Michelangelo’s exceptional representations of women left lasting repercussions even after his death in 1564 at the age of 89. Although he is best known for his images of David, Christ and Adam, Michelangelo’s artistic repertoire also pioneered innovative depictions of the female form. Michelangelo’s greatest compendium of female imagery was the Sistine chapel ceiling, where he portrayed over fifty women, influencing future generations of painters in Florence and beyond, including Giorgio Vasari, who also wrote the master’s biography. Therefore, when Vasari started in 1565 to reorganize the nave and side chapels of the basilica of Santa Croce, including the altar to the left of Michelangelo’s grave, it is not surprising that he incorporated some inventive images of women into the altarpiece he painted for his old friend’s tomb.
Plans for a funerary monument for Michelangelo in his beloved basilica of Santa Croce were already underway by 1568 when Vasari started work on The Way to Calvary. Giorgio Vasari, bereft of his mentor, undoubtedly had both the tomb (which he was commissioned to design) and his revisions to the biography of Michelangelo on his mind as he prepared his composition of Christ, bowed by His cross, turning toward Veronica as she holds the cloth with Jesus’ face imprinted on it.
While Vasari farmed out most of the paintings to colleagues, he chose to personally paint The Way to Calvary at the altar by Michelangelo’s tomb. In this image, more populated with female figures than any of the other altarpieces of Vasari production in Santa Croce, he paid homage to Michelangelo’s groundbreaking women from the Sistine chapel.
Vasari produced a typically cluttered mannerist composition, yet he accentuated the lines of the inverted triangle to converge on Christ at the bottom center of the panel. There, he divided the crowd into women on the left and men on the right. The emphasis however, falls on the female figures. Jesus’ body leans towards the right in the direction of the soldiers heading to Calvary, but He twists back to look at Veronica as she raises the veil that has just touched His face. Another woman bears her same profile but her clasped hands lead the eye to another female figure raising her arms in distress. Beside this distraught woman, John the Evangelist, looking youthful as is his way, does not disturb the flow of feminine beauty as he holds the remarkable form of the swooning Mary Mother of God. Mary’s limbs are accentuated under her voluminous robes, making her appear formed by sculpture rather than an ethereal flip of the painter’s wrist. She falls heavily, buckling under the weight of her grief. This powerful, physical language in a female figure comes from the innovative eye of Michelangelo towards women.
The Blessed Virgin sinks into the arms of what is Vasari’s most evident quotation from Michelangelo’s oeuvre, the serpentine figure catching Mary as she falls. Her sunburst-hued garments, her raised arm flexing powerful shoulder muscles, her open seam along the side of her gown and her toes splayed along the ground all recall Michelangelo’s magnificent Libyan sibyl.
She was so admired by Giorgio Vasari that he described her as “in a feminine attitude ready to rise and shut the book, a difficult thing, practically impossible for any other master.” The penultimate figure of the Sistine chapel ceiling, astonishing for the majesty and femininity fused into a single form, closes the line of pre-Christian prophets and leads the eye to the culminating space of the altar. This extraordinary figure, colored like no other in the ceiling, inspired the mannerist color effects that would enliven sixteenth-century painting from the work of Rosso Fiorentino to that of Federico Fiori. Her dynamic turn is the most exotic fruit of Michelangelo’s study of how to charge the female form with energy, while maintaining graceful composure.
He began with the startling 1504 portrayal of Mary in the Doni Tondo, depicted elegantly folded on the ground with her knees projecting toward the viewer, while turning backwards to receive her son. Then he painted a daring image of Eve in the Fall of Man, legs languidly tucked under her as her buoyant upper body extends toward the forbidden fruit.
The Libyan sibyl was his glorious zenith with her lofty shoulders spreading like wings while she closes her tome. Simultaneously, her sharply bent leg prepares to propel her upwards. For his solemn subject matter, however, Vasari left out the bared shoulders, the translucent gossamer revealing the calf below and the invitingly loosened robe barely clasped shut by her belt.
It appears that Vasari’s variety of women gracing his altarpiece reflects his study of Michelangelo’s singular interest in the female form. Rewriting the biography of his old friend, he had occasion to remember his great achievement of the Sistine chapel, to be amazed anew by his sibyls, attentive to his heroines and awed by his Eve. The altarpiece would serve not only to grace the altar where Masses would be said for the master’s soul and that of his many family members buried nearby, but also to underscore the tremendous innovation in the depiction of women wrought by Michelangelo and his heroic vision of womanhood.
Elizabeth Lev teaches art history at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and has worked as a consultant on art and faith for the Vatican Museums, for whom she wrote Vatican Treasures: La Via Pulchritudinis, a documentary presented to Pope Benedict XVI, and co-authored A Body for Glory with Fr Jose Granados. She has been featured on the Today Show, Nightline and Sixty Minutes and her TED Talk on the Sistine Chapel has garnered over 1.3 million views. Elizabeth’s books also include The Tigress of Forlì: The Remarkable Story of Caterina Riario Sforza de’Medici.
Photo © Archivio dell’Opera di Santa Croce, except all the images of Michelangelo’s works taken from Wiki Commons.