Michelangelo's place in the world of art is altogether unique. His supremacy is acknowledged by all, but is understood by a few only. In the presence of his works none can stand unimpressed, yet few dare to claim any intimate knowledge of his art. The quality so vividly described in the Italian word terribilità is his predominant trait. He is one to awe rather than to attract, to overwhelm rather than to delight. The spectator must needs exclaim with humility, "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it." Yet while Michelangelo can never be a popular artist in the ordinary sense of the word, the powerful influence which he exercises seems constantly increasing. Year by year there are more who, drawn by the strange fascination of his genius, seek to read the meaning of his art.

His subjects are all profoundly serious in intention. Life was no holiday to this strenuous spirit; it was a stern conflict with the powers of darkness in which such heroes as David and Moses were needed. Like the old Hebrew prophets, the artist poured out his soul in a vehement protest against evil, and a stirring call to righteousness.

Considered both as a sculptor and a painter, Michelangelo's one vehicle of expression was the human body. His works are "form-poems," through which he uttered his message to mankind. As he writes in one of his own sonnets,

"Nor hath God deigned to show himself elsewhere
More clearly than in human forms sublime."

In his art, says the critic Symonds, "a well-shaped hand, or throat, or head, a neck superbly poised on an athletic chest, the sway of the trunk above the hips, the starting of the muscles on the flank, the tendons of the ankle, the outline of the shoulder when the arm is raised, the backward bending of the loins, the curves of a woman's breast, the contours of a body careless in repose or strained for action, were all words pregnant with profoundest meaning, whereby fit utterance might be given to thoughts that raise man near to God."

Learning his first lessons in art of the Greeks, he soon possessed himself of the great principles of classic sculpture. Then he boldly struck out his own path; his was a spirit to lead, not to follow. With the subtle Greek sense of line and form, he united an entirely new motif. In contrast to the ideal of repose which was the leading canon of the Greeks, his chosen ideal was one of action. Moreover, he invariably fixed upon some decisive moment in the action he had to represent, a moment which suggests both the one preceding and the one following, and which gives us the whole story in epitome. Thus in the David we see preparation, aim, and action. It was a far cry from the elegant calm of the Greek god to the restless energy of this rugged youth.

Even with seated figures he followed the same principle. Moses and the Duke Giuliano are ready to rise to their feet if need be. In his frescoes we again find the same motif,—Adam rising to his feet in obedience to the Creator's summons, and Christ the Judge sweeping asunder the multitudes.

In his love of action and his passion for the human form lay the elements of his art most easily lending themselves to exaggeration. That the master did indeed permit himself to be carried beyond due limits in these matters is seen by comparing the grandeur of the Sistine ceiling with the mannerisms of the Last Judgment. The interval between was "the time of his best technical and spiritual creativeness," when he produced the statues of the Sacristy of S. Lorenzo.

It was characteristic of Michelangelo's impetuous nature to spend his enthusiasm upon the early stages of his work, and leave it unfinished. This unfinished effect of many of his marbles seems to bring us in closer touch with his methods as a sculptor. Nor is a rough surface here and there inharmonious with the rugged character of his conceptions. Moreover, as a critic[1] has pointed out, the polished and rough portions enhance each other, giving a variety in the light and shadow which is pictorial in effect.

[1] See notes on the Life of Michelangelo Buonarotti in the Blashfield-Hopkins edition of Vasari.

To a man of Michelangelo's austere temperament, intensely masculine in his predilections, the beauty of womanhood was not fully revealed. His sibyls can scarcely be counted as women; they belong to a world of their own, neither human nor divine. It was only in his few Madonnas that we can trace his feminine ideal, an ideal noble and dignified, rather than beautiful. The Madonna of the bas-relief is proud rather than tender, the Virgin of the Pietà is grand rather than lovely. These were works of his youth. Later in life, when he had known the blessing of a good woman's friendship, he developed a new ideal in the gentle and delicate womanhood of the Virgin of the Last Judgment.

Michelangelo has been compared to two great masters of dissimilar arts, Milton and Beethoven. There are striking points of similarity in the men themselves, in stern uprightness of character, in scorn of the low and trivial, in lofty idealism. The art of all three is too far above the common level to be popular; it requires too much thinking to attract the superficial. In poetry, in music, and in sculpture, all three utter the profoundest truths of human experience, expressed in grand and solemn harmonies.