Michelangelo’s Skull

Michelangelo, Diagram of Michelangelo's skull in the Last Judgment (1535-41)

In the three-part article on Michelangelo's Art Through Michelangelo's Eyes (2005) I argue that Michelangelo's Last Judgment is a scene inside the artist's mind with many of the figures formed into a giant view of his poetic hero, Dante Alighieri. The conclusion reveals an even larger "face" on the altar wall, one that faces us and envelops Dante's. It starts with the lunettes near the ceiling as the "eyes", or rather orbital cavities (see diagram above). I had described it as a skull or "the face of God" which has taken on some of Michelangelo's features, specifically his broad and broken nose. I now learn that not only was I beaten to the punch by Sue Binkley Tatem who described this "face" as a skull in a 1997 book but she also explained it more convincingly. She did not know about Dante's profile within it but wrote of the one facing outwards like this: "The vaulting of the chapel shapes the eyes. The eyes, nose and mouth regions are lapis lazuli blue, as if one were inside the skull looking out at blue sky." Bingo! That is exactly what is happening. She continues: "If one imagines the Sistine Chapel as a sculpture of a skull, and I think that Michelangelo the sculptor did just that, then what he painted is the pineal-"eye" view."1

It's brilliant. I had long thought of the chapel as a giant representation of Michelangelo's mind. What I had not imagined was that Michelangelo thought of the chapel as a sculpture of his divine mind. Of course, he did. He was reportedly irritated to be given a painting project by the Pope and one at which many expected him to fail. The lunettes had already been painted by him long before he painted over them to create the Last Judgment. They would always, therefore, have resembled orbital cavities whatever the subject. Now, however, my view of the creation scenes in his mind on the ceiling can be combined with Sue Tatem's internal view of his skull looking out towards blue sky. To make it even more interesting, Jonah sits above Michelangelo's skull (here enlarged for visibility), dressed probably a bit like Michelangelo in the summer months, leaning back into the cramped space to paint the ceiling. The chapel is thereby united into one whole, joined by Jonah.

The diagram tries to simulate what I mean. To repeat, the altar wall (Last Judgment) is the front of Michelangelo's skull. Jonah sits above it but under the roof of the cranium "painting" the creation scenes on the inside of his cranial cavity. Pilgrims and tourists on the floor of the chapel are then literally inside Michelangelo's mind (or skull.) Well, literally in its metaphoric sense. Yes, it's more of a diagrammatic view than a real one but then it's all in Michelangelo's psyche, the human psyche, to begin with. Like the artist, viewers must use their imagination and creativity to see what Michelangelo saw. It's well worth the effort.

1. Tatem, Biological Clocks: Your Owner’s Manual (Amsterdam: Overseas Publisher’s Association) 1997, p. 121

Reader Comments

Thank you for posting this. In High School (70s), I remember taking an Art History Class and said the same thing to my High School Art Teacher, but she seemed to brush off. I just googled to see if anything had changed since that time in terms of an argument for the Skull Image hypotheses and came across your blog. Will share your blog comments, thanks!

Robert (Tang)
www.lifencoded.com
www.dancescape.com

Robert Tang
23 Sep 2013

Thanks. I’m glad you discovered you were right after all. Many other non-specialists feel the same way.

Simon

Simon
24 Sep 2013

Hi again Simon, I just created this Video ... I used Tracing Paper and Charcoal and discovered something more than a Skull. It surprised me as I was doing this. I have given you credit in my blog at https://medium.com/this-happened-to-me/95ea1226769c.  The Video, “Michelangelo’s Jesus Decoded? The Last Supper, Sistine Chapel is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZNMJMOeTw0 Thank you again!

Robert Tang
29 Sep 2013

That’s interesting, Robert. Thank you for letting me know. I’ll have to study the mural again. Michelangelo wouldn’t be the only artist to create two “faces” in profile, even “self-portraits” facing each other which, when combined, make a whole frontal one. Is that what you’re suggesting? I’ll publish one by Lucian Freud soon. It may help you.

Simon
29 Sep 2013

Hi Simon,
I’m happy to advise that I have been able to quickly put together a 3D Model, mapping the 2D information.

VIDEO:  Michelangelo’s Jesus 3D Image Decoded, The Last Supper Sistine Chapel Part II

  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V7QqlJuIjtA

Thanks so much again for publishing this article, which ignited the spark to be able to complete this youth-hood observation!

Let the Art Historians now debate. I will writing something soon in https://medium.com/@danceScape

Thanks again!
Robert
www.lifencoded.com

Robert Tang
29 Sep 2013

Hi Simon,
Yes, that’s right, I was suggesting the 3 faces. Yes, by all means, would LOVE to read up on that!

I thought that symbolically that might represent the “Trinity”, but if this is a technique used commonly to do self-portraits, that would seem to be very convincing argument in the result that I had yielded from a simple use of “tracing paper” on the image.

Thanks again,
Robert

Robert Tang
29 Sep 2013

Good videos. I wish I was as technically proficient.

Simon
30 Sep 2013

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