Michelangelo on Beauty

Michelangelo, like the other artists of the Renaissance and High Renaissance, had a vision of what constituted beauty.  He tells us he could gaze at a block of stone and see the figure existing inside.  All he needed to do was to carve to the skin and then stop.  He passionately carved the human figure within his construct of beauty.  How would you interpret the following journal entry by Michelangelo within the context of his effort to free the figure from the confines of marble.

“What spirit is so empty and blind, that it cannot recognize the fact that foot is more noble than the shoe, and skin more beautiful than the garment with which it is clothed?”

Published by: roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.

25 Comments

25 thoughts on “Michelangelo on Beauty”

  1. Humanists grasped the fundamental ideals of the ancient Greeks, with their focus on the perfection of the human element, including intellectualism as well as the beauty of human form. The graceful statues that Michelangelo created out of marble were the image of his intellectual idealism coming out in his work. His vision of the perfected human figure created in stone; he could literally envision what he was making bringing it to life with a hammer and chisel. I feel we all, as humans, have the ability to have a vision and make something happen. This is what creates our world, the environment we live in. When we leave our life to chance, is when our destiny is left in the hands of others. If Michelangelo never acted upon his vision for the slabs of marble that stood before him, we would not have ever been able to delve into inspirations of the great artists and thinkers from our past. The fruition of the expression of a vision is truly priceless.

  2. Although the definition of beauty has changed, inner beauty will always remain the most important. Artists of the renaissance were focused on “outer beauty” and perfection, I feel as though Michelangelo saw the inner beauty just as well. He saw that a piece of stone could be transformed into art and knew that something beautiful lay inside, he just needed to chisel away the outer pieces. I feel as though it is a good analogy of how human communication/relationship is today. We are first introduced to someone (outer layer of stone), begin to get to know them better (progressing deeper into the center), to finally seeing their strengths and personality (seeing the figure). Sure it might not be the most in depth reason, but I think it’s interesting that artists of the Renaissance and people of today have this in common.

  3. This statement is the epitome of the humanism movement. He likens blindness to an external thinker; those focused on the product of intellect. Some say ‘clothes make a man.’ The man who said that would have most likely been slapped in the face by Michelangelo’s chisel. Michelangelo is saying that we are the embodiment of possibility. He believed this so much that he could envision the human spirit trapped in a block of marble.

  4. I agree with the previous comment by Briana Ingram that this statement is about inner beauty and how people should embrace and appreciate it for what it really is: beautiful. From the past, the artworks have shown humans to be deplorable creatures, but Michaelangelo has created these beautiful figures showing human beauty at its fullest potential. Although he wasn’t a social being, I’m sure he still wanted his art to appeal and create awe in the viewers, but if they’re not willing to accept the beliefs of humanism, they will not be able to appreciate the masterpieces that he has created.

    I also think this could be read as a religious statement – why cover up God’s beauty? He has created all of us this way and we should not be shameful of what He has given us.

  5. I think that the previous comments referencing the importance of inner beauty to Michelangelo are interesting, however I interpreted the journal entry differently. Humanism brought about an extreme interest in the human figure and Michelangelo’s attention was captured by the beauty of the human form. He constantly saw figures trapped inside stone, and wished to free them from their confinement. Humanism also exaggerated the importance of embracing what was natural, which was why nude figures played such a prominent role in the work of humanists like Michelangelo.
    He saw no shame in the unclothed body- for him, this was the purest and most beautiful form that the human body can take. This journal entry emphasized this point. He saw no need for clothing in his work, clothing only distracted and took away from his sculptures. Just as a block of stone covered and trapped his figures, clothing was also a way to confine. He worked to free his figures from everything that in his mind imprisoned them.

  6. Even though clothing is created by Man’s craftiness, it in no way compares to the beauty of the human figure, which in Michelangelo’s mind is the epitome of beauty. In fact, you could even take from this quote that to cover up the human body would be offensive to him. The social construct of the idea that the naked body is gross and primitive is wrong, and his belief of that goes along with the rediscovery of ancient arts and literature and the rise of humanism that contrasts with the repressed ideology of the dark ages. Michelangelo implies that the type of clothes one wears and other superficial factors are not what makes someone beautiful – but the fact that they are human.

  7. I agree with both Xiaojia and Molly with many aspects of their responses above. First, I think it is a very interesting point that Xiaoja brought up the idea that Michelangelo’s quote could be read as a religious statement. Humans were created in the nude form and therefore should not be ashamed to hide behind drapery or clothes. Michelangelo’s belief of the human body’s true beauty of being unclothed would make sense when relating religion to his quote… “skin more beautiful than the garment with which it is clothed.”
    Furthermore, Molly makes a great point with the relation between the block of marble trapping the figure within and how the clothing of a figure keeping the statue confined. I like how she concluded her thought with Michelangelo’s goal of freeing his art in all forms of imprisonment, whether it is marble or drapery.

  8. Michelangelo’s comment about the human foot and skin being more beautiful that a shoe or garment is undeniable as it applies to his own day. However, and in no way to contradict or denigrate him, I want to use his commentary as a springboard to better understand art as I see it presently, and also to compare art of his day to art of the present. Michelangelo declares there clearly exists, for his times, a hierarchy of subject matter in art; but as far as I can tell, any such sort of hierarchy has vanished entirely for art of the modern age.

    Michelangelo Complete Works published by the well-known art book company Taschen is a beautiful, massive armful, 11 x 19 inches, and almost 3 inches thick; it contains hundreds of images of the human figure. Most are nude, though some are clothed to a degree; a few, such as Moses, St. Paul, and the Madonna and God, are uniformly fully covered. Only nine individual feet are shoed: seven in sandals, and a pair in boots. (The Madonna is consistently sandaled, a Saint Proculus wears the boots, and Jesus and God shoeless.) Most evidently, for Michelangelo, no more exalted subjects exist than the naked human body and the unshod foot. His assertion that the “foot is more noble than the shoe, [and the] skin more beautiful than the garment with which it is clothed” is sensible enough, given the particular artistic esthetics and general level of cultural advancement of the High Renaissance. Leonardo, Raphael and their fellow artists agree entirely, and they produce consistently similar work for a hundred years.

    However, art today is quite different than that of the Renaissance. In the centuries since, art has expanded to include every possible subject as potential focus for the artist. Leafing through today’s art book or journal, I always prepare myself to be astonished, jolted a bit even. Some image will appear that I would never have considered as an appropriate art subject. It might be an odd pattern, or text, or nondescript lines and undecipherable imagery. Absolutely any manner of invention and creativity is game, however irreverent, offensive, ugly, or repugnant. Today’s art world seems a confusing, unrestrained riot of disparate ideas and subject matter. Any object or idea seems acceptable for full artistic exploration, and no subject inferior to any other, however much one might object. Yet, somehow, largely, it appears to work and has its appeal.

    We still value the bare foot and bare skin, but no longer hold them above a sock or a shoe. Occasionally, to express an idea, a bare foot or a nude is required, but just as often it might be a smiling Mickey Mouse (as I saw recently in Juxtapoz) extending his middle finger at us.

  9. -My interpretation of the journal entry is that Michelangelo is questioning people who can not understand or see the beauty of the human body. Some people can’t can’t see the human body as beautiful in its own right. It is worse in the world we live in today people cover up their bodies with piercings, tattoos, hair color, brandings, nail polish, and other accouterments along with clothing. Not that I am against any of these things I just think that Michelangelo would have disagreed with the way we adorn the human body these days. His ability to see the figure in the marble and free the form from the trappings of clothing and confinements was so that we can see beauty in the simplicity of the human body. He is expressing that the human body is more beautiful than anything we could cover it up with.

  10. Michelangelo definitely saw art differently than artists of his time. To have the ability to see an object within a block of stone is not a skill that every person attains. Michelangelo obtained a deep sense of humanistic beauty and appreciation to envision the body, the gesture, and its sense of movement just by looking at a block of marble. Not to mention the enormous amounts of intelligence about the human body. As many would know the body is one of the hardest things to draw. Proportions are highly important to acquire a realistic figure, extreme details of the hair, skin, and expression are incredulously hard to replicate. Michelangelo did this not only on paper but in stone. How can one not truly appreciate the talent that this requires?

  11. Michelangelo’s definition of beauty was certainly on the human level and scale. His ability to see a human figure in all of its detail and splendor inside a solid piece of marble is an ability to be envied and appreciated. His only limitations consisted of what society and his patrons would tolerate. Michelangelo’s skill was such that he could make society more open and accepting of the humanist values that would define the Renaissance. Michelangelo did not just seek to free figures from marble, but to free figures from societies limits on decency and acceptability.

  12. What I gather from Michelangelo’s journal is that he sees true beauty and nobility in the human form itself, not in ostentatious garb or decoration. In this way, he follows in the footsteps of the Greeks and Romans before him, who were known for the fascination with the nude human form, and finding great beauty within it. I’m certain that this passion of his is what let Michelangelo carve such amazing sculptures; finding that figure within the stone block and carving it down until it was the raw, human figure he so admired. He felt that many of the people around him, shameful of their human form or obsessed with gaudy displays of wealth and station, were blind fools, unable to see the true inner beauty that exists within all humans, and that there was no shame to be had in that form at all.

  13. I agree that this is about inner and outer beauty. Michelangelo is representing inner beauty by using the unclothed human form. Even though the outside of a figure can still be considered as outer beauty, through the technique of carving, Michelangelo is revealing something that he believes to have existed inside the stone. He unveiled an essence that was waiting to shown to the world. By having the figure unclothed, he is trying to get to the core at what makes a human human. Covering the figure with clothes detracts from the elegance of the tendons and muscles as they move under the skin. Michelangelo is attempting to reveal that the human body is nothing to be ashamed of, it is in fact a beautiful piece of natural engineering.

  14. Michelangelo’s love for the human body and being is evident in his meticulous artwork. His journal entry shows us how much he appreciated the beauty of humanity and how willing he was to explore it. He was willing to strip away the materialistic objects that get in the way of truly observing and getting to know the human body, as he was willing to strip away the marble to bring out the human body. Michelangelo was all about the exposure of true nature and beauty and through his works, we can see that.

  15. Michelangelo had a love for the human figure, a respect for its beauty and a gift for seeing that beauty within. You can see that in the meticulous work he put into creating is art. You can see his knowledge of the human body in his work. The way the muscles, postures and facial expressions are captured in such works like La Pietà. You can feel Mary holding the weight of Christ, you can see her hand digging into Christs ribs, her look of sorrow not anger but a sense of hopelessness.
    Michelangelo claimed he could see the figure trapped within the stone, that all he needed to do was set it free, release it from its stone prison. I’ve imagined what it would be like to be able to see the world through his eyes, to be able to see these beautiful figures trapped within stone, and wanting to set them free but being kept busy doing other things. I can relate this to an itch, imagine having an itch and all you want is relief but people are keeping you from ‘itching’ it, how dreadful that would that be. I also wondered if his gift was not only limited to stone but if he could see the beauty or ugliness in people as well. Maybe this had something to do with his personality and why he chose to live the way he did.

  16. Michelangelo could see the form in the marble. I interpret his journal entry as a guideline because at this very moment there is an artist not being recognized and in frustration the artist is thinking, ‘are they so empty and blind”.

  17. The way Michelangelo describes how he can see the figure in the stone before he begins is something i believe and artist with great skill has to possess. Michelangelo had this skill mastered with his beautiful masterpieces. You can even tell in his unfinished work that you can see the figures emerge out of the block.

  18. I also think Michelangelo was talking about the peoples blindness to the True Beauty of the human form and all that it encompases within. Michelangelo seemed to be in love with the human form, he studied it, he drew it and he even created/freed it with his magnificant human sculptures and paintings.

  19. “The True Constitution of Beauty”

    It is my firm belief that the artist is only part human. As absurd as this may sound, there is evidence of this through out history. The artist’s ability to see beyond the physical limitations of a canvas or marble is apparent in great works of art, some of which have Michelangelo’s name etched in genius.

    In Michelangelo’s journal entry, I hear him fighting and pleading with the main stream common consciousness of physicality over that which we can not see. (Possibility) He seems to be crying in his attempt to sign his name as a devoted member of the true constitution of beauty. The kind of beauty that is natural, that of the human body, and obeys the laws of symmetry.

    As common as it may sound, we as humans are more alike than we are dissimilar. However true, the artist made a conscious decision to acknowledge the other side of humanity. The side of humanity that is not bound by time and space in this physical existence we call life. The artist made a choice to acknowledge and cultivate the other half of himself, that which the eye can not see and they hand can not touch. (The soul)

    Michelangelo asks: “What spirit is so empty and blind.” In other words, how can you not see that there is something so true and beautiful beneath the surface? “That it can not recognize” To me this translates as a type of wake up call, as if it is present everyday and we do not see. Or we do not make that choice to see.

    In closing, the true constitution of beauty is a choice. Do we see only a blank canvas or a block of marble, or do we see genius awaiting its discovery.

  20. Michelangelo’s artwork parallels with the fact that beauty comes from within the human body. By communicating this message, Michelangelo carved the human form from a block of stone. His craftsmanship of the nude body shows that the body alone is beautiful and does not need anything else to express that. I interpret the stone as being the materialism that surrounds the figure, and Michelangelo is helping the human body escape those attachments in order to become free.

  21. I fully agree with Michelangelo in his opinion that the skin and human form is the most beautiful and need not be covered. During his time it was believed that it was only proper to have a covered, clothed body, but Michelangelo did not care what anyone had to say. He did not see a nude form as inappropriate but instead as a work of art. When a figure is unclothed they can no longer hide their true selves from others. This can be seen in his marvelous sculptures. It takes a true artist to see a block of marble or even a blank canvas and already see the finished product inside of it or on it. He saw the true beauty in each block of marble and inside each person.

  22. Even though Michelangelo was an architect, a painter, a poet and an engineer, he was most passionate about sculpting. He felt that he could represent his vision of beauty through a block of marble or stone and transform it into a natural existing form. I believe Michelangelo’s quote refers to the inner beauty of a person, and how it should be more important than any other aspect in a person’s life. I also think that because he could see the inner beauty in people, he was able to convert what he was seeing and feeling from his hands into a sculpture.

  23. This is a really fantastic quote, in the sense that it sums up the humanist ideas so well. That we as a society are so consumed by looks, fashion, and technology. That we forget to see the real human beauty the form of the human spirit and body. Its like the say goes “it’s not the clothes that make the man”. That is what Michelangelo is saying here its the thing that is unseen that we should be seeing.

  24. I admire Michelangelo in his quests to free the soul from the stones . his words on the foot more important that the shoe are so true . the shoe is created from the foot . we can only appreciate mans triumphs through the body it came from .we are what we are we make beauty beautiful and Michelangelo saw this, saw that a crease in the folds of our bending, winding bodies is the source for something great . He speaks of being able to see the body in the stone and wanting to free it . I believe this in that i feel i can see what i want to create out of a piece of found wood before i conceive the idea to do something. He challenges us as human kind to look at the figure as a beauty from god and that its all we have to fall on . we are what we are and nothing else .

  25. Michelangelo definitely left a mark in history that would make us remember what beauty really is. His way of expressing the human body is so genuine and authentic that there is no way it could be wrong. His way of visualizing the human body is so important for us to understand, especially today in our society. Purity is a great way to describe Michelangelo’s work.

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