By Edith Carolyn Phillips
MLA Thesis, University of South Florida, 2009
Abstract: The thesis poses a question derived from an unlikely nexus of two prominent figures of the Renaissance and the Reformation: the artist whose creative abilities ostensibly dominate the Vatican and religious art, juxtaposed with the rebel who splintered the dominance of Roman Catholicism. Michelangelo’s program of artistic and religious reform in the second quarter of the sixteenth century strikes a chord similar to Martin Luther’s theological perspectives set forth in the Reformation. Through the influence of the artist’s friendship with the noblewoman, Vittoria Colonna, and subsequent involvement with an elite and cultured Italian reform group called the Spirituali, his later works of art and poetry reflect a deepening spirituality with unmistakable affinities to Protestant doctrine.
The thesis first discusses the revolutionary stream of religious thought by providing a brief background of the intellectual, social, political, and ecclesiastical currents conducive to religious reform in Germany and Italy. Second, it explores the pathway leading to Michelangelo’s later spiritual and doctrinal formation and the manner in which it parallels Luther’s in several crucial aspects. The point of divergence, however, manifests itself through the parameters of personal experience in communicating their respective visions. Whereas Luther combined piety with spiritual autonomy and freedom, directing his efforts toward proclaiming a simple, democratic gospel the masses could comprehend, Michelangelo wedded piety with beauty and mystery, communicating through a nuanced language of art and poetry shrouded in allegory, myth, and allusion.
Lastly, the paper comments upon possible reasons for Michelangelo’s and the Spirituali’s failure of reform strategies in contrast to Luther’s success. Michelangelo’s ties to Luther are predicated upon an evaluation of certain of the artist’s poems and The Last Judgment fresco as expounded in the thesis. However, the final determination of whether Michelangelo can be viewed as a “secret Luther” rests with the reader and his/her commitment to imagination, intellectual involvement, and a personal quest for truth. The thesis challenges the astute reader to assume the role of an authentic truth-seeker who must delve below the surface of superficiality to discern the message of the divine artist/poet who deems truth too precious to unveil to the mindless throng.