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Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Influence of "Laocoon"on Michelanglo's Frescoes in the Sistine Chapel

Michelangelo's first known work after 1506 are the frescoes he produced for the Sistine Chapel, commissioned by Pope Julius the Second. After disagreements with the Pope on the form the work was to take Michelangelo was allowed to create his own designs and work began in 1508. The frescoes were completed four years later in 1512.
If we can make the comparison, Michelangelo and the "Laocoon" sculptors must share a similar approach to their work. Both have a cultural/literary narrative source and must first imaginatively visualise from it. This implies choices about which parts of the narrative to represent and why those particular choices and in what manner.
In the main panels at the apex of the ceiling Michelangelo, where formerly he seemed to avoid dramatic high points, now chooses those most dramatic incidents of the biblical Genesis. The division of light from dark, the division of water from earth, the creation of the Sun and Moon, the creation of Adam and Eve. However he omits the story of Cain and Abel and goes to the story of Noah and the Flood.Michelangelo finishes at Chapter 9: verse 23 the "Drunkenness of Noah". The design reverses the biblical sequence of "the Great Flood" and "Noah's Offering". This decision perhaps also indicates Michelangelo's desire,like the "Laocoon" sculptors, to treat the narrative in the most dramatic manner possible presenting the most dramatic and significant parts of the narrative in the most dramatic settings.
Michelangelo's choice of narratives could also be said to represent his interest in the nude but here his interests and the narrative can be neatly "married" since the nude can be introduced as an integral part of the narrative without losing the dramatic force of the narrative. The nudes and figures also share a similar conception of proportion to the "Laocoon" figures.
If it could be said that Michelangelo uses the "visual form" of "Laocoon" to portray man in in a drama of divine intervention he uses it in a way the "Laocoon" sculptors could not. "The Creation of Man" for example ignores the biblical description and introduces gestures and figures that suggest Michelangelo's interpretation of the spiritual and historical (to Christians) significance of the event. The right hand of God touches Adam, his left hand touches a figure that appears to be the infant form of Jesus, linking past and future events. It could be said that aspects of the "Laocoon" unacceptable to the christian artist, polytheism and mankind "unredeemed" form the philosophical antithesis of the Chapel frescoes while its "formal language" (the high drama, the use of exaggerated proportion) become its thesis. This definition could help to interpret the iconography of a work that presents a spiritually christian drama in "historical form". For the christian artist the biblical act of creation precedes all earthly events and therefore the civilizations of antiquity. God creates all men and, after destroying mankind in the Great Flood, all men, though not yet "redeemed" share God's covenant through Noah.
This "history" is continued in the bronze medallions at the side of the main panels. The main panels are surrounded by "Ignudi" some of whom hold what appear to be tasselled cloths others the bronze medallions. The "Ignudi" are possibly used emblematically as "Antique Form" that "reveal" the christian drama. Below the main panels biblical prophets alternate with sibyls from antiquity an at this point the "history moves forward pointing toward the birth of Christ. Below the seers and prophets the spandrels show boys who will be future kings of Israel. Below them the lunettes show the ancestors of Jesus.
In conclusion perhaps a comparison could be made between two variations of a subject Michelangelo treated before and after 1506. The "David" of the Sistine Chapel,"David Killing Goliath" shows the narrative source dramatically treated. The figure of David is clothed,his comparison to Goliath, small and undistinguished. In contrast to Michelangelo's earlier David all overt references to Greek models disappear, the Sistine Chapel David is now an actor in a larger drama of divine intervention in the affairs of men.

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