Michelangelo And His Struggles Of Faith

Michelangelo’s last sculpture is puzzling – two imprecise figures of Jesus and Mary melting into one, with a fragment of Jesus’s right arm detached from his body. It’s the Pietà Rondanini, the third and last pietà sculpted by the artist, very far from his first and meticulously detailed Vatican Pietà. Some attribute the change to his old age, which had weakened his arm and eyesight. Most critics see it as an expression of his spiritual search, which intensified with time.

His Early Life

            Born in 1475 in a small stone house on the Tuscan hills, Michelangelo moved to Florence as a child and eventually convinced his reluctant father to allow him to pursue an artistic career. In spite of promising beginnings first in the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio and then at the court of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Michelangelo was struggling to survive in 1497, when the commission for the first Pietà came his way. This astonishing work made him famous.

            His life runs parallel to the tumultuous events of the Protestant Reformation and is characterized by an equally turbulent search for God’s acceptance. Even if he remained within the Roman Catholic Church until the end, he is an interesting example of the pervasive effect of the Reformation in the lives of its contemporaries.

            In the Medici court, Michelangelo became powerfully influenced by the sermons of Friar Girolamo Savonarola, who fiercely censured the greed and corruption of both church and rulers. They were sermons the artist couldn’t get out of his mind even in his old age, in spite of his disagreements with the friar on the dangers of classical art.

             While his artistic career continued to soar (especially after the sculpture of the David in 1501 and the unveiling of his Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco in 1512), Michelangelo continued his spiritual search. His art moved away from an insistence on aesthetic perfection and became increasingly a mean of investigation and reflection on God.

Protestant Influences

            By the 1530’s, Martin Luther had made a break with Rome and his teachings were spreading all over Europe. Heinrich Bullinger was organizing churches in Switzerland while Henry VIII gained authority to become Supreme Head of the church in England. It was an unprecedented upheaval of the Western church and consequently of the European culture and society which were deeply tied to it. The repercussions reached Italy, both in the form of publications and of frequent discussions.

The people mostly involved in this discussions were known as “spirituali.” Apparently, Michelangelo became involved in a group of spirituali in Viterbo, a city between Florence and Rome, and was particularly close to the poetess Vittoria Colonna, with whom he shared many conversations, letters, and poems. He also created some drawings specifically for her, including a new pietà with the somber inscription, “There is no reckoning of how much blood it cost” (a quotation from the poet Dante)[1].

Michelangelo, who had until then written tormented poems about death, seems to have found comfort in the doctrine of justification through faith alone (or at least in the centrality of faith as gift of God) which transpires in both his and Colonna’s poems.

Extend to me, my Lord, that chain

to which every heavenly gift is tied,

namely faith, to which I keenly hold,

but, through my fault, I don’t fully possess.[2]


As Your breath left you, You prayed for us: “O Father,

let those who believe join me in my kingdom.”

And now my soul at rest knows no more fear.

Now by Your mercy I believe, and know

Your burning Passion which razed all my guilt

forever, as it consumed You on the cross.[3]

            Colonna died in 1547, only a few months before the doctrine of sola fide became officially heretical at the Council of Trent. Michelangelo was devastated by the loss. At the same time, he was grieving the departure of some dear friends who had been forced to leave Italy in the heated environment of the Roman Catholic response to the Reformation.

            The same year he started to work as architect of the renewed St. Peter’s Cathedral, a distressing job because of the opposition of his crew. Most Protestants today remember him for this massive work which was financed partially by the sale of indulgences. He was not, however, a passive follower of the Roman church. His last pictorial works (The Last Judgment, The Conversion of St. Paul and The Crucifixion of St. Peter) raised strong waves of criticism for his unconventional portraits of Jesus, Mary, and the saints. St. Peter’s angry eyes in the last painting must have been especially uncomfortable for the rich cardinals meeting in that very space.

            It was also after Colonna’s death that he began to sculpt a new pietà for his own grave. This sculpture, known as Florentine Pietà, included a composition of four people, all carved from the same block of marble (a daring feat, which he apparently didn’t master entirely, since one of the legs of Jesus eventually fell off).

            One of the figures is Nicodemus, which bears a striking resemblance to other portraits of the artist. Today, most critics consider it a self-portrait of Michelangelo, who apparently placed himself in many of his works of art (as both the distraught sinner and St. Bartholomew’s skin in the Last Judgment and as the blinded and trembling Apostle in the Conversion of Paul). Undoubtedly, in Nicodemus he portrayed his devotion to Christ. Did he understand Nicodemus as a man initially fearful to manifest his faith in Christ? Was he portraying his own weakness? We might never know.

            His poems are more transparent. Most of them are prayers to God (with echoes of Augustine’s Confessions, which he probably knew well). What he mourned mostly was his struggle with sin (“Fain would I wish what my heart cannot will”)[4] and the time wasted in futile pursuits, including his art (“What’s the use of making so many puppets, if they have brought me to the same end as the man who crossed the sea and drowned in snot?”[5]). At least intuitively, he understood that “sculpting divine things” was accompanied by “false conceptions” and “great peril” to his soul.[6]

            By the time he sculpted the Pietà Rondanini, Michelangelo had become the most famous and probably richest artist of his time. His mind, however, was focused on the end of his life, and this last sculpture was an illustration of this constant musing. The severed arm gives an idea of the proportions in the original sculpture, which Michelangelo kept reworking until the figures of Jesus and Mary became almost ethereal, giving the impression that it’s Jesus who really holds up Mary in this deposition from the cross.

            For Michelangelo, who view art as “a copy of the perfections of God and a recollection of His painting,”[7] this last sculpture was probably meant as a personal meditation on Christ’s death.

            He died on February 18, 1563, from a fever aggravated by a walk in the rain. Among his papers, someone found an unfinished prayer:

My dear Lord, you who alone clothe and strip

souls, and with your blood purify and heal

them of countless sins and human drives...[8]

[1] Alighieri, Dante, Divine Comedy, Paradise 29:91, my translation.

[2] Buonarroti, Michelangelo, Sonnet 289, my translation.

[3] Colonna, Vittoria, Rime, Napoli 1692, my translation.

[4] Buonarroti, Michelangelo, Sonnets, ed. John Addington Symonds, London, Smith, Elder, & Co., 1904, p. 84.

[5] Buonarroti, Michelangelo, Sonnet 267, my translation.

[6] Buonarroti, Michelangelo, Sonnet 282, in Saslow, James M., The Poetry of Michelangelo, an Annotated Translation, Yale University Press 1991, p. 473.

[7] Hollanda, F. de, “Dialogos Em Roma” (1538), in Conversations on Art with Michelangelo Buonarroti, ed. G.D. Foliero Metz (Heidelberg 1998), p. 77

[8] Ryan, Chris, The Poetry of Michelangelo: An Introduction, London, The Athlone Press, 1998, p. 217

Simonetta Carr