Voice of the Grave

Voice of the Grave

A sculptural reading of Michelangelo's sepulchral chapel for Lorenzo and Giuliano de'Medici, built in 1521 - 1534 in the San Lorenzo Church, Florence.

For it is my good fortune not to see, not to hear.
1 Michelangelo

Sitting on his chair, with a slight turn of the body and a view out into the room, a particularly soft light gave his still flawless face a milder radiance than was warranted by his inner being. He collapsed into himself in a kind of childlike contemplation, where rank, position, and ambition no longer mattered. Instead, he was reduced solely to his presence as a body, a smooth and cool container, which gave the sculptor a chance to see this person as pure form. The model disqualified himself as a person by his absence, his sinking inward into himself, and revealed himself devoid of time and vanity, in diametric opposition to the goal ultimately aimed at by the sculpture as a whole: a sepulchral monument over that same model, his brother, and two other relatives.

As under the uniformity of one skin, the figures extend into the stone, whether it be the framework of the architecture or the fixed points of the figures. Only the uniform surface formed by the material gives context to the space. Any idea of God or anything else redeeming from the other side is absent. Only a cleansed representation appears of the relationship between the body's now - fixed in the stone - and the body's transitoriness - exposed precisely by the sculptures to our knowledge of past time. Architecture and body converge in a common language on Giuliano's torso. Dynamically, Giuliano waits, unlike his brother Lorenzo, lost in himself, but waiting for the right cue to action. The stucco on the walls, the columns, and the capitals have invaded his coat of mail and form here a palpably softer architecture. Or is it the matrix of his body that expresses itself through the architecture, via the appearance of his coat of mail as half skin, half stucco? The architecture holds Giuliano in his niche, makes him a part of itself, and at the same time Giuliano's torso gives life to the surrounding architecture by lying close to it, as it expands the physical connection to the room.

The same architectonic and sculptural differences that are found in smaller and smaller elements in the case of Giuliano appear between the two brothers' mausoleums. Four figures, each given a name, lie draped two each over the two sarcophaguses. On Giuliano's sarcophagus are Night and Day and on Lorenzo's Dawn and Dusk. Whereas the portraits of the two brothers, each in the middle of an iconostasis, mimic the still-living body - spatially fixed and raised as they are over the pure architecture of the highly elevated sarcophagus, the place of transitoriness, the coffins, the sarcophaguses, are completely expressionless and symmetrical, both about an axis within themselves and with respect to each other. They both stand lifted inorganically from the earth, from which the deceased must be expected to arise again. No differences are made manifest here. Instead, the uniformity of fate appears as pure geometry, as an abstract reflected over two axes in insipid symmetry. At the same time, the body's presence is invoked as biology and process in the presumptuous manner in which the sarcophaguses rise to eye level in their mere presence. The smoothness of the sarcophaguses, their presence as spatial living quantities, make the portrait figures into their opposite, as the play glides back to them and gives them space to unfold their many differences and subdivisions. This complex diagram gives a sense of inspiration that disappears if you look at the portrait figure in isolation. There is an interplay between the hardness, bordering on architecture, of the sarcophaguses and the rest of the mausoleum's complex pattern of approaching this hardness.

Why is there no organic link between the allegorical figures on the sarcophaguses and the sarcophaguses themselves? Why do the sarcophaguses assert themselves with a coldness and purity on their surfaces, so that not even the allegorical figures on their covers can hold on, but are virtually pushed aside? Why this insistence on a secularized death, a death as architecture? The allegorical figures attempt to create a transition between this architectonic death and the progression to the now. Like Zeno, they try to demonstrate a line constantly approaching the line between before and now, or more precisely, between here and the hereafter.
It is not just the four allegories that express processes, temporal quantities. All transitions glide. The allegories are not directly arranged in the dual symmetry that characterizes the sarcophaguses. Dawn and Dusk do not form a direct counterpart to Night and Day, but form a derivation, a modulation. The individual figure reveals processes such as a turning of the figure, which introduces time as an element on the very surface of the sculpture in the completely fabricated way in which the vanishing points of the depiction of the body constantly changes. The viewpoint changes constantly. The individual figure cannot be kept in a perspective, a space. The eye wanders in its attempt to gather all the various spaces into one.

As the eye wanders, so does the physical surface of the allegories. From the statuesque wholeness and closedness of the portrait figures, to the surface of the allegories, there is a gliding on the level of the four sarcophagus figures to hold onto space in an unequivocal grasp. Whereas the surfaces of the portrait figures do not threaten to disappear from view but perhaps, on the contrary, tend to fossilize and become architecture, the allegories, placed as closely as they are to death in the form of the sarcophagus, constantly attempt to draw the line between the life that is lived and the end of this life. They insert themselves, so to speak, between the deceased and the image of the deceased. In three ways the allegorical figures point in the opposite direction as the portraits: the sculptures' gliding down from the sarcophaguses - their inability to maintain place, the above-mentioned rotation of perspective - their inability to maintain space, and finally the gliding in the treatment of their surfaces - the inability to maintain an unambiguous surface. How, then, should the differences among the four allegorical figures be treated? What are the connections between Day and Dawn, Night and Dusk? Contrary to visual experience, it is Night that has the most visible characteristics, the highest degree of allegorical definition. It wears a diadem on its brow with an eight-pointed star. Its hair is in a coiffure. Under a drapery we see a face or a mask. Under its bent leg is an owl and a bouquet of flowers in bud. Night is the only one with a worn, used body and the only one having a body with full detail. The hidden, the invisible that Night represents is turned here into its opposite. This expresses the "nightly" content, with the customary insignia of the allegory, without psychology, in a detailed, all-illuminating flash of light. Even the double turning of the body, inward from the waist down, outward from the waist up, indicates a hermaphroditic, reciprocal relationship between vision and darkness. If the turning of the body were completed, it would be twisted off at the middle. Precisely this body position, which both reveals and freezes this division at the same time, gives rise to the figures: the owl that appears between Night's legs and the mask - or the hollow face's appearance in a grimace - placed between the owl's human face and a number of masks placed under the [tandstaven] on the wall behind. But now even the hollow face can be held onto as the unifying definition of Night. For behind the mask there is a glimpse of yet another mask, or is it perhaps the wakeful look of which the female figure has been deprived as it is turned away.

The mask and the owl on Night's side of the sarcophagus mimic the small faces under the [tandstaven] on the wall behind, but none of the faces catch our eye. A number of faces under the [tandstaven] ornament it, so the view disappears and the face is left as an arabesque. Night turns its closed face downward toward itself, and even though a mask looks out under its hand, it is a mouth and brow more than a face, like a shell of Day's face, which has almost disappeared, roughly cut with a [tandmejsel chisel?] alone. The entire arrangement reveals only an echo of all the faces. Nothing sees, even though the arrangement is teeming with faces.
Is Day looking out through Night's matrix? For Day itself, placed on the sarcophagus opposite Night, has no face. No attempt has been made to give Day a look, much less establish a plausible anatomic explanation for the placement of its head. Blindly, it rises over a mountain of a shoulder, while the body, taught as a spring, straightens itself out. Unlike Night, Day has no allegorical features, but is completely dependent on Night to give it meaning. A pure, illuminated, present body without secrets. Only in the difference in the sculptural treatment of the head and body does the figure point both to a conceptual content and back to Night as sculptural material. Thus, the figures are two, yet at the same time one, derived as the one is from the other and its duality.

There is a gliding connection from Day on Giuliano's mausoleum to Dusk on Lorenzo's and it continues from there to Dawn by virtue of the increasing unambiguousness demonstrated by the figures. Dawn is the only one of the our figures that is clearly defined both spatially and anatomically. For although Night reveals a certain femininity, duality still prevails with regard to its gender. Thus, the tranquil view is disturbed, for the two female figures are related, to be sure, but they differ in more than age. Layers may be inserted between the two female figures, subdividing the space between the feminine and the masculine.

From Night over to Day, on to Dusk, and finally to Dawn the allegorical grip is gradually loosened. From being a dominant element in Giuliano's grave, held in check by the allegorical figures on its top, the sarcophagus in Lorenzo's grave is the most prominent. Its inescapable symmetry weighs the heaviest and alters the character of the less and less allegorical figures. They no longer have a contemplative characteristic of a concept, but glide over into a presence, which is just as inexplicable and unsymbolic as the architecture it rests on and has as its background. The light of which Day and Night speak in Giuliano's grave, which they signify and reveal, becomes a major actor in Dusk and Dawn, not in represented form, but in a totally concrete sense. The light models, indulges the forms, and invokes the architecture with no other function than this. Like Day's face, Dusk's face is roughly hewn with a [tandmejsel], but in this case the technique functions as a kind of pedal point of light. The bottom point of the interpretation which can point to the light as the main thing.

Deprived of the duality between Day and Night, the illuminated and the hidden, there are no tools for reflection. There is no dialectic relationship here between which thought and differences can rise. The pure geometry of death stands out. Any transition between the figures and their foundation - the architecture - become unimportant. Whereas Giuliano's figure was tightly intertwined with the architecture, the two pressing in on each other, the architecture gives way to Lorenzo's niche. He sits in it undisturbed, empty-handed, but for a small soft cloth he holds slightly curled up in his left hand. Whereas Giuliano's coat of mail and the architecture around him are aspects of the same matter, Lorenzo's figure is at a distance from its base. A distance is placed between his portrait and its surroundings. Accentuated by a small architectural fragment under his left elbow. Yet, the difference has no substance. The light submits itself just as readily to his torso as it does to the sarcophagus or to the figures on it.

Dawn and Dusk are empty-handed on Lorenzo's sarcophagus, deprived of the insignias that would permit reflection. Naked, both semantically and - in this context - bodily. At the mercy of the light, the illumination, there is no basis for the allegory. Even this shell-meaning evaporates.

From Dawn back to Night, Night's literary and allegorical meaning is weakened with each new turn in the cyclotron of the figures, to a point where even this system's catalyst and first instance falls before the system itself. The four personified corners of intelligibility become less and less able to maintain a conversation with the two silent sarcophaguses. Beginning with Lorenzo, ending with Giuliano, sight and hearing die out in a steady diminuendo.


1 From a sonnet to the sculpture Night.