomplete. This depiction shows us the voluptuousness possible in stone. Aphrodite represents a carnal love that can be physically satisfied. However, if this desire for physical union is understood as an impulse toward the eternal, Aphrodite comes to personify the human desire for the divine, which perfects the human person. “In this work, we see a balancing of desire, a way of educating it, in such a way that one doesn’t only focus on sensual satisfaction but integrates it into the love for eternal beauty.”

These concepts crystallize in Michelangelo’s figures of Adam and Eve on the Sistine Chapel ceiling: in perfect complementarity, God’s love protects them from shame in their nakedness. In their bodies they saw the manifestation of the whole person, and “in their desire they experienced a call to communion through the gift of themselves to each other.”

Hellenist art carried the vestiges of Greek art. Its sculptures portray sinuous bodies engaged in their environments. Michelangelo found particular inspiration in Laocoön and His Sons and the Belvedere Torso. The sculptural group of Laocoön and His Sons is a powerful example of a strong, male body interacting with his environment. A first-century copy of a second-century BC sculpture—known to Renaissance artists by the writings of Pliny before it was unearthed in Rome in 1506 in Michelangelo’s presence—is largely responsible for Michelangelo’s interpretation of the human body: powerfully muscular, but not violent; gestural, and involved in the space it inhabits. Michelangelo based many figures in the Sistine Chapel on the body of Laocoön. He took Classical sculpture and re-presented it in paint in the Sistine Chapel, giving Classicism the fullness of human expression, in the physical place where it “acquires its full and most authentic light” (Pope Benedict XVI, Speech to the Directors and Employees of the Vatican Museums on the 23rd of November 2006). In the Belvedere Torso, Michelangelo found inspiration for bodies with great energy. According to Lev and Granados, only Michelangelo was capable of interpreting it in its full richness. Michelangelo used it as inspiration for the body of Jesus in The Last Judgment.

Lev and Granados compare the athletes represented in the mosaics at the Baths of Caracalla to the powerful bodies of the saints in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. While the athletes are strong, they are isolated; they do not use their bodies to open themselves to Love. This is contrasted with the saints, who have striven and suffered bodily for the “incorruptible crown” St. Paul speaks of in Corinthians.

Roman sculpture turns a sharp conceptual corner in the statue of Roman Emperor Claudius, from around 50 AD. We see a marked departure from the Greeks’ understanding of the body. Emperor Claudius was “deified,” and in being so, the body became an end in itself. The statue shows Claudius with the body of a perfect athlete (far from the truth). This idolization of the body is something that is familiar to us even today.

At the same time that Roman emperors were deifying their bodies, the news of the Incarnation spread. When the Word became Flesh, the invisible became visible for the first time, and the corporeal world took on new significance—as a reflection of Divine beauty. Further, the fact that God gave up his body in death and then took it back was entirely novel. This meant that the body was part of the divine plan for man’s ultimate destiny. Lev and Granados write:

The goal of the resurrection of the flesh makes art not a passing or fleeting work but one capable of grasping eternity. We can therefore see in the body not only a sheath for the soul, which in the end must be abandoned, but the home of eternity, the only space where it is possible to receive it.

Michelangelo wrote his Sonnet 56 while painting the Sistine ceiling:

Nor hath God deigned to show himself elsewhere
More clearly than in human forms sublime
Which, since they image Him, alone I love.
(Sonnet 56, 12‒14)

Along with what we know of Michelangelo’s strong Catholic faith, this sonnet gives us an idea of the starting point for his depictions. He took the great representations of the body that came before him and transformed them into energetic forms that commune with the people and world around them. He created a Jesus in The Last Judgment with “a body that was called upon to act, to work and transform the world, to communicate its energy to others in a creative way.” He created figures that depict the Christian perspective that the body “is the place where communion takes place, the space open to intimacy and participation.”

Lev and Granados achieve their goal of showing the culmination and Catholic transformation of art history in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings. One quibble with the book is their superlatives regarding Michelangelo’s work. Michelangelo is not the only artist to portray the human body in its fullness (think Caravaggio and Rodin), but he certainly did it superbly.

A Body for Glory is a quick read and approximately half of it consists of reproductions of the art being discussed. These are high quality and plentiful. For example, if you haven’t visited the Belvedere Torso lately, the book gives you a good photo reference. Lev and Granados also suggest that the book could be used as a guide when one visits the Vatican Museums.

A Body for Glory is a decadent treat for anyone interested in art. Its readability does not undercut its weightiness in depth or articulation, however. Lev and Granados convey profound truth and beauty in this enjoyable and brief work.

Laurel Dugan is a wife, mother of four, and an artist in Grand Rapids, MI. She invites one and all to view her work and to follow her on Instagram @laureldugan, for a look at family life through the lens of an artist. You can also see her work at laureldugan.com.