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Michelangelo

A Lecture given
by Dr. Rudolf Steiner
Berlin, 8th January, 1914
Bn/GA 63

This is the 6th of 12 lectures given by Rudolf Steiner at Berlin, in the Autumn of 1913 through the Spring of 1914. The title of the series of lectures is: Spiritual Science as “Lebensgut”. It was published in German as: Geisteswissenschaft als Lebensgut. The lecture was transcribed from a typescript version, and the translator by E. Goddard. London reference Z-339. It is presented here with the kind permission of the Rudolf Steiner Nachlassverwaltung, Dornach, Switzerland. From Bn/GA nuber 63.

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M I C H E L A N G E L O

A lecture given by Dr. Rudolf Steiner
Berlin, 8th January, 1914

Translated by E. Goddard

This lecture is to deal with a subject taken from the study of culture and art, and my purpose is to show you how Spiritual Science aims to penetrate to the essence of historical evolution and of the human personalities which find themselves within it.

History nowadays has come to be regarded as a science among the sciences. Nevertheless a very notable book recently published disputes the claim of history to be called a science on the grounds that it is only the concatenation of single events and achievements which cannot recur, at least in that particular form, a second or third time. The author argues as follows: If we have a number of facts, say about a raindrop, we can deduce laws which the raindrop obeys — that is, we can make a scientific statement because other raindrops follow the same laws; and this we can also do in the world which does in some way repeat itself. Historical facts on the other hand are unique; we can recount them but we cannot base on them anything that could be truly called a science. — Now if we accept the ideas and concepts which are nowadays regarded as scientific, we shall have to admit that our author is right. But it is very different if we look at history in the light which Lessing in his day tried to do in his “Education of the Human Race”; as an evolution, an upward movement of the whole of humanity in which the effective influences passing from one epoch to another, are the souls of human beings. Sense and meaning come into human history as soon as we cease looking at it just as a series of events occurring in some sort of sequence and never repeating themselves, and begin to believe that the souls of human beings continue their existence in successive earth lives, and that what influenced them in one life is carried over into the spiritual world and there made fruitful in the period between death and a new birth until it appears in a new life: so that a real progress and development is possible in the succession of historical events. In this way we can see a meaning in the study of single epochs; their significance lies in the new experiences which souls were unable to have at the age in which they lived but which they can now experience and carry over once more into later epochs. In this way and thanks to Spiritual Science we can once again regard history as a science.

Perhaps one of the best ways to reach some notion of such an evolution of human history — not in abstract theory but appealing to the feelings — is to study the great epochs of art and the great artists. We shall never be convinced of the reality of man's repeated lives on earth by any abstract argument. But if we seriously observe life and try by every means to understand the secrets of our existence, we shall find ourselves becoming gradually more and more convinced of the fact of repeated earth lives, the more we study reality as a whole. I hope to contribute something towards such a study by trying to show you the place which Michelangelo holds in the spiritual life of the West.

If we look at this spiritual life of the West and indeed of the whole of humanity in the light of this conception of repeated earth lives we shall soon come to see a real significance in such an evolution of man, for each successive epoch differs from the earlier one and human souls have correspondingly different experiences. Unless we take a very shortsighted view of human history, we cannot accept the notion that the human soul has been more or less what it is today since first it rose above the animal. If we look a little more deeply into earlier periods of history and especially if with the help of Spiritual Science we look at pre-Christian times, we shall find that the whole basic tone and quality, the whole constitution of the human soul was different in those earlier periods and has changed considerably in the course of human history, that in fact the structure of the soul has been perpetually changing in the successive epochs of human history. We shall see this particularly significantly if we take an artist like Michelangelo in the Sixteenth Century and study him in relation to artists of earlier ages who worked within the same field. Obviously in such a study we should look at Michelangelo's achievement side by side with that of the Greeks. But as soon as we look beneath the surface we shall see the immense difference there is between the two. In order to recognize this it is necessary to go briefly into the particular way in which Greek sculpture affects us.

It is a pity that a lecture like this cannot be given with lantern slides or other visual aids, though fortunately you can easily get access to first-rate reproductions of the material necessary in any History of Art and see for yourselves in actual detail, what I am describing. When Herman Grimm set about writing his wonderful book on Michelangelo in the 1850's, he could not give any illustrations at all — though the second edition published forty years later was illustrated and thus reveals clearly the secrets of Michelangelo which even Grimm's descriptions in his “Life” could not give. Modern reproductions make it even more possible to reach some insight into the basic ideas and forms which are to be found in the development of art through the ages.

If we let Greek art and especially Greek sculpture work on us, we shall certainly feel that the best of it (much of which may be no longer accessible to us) in the forms in which it appeared, must have spoken to the Greeks like a message from another world. This creation of form was possible to the Greeks because something lived in their souls which did not come to them immediately through their physical senses. They bore within themselves an inner feeling-knowledge of the way in which the human organism is formed. The whole of a Greek's general education contributed to this but it was also important that the Greeks lived at a different epoch of humanity when the soul was more closely interwoven with man's whole organism; for instance, in the movement of the hand they felt the particular angle the hand made with the arm; or they could feel the particular muscle extended by their hand or foot. The Greeks could feel this sort of thing — they could feel and experience how the organic and the soul were related. They had an immediately-felt knowledge of their own organism so that the artist did not need to look at outer nature or external models in order to create his forms. An inner knowledge gave them the understanding of their muscular structure and anatomy, and their inter-relationship. They could permeate their whole organism with their mood of soul which flowered within them. Even what survives to us of Greek sculpture reveals that when the sculptor set his hand to a statue of Zeus, for instance, his soul was permeated with a sort of Zeus feeling. He then knew what inner tensions this feeling could resolve and thus, from within outwards, he could give to matter is appropriate form. He put his soul into matter. It is natural that at the present day we should have no feeling for the very different mode of experience of the Greeks. But, that mode being given, anyone who looks properly at the works of Greek sculpture will perceive that they give expression to what man experienced as the activity of his soul. Greek sculpture in general expresses what lies within the soul. We need not concern ourselves whether this Zeus or this Hera and the rest are gods: that makes artistic study a matter of storytelling. What does matter is the way in which the Greek sculptor worked upon his Zeus or Hera — withdrawn into his life of soul, as we ourselves feel withdrawn when we experience in the organic process of muscular tension the activity of the soul in our organism, and the soul is attuned to their experience. This withdrawing, and this having to go out in order to enter space, to manifest itself in space, is characteristic of the plastic art of Greece. This is a world that strives to reveal itself. This is true also of the larger sculptured groups, at least as late as the “Laocoon”; their purpose is to make us feel something of a world of soul. Around and about us is the rest of the human world, and indeed ourselves; and the work of art has some relation to us only when we direct our soul towards it. Yet this work of art does not belong to the same space, the same world, in which we normally move and hold converse; it remains alien to it.

Suppose now we pass from these Greek sculptures to the “Moses” of Michelangelo. We shall feel compelled to say that no sculptor has ever given expression to the powerful will of Moses as he did. The whole impression is of a leader of his people who fills his people with his own spiritual power and pours his own will over a whole people and remains their leader far beyond his own lifetime. So completely does this Moses diffuse the sense of human power that we are quite ready to accept in it something which is quite unrealistic. The statue as we all know has two horns; but it is by no means sufficient just to say that these are the symbols of Moses' power. If a lesser artist than Michelangelo were to do a sculpture of Moses and give it two horns like this and justify them as symbols of power, we should not admire them because we should not believe in them. Yet Michelangelo sets before us his Moses as representative of his age so completely penetrated with force of will that he can put upon him these extraordinary horns; and we are quite prepared to believe in them. What matters is not what is actually represented but rather that we should believe in all the details of what is represented, even if they are unrealistic.

Now let us turn from Moses to the statue of David; and let us look at him in relation to what we have seen to be true of Greek sculpture. He is shown at that moment when in his heart he becomes fully aware of what lies before him; he is shown grasping his sling at the very moment before he accomplishes his deed. Earlier artists like Donatello (1386–1466) and Verrocchio (1436–1488) who had done a statue of David, had shown him with Goliath's head beneath his feet. Michelangelo chooses the moment when the soul becomes aware of its task, and that moment is given external expression, and we might well believe that the artist had firmly seized hold of some special inner condition of soul. But as with the “Moses,” so with the “David” — that is by no means all, there is something else equally important. Moses might quite easily get up and proceed further: for he exists within our space, and the same space which gives us life gives it to him also. These two statues are removed beyond what is a mere element of soul; they are set within the actual world around us; we should not feel at all surprised if we saw David actually using his sling.

Here is the significant change between the old and the new, and from this point of view Michelangelo is the most significant artist. While the Greeks had created works of art which deny the outer world and produce their effect on our souls as from another world, Michelangelo sets his figures into the same world in which we live; they share our life within that world. With a slight exaggeration we might say that while the statues of the Greek gods breathe only the air of the gods, Michelangelo's breathe the same air as ourselves. This is not just a matter of realism or idealism as we use those clichés: rather we should recognize that Michelangelo is the most important artist who takes his figures away from the realm of the soul and sets them within this earth existence of ours so that they live as real beings among men. Once we have accepted the fact that in the spiritual development of humanity a special task was laid upon Michelangelo, we shall not be surprised to discover that in his earliest youth he displayed the faculties necessary for this task, faculties which he brought with him from the spiritual world. Our scientific geneticists would have difficulty explaining the facts: how he was descended from a family that belonged to citizens of noble extraction but which had fallen on evil days, a family which certainly did not possess any of the qualities needed for the specific task that was to be Michelangelo's. At first it was intended that he should go to school like the others, but he was perpetually drawing and drawing in such a remarkable way that no one could imagine where he got it from. Finally his father sent him to study with Ghirlandaio, but great artist as the latter was the boy could learn nothing from him. Michelangelo's drawing sprang from some self-evident quality of genius. Through having his attention attracted to Michelangelo's drawings Lorenzo de Medici took him into his house and there he spent the three years 1489 to 1492; he had been born in 1475. His first object of search that seemed to him especially important was the relatively insignificant relics of antiquity, of Greek sculpture. But — and this is the characteristic thing — he very soon combined all that he saw, and which made so deep an impression on him, with an energetic and intensive study of anatomy. In his soul he acquired an exact knowledge of the inner structure of the human body. In all his works we can see the effect of these anatomical studies and of the knowledge he had acquired. Before the soul could experience anything or have some particular mood, he found it necessary to know the position of the muscles. So we can see how two currents were flowing together in Michelangelo and were to produce something more than any contemporary talents could create: humanity had now moved forward to a new epoch, and what the Greeks had been able to experience within themselves, by the inner “life sense” which was still active within them, Michelangelo had to acquire through external senses by close observation of outer nature and her structure.

This sort of example can show us how the development of the human soul moves on, how what was impossible for the soul in one epoch becomes possible in another, and how the highest achievement is possible at different times with different means. While he was still quite young, in 1498, Michelangelo attained the wonderful Pieta which we see immediately on our right when we enter St. Peter's. This work still bears traces of the Italian tradition deriving from Cimabue and Giotto; it even has still a sort of Byzantine quality. Yet if we note carefully what he actually achieved in the Pieta, we can see how his exact and realistic study of the human body has influenced it. Thus he could create a sculpture which was the equal of the Greek because he had learned to observe externally.

Why had this become necessary? We can see this particularly well in the Pieta if we note how in the progressive development of humanity since the days of the Greeks something quite alien to them had entered in. The natural life sense which the Greeks possessed made it possible for them to reveal almost spontaneously how the human body actually appears in some particular mood. In between the time of the Greeks and the rise of Western Europe we have the world conception which reached its peak in Christianity but which originated in Judaism and still retained to some degree the old command, “Thou shalt not make any graven image of what is spiritual.” I don't know how many people have given much thought to the fact that between the age of the Greeks and the age of Michelangelo there came one in which it really was a fact that no image was to be made. The earliest Christians did not make any pictorial representation of Christ but employed only symbols — the fish symbol, the monogram of Christ. The same had been true of the Jews who had, of course, as one of their Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt not make any image of the Lord Thy God.” Yet when we enter the most important chapel of Christendom, the Sistine Chapel in Rome, we see the command disregarded by Michelangelo when, at the height of his creative powers, he painted the Father God on the ceiling of that chapel.

Michelangelo could achieve these new heights of church art only by disregarding that command. But between his time and that of the Greeks there had to be a period of preparation. And so we shall be able to realize that it is not just a false analogy when we say that successive epochs of humanity are like day and night, and that between the day periods there have to be nights during which human faculties pass into a sort of rest state, to appear again later in strengthened form. The achievements of Greek sculpture had to pass through a sort of formative period in sleep, during which even for that the command had to be heeded: “Thou shalt not make any graven image.” Then, however, there follows the day of wakening, in a new form, in Michelangelo. But whereas in nature things reappear in the same form and one day resembles another and the plant its earlier form, the progress of humanity shows this special characteristic that the souls, who carry over their fruits from one epoch to another, undergo at the same time some upward change and metamorphosis. But this rest period of the human faculties has first to occur in this and every other sphere.

Thus after this period during which sculpture rested, there appeared the Christian ideal: an inner quality of soul, a mood of greater inwardness. This is true, for instance of the Pieta in which the youthful mother holds on her lap her dead son; if we compare it with any Greek work of art, we shall see that it could have been created only in an age when the soul had become more inward. There is a marked difference between Michelangelo and the Greek sculptors; he stands at the beginning of the modern age, the age that is of materialism. Man's senses were beginning to be directed outwards so that they could pass through a period in which these senses could reach their highest and intensest development. But there must always be some counterbalance in human evolution. Thus we see in Michelangelo on the one hand an artist who poured his soul forth into the outer world that he might create his figures. On the other hand, that he should not merely create what the senses can see, he employed to the full everything he could assimilate from a period of evolution during which the soul had become more inward. This inner deepening he expressed by external means; he made himself sensitive to what was inward in outer nature. If we look at the dead body of the Christ we can see at once that this is a beautiful human body such as nature would wish to create — and Michelangelo could recreate that. But there is also something further, and indeed in a double aspect: first, the extraordinary peace in death that streams over this body; and second, if we look at the group as a whole — the countenance of the young mother who bears the adult body of her son Jesus Christ on her lap yet seems too young to be in any external sense that man's mother — we receive from the form of the hard stone the feeling that what lies before us in death is the warrant for the external life of the human soul. The deepest secrets and the greatest inwardness are expressed realistically through the natural means which Michelangelo had studied.

When Michelangelo returned from Rome to Florence we can see a remarkable drama unfolding itself. There was an old block of marble from which some earlier sculptor had unsuccessfully sought to hew some figure and which the Council of Florence handed over to Michelangelo to try and make something of. He happened at the moment to be working on his David, so he decided to use this particular block. Now if we follow this work as it proceeded, we shall be able to see how Michelangelo set about his task. His greatness consists largely in a period which was to depend wholly on sense observation, yet he carried over something from those earlier epochs, the life of which he could share, and could thus still have some immediate feeling of what Goethe called the spirit of outer nature.

Here I should like to refer to something which in general receives too little attention. If through Anthroposophy we make our souls once again sensitive to the weaving of imagination, we shall feel when we see a block of marble before us, that something specific should be made from it. It is not without significance that we find among the inhabitants of mountain districts all those stories about enchanted beings which their folk soul devises: when people see a block of stone before them, there is a plastic imagination which tells them that not much would be needed to convert it into an example of some quality of human or animal nature. Each type of stone calls for its own specific form, and each type has its own secrets which the artist must extract from it.

Michelangelo began work on the block and at first made it a sort of image of his thoughts. This was merely the first expression of his ideas, his feelings; as he looked at the stone he felt that thus the hand must lie and thus the foot, and thus everything else. He could, as it were, listen into the secrets hidden in the stone; that after all is what plastic art means. In the end we feel that the block was presented us with what lay hidden within it when everything had been removed that did not really belong to it. An artist of the quality of Michelangelo would never create in bronze or other materials what he did in stone.

For this purpose, however, Michelangelo, because he no longer had the life sense active within himself, had to fall back on what he could get from his anatomical studies. Thanks to his careful studies, and to the fact that he comprehended artistically what came to him from an earlier period, he stands at the opening of the modern age in the same relation to art and nature as science had led to in its own sphere. It is not just a coincidence that Galileo was born on the day that Michelangelo died. Here is a point of view that we should bear in mind, particularly when we are looking at his David.

This then is the characteristic quality of Michelangelo: that he has penetrated to the heart of nature as she showed herself in his times, from one point of view still closely akin to what had gone before but at the same time a growing point for what is to come. If he created Madonnas or some other Christian motif, the reason for this lay in the culture within which he lived — and that is perhaps truer of him than of most other artists. What he brought through his own soul into his times I have been trying to describe, and what we can see in other ways as well. The fundamental trait about Michelangelo's work is that he sets his creations within the same space in which we ourselves stand. Look at his Madonnas; in the earliest phase the child rests wholly on his mother's lap. But Michelangelo moves beyond that phase and puts himself quite realistically in the same space in which we ourselves live. Thus he releases the child from the repose and inner withdrawal; he cannot leave it as a bare expression; he must bring it into motion so that it may seem to live in our world. And if we look at the wonderful ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, on which he has represented so majestically the creation of the world, the Prophets and the Sibyls, and if we let all this produce its effect upon us, we shall find that what really interests us is not the thing actually expressed but the way in which Michelangelo has represented it. We shall feel, for instance, that the foreshortening of the legs, which brings to expression the very nerve of his art, as I have tried to describe it, interests us much more than the content, the story that is described and that could be expounded in various ways.

We need not be surprised then that Michelangelo sets himself the task, supported to begin with by the Pope, Julius II, to create something which would be directly associated with the life of his time, in a different way, however, from that in which Zeus or Hera or Apollo even in the form of the Apollo Belvedere were related to the Greek world. These, although they were the creation of the Greek world, belong to a space of their own and reveal that space. Michelangelo wanted to create a truly gigantic work but wanted also to pour into it the whole inner development, the basic character and fundamental nature of his times. Now to Michelangelo and many of his contemporaries, Pope Julius II, who loved to compare himself to St. Paul, seemed the mighty incorporation of his age; he was, and seemed to himself to be, the great master of his times. When a man holds such a place in his times, he has some special relation to the soul of others who affect them; and this whole stream of culture, the inmost essence of the times and all they signified, represented in one man, was to flow together and be made immortal in the gigantic monument of Pope Julius II. The monument was to include not only the Pope but Moses and St. Paul, and other figures that influence events and in the truest sense direct the times. The very stone was to carry to later ages the living message so that generations to come might look at this monument and see in it the direct picture on earth of the course and culture of the times of Michelangelo. A truly gigantic task; and we should not be surprised that the man who was bold enough to contemplate it aroused the awe of his contemporaries and was called by Pope Leo X “Il Terribile.”

Thus Michelangelo returned to Rome in 1505 to discuss with Julius II the plans for his tomb, and he soon began on the preliminaries of the work. But petty jealousies brought it to a standstill and the Pope transferred his interests from the tomb to St. Peter's, the architect of which, Bramante, is said to have goaded him on because he feared the artistic greatness of Michelangelo. So Michelangelo had the bitter experience of being forbidden the Pope's presence though the Pope had summoned him to Rome. In fact, he was actually driven out and had to flee from Rome, only returning under a special safe conduct from the Pope.

Back in Rome he had to set about his new task, the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; a task for which he had been commissioned as some compensation for the stopping of work on the tomb. Now though he had done a good deal of painting, he did not feel himself really to be a painter; nor did he regard himself as sufficiently prepared for his work. It was therefore with a sorrowing heart at having to give up work on the tomb, even if not with actual dislike, that he tackled the task which, as he said himself, was outside his own sphere but which kept him busy for the four years from 1508 to 1512.

Let us keep in mind what he has to tell us himself out of the depth of a sorrowing heart about this period of his life when he was at work on the ceiling — his head twisted backwards and his eyes distorted upwards to such an extent that months after the work was completed, he could read or study drawings only if he held the paper above his head. In addition, he did not receive the payments due to him and he lived in perpetual anxiety for his family in Florence whom he supported with every penny he could save. Under conditions like this he created one of the greatest works of art the world has seen, the noblest pattern that could be devised by the Christian world of the time. He sought to represent the whole story of man's evolution from the creation of the world to its highest point in the coming of Christ to earth and the Mystery of Golgotha. He successfully transferred from his sculpture to his painting the vital creative principle which informed his whole work. When we turn our gaze upwards to the ceiling, we really do feel as if God the Father were surging through the still chaotic space, and by His Word marvelously creating the world. But this space and this figure in all its details down to its flying hair, its glance and its gesture, all are part of the world in which we ourselves stand. We live together with this God the Father; we feel His creative Word surging through the world.

The way in which traditions from the past still echo in the work of Michelangelo can be seen particularly in his “Creation of Adam.” Michelangelo paints this with God the Father surging through space with hand outstretched, and with this hand touching that of the still-sleeping Adam. We can observe how sleep is gradually receding by the ray of light which passes from the index finger of God to that of Adam, who can be seen waking out of a sort of world existence into that of man. Within his cloudlike raiment which seems to be held aloft by the space-ordering powers, God the Father conceals the figure of a young woman just reaching maturity; she stands forth among the other Angel figures turning her curious glance to the just-waking Adam. According to the Bible Adam was first created and Eve created out of him but, for Michelangelo's Adam, Eve is brought forth from past ages by God the Father who conceals her in His raiment. Michelangelo can see more deeply than tradition could tell him into the secrets of creation; and what he saw is confirmed by the investigations of Spiritual Science into the male and female principles.

Let us now pass to the pictures of the Prophets and Sibyls, those beings who proclaim to man what is to come in the Christ-Impulse and the Mystery of Golgotha. Here again what matters is not the narrative element in the pictures but the purely artistic way in which Michelangelo has shaped these Jewish Prophets. All of them as they are seated there — one of them bending in deep thought over a book, another in meditation, a third perhaps in anger — point in the one direction which will only become clear to us if we turn our gaze towards the Sibyls. [See Rudolf Steiner: “Christ in the Spiritual World: The Search for the Holy Grail” and “The Four Sacrifices of Christ.”] These Sibyls are very peculiar figures and modern Christianity will have nothing to do with these heralds of the Mystery of Golgotha. What do they really signify?

In the Sixth Century B.C. philosophy came to birth, and unless we spin fantasies like Deussen we cannot really speak of the philosophy of any earlier times. Philosophy began in Ionia, and it was there that human thinking first tried to comprehend the world through its own powers. There we have the first instance of man reflecting about his own thought which led later to the immense developments in Plato and Aristotle. These Sibyls look like a sort of shadow of Aristotle, the man who raised thinking to the highest level of clarity. The first of them appear in Ionia: subconscious, dreamlike, mediumistic forces of the soul surge through them; they put into words, though often in confused form, what is given to them. Generally it is oracular sayings which they utter; often little more intelligible than we get from modern mediums. But there is something further in their utterances; they are pointers to the Christ Event and we have to take them just as seriously as we do, though from a different point of view, the utterances of the Jewish Prophets. How did the Sibyls come to make these utterances? The investigations of Spiritual Science show that the forces of the Sibyls come actually from the forces of the earth spirits which are directly related to the subconscious depths of the human soul. If we can feel what Goethe called the “spirits of bodies,” we shall be sensitive to the spirit surging in the wind, in the waters, in everything elemental. It was this spirit of bodies, spirit at its lowest level, the spirit nevertheless, which pointed the way to the Mystery of Golgotha, which possessed the Sibyls. The Prophets opposed this spirit. They sought to attain their purposes only by actual thinking by the conscious ego. They rejected everything that was subconscious or Sibyl-like, even if it foretold the highest things. Sibyls and Prophets stand over against each other like the North and South Poles — the Sibyls inspired by the spirit of earth, the Prophets by the cosmic spirit which lives not in the subconscious but in those experiences of the soul which are fully conscious. It was for this reason that the men who have written for us the story of Christ emphasized so strongly how He drove out the demons from those within whom the sibylline forces still worked: that is the after-effect of the Prophets whose aim it was to use their powers of reflection on everything that was higher than the sibylline. For this reason also, Christ Jesus was so insistent that these sibylline forces which showed themselves as demonic beings should be driven out.

Thus we have both the prophetic and the sibylline element proclaiming to us the Christ-impulse; that is the content, the theme of Michelangelo's work. How does he handle it? Let us take note of the Sibyls, and first the Persian. She holds a book immediately before her eyes so that she may foretell the future from what the book says; and she seems to be wholly possessed by lower elemental forces. In the case of the Erythrean Sibyl we can see from her countenance how forces live within her which are related to the spiritual evolution of humanity, but which concern the subconscious, not the fully conscious forces of the soul. A boy with a torch is lighting a lamp; every one of this Sibyl's movements expresses her elemental quality. The Delphic Sibyl stretches her hand towards a scroll; the wind sweeps through her and her raiment and hair flutter; she is directly bound up with the elemental forces of the earth which have gripped her soul so that she can utter her prophecies. In this way Michelangelo places the Sibyls within the realms of actual existence within which we live ourselves, and he expresses all this in external forms. If we then pass to the Cumaean Sybil with her opened lips and finally to the Libyan, we see in them, though transformed, what we must call the pagan proclamation of the Christ Impulse.

In the facial expression of the Prophets, in the movements and emotional turmoil of many of them, in the manner in which their eye reads as though it could never again leave the page — in all this we can see how they seize upon the truths which exist in eternity. We could not conceive of anything represented thus with artistic necessity that could use external forms so directly to express what was wanted as this juxtaposition of Prophets and Sibyls. We can read for ourselves, in these ceiling paintings, how the Christ-impulse was foretold. The whole of pre-Christian history is here put before our eyes — the ancestors of Mary, shown despite their number in majestic variation, and expressing always the character of the epoch through one of them.

How did Christ come into the world? And how did the world develop so that all human history until the coming of Christ could occur within it? The noblest answer that could be given in pictures is here on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Michelangelo hoped that after completing his task here he would be able to continue work on the Julius monument. But again nothing came of it for years and he was held up by the multifarious jobs to which in the meantime he had to apply himself. Of them we need not say anything here; but we should note the following — When developments at Rome prevented him from continuing with the monument, once again he was given a task of painting to do. He was to paint the two end walls of the Sistine Chapel. One he did complete, the Last Judgment. But what we can see there today in Rome is by no means what Michelangelo painted. Not only is the wall darkened by the smoke of the hundreds of candles used for the Mass, so that the original freshness of color has long since vanished, but even in his lifetime this mighty work was overpainted and spoiled by inferior artists who used the most appalling mixtures of paints and shading to clothe some of the too many figures which Michelangelo had painted naked. Yet in spite of all, we can see for ourselves how Michelangelo, the artist whose task it was to make the transition to the age of realism, created his figures within the same space in which we live. If we look at the portrait of “Christ as Judge of the World,” He will inevitably remind us much of Jupiter and Apollo. Herman Grimm, who copied this figure at close quarters, repeatedly stressed the likeness between this head and the Apollo Belvedere. We should remember that when Michelangelo came to Rome at the beginning of the sixteenth century the “Laocoon”, the “Hercules Torso” and other statues, had just been dug up (1506) and these survivals of antiquity made a deep impression on him, though he permeated everything that he did with what we can see to be his own creative principle. Thus it comes about that what men in general felt about the fate of the human soul in its earthly body, what they called the destiny of the Blessed and the Damned, can be seen in Michelangelo's painting growing out into space. If we look at it first through half-closed eyes we can see the cloud forms which appear as natural as those of real clouds. The Christ figure and the Angels with trumpets emerge quite naturally, so also do the souls of whom some are led into blessedness, others thrust down into hell. Michelangelo puts before us the deepest secrets of his work and reveals to us the hidden destiny of the human soul growing forth from what we ourselves know and what our senses show us.

Michelangelo was in actual fact deeply rooted in his own age. Those of you who can remember how I tried to represent Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael will have noticed how very differently I spoke of them. Unlike them, Michelangelo was rooted in what I have called the principle of his time.

He was nearly 90 when in 1564 he died. Every period of man's life can be creative; it depends only on what he can extract from it. His personality is closely related to what he has to give to the world. How different was Raphael who died in his middle thirties, just the age when the artist, more than other types, is doing work which will bear his own personal stamp. It is for this reason that we think of Raphael as a sort of revelation of super-sensible powers; there is nothing really personal that flows into his work. That is characteristic of him. Michelangelo is just the opposite; in every fiber of his work we see the color of his personality. Raphael wholly impersonal — Michelangelo wholly personal. If we try to judge by some set pattern as is so common with modern artists we shall never get the individual qualities of individual artists; we shall prefer one of them to the other, whereas both of them and Leonardo as well, have to be judged each by his own measure. Michelangelo's special quality is that in all his works, whether he worked in stone or in color, we find a peculiar artistic quality which was the expression of his time; hence the all-embracing character of his work which gives universal expression to what lives in him.

In order to make clear the way in which the spirit of Michelangelo developed I want to say a word about his work as builder and architect and to refer especially to what is his greatest achievement, that remarkable work of artistic mechanics, the Dome of St. Peter's at Rome, of which the present form is due really to him. He did not live to see it completed and died even before the drum was finished. But we possess sketches and drawings, and also the wooden model of the dome which was made with the greatest care and under his supervision from a clay model of his own construction. This dome was to express what in the end is the truly architectural problem of space; it was to enclose quite naturally the space within which a congregation of believers might meet. His feeling for space, his ability to transfer his artistic idea into the same world in which we live, helped him to think out in this wonderful way the architectural mechanics of space.

In Michelangelo we have a spirit who helped human evolution on its way because he had a maturity of soul which enabled him to imprint on the world of space and matter significant facts from the spiritual world. He stood wholly in the great current of his times yet his own inmost quality was not fully understood. A friend once wrote to him that even the Pope feared him; and yet in his soul there lived all the greatness of Christian impulses which flowed into his work. While he felt himself at one with the great Christian impulses he yet lived at the dawn of a later epoch — closely though it was still connected with earlier ages. The content of older Christian impulses still affected his soul and out of that he created something which in its form and artistic method was already part of the ties in which we ourselves live. Hence comes the mood of the poem which he wrote — probably during his last days as he looked back over his life — and which makes it clear what our relation is to him, and how we should allow his influence over us to work:

Now hath my life across a stormy sea
like a frail barque reached that wide port where all
are hidden, ere the final reckoning fall
of good and evil for eternity.

Now know I well how that fond phantasy,
which made my soul the worshipper and thrall
of earthly art, is vain; how criminal
is that which all men seek unwillingly.

Those amorous thoughts which were so lightly dressed
what are they when the double death is nigh?
The one I know for sure, the other dread.

Painting nor sculpture now can lull to rest
my soul that turns to His great Love on high
Whose arms to clasp us on the cross were spread.

(Translation by J. Addington Symonds)

Michelangelo was a great poet also, and the poems of his which survive show the same spirit which we have found in his sculpture and painting. The last three lines of this sonnet make it clear that he could never be at ease in the world, and that was fundamentally true of him all his life. He was a sort of hybrid, still part of the old but already living within the new. This is particularly evident in that work which he carried out at the instigation of one of the Popes: the tombs of Giuliani and Lorenzo dei Medici. It is not merely that the chief figures show us Michelangelo as we have come to know him — one of the Medici musing, the other vigorous of will, both at each moment ready to carry out what Michelangelo has set within them. There is something else very significant in this chapel: the four allegorical figures, arranged two and two: Day and Night, Dawn and Twilight. I have often gazed at them; in fact they are one of the things which by a sort of spiritual compulsion I always look at longest when I have had the privilege of being in Florence. These figures are not mere allegories without force and without vitality. Use every means that Spiritual Science gives you to look at them and think about them; then if we remember that what anthroposophy calls the ego and the astral body leave the physical and etheric bodies at night, and if we ask ourselves what qualities and gesture of the etheric body we should select to represent plastically the truth which Spiritual Science tells us — how, that is, we should picture the physical body of the sleeping human being if we really feel him to be what Spiritual Science describes him as being — we know that he should be represented in the form which Michelangelo has given to “Night”. It is not just a symbol of night but the true spiritual reality of man as he really is in sleep which we have before us in this female figure. Thus Michelangelo, who knew so well how to set the figures in his works within the same space in which we ourselves stand, was also well aware what it means if the soul and spirit leaves man's physical body but leave it with life still within it. If we also study the other individual members of the human being and then look at the other figures in the tomb, we shall see how closely they run parallel with what I once called spiritual chemistry.

Michelangelo stands at the beginning of the age whose task it was to trace out the inner qualities, especially those that exist within Christianity, if we understand it more inwardly and in the present age see how the human soul is to be found within the human ego as Anthroposophy teaches, in close relation with the soul which moves and surges through the world. We shall be very much moved if we picture Michelangelo shut way by himself in the Medici Chapel, working in the night alone till he was physically exhausted, yet with the strength that enabled him to carry out for many years afterwards all those other great works of his in Rome; and if we also realise that the forces were already active in him which we in our turn seek through spiritual science. That is why we feel him to be so closely akin to us - most closely perhaps if we sink ourselves as deeply as possible into these four realistic figures; for in them he showed how the spiritual in man is as much part of our life and being as he had done in earlier years with the figures of his Moses and David, or with the colour and form of his paintings in the Sistine Chapel.

Spiritual Science is always closely in harmony with the highest striving and hopes of those spirits among humanity who are themselves closest to true spiritual being and working. That is supremely the case with Michelangelo. If we start from this standpoint and try to get as close to his soul as we can, we shall feel that a soul like his cannot help feeling that it enters only once into earthly evolution and cannot carry the fruits of its life over into the future of human evolution. This transition-point had to be passed before the doctrine of reincarnation could be revived, a doctrine which men of today are ripe enough to accept if only they are willing. So let us look, once more at Michelangelo and observe him carefully, and see how although he bears clearly within himself the marks of the age in which we are living, yet he could not master the process of the world's evolution to which he had himself contributed so much.

Now hath my life across a stormy sea
like a frail barque reached that wide port where all
are hidden, ere the final reckoning fall
of good and evil for eternity.

Now know I well how that fond phantasy,
which made my soul the worshipper and thrall
of earthly art, is vain; how criminal
is that which all men seek unwillingly.

Those amorous thoughts which were so lightly dressed
what are they when the double death is nigh?
The one I know for sure, the other dread.

Painting nor sculpture now can lull to rest
my soul that turns to His great Love on high
Whose arms to clasp us on the cross were spread.

And yet we have the assurance which anthroposophy gives us: that nothing can really be destroyed which has been so significantly granted to the development of humanity as happened through Michelangelo, but that the fruits of what has been granted will continue active in further lives of so unique an individual as he was, and that the earth can never lose what has once been imprinted upon it. Even if the present age does not understand the doctrine of repeated earth lives any more than his contemporaries understood Michelangelo's paintings in the Sistine Chapel; even if it thinks the doctrine ridiculous or fantastic, it is just the greatest spirits that teach us most vividly how the meaning of life is to be found when we observe repeated earth lives and transfer into ever new ages what has been experienced in older epochs of mankind. And if Goethe once said that Nature had invented death in order that she might have so much life, spiritual science should add that not only was it to have life but to have it ever more richly and abundantly. This is the only thought we may find worthy to be set side by side with the thoughts which arise naturally in us when we gaze on the works of an artist like Michelangelo.




Last Modified: 29-Apr-2017
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