Michelangelo’s stone prisoners feel both heavy and beautiful. They exist on the tightrope of joy and sorrow, of being and not being. The four towering marble structures hold four men, one being the apostle Matthew. Michelangelo’s sculpting philosophy believed in revealing the characters and forms from the stone. His eyes were able to see beauty within the stone. Michelangelo described his technique: “In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”
From Rick Steves:
These unfinished figures seem to be fighting to free themselves from the stone. Michelangelo believed the sculptor was a tool of God, not creating but simply revealing the powerful and beautiful figures he put in the marble. Michelangelo’s job was to chip away the excess, to reveal. He needed to be in tune with God’s will, and whenever the spirit came upon him, Michelangelo worked in a frenzy, often for days on end without sleep.
The Prisoners gives us a glimpse of this fitful process, showing the restless energy of someone possessed, struggling against the rock that binds him. Michelangelo himself fought to create the image he saw in his mind’s eye. You can still see the grooves from the chisel, and you can picture Michelangelo hacking away in a cloud of dust. Unlike most sculptors, who built a model and then marked up their block of marble to know where to chip, Michelangelo always worked free hand, starting from the front and working back. These figures emerged from the stone (as his colleague Vasari put it) “as though surfacing from a pool of water.”
These statues I found peculiar because one part of the form such as the legs and torso would be completely revealed, with the detail of the veins and muscles carved out, where as the head had no form to it at all. Only parts are finished. It reminded me of the truth that sometimes there is so much work to be done that we can only focus on one area. We focus and work on that area until a situation, experience, relationship, or powers above opens and turns the light on a new area.
The mix of finished and unfinished form give the statues the name Prisoners because they look like the bodies of people who can’t get out of the rock. Struggle strains through some of their faces. The muscle tones and emotions of struggle sunk deep in my soul to align with the picture I’m feeling right now. I am an unfinished being trying to break free from this heavy stone that holds me. I’m rough, and have a huge block as my head sometimes. I feel like I don’t now who I fully am on this journey yet. As a new wife with a new name. As an artist and filmmaker in a completely unknown land. As a communicator in a place of foreign languages.
Then I remembered, I’m in a museum. And the prisoners are too. Right next to the glorious, perfect form of the David. They are considered and revered as some of the most beautiful works of art, even though they are unfinished. Yes, they are exquisite and mighty, but I believe they are special just because they are Michelangelo’s creation. That’s a lot how I feel about how I am as a work in progress. That I’m unfinished. I’m still really rough, and ultimately I may never be finished, but I’m a creation of a greater being, which means I can still be worthy, special, and beautiful– unfinished and rough. We don’t have to be fine and finished to be vessels or mouths of light, truth, and beauty.
“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”