Michelangelo (1475-1564) sculpted the Dying Slave (1513-1516) for the base of the tomb of Pope Julius II. Some scholars suggest that this is the soul struggling for eternal perfection. Today we see a much more profound meaning than either Michelangelo or Pope Julius II were able to understand. Most religions are contained in a worldview that prevents the faithful from seeing the true nature of reality. This sculpture eloquently depicts this unconsciousness. What the church often calls heaven, which is described as being attained in the future after death, is in reality here and now. The “struggle” to attain perfection actually prevents that attainment because in fact there is nothing to attain.
We are born perfect into a perfect universe and lead a life that is perfect in every detail. Only resistance to the reality of life can prevent us from living in the present moment which is where we experience the perfection of our moment-to-moment life. Human beings and indeed all of Creation emerge from a “field” of energy and assume a “form” that is ephemeral. As indestructible energy we return to the field after our impermanent form “dies.”
Our unconscious paradigm or worldview deludes us into identifying with our body, mind and emotions. In doing so we create the very suffering that we seek to escape by believing in the illusions of religious dogma. If we cease struggling for and against perfection we will arrive at the place that we never left and see and experience perfection for the first time.
In his creative process, Michelangelo embodied present moment consciousness. His act of creation was truly a meditation. He equated truth with beauty and thus worked in a context of profound reality transcending the illusions inherent in P-B. The physical beauty of his figures was not an end in itself; it was intended to reflect spiritual beauty and was meant to elevate the thoughts of the beholder above material things. “[His] goal was to depict the universal fate of humanity. Michelangelo brought great art to great ideas. He felt impelled to work from divine inspiration in order to spiritualize his experience of reality and to achieve eternal transcendent truth.”[i]
The tragic irony is that Michelangelo felt he was a failure (the religious aspect of P-B almost guarantees this). The mainstream Christian paradigm requires that we fail and gives us that identity (original sin) so that the Church can acquire power over us as our “savior.” “The secondary motives of the [Sistine Chapel] ceiling were to assert the theological ancestry of the Pope and to imply that he was a new messiah acting as the agent of God to punish heretics. The purpose of the program was thus to strike fear and awe into the minds of the mortals who looked upon it.”[ii]
P-B encourages an identity that is disempowering and effectively blocks our way from entering the present moment. Self-condemnation like that experienced by Michelangelo becomes a common human experience. The philosopher Marsilio Ficino describes this universal suffering with stunning eloquence. “Our mind as long as our sublime soul is doomed to operate in a base body, is thrown up and down with permanent disquietude, and it often slumbers from exhaustion and is always insane; so that our movements, actions, and passions are nothing but the vertigos of ailing people, the dream of sleepers, and ravings of madmen.”[iii]
By 1550 Michelangelo had given up painting and sculpture and turned to architecture which was “the most abstract of the visual arts to fulfill his lifetime need for a union with the creator.”[iv] Michelangelo was deified in Florence in 1564. Some of the figures on the Sistine Chapel ceiling were considered obscene and El Greco offered to repaint the whole subject. Humanity today remains imprisoned in the “dream of sleepers” offended by beauty and truth pursuing the chimeras of plenty, pleasure and power.
[i] Elsen, Albert E. Purposes of Art. New York: Holt, 1981, page 38.
[ii] Ibid., page 146.
[iii] Ibid., page 144.
[iv] Ibid., page 155.
ILLUSTRATION: Gombrich, E. H. “Art for Eternity.” The Story of Art. London: Phaidon Publishers Inc., 1966.
- Dying Slave (1513-1516), page 228.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.