What Is the Greatest Michelangelo? The 10 Most Iconic Works by the Renaissance Titan, Ranked

Our critic asks: Which legendary work most defines Michelangelo?

Pope Benedict XVI celebrates baptisms in the Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images.
Pope Benedict XVI celebrates baptisms in the Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images.

When it comes to the High Renaissance, Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564) is as high as it gets. A peerless sculptor, expert draftsman, and reluctant but skilled painter, he was not only one of the best-known artists of his day but probably remains one of the best-known artists ever.

He could be a bit of a hot head: His rivalries with Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael are well documented, and he stormed out of the Sistine Chapel in a huff more than once. But he was so good not even this reputation could drag him down. His contemporaries called him Il Divino  (“the divine one”) because they deemed his masterful workmanship unparalleled among mere mortals. This nickname inspired the title of the Met’s sprawling exhibition devoted to the artist, “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer,” opening November 13.

To pay tribute, we surveyed 10 of his most popular works (based on Google Image searches). Here, we rank them according to where we think they stand, critically, as representations of what makes Michelangelo awesome.

10. San Spirito Crucifix (1492)

Michelangelo made this nude crucifix when he was just 18 years old. It was a thank you to the Augustine monks at San Spirito who let the teen couch surf after his patron, Lorenzo de Medici, died in 1492, leaving the artist homeless. By Giorgio Vasari’s account of the artist’s life in his famed tome, the Lives of the Artists, it was at San Spirito that Michelangelo began to dissect dead bodies “in order to study the details of anatomy, and began to perfect the great skill in design that he subsequently possessed.”

Despite being so drawn from life (or death, as it were), the well-crafted crucifix didn’t give Michelangelo’s career much of a boost—in fact, most forgot that he even made it. After centuries of being assumed lost, in 1962 a media storm sprung up around it after the crucifix was rediscovered in a convent, covered over with hundreds of years of bad paint jobs. Earlier this year, it made headlines again when it was finally returned to its original home in Florence, which probably accounts for its notoriety with the public.

The crucifix is juvenilia, however, which is why it ranks last on our list. The Christ figure doesn’t have the musculature for which Michelangelo was famous. In fact, it seems as if here he may have simply been copying previous artists’ depictions. Art historian Margrit Lisner attributes the slenderness of Jesus’s form to the patrons’ wishes, but also to an artist who was still green, prompting him to seek inspiration from earlier examples by other artists.

 

9. Madonna of Bruges (1504)

Art historian Erwin Panofsky, when writing about Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges, credited the artist with saying that a perfect sculpture is one that can be rolled downhill without suffering damage. By those standards, this sculpture would come close to perfect: The sturdy, seated composition of Mary and the Christ Child recalls the size and compact mass of the original stone block from which the figures were carved.

This was the look Michelangelo was going for and, at the time, it was quite innovative. Few sculptors had attempted a project of such complexity at this scale, with the image hewn from a single slab of marble and standing at six-and-a-half feet tall.

Despite the mastery demonstrated in the Madonna of Bruges—and its status as the artist’s only work to leave Italy within his lifetime—the sculpture owes its icon status mainly to the fact that it was looted by Nazis in 1945. Indeed, art historian William E. Wallace points out that the work was paid such scant attention that not even contemporaneous Michelangelo authorities knew much about it: “It was so little known that his biographers Giorgio Vasari and Ascanio Condivi mistakenly believed it was cast bronze. Both the Risen Christ and the Bruges Madonna contributed little to Michelangelo’s Florentine reputation.”

Clearly this was not the artist’s most memorable work—then or now—and for that reason, we’re ranking it number nine, ability to roll downhill or not.

 

8. Bacchus (1497)

Commissioned by Cardinal Riario, Bacchus was Michelangelo’s first foray into large-scale sculpture and is one of the few works he would ever do that was not on a Christian theme. By tilting the figure ever so slightly off balance, subverting the inherent look of stability of the Classical contrapposto stance, the artist makes Bacchus—the Roman god of wine—appear appropriately tipsy. This level of realism was unprecedented in depictions of party-loving Bacchus up until this time, revealing Michelangelo as the virtuosic perfectionist he would become known as.

Reports indicate that Cardinal Riario may have rejected the finished sculpture, suggesting that he didn’t think Michelangelo’s work was quite up to snuff yet. Historian Ralph Lieberman explains that the Cardinal’s distaste was shared by others, and he’d probably agree with our positioning it low in our ranking: “Riario’s reasons for declining the Bacchus could well have been the same as those for which many later commentators on the figure have disliked it: the awkward pose, the somewhat vulgar face, and the softly effeminate body.”


7. Dying Slave (1513–16)

Dying Slave was intended to accompany another work, Rebellious Slave, on either side of Moses, in Pope Julius II’s tomb. In an effort to select the perfect marble for the pope’s final resting place, Michelangelo went to the quarries of Carrara to hand-select the slabs of stone. When he returned, he set to work chiseling a perfect specimen of man in the languid throes of death. Then Julius changed his mind and cancelled the commission.

Indeed, Dying Slave is one of six slave figures Michelangelo created over several years for the pope; Julius effectively drained the papal coffers dry in an attempt to create the perfect space for him to begin his afterlife. But the project was never fully realized, much to the artist’s chagrin—especially after having wasted nearly a year hanging around a quarry for it.

Could Dying Slave have been a better example of Michelangelo’s penchant for perfection if he hadn’t been thwarted by Julius’s ongoing fickleness? Hard to say. As Richard Fly notes, the slave figure itself seems frustrated by its own circumstances, as if to suggest the figure’s struggle with death as a metaphor for the artist’s struggle with material:

Even Michelangelo, however, cannot sustain godlike supremacy over his material, and in several provocative works he appears to acknowledge that the invisibility of inert matter can almost neutralize even his creative powers. His statue of the Dying Slave… suggests that moment when life capitulated before the relentless force of dead matter… There is perhaps even a suggestion of something demonic and negating in the medium’s ability to distort, frustrate, and debilitate the artist’s effort at creation: a suggestion of encroaching chaos.

 

6. Angel (1495)

This kneeling angel holding a candlestick, measuring just about a foot and a half in height, is one of Michelangelo’s earliest works. It was created for the Arca di San Domenico in Bologna as a companion piece to the artist Niccolo dell’ Arca’s preexisting angel, integrated within the building’s design scheme. It’s historically important since it was with this work that Michelangelo started to exhibit his signature style: while dell’ Arca’s angel is soft and effeminate, demure in its loving embrace of its candlestick, Michelangelo’s depicts a strong youth with defined musculature and eagle-like wings.

Despite its small scale, Angel reveals the artist’s early command of his medium, and, as the appearance of any good angel should be, an omen of blessings to come. Art historian Ellen Longsworth argues that it functions a bit as an amuse-bouche for the artist’s more famous work:

Even at a distance the expressive integrity of Michelangelo’s little saint is apparent. The primary contours communicate energy and resolve, while the silhouette is perfectly legible against the backdrop of the ornate shrine. Not until Michelangelo’s commission for the David would he face a similar challenge. In outline a simpler figure than St. Proculus, the David was designed to be read against the sky and the upper reaches of one of the tribunes of the Florentine Duomo. The figure’s assured posture and alert turn-of-the-head, both immediately comprehensible from a distance, are also present in Michelangelo’s little saint.

 

5. Moses (1513-15)

Michelangelo’s Moses came on the heels of his David, the public success of which had put him on Pope Julius’s radar. Commissioned in 1505 by the pope for his tomb, the work represents a specific moment from the biblical tale of Moses, when he sees his people have started worshiping a pagan icon—the Golden Calf—just after he had trekked all the way down Mount Sinai with heavy stone slabs bearing the Ten Commandments. Needless to say, Moses was pissed, and it’s precisely this anger that Michelangelo skillfully embodies in his eight-foot seated sculpture. Moses isn’t just sitting down, though. His left leg and hips shift left while his muscular torso faces the right, imbuing the figure with tension and power; although he looks left, his beard whips right, indicating swift movement.

Moses marks the middle of this list because the depiction of this biblical figure is so good. It may even be too good, according to Freud, who quipped that this rendition was “superior to the historical or traditional Moses,” adding that he thought that the sculpture had more secular than holy meaning, as a symbol of a man repressing “inward passion” in the pursuit of a higher cause.

 

4. Pietà (1498-99)

During the 15th century, the theme of Mary cradling Jesus once he was taken down from the cross—other wise known as a pietà—was commonly depicted in Northern European art but less so in Italy. So when a French cardinal approached 23-year-old Michelangelo to sculpt one for his funeral monument, the artist gladly accepted the challenge, knowing he could make his mark. It’s the Pietà that made people make note of Michelangelo’s name—quite literally, as Vasari describes:

…in truth, it is absolutely astonishing that the hand of an artist could have properly executed something so sublime and admirable in a brief time, and clearly it is a miracle that a stone, formless in the beginning, could ever have been brought to the state of perfection which Nature habitually struggles to create in the flesh. Michelangelo placed so much love and labour in this work that on it (something he did in no other work) he left his name written across a sash which girds Our Lady’s breast.

 

3. The Last Judgment (1536-41)

“The twist into depth, the struggle to escape from the here and now of the picture plane, which had always distinguished Michelangelo from the Greeks, became the dominating rhythm of his later works,” Kenneth Clark once wrote. “That colossal nightmare, the Last Judgment, is made up of such struggles. It is the most overpowering accumulation in all art of bodies in violent movement.”

Even that may be an understatement. The Last Judgment, which arcs above the Sistine Chapel’s altar, dramatically depicts the second coming of Christ and the final judgment of all humanity. Michelangelo squished 300 muscular figures into the sprawling scene, some representing prominent saints, others were mere mortals ascending to heaven or descending to hell. A scene of intense action, fear, awe, and copious nudity, the Last Judgment has been subject to much judgment itself, often criticized for its busyness and sometimes covered up by Papal censors.

But that very sense of turbulence may be what makes this work resonate today. Its boisterous bodies arrested in tortured movement are precisely what makes it unequivocally Michelangelo, even as his later work leaves behind the divine harmony of the High Renaissance for something more mannerist—and modern.

Part of the artwork of Michelangelo that adorns the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, Italy. Photo by Fotopress/Getty Images.

Part of the artwork of Michelangelo that adorns the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, Italy. Photo by Fotopress/Getty Images.

2. The Creation of Adam (1508-12)

Pope Julius II paused Michelangelo’s long labor on the papal tomb to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The artist wasn’t interested in accepting the commission—he was a sculptor, not a painter, after all—but he was pressured into it. So it was that Michelangelo, the supreme sculptor, created what is probably one of the most sacred images of Western art history.

At the heart of the epic work is the Creation: God extends his finger toward the hand a newly minted man, Adam, about to imbue him with life (Eve watches from the crook of God’s arm). Few artists had ever depicted the scene as dramatically as Michelangelo, and even in our secular age, it has made it virtually metonymic for the entire story of Genesis in contemporary culture. It is so often invoked, cited, or riffed on for its religious meaning that it may actually be possible to forget just what a terrific act of artistic theater it is.

That’s what Paul Barolsky suggests in his impassioned essay “The Genius of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam and the Blindness of Art History”:

What makes Michelangelo’s fresco so arresting is its tension—the sense of an event that will only be complete when the finger of God touches that of Adam. God, in Michelangelo’s fresco, is suspended forever, we might say, in the incomplete act of filling Adam with the spirit. This is the ultimate divine non finito… In our post-Christian world, modern scholars are not deeply concerned with he spatial meaning of the fresco, and that is understandable. But to ignore the way in which Michelangelo made his meaning visible is to be blind to a striking manifestation of artistic genius or poetic imagination.

If it were another artist, this incredibly creative depiction of Creation would top any list. Except this is not any other artist, which brings me to…

 

1. David (1501-04)

It has to be David, right?

The artist was just 26 when he sculpted David. Even at the time it brought him to the heights of artistic fame for its sheer bravura. Standing at more than 13 feet tall, the work was sculpted from a piece of marble that another artist had started carving into for another project but then abandoned because the stone was structurally compromised. This didn’t deter Michelangelo, though, who knew he had the skills to make the marble work for him.

“To be sure, anyone who sees this statue need not be concerned with seeing any other piece of sculpture done in our times or in any other period by any other artist,” Vasari wrote in the Lives of the Artists, making Michelangelo the central character in his ur-art history book, the most vaunted figure of the Renaissance.

The David is different than any sculpture that came before. It is drawn from the well-known Biblical story of a young boy fighting the giant Goliath. But while others chose to emphasize his smallness, Michelangelo’s David is a giant himself: A muscular, confident man prepared for battle. The amazing thing, then and now, about Michelangelo’s David is that the work is both literally a depiction of a larger-than-life hero, and the quintessential depiction of the plucky little guy.


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