The National Gallery is holding what promises to be an interesting show dedicated to Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombo, next year. The Guardian has a report on it, with lots of useful links. One of the star attractions is the Sebastiano del Piombo Pietà, a truly magnificent painting, which will be visiting from Viterbo, and which shows the clear influence of Michelangelo. These cross-overs are always of great interest.
As the article points out, most of Michelangelo’s oeuvre is not very portable, so another star of the show will be his statue of the Risen Christ, another version of which is on permanent display in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome.
The Risen Christ is not, to my mind, a particularly great work, and if it were not by Michelangelo, it would not be very well known. As it is, it is not on the tourist trail of Rome in the same way as the Moses in Saint Peter in Chains. The version coming to London, which has only recently been recognised as by the master, may be better than the one on Santa Maria sopra Minerva, which has had a bronze loincloth added to it to cover up the nudity of the Risen Christ.
We all know the story of the Sistine Chapel, and how Michelangelo’s heroic nudes were covered up by the additions of “breeches” by other hands thanks to Catholic prudishness trumping the free artistic spirit. At least that is how the story goes.
It is undoubtedly the case that Michelangelo liked painting and sculpting the naked figure. Not only is there the David in Florence, but that city also has two Crucifixes by the artist which show us the body of Christ as that of a pale, defenceless and naked child – the more famous of these is in Santo Spirito, but there is also another, less well known, in San Nicolà. But the truth of the matter is, despite these representations (and other older ones, as in the baptisteries in Ravenna), we are not used to seeing images of Christ unclothed.
Is there any theological point to be made in unclothed images of the Saviour? Well, yes, there is.
Given that clothing is something that was only adopted by humankind after the Fall, according to the Book of Genesis, the nudity of Christ is making a statement about his unfallen nature as the second Adam. Just as Adam and Eve before the Fall did not wear clothes and did not know sin, so too Christ, being without sin, shows us a human body that has not been disfigured by sin.
So the nude representation of the Risen Christ which will be on show at the National Gallery will be making a powerful theological statement about the nature of the Resurrection and the fullness of redemption that comes with it. Just as the Risen Christ is without sin, so, one day, we pray, shall we be: and among the sins that will be purged by the Paschal Mystery, will be the sins of the flesh.
This message is one that the world needs to hear, and Michelangelo’s Risen Christ may do a great deal, if properly explained, to reverse the perception that the Church is somehow or another opposed to the flesh which Christ came to save by taking up the flesh. One wonders how the gallery will attempt to explain the nudity of the Risen Christ to the visiting public, and one hopes this great opportunity will not be missed.