Michelangelo: Poetic Theologian

Having achieved perpetual fame for his magnificent artistry, Michelangelo is often overlooked as a poet. But it is here that he expresses his personal defeat, his frustration with sin, and his intense desire for the assurance of salvation.

Robert Allen Patterson writes from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The name Michelangelo (1475-1564) is well known in the fields of painting and sculpture, less known in the discipline of architecture, but seldom referred to in the area of literature. Although he expressed theological statements about God and man through his paintings and sculptures, it is his poetry that most clearly reveals his inner struggles with himself and God. Poetry has long been utilized as a vehicle for subjective expression; its words can reveal the inner turmoil, conflicts, and convictions a person is experiencing. A sensitive person confronted and struggling with disturbing questions about life may turn to writing poetry as a means of personal catharsis. Such was the case with Michelangelo.

If a theologian is a person who wrestles for a meaningful understanding of God and man and the interaction between them, then Michelangelo certainly qualifies. However, he was not an abstract scholar pondering divine mysteries; rather, he found himself in the cauldron of subjective struggles, writing from personal experiences and observations. He was a man of two worlds and knew well the conflicts between them. Popes as well as princes vied for his time and talents in an age in which social status was enhanced by having well-known artists decorate every thing from rooms to tombs.

The entire collection of his poems (including letters written to friends in verse form, a not uncommon practice in his day) portrays a man seriously involved with all the questions, distresses, and passions of life. The poetry, consisting primarily of sonnets and madrigals, is not polished in the usual sense of the word. He was not a commercial poet grinding out rhyming words simply to make money. He wrote for the purpose of expressing individual emotions and concerns.

The poetry of Michelangelo is rich with poetic statements that can be used as illustrations in sermons, church-school lessons, or as a focal point in personal spiritual devotions. Let's look specifically at two theological themes that are found throughout Michelangelo's poetry.

The reality of personal sin and evil

In a sonnet he makes an interesting statement about the process of evil. I say "process" because there is a dynamic about evil. Unless it is stopped, it will continue to grow. Michelangelo expressed a psycho logical and spiritual truth when he wrote: ". . . evil, less unpleasant the more it grows."1

In a later madrigal he includes a line about evil that every person would do well to remember: "For evil harms much more than joy sustains." 2 In this important observation and insight Michelangelo recognizes that there may be a certain amount of "joy" in the doing of evil. That is precisely its lure— something will be enjoyable or will be better; we will gain or do something that we believe will bring us a larger measure of joy than we presently know. However, the end result of evil is a great diminishing of joy because the quiet hurt and heartache that it brings continues long after the initial joy has subsided. Evil has indeed harmed us. We have been misled and deceived.

Michelangelo felt the reality of sin in his life so keenly that he wrote in a moment of despair, "My life's indeed not of me, but of sin." 3 In an unfinished sestina we find a pleading prayer for God's help in combating the reality of personal sin and evil:

I feel myself now being turned to nothing,

And sinful nature is in every place.

O strip me of myself and with your shield,

With your sweet piteous and trusty arms,

Defend me from myself. 4

This brings us to another theological theme in Michelangelo's poetry.

The need for personal change

Like the psalmist, who cried, "Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me" (Ps. 51:10), Michelangelo felt the need for personal change and spiritual renewal. Yet at the same time he felt powerless to bring about the needed changes by himself.

Oh make me so I'll see you everywhere!

No one but you I call on and implore,

Dear Lord, against my blind and useless torment,

You only can renew, within, without

My will, my mind, my slow and little power. 5

Michelangelo lived to be 89 years old, and a reflective sonnet written nine years before his death reveals his lifelong struggle with himself. It is a rather haunting sonnet in the sense that it reveals so much desire on the one hand to become a "better self and so much personal frustration on the other over his inability to do so. Like many of us, Michelangelo's greatest problem was himself. This sonnet is really a prayer poem of a man who desired a greater communion with God before his death.

The world with its fables has removed

The time I had for contemplating God;

His mercies I not only put aside,

But with, more than without them, turn depraved.

Foolish and blind, where others can perceive,

My own mistake tardily understood.

Hope growing less, desire is magnified

That you will loosen me from my self-love.

Cut down by half the road, O my dear Lord,

That climbs to Heaven! You will have to aid me

If I am going to climb that half.

Cause me to hate the value of the world

And what I admired and honored in its beauty,

So before death to taste eternal life. 6

From another sonnet written the same year (1555), we know, however, that Michelangelo knew at least moments of spiritual comfort and reassurance.

If sometimes by your grace that burning zeal,

O my dear Lord, comes to attack my heart,

Which gives my soul comfort and reassurance,

Since my own strength's no use to me at all,

To turn to Heaven at once would then be right,

For with more time good will has less endurance.7

The last two lines indicate that Michelangelo knew the importance of human response to God's grace. He also knew the tendency of human nature to postpone turning to God and what this can tragically do to a person's "good will."

The next year, 1556, he wrote a letter poem in the form of a sonnet to Bishop Beccadelli in which he states his assurance of salvation:

Through grace, the cross, and all we have endured,

We'll meet in heaven, Monsignor, I'm convinced. 8

His poetry shows Michelangelo to be a man who knew the personal defeat and frustration that are the result of sin, but who also experienced the work of God through grace and the cross, which gives new visions of one's self and what one can become. The insights he penned testify to his spiritual sensitivity and his willingness to take a hard look at himself—something we may not be prone to do. The poetry of Michelangelo speaks with a starkness and honesty that reveals yet another dimension of a multitalented man. I suggest that his poetic theological insights are just as important as the artistic masterpieces he left the world. Like many of his artistic works, they cause us to focus on our life and relationship to God, something a good theologian always strives to help us consider.

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Robert Allen Patterson writes from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

May 1981

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