Michelangelo’s Drawings: The Conceptual Transformation from Touch to Sight

Michelangelo, Pieta, 1519-20
Michelangelo, Pieta, 1519-20

Conceptual Flip

One of the most rewarding studies of painting and drawing is discovering how a thought, perception, or emotion is transformed into a purely visual medium. Michelangelo’s drawings serve as examples of translating the perception of touch to sight. In other words, his drawings convey to our sight not what we would see but what we would touch.

This is a great conceptual flip and it is one of the aspects of art I love most.

To experience this tutorial fully I need to ask you to humor me and get  physically involved in it. In the of your own home it should be fun.

Ok, let’s start.

Michelangelo, Pieta, 1519-20 Newberry markup
Michelangelo, Pieta, 1519-20 Newberry markup

Deep Pockets

In the middle of the blue circle is a darkened shadow right under the rib cage. I would like you to feel your rib cage, feel the solidness of it and as you move your hand underneath the ribs, just above and off center from your belly button, you will feel a quite significant cavity. That is this darkened area.

If you continue to move down, you will sense a valley between the mounds of your stomach and your waist. That valley is the softer shadow running through the bottom of the blue circle.

Switching to the red circle notice the pinched tendon in the pocket of the inner elbow. The odd thing here is that the arm is totally relaxed. We might see this tendon if the arm was under duress but we are not going to see it in a relaxed arm. Yet, if we locate this pocket on our own relaxed arm we do indeed feel a tendon with a very deep cavity off to the side of it.

Hence the tendon of a living, relaxed arm is to our sense of touch but not  to our eye.

Michelangelo, Christ on the Cross, 1541, black and white chalk.
Michelangelo, Christ on the Cross, 1541, black and white chalk.
Michelangelo, Christ on the Cross, 1541, black and white chalk, Newberry markup
Michelangelo, Christ on the Cross, 1541, black and white chalk, Newberry markup

The examples of this type of transformation are everywhere in Michelangelo’s drawings. Here I have chosen a little, deep pocket below the thumb and nestled just above the wrist bone.

Not Skimming the Surface

It’s uncanny but when I feel that spot on my wrist it feels exactly like in the drawing, yet, my forearms are not nearly so formed. Again Michelangelo accents the depth of the cavity and not just skimming across the surface.

Michelangelo, Study of Haman for the Sistine Chapel, 1511, red chalk.
Michelangelo, Study of Haman for the Sistine Chapel, 1511, red chalk.

This is one of the amazing studies for the figures of the Sistine Chapel.  If you feel your upper breast bone and where it meets the thorax at the base of the throat you can get a sense of some of the ribs and planes of muscle and the deep cavity of the thorax.

Watching a Women Feel Her Ribs While Looking at a Michelangelo

Once when I was visiting the Louvre and seeing Michelangelo’s Captives, which at that time were in the subterranean vaults, a young women turned the corner,  walked down the steps , and looked overwhelmed by the sculptures. She,  unconsciously started feeling her chest and the bone structure to it. She like many millions of other people connected to Michelangelo communicating the sense of touch.

Like Stone

Michelangelo, Study of Haman for the Sistine Chapel, 1511, red chalk. Newberry markup
Michelangelo, Study of Haman for the Sistine Chapel, 1511, red chalk. Newberry markup

In the blue circle notice how distinct the knob of the elbow is. Hold out your arm and feel that area-the joint of the elbow feels like a made out of stone.

Your Eyes Experience What Your Hands Would Feel

These drawings are masterpieces and can be studied for their light and shadow, movement, and form. But I think it is Michelangelo’s communication of touch that took drawing onto a dramatically new conceptual level of art; one in which, your eyes experience what your hands would feel.

I hope you enjoyed seeing (and feeling) art in a fresh way.

4 Replies to “Michelangelo’s Drawings: The Conceptual Transformation from Touch to Sight”

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