A review of Michelangelo and the Finger of God, by Paul Barolsky

Among the rewarding new turns in criticism is a movement towards a larger, more philosophical and asthetically sensitive engagement. Combining tact with taste, sense with sensibility, it bypasses the pitfalls of the deconstructionist mode, now happily defunct, which threw all meaning up for grabs. Equally important, it eschews the old platitudes. This means that it must also be new, taking what has been over-familiarized, such as the great monuments of Western art and literature, and bringing to them understanding perceptions that are startling and acceptable. Paul Barolsky's Michelangelo and the Finger of God exemplifies this new turn, and has the additional merits of being succinct, well-written, and highly readable. It is a work that breathes the air of critical liberation, and this not by ignoring professional art criticism but rather by having gone through it and transcended it. Always appreciative of details, and fully acquainted with the body of scholarship, Barolsky, who is Commonwealth Professor of the History of Art at the University of Virginia, doesn't clot his text with burdensome references or with displays of learning. He flatters the readers by appearing to recall to them things already known, or which should have been known; he writes as if we had all been there before, but now understanding in a new key. While the "easy seriousness" of the text may be attributable to the fact that its three parts were first delivered as lectures, it actually expresses a declared program that Barolsky first announced in the Art Bulletin (September 1996). There he told of advising his students that they should aspire to the great traditions of essayistic criticism, and have as models of style Vasari or Goëthe or Hazlitt, which if not equaling they can nevertheless emulate. He encouraged his students to "resist the easy 'truths' of current academic fashion" and reminded them "that they belong to a tradition…far broader and deeper than the professionalized study of art history suggests." His final paragraph related his own dream "of an art history that is learned, imaginative, theoretically sensible, well-wrought and thus worthy of the very art it celebrates."

This fervent call to a new and higher level of criticism is far removed from any sort of facileness. In fact, the task Barolsky undertakes in this slim volume is a massive one, that is, to account for Michelangelo's aesthetic and conceptual genius, to show the blending ground of biography, artistry, and theology in his imaginative consciousness. Barolsky does this by "focusing on a small corpus of images." But as with Dante, small keys open large doors; moreover Barolsky makes abundant use of Michelangelo's poetry (considered by some to be the greatest Italian poetry of the 16th century), his letters, the contemporary biographies by Ascanio Condivi and Giorgio Vasari, his relationship to Florentine neo- Platonism (and thus his relations with Lorenzo de Medici and the poet Angelo Poliziano), his intensive reading of Ovid, of Dante, and of course the Hebrew and Christian Bibles.

The volume's title essay, "The Finger of God" (discussing the central narrative of the Sistine ceiling, "The Creation of Adam"), is flanked by two studies, the first concerning the Captives, the rough-hewn and apparently unfinished figures intended to commemorate, on his tomb, the military "triumphs" of the warriorpope, Julius II. The project being abandoned, the figures now stand in the Accademia dell'arte in Florence, guarding along the way Michelangelo's own triumphant David. The concluding chapter, "The Gravity of Art," concentrates on the first great narrative of the Sistene vault, "The Separation of Light from Darkness."

The style might be winsome and the volume slender but the subject matter is enormous. Michelangelo had his work cut out for him in several ways. He labored under the superintending commission of the domineering Julius; and the sidewalls of the Chapel were already devoted to murals depicting, on the one hand, the Mosaic tradition (sub lege, under the Law), and, on the other, the Christian tradition (sub gratia)—thus celebrating the syncretism of the vast system made available to artists by Christian theological speculation. Michelangelo's assignment was the world ante legem, thus bringing him in touch with the origins of creativity in the Creation itself. His figures are larger than life because through them he was not only depicting universal history but sacred history in a sacred place. Despite his many constraints, not the least of which was being pinched on his narrow scaffolding, the first viewers were in Vasari's words trasecolato e mutole, transported beyond themselves and struck dumb with awe. The impact of this virtuoso performance "was huge and immediate, virtually changing the course of art history." Michelangelo's extraordinary stylistic evolution and awesome creative power were "a force beyond anything he or his rivals had ever previously generated" (here I quote from what should be regarded as a companion study, graciously acknowledged by Barolsky, Loren W. Partridge's Michelangelo: The Sistine Chapel Ceiling, where each of the many compartments is individually and systematically described).

The Sistine Chapel ceiling had become the most massive representation of Christian art ever accomplished, rivaled—consciously so in Michelangelo's mind—only by Dante's Commedia. And like the poem, it has not been understudied. The problem each presents is how to write something about them that is new without being bizarre. Barolsky proceeds in several ways. The first, most pertinent for the title essay, "The Finger of God," is to notice several anomalies, that is, to bring to the front critical features that have gone largely unnoticed. The second is to concentrate on the personal myths of Michelangelo's own consciousness, as in the first essay, his sense of being legato, like the captives themselves not only bound in stone, but bound to stone, embedded in his metier as well as in his material, struggling like them to emerge. The third essay continues the same artistic psychodynamic, Michelangelo's own sense of weight, of the weightiness of things, of being weighed down, finally ending with a sense of his own sinfulness. In this struggle to emerge from the weight of stone, of things, of sin, we can readily understand the impact on him of the reigning neo-Platonism, which he encountered when he resided with the Medici from 1490 until 1492. Nor should we forget that as an old man Michelangelo continued to hear the fiery voice of Savonarola in his mind.

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Supported by his deep, detailed knowledge of preceding ways of presentation, Barolsky gives us new "sightings," ways that Michelangelo with his genius breaks or alters pictorial tradition. First, in "The Creation of Adam," "the image of God in flight…which we readily take for granted, is a radical invention within the history of Western art." This went against the traditions of Roman or Tuscan art where God is shown standing on the ground or in other postures. The new imagining attests to God's grandeur and power. But there is more: borne on the wind, his garments billowing, God is also divinespirit, which Barolsky, now citing theological sources, locates in the outstretched finger. Moreover, the overwhelming physical presence of God is "twinned" in Adam, thus emphasizing his creation in the image and likeness of God. But here we come to a great difference and are immediately struck by an indisputable fact. Despite their physical similarities there exists a great gulf between God's energetic presence and Adam's lassitude. Despite his admirable physique, Adam has yet to be imbued with the Spirit. The creation of Adam is thus incomplete theologically; it will have to await the coming of the second Adam, Jesus. In an amazing paragraph, dense with insight and lore, Barolsky explains the fuller meaning of the narrative: "When we ponder Michelangelo's image, we see that his fresco is one of the most extraordinary and imaginative renderings of the Trinity in the entire history of art: God the Father as Creator Spiritus is the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit that is also mysteriously one with the spiritual body of the second Adam, Jesus." Barolsksy's reading of "The Creation of Adam" as an allegory of the Trinity is powerfully persuasive.

The first essay, "The Metamorphoses of Marble," takes us into the play of stone and stoniness in Michelangelo's imagination. Not only is it his medium and the material in which he is embedded. But he himself is one of the Captives, bound in by the scorza, the crust of his own skin, like the bark of a tree. He was born near the place where Francis received the stigmata—what Dante called il crudo sasso. He was raised in Settignano, the place of quarries and stone-cutters. He spent months searching the quarries of Carrara for suitable marble, and endured even greater difficulties in arranging for their transport. He makes his life and seeks his livelihood out of the recalcitrance of stone, that which sinks to the bottom, silent and sullen, posing the ultimate resistance to the powers of creation. His task is to liberate his conception from the intractable. Thus the very medium suggests an aesthetic of incompleteness, and the only partially emergent Captives represent this new aesthetic of the non finito, not only as the imperfection that befalls all artistic conception but as a means for understanding his art. The non finito becomes one of the bases of his aesthetic—almost literally so, as we observe the presence of rough, unfinished stones in so many of his productions. And yet by an act of reflexive self-consciousness, a Joycean ricorso, he attains a kind of completeness by incorporating into his art a reminder of that which is always unfinished, if not imperfect.

The third of the essays, utilizing the same method, goes through poems, letters, early biographies, and finally Michelangelo's own works to show the remarkable presence of weight, of weightiness in his imagination. It is almost as if in painting the Sistine ceiling, he had the weight of the world upon his shoulders—as in a certain sense he did, so cramped and bent were his working conditions. But his real burdens were the two antithetical senses of the word gravity—the gravitas of God and the gravezza of his own mortal sinfulness. While in all the ceiling's other Genesis narratives the Godhead is sustained by putti, only in "The Separation of Light from Darkness" is he himself—self-sustaining. This brings us to an interesting reversal that Barolsky points out: the first and the grandest of the depictions of the Deity is the last that the visitor encounters. That is, the sequence is counter-chronological, beginning with the damage wrought by the sinfulness of Noah's generation and proceeding to the first act of creation. Many are tempted to read into this progression Michelangelo's own personal pilgrimage, from the burden of stones and weight to the transforming achievements of his great artistry. In a comparison Barolsky is not the first to make, "As an image of divine splendor, [The Separation of Light from Darkness], directly above the altar, is the climax of Michelangelo's Divine Comedy."

This is only a limited discussion of the many insights gained from Barolsky's inspired readings, not the least of which is to return the artist as agent, and his own autobiography as aesthetic presence, to his greatest accomplishments, thus forging yet another comparison between Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling and Dante's great poem.