Following on from my blog post pertaining to the statue of David I would like to comment on the nature of David’s anatomy and the question of his circumcision. The statue, when executed, portrays David as uncircumcised when, as a Jewish man, he would definitely have been circumcised. There has been considerable discussion about whether Michelangelo deliberately portrayed David as non-Jewish, and if he even knew what a circumcised man looked like. There has also been some related discussion about other “abnormalities” with the statue – such as his right arm being too long, his hands disproportionately large, his eyes gazing in different directions, etc – and whether these were deliberate or accidental. However, as I mentioned previously, the work was originally intended for a beautiful building, an architectural feat, not as a stand alone statue, and Michelangelo was actually the third sculptor to work on the statue, each artist having a different vision of what the completed work would look like. The original commission and intention of the patron was for the statue to adorn a building, although it turned out that it would be too heavy for its proposed elevated position and was eventually placed in a public square outside a civic building. It was originally intended to be viewed from a distance, not close up, and from a different perspective than its final placement. With so many changes in artist and architectural placement, it’s difficult to know what Michelangelo’s intentions were.
It is interesting to note that so many famous art works of the European Renaissance were created with the funding of wealthy patrons, individuals or groups. The Catholic church was just one powerful institution that would have instigated art works for its glory and edification. The cultural norms of the day were very different from ours and yet human nature doesn’t change. The patrons could dictate to the artist his or her own taste and the artist would have no choice but to comply to the requests. Powerful institutions were able to shape ideology which was reflected in the society of the day and as a consequence the completed works. There is some discussion among scholars as to whether the statue of ‘David’ was actually meant to be an ‘ideal’ man rather than the famous king of Israel. As it eventually found its place gracing a civic building there is some support for this idea, and the only thing which would identify the subject with the biblical David is a sling draped over his shoulder and seen only from the back (see the picture). Even the head of Goliath which the first two artists placed at David’s feet was removed by Michelangelo for the finished product. This could also explain why ‘David’ wasn’t circumcised.
Social and religious mores can be seen and reflected in the numerous paintings, sculptures and panels regarding another subject, the Madonna and child. According to the biblical story Jesus was the son of God and not of a human father and therefore the term ‘virgin birth’ has been coined. Many of the works are created with an ethereal Mary and her child. Even the baby behaves in an angelic way instead of a normal child. I may elaborate on the Madonna and child in my next post.
Many art historians will tell the lay person that it is the faults in a work that make it so interesting to study. After all if you want a perfect painting then you should take a photo!! And yet paintings that resemble a photo are considered remarkable considering they are painted by a human hand. Some portraits for example are astoundingly accurate and yet others aren’t. Every artistic work is an interpretation by the artist of the world that he sees around him or her. And biblical artists interpret stories according to the way that the individual perceives it. Every art work is unique.
Modern technology has allowed us to see underneath a painting to see the original work with some surprising results. Often shapes are painted over or drastically altered. The finished product may be nothing like the original concept and of course an artist will tell you that his creation is never finished. Artists were very often not doctors or priests or very wealthy for that matter. They had very human traits and so therefore their works were not necessarily perfect but a reflection of their times and their own personality.
The provenance of a painting or art piece tells the history of who has owned it and for how long and this is a fascinating field of study that can reveal many secrets. Modern technology again allows for some surprising results. Some works have been lost in the mists of time, hidden in a private collection or stolen and therefore they are unable to see the light of day. There are many aspects of study when looking at art and biblical art is no exception. I would hazard a guess that biblical art has evolved along with other art categories to fit into a modern world. And it doesn’t have to be perfect.