Michelangelo’s Hidden Messages

By Ken Schuman

Michelangelo was one of history’s great creative geniuses. His great mind was able to connect his varied experiences and move into uncharted territory. He created the world’s greatest fresco painting (the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel), one of the world’s architectural wonders (the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica), and many of the world’s greatest sculptures (David, the Pieta, Moses).

In addition to his art, Michelangelo wrapped his vast mind around the great moral issue of his time and ours: “How can we live a good and meaningful life?” He spent an enormous amounts of time studying the Old and New Testaments and the ideas of great thinkers.

Because of the dangerous times in which he lived (the Inquisition and virtually incessant wars), Michelangelo could not openly divulge his views on religious, moral and spiritual issues. (At age 23, Michelangelo’s priest in Florence was burned at the stake for blasphemy and “religious error” and some years later an assassin was hired to murder Michelangelo for political reasons

In this environment, speaking your mind could very well lead to imprisonment or death. Michelangelo clearly demonstrated this concern in a letter to his brother, written while painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Michelangelo warned Buonarroto: “Don’t be friendly or intimate of anyone but God, and don’t speak good or ill of anyone, because the end of things is not known; just attend to your own affairs.” 1 Michelangelo, for his own part, needed to find a surreptitious way of expressing his ideas.

Therefore, Michelangelo embedded his views on “how to live a good and meaningful life” within his great masterpieces and in the way he approached creating these masterpieces. These embedded views are an important component of The Michelangelo Method.

Embedded Message #1: Your mind is divinely inspired and the key to true understanding and creativity.

Masterpiece containing this message: Michelangelo’s iconic Sistine Chapel fresco, The Creation of Man

The vehicle carrying God to Adam is a robe formed as an exact replica of the human brain-- remarkably including the spinal cord, brain stem, pituitary gland, and the fissures between convolutions of the brain. This resemblance is so striking that it could not be accidental.

Michelangelo’s detailed knowledge of the form and structure of the brain was derived from his experience dissecting corpses. He viewed this as part of necessary training to enable him to sculpt the human form as God created it.

This message would need to be hidden because it violated the Church’s concept that the institution of the Church itself is the source of man’s inspiration and creativity.

Embedded Message #2: Each person has a masterpiece within.

To find and release your personal masterpiece, direct your mind to your inner self—your values, your passions and your strengts.

Masterpiece containing this message: David

David was sculpted out of a “ruined” block of marble rejected by all of his contemporaries. Michelangelo said that he looked inside the stone to find the image he was seeking to create. He then needed only to chip away at what was not the image to reveal the masterpiece. And in his dramatic series of sculptures known as the Captives, the figures appear in the process of being released from the stone that is imprisoning them.

This message would need to be hidden because, according to Church doctrine during Michelangelo’s lifetime, your personal masterpiece is the attainment of salvation which can only be achieved through the intervention of the priesthood. You advance your chances by following church dogma, confessing your sins, and purchasing indulgences.

Embedded Message #3: Commit to your vision with confidence.

Masterpiece containing this message: The Battle of Cascina Michelangelo took on the challenge of competing with one of the greatest painters of all time, Leonardo da Vinci. They were each to paint huge frescoes on opposite walls of a new Council Hall. Leonardo was 48 years old and at the height of his powers. On the other hand, Michelangelo at 25 years old, was considered a master sculptor and draftsman, but had no great paintings to his credit. Nevertheless he envisioned himself to be a great painter, if he chose to follow that path. Neither finished his fresco. Michelangelo was called to Rome by the Pope Julius II, and Leonardo returned to Milan at the request of the French Governor. Nevertheless, the preparatory drawings of Leonardo and Michelangelo created a sensation, and artists, including Rafael, came from all over Italy to view them. Michelangelo’s confidence in himself was rewarded as his fame as an artist grew. And when, three years later the Pope had to decide whose talent and vision to entrust with the precious ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he selected Michelangelo over all others.

Embedded Message # 4: Plan, then chip away.

Masterpiece containing this message: Michelangelo’s Pieta

The Pieta, a life-size statue, depicting Mary holding the dead Christ, was Michelangelo’s first recognized masterpiece. For this project Michelangelo determined he would need a very large block of white marble. He searched throughout Rome and all the ports in the area but could find nothing that met his high standards. So he decided to travel to Carrara, more than 200 miles away, where the finest marble in Italy was to be found. Michelangelo, then devised a plan to transport this huge slab back to Rome without damaging it in the process. Then came the detailed planning for his Pieta. After completing hundreds of sketches, Michelangelo created the figure in clay. Next he formed the statue in wax which better simulated marble in its tactile qualities and translucence. Only after all this planning and advance work was completed was Michelangelo ready to raise his hammer and begin to uncover his Pieta, which lay waiting within the stone.

Embedded Message # 5: Find your support.

Masterpiece containing this message: The Rondanini Pieta

The Rondanini Pieta, on which Michelangelo was working at the time of his death at age 89, is considered by many experts to be Michelangelo’s most spiritual work. Unlike his first Pieta (completed at age 24) where Mary is fully supporting a lifeless Jesus on her lap, the Rondanini Pieta has Jesus and Mary supporting each other. After a lifetime of observation, Michelangelo has concluded that we are all fully interdependent. We all need each others support.

Embedded Message # 6: Fight for your vision.

Masterpiece containing this message: Moses

Moses was sculpted by Michelangelo as the centerpiece for the tomb of Pope Julius II. An odd choice given the persecution of the Jews by the Catholic Inquisition occurring at the time. But not odd to Michelangelo. Michelangelo was a Florentine patriot. He conceived the plan for the tomb, including his Moses, only one year after completing David, a statue created to rally the Republic of Florence against its more powerful enemies. Michelangelo’s Moses is a not the aged intellectual leader as depicted by many others. Michelangelo’s Moses is a giant of a man, with the extraordinarily powerful body of a general. Michelangelo’s Moses is the leader who, against the odds, followed his vision to free the Jewish people. Michelangelo carried his patriotic fervor for the Republic for his entire life. Nearly thirty years after sculpting Moses, Michelangelo sculpted a bust of Brutus, defender of the original Roman Republic and assassin of the despot, Julius Caesar.

This message would need to be hidden because Rome was one of the Republic of Florence’s chief rivals. It would have been extremely dangerous for Michelangelo to openly defy Rome and the Vatican while living and working there.

Embedded Message # 7: Use your unique experience creatively to push your limits.

Masterpiece containing this message: St. Peter’s Basilica

At the time of his appointment as chief architect for St. Peter’s Basilica, Michelangelo was in his 70’s and was not even considered to be an architect. There is no record of his formal training in the field. And the limited work he had done, while showing great imagination, usually paired him with a trained architect. In this new appointment, Michelangelo’s chief challenge was to resolve a problem that eluded for forty years the greatest architects of his age: how to construct the Basilica’s great dome. Michelangelo looked deep into his unique body of knowledge and synthesized innovative connections. As a sculptor Michelangelo understood the physics of stone.

From creating the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo understood how to compose large-scale projects. In building Florence’s fortifications, Michelangelo had learned the principles of construction. And of course, his training as an artist had taught him how the interplay of shadow, light and form created the beautiful. Michelangelo saw architectural structure as analogous to the structural elegance of the human system. He looked deeper at his understanding of anatomy and saw its connections to all structural anatomies—including those of a building. The result of his innovative thinking was a structural design so brilliant that it has served as a model for buildings for hundreds of years—including our own capital dome in Washington, D.C.

Embedded Message # 8: Be true to yourself; live with Integrity

Masterpiece containing this message: St. Bartholomew, The Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel,

The Last Judgment covers an entire wall of the Sistine Chapel. Within this fresco masterpiece Michelangelo paints his only known self-portrait and places it just below and to the right of Jesus. Most intriguing though is his choice to render his portrait on the flayed skin carried by St. Bartholomew, martyred for his undiluted honesty and his passionate adherence to his beliefs. Jesus said of his disciple Bartholomew that he was “incapable of deceit.” (John:1). Michelangelo clearly must have identified with this particular saint. Given the significant theme of The Last Judgment and its placement in the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican, Michelangelo would have approached his only self-portrait very carefully. Michelangelo conveys in his choice of St. Bartholomew his view of himself as an honest, passionate soul, willing to pay the price of adherence to his principles; an individualist, true to himself.

This message would need to be hidden because individuality was considered a threat to the Church, which was fighting hard against the new Protestant movement to compel conformity to Church doctrine.

Michelangelo’s complete message, The Michelangelo Method, is this: To find your personal masterpiece, direct your mind, which is divinely inspired, to your inner self—your values, your passions and your strengths. Once you’ve uncovered your vision, commit to your goals with confidence. To be successful, you will need to plan carefully, creatively using your unique experience, obtain necessary support, and battle to overcome obstacles. In doing so, be sure to live with integrity, remaining true to yourself.

And in his own life Michelangelo lived his message. The result: he created masterpiece upon masterpiece while living a life that was true to his values and passion. In the time of Leonardo, Raphael and other Renaissance giants, it was only Michelangelo who was called by contemporaries “the Divine.”