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.”
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
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
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,
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
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.”
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