Ephraim Rubenstein discusses Michelangelo's The Risen Christ and The Resurrection of Christ.
by Ephraim Rubenstein
|The Risen Christ
by Michelangelo, ca. 1513, black chalk drawing, 16 x 10. Collection the British Museum, London, England.
|The Resurrection of Christ
by Michelangelo, ca. 1532, black chalk drawing, 12¾ x 11¼. Collection the British Museum, London, England.
The art historian Heinrich Wölfflin said it is very difficult to talk about works of art in isolation. It is much more effective to compare one work of art to another, drawing ideas from how they differ visually. Then you can note relative differences, rather than trying to make absolute statements. Let's look at these two Michelangelo figure drawings together and see what we can learn from them.
The first sketch is of the risen Christ, the one in which he is depicted holding a flag, presents a very sculptural pose, anatomically developed and fully frontal. It is reminiscent of a Donatello or a Montegna. Christ is completely earthbound--it is as if he were a normal person having crawled out of the ground and is now standing triumphant on top of the grave, a very physical, corporeal triumph.
The strict verticality of this first image contrasts with the diagonal thrust of the figure drawing poses in the second sketch. This Christ is not earthbound at all. It's very spiritual in comparison--it suggests the soul leaving the body. Christ is floating; he's not demonstrating weight. This drawing is an expression of the non-physical part of the resurrection. Additionally, the emphasis is on movement rather than physical structure; this could never be a sculpture like the first one could. Look at the way the other people in the scene are reacting, too. They look like they are encountering a blast of light, as if they can't believe what they are seeing.
This is the aspect of the drawing that is so beautiful. He has shed all these earthly trappings, including this garment, and he's going to take off and be gone. In the later drawing, the drapery looks like it is fluttering, it is moving. The cloth that's behind him is flowing so beautifully. In the first drawing the drapery is more described and pinned down.
Looking more closely at the technique, note how in the first drawing the emphasis is on the interior modeling. You can see all four quadriceps, the kneecaps, the abdominals in the body. Drawing details of the second motiviate your eye to go right to the contour. The contour is the vehicle for the movement. Your eye slides across the figure from top to bottom. In the first you stop and start, stop and start, at each body part. This stopping and starting, this lingering on the body, emphasizes Christ's physicality. The relative emphasis on the contour in the second drawing makes you move with the upward thrust of the figure and go where it's going. You become airborne along with the spirit.