The great Renaissance painter and sculptor Michelangelo was born March 6, 1475, 534 years ago yesterday. He began work on his famed statue the David in 1501 and completed it in 1504. Michelangelo was 29 years old.
Let's consider this man and his art and its relevance for our day, interacting with comments from Francis Schaeffer in his work How Should We Then Live? (Crossway: Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, Vol. 5, pp. 114-115).
Schaeffer begins inside the Accademia in Florence, where the David is located:
Here we see on either side Michelangelo's statues of men "tearing themselves out of the rock." These were sculpted between 1519 and 1536. They make a real humanistic statement: Man will make himself great. Man as Man is tearing himself out of the rock. Man by himself will tear himself out of nature and free himself from it. Man will be victorious. . . ."
I saw and touched (winning the polite attention of security) one of these statues during my first and only (thus far!) visit to Florence. I had hitched a ride from L'Abri in Switzerland and carried with me a copy of Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy. Having that book in your mind was a tremendous way to see Florence.
"At the focal point of the room," Schaeffer continues, is the "magnificent statue of David (1504)."
As a work of art it has few equals in the world. Michelangelo took a piece of marble so flawed that no one thought it could be used, and out of it he carved this overwhelming statue. But let us notice that the David was not the Jewish David of the Bible. David was simply a title. Michelangelo knew his Judaism, and in the statue the figure is not circumcised. We are not to think of this as the biblical David but as the humanistic ideal. Man is great!
Man, human beings -- you and me, our neighbors, all of us red and yellow, black and white -- in fact are great. But not, as the unfinished statues of Michelangelo may suggest, because we have to tear ourselves out of nature.
Rather, consistent with what the Declaration of Independence avows (which is the "Vision Statement" or "Mission Statement" of the United States), what makes humanity great is that we are the magnificent work of a Divine Sculptor, who happens to be the Creator by virtue of whom every single human being is endowed with "certain unalienable rights." And, by the way, Nature is also great and not a meaningless piece of particulate junk, because she too is a gift from the Creator and therefore ought to be cared for and respected, just like Genesis 1:28 liberates humanity to do.
As Schaeffer describes it, the political situation of Michelangelo's day bears some resemblance to our our own:
The statue was originally planned to stand forty feet above the street on one of the buttresses of the cathedral, but was placed outside the city hall in Florence, where a copy now stands. The Medicis, the great banking family which had dominated Florence since 1434, had run the city by manipulating its republican constitution. A few years before David was made, the Medicis had been thrown down by the people and a more genuine republic restored (1494). Thus, as the statue was raised outside the city hall, though Michelangelo himself had been a friend of the Medicis, his David was seen as the slayer of tyrants. Florence was looking with confidence toward a great future. (Emphasis added.)
We see in our own day a manipulating of a "republican constitution" (think: "living" Constitution). Central to the truly living Mission Statement of United States (in the Declaration of Independence) is that a republic under the Creator would respect unalienable rights from that Creator, resulting in a balance of "form and freedom" (a phrase often used by Schaeffer). This amazing and unique balance maximized individual liberty among the people and states but without chaos, and it also established a unity of purpose nationally but without overweening control out of Washington.
To put this in contemporary parlance, it wasn't "unity is our strength" or "diversity is our strength," but rather "unity and diversity under God is our strength." All the difference in world.
To the degree that secular elites have imposed an alien agenda that casts away the founding Mission Statement of the United States (or keeps the form but denies the meaning), to that degree we have seen a corresponding loss of individual freedom, including direct attacks on the unalienable rights hardwired into humanity by the verifiable and knowable Creator. Not unrelated to this, the economic crisis we see today emerges in no small degree from a secularist, power-minded Washington-centrism and is the natural outworking of uprooting the American experiment in liberty from what the Founders knew is the soil of liberty as gifted to humanity by the Creator.
"Hope springs eternal," says the poet. And in the David is a "statement of what the humanistic man saw himself as being tomorrow!," says Schaeffer.
In this statue we have man waiting with confidence in his own strength for the future. Even the disproportionate size of the hands says that man is powerful. This statue is idealistic and romantic. There was and is no man like the David. If a girl fell in love with the statue and waited until she found such a man, she would never marry. Humanism was standing in its proud self and the David stood as a representation of that.
The challenge for humanism is not its ideals per se, but that it lacks an adequate intellectual basis to sustain those ideals, so that when crisis comes, we see breakdown instead of recovery. And we do see the breakdown, despite the concerted efforts of political, PR, and marketing types working overtime to simultaneously distract (e.g., attack Rush Limbaugh) and overlay a comfortable but Orwellian spin upon the breakdown (e.g., the president not concerned about market "gyrations").
However, in the world beyond the teleprompter, the press release, and the attack dog, what we are witnessing today is not just the loss of economic power and freedom, but also assaults on freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of religious exercise, and so on. Man is great, but man is not God. You could put all the smartest people in the world in Washington and still the federal government is not God, as the original Vision Statement of the United States clearly understands. Secularist Washington-centrism must decrease if a humane American liberty is to increase. Read the directions.
Our Founders understood this, but many of today's elites seem to reject it. It's not that the secularists are too smart for their own good, but that they are operating out of an inadequate philosophic framework. We'll recover as a nation if we return to the original Mission Statement and mark progress from that point forward.
Perhaps the later Michelangelo can help lead the way forward:
[T]here are signs that by the end of his life Michelangelo saw the humanism was not enough. Michelangelo in his later years was in close touch with Vittoria Colonna (1490-1547), a woman who had been influenced by Reformation thought. Some people feel they see some of that influence in Michelangelo's life and work. However that may be, it is true that his later work did change. Many of his early works show his humanism, as does his David. In contrast stand his later Pietas (statues of Mary holding the dead Christ in her arms) in the cathedral in Florence and in the castle in Milan, which was probably his last. In the Pieta in the cathedral in Florence, Michelangelo put his own face on Nicodemus (or Joseph of Arimathea -- whichever the man is), and in both of the Pietas humanistic pride seems lessened, if not absent.
I began this post this morning simply as an effort to show an appreciation for one of my favorite artists, a person that I and a host of others would surely have liked to have known. He, like all of us, had his struggles. But even the Great Michelangelo of the Pietas was willing to place himself at the feet of a flesh and blood rebel condemned as a common criminal who happened to be the Savior and Son of God. That's right: A resurrected guy from the Middle East outback whose love and truth challenged and overturns the hopeful but inadequate humanism of then and now.
The Founders understood the centrality and necessity of the Creator, and they rejected the idolatry of the federal state and the Kingdom of Washington. Many of us today get it. Hope and freedom never die. They are unalienable. They are hardwired into humane and human existence. Yes, we get it. Let's hope Washington hears before it's too late.