Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina (1504)

In the early years of the sixteenth century Michelangelo and Leonardo were each commissioned to paint a larger-than-life battle scene on the walls of the new Great Council Hall in Florence. The eminent Leonardo was 52, the young pretender Michelangelo 29. With the murals side-by-side they would have had to paint next to each other for several months though neither was completed, both artists called away to work on other projects. The cartoons [original full-scale studies] for both have been lost although a copy of what each would have looked like has survived. Leonardo’s study for the Battle of Anghiari appears to depict a fantastic, imaginary battle at close quarters. Michelangelo, to the subsequent consternation of art scholars, chose a stranger moment before the battle began when the soldiers were surprised by an attack while bathing in a river. What does it mean?

Art historians have long thought that Michelangelo chose this moment before the battle when the soldiers were struggling to put on their clothes in order to display his skill at depicting the male nude. Kenneth Clark claimed that the scene had no meaning at all: "it was simply art for art's sake."1 James Hall, on the other hand, has insightfully observed that it "closely resembles a scene of the resurrection of the dead, when skeletons and bodies emerge from fissures in the ground." 

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Antonio da Sangallo (attrib.), Copy after cartoon for Michelangelo's Battle of Cascina (1542)

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He's on the right track but, still imagining Michelangelo as an illustrator, he misses the artist's poetic and principal meaning. The resurrection of the dead is a metaphor, not an end in itself.

The fissures and faceted rock in The Battle of Cascina are not even unique to this piece but appear all over Michelangelo's work, from one of his earliest sculptures, Bacchus (bottom) to the late drawing of The Punishment of Tityus (top).

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Michelangelo, The Punishment of Tityus (1532), detail
Bottom: Michelangelo, Bacchus (1496-8), detail

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Even the figures in his two best-known masterpieces, the Virgin in the Pieta and David, rest on faceted rock. Something else supports the common significance of their setting: all five include a chopped tree trunk sprouting from the rock! And even in the Last Judgment, painted between 1536 and 1541, "the river Styx" at the bottom of the mural runs between two shores like a fissure in rock. Why?

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Michelangelo, David (detail)

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The faceted rock is a visual metaphor for brain matter in all his works. Michelangelo, an expert anatomist, knew exactly what it looked like and the fissure that runs between the two hemispheres. It was through the crack in the skull, known as the fontanelle, that the soul was thought to enter at birth. James Hall has separately noted how Michelangelo made a visual link between heads and rock in his very first sculpture.2 The chopped tree trunks are more difficult to explain but suggest growth, perhaps the growth of ideas.

This raises another important issue. Michelangelo experts and other art historians are mistaken as to why artists dissected corpses. It was not to draw more accurately but because the body, made in the image of God, contained insights into the Divine and, as a literary critic has explained, was considered "a Second Scripture."3

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Diagram of the Cerebral hemispheres and eyes

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Lastly, for this summary, there are a pair of hands in the water which Hall believes are an additional reference to the Resurrection (top)4. Possibly they are, as we will see, but only because they represent "Michelangelo's hands", the hands of the artist who created the image. Moreover, as disembodied hands, they recall the hand of God that generally appears from above, a sign that Michelangelo's divinity was the opposite of the Church's, internal not external. Picasso must have been thinking of Michelangelo's Battle when he painted an actor with a pair of similarly disembodied hands in the cue box at his feet (bottom). Once again, they are the "artist's hands", Picasso's.

See conclusion below

Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Michelangelo, Battle of Cascina, detail
Bottom: Picasso, The Actor (1904), detail

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The Resurrection was a theme that obsessed Michelangelo throughout his career but as a follower of the Inner Tradition, in whichever form, he would have thought of biblical events as internal allegories not external facts. Even the contract for what we call The Last Judgment stipulates that he should paint a Resurrection and I have shown elsewhere, in Michelangelo's Art Through Michelangelo's Eyes, that he did indeed depict a Resurrection, that moment of spiritual perfection in the poet's mind when he becomes at one with God. In the Battle of Cascina, on the other hand, the figures put on clothes that resemble flesh5 because, it has not been recognized, they are all ideas from Michelangelo's mind coming to life, a metaphor for the creation of art. They emerge from his mind at a moment of spiritual perfection when the artist himself is, metaphorically at least, reborn as Christ.

Michelangelo would not have known the Gnostic Gospel of Philip which was rediscovered in the twentieth century but he would have known and understood its meaning from his close reading of Dante and the Bible. Saying 21 goes: "If men do not first experience the resurrection while they are alive, they will not receive anything when they die."6 It is resurrection in this life that is important, not the next. Besides, Christ's resurrection was always meant as a guide and a goal for living people, a message that the Establishment Church twisted to its own almost-nonsensical meaning around the 5th century AD. (See The Inner Tradition.) For more on the two disembodied hands in the water, see this separate entry.7 

For more on this interpretation see Mystery in Michelangelo's Battle of Cascina.

Notes:

1. Clark, The Nude (London: Harmondsworth) 1960, p.191
2. James Hall, Michelangelo and the Reinvention of the Human Body (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux) 2005, p.77
3. Eric F. Langley, “Anatomizing the early-modern eye: a literary case-study”, Renaissance Studies 20, June 2006, p. 347
4. Hall, p.87
5. Hall, p.87
6. Stephan A. Hoeller, . Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing (Wheaton, IL: Quest Books) 2002, p.66
7. http://www.everypainterpaintshimself.com/article/michelangelos_hands_in_battle_of_cascina_1504/ 

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