In the art world some names are uttered with a deep reverence – Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni is one of them – An artist par excellence who excelled in painting, sculpture and architecture. I was fortunate or rather serendipitously lucky to read more about the great man and his true love of carving marble in the book The Agony and Ecstasy . It had been a long and eventful Pandya Naadu tour for me and Arvind and as we parted – the hired taxi dropping him off at Nellai Railway station and me at the Nellai bus stand, giving me an hour and a half to kill and a bone jarring bus ride to Coimbatore. The Old book shop outside the railway station did not look promising, as it mostly had used school and college books ( and i had already had enough of them year back). He managed to take out couple of English Novels both of which has long lost their front covers, but the inside page was clear – The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo – by Irving Stone. I asked for the price and i think the owner was more than happy to get rid of it, if i had persisted he would have given it to me for free !
We had just come out of the famed Nellaiappar temple after about half a day of looking at the sculptures, which are still today quoted by many to be the most beautiful sculptural works – along with their sister works in Krishnapuram. As i got immersed in the book over the next couple of days, I grew to know the sculptor in Michelangelo, his single minded drive to carve marble, his thirst to be become number one – his trysts with Leonardo Da Vinci with more than its share of ‘ healthy’ competition. I read in rapt attention at how he took on an abandoned and already worked block of marble – the massive block of white marble had been quarried from the famed Quarry in Carrara , high in the Apuan Alps of Tuscany – specially for the great Donatello to be executed maybe via his pupil Agostino in 1464 CE. But the project was shelved with the demise of Donatello in 1466. Ten years later they tried to resurrect it with a contract to Rossellino but it never went forward. The block was possibly worked on and blocked out – maybe cut / drilled at the bottom to shape a foot. But then it lay in that state exposed to the elements for another 25 years – till 1501 CE ! Infact in 1500, an inventory of the cathedral workshops described the piece as “a certain figure of marble called David, badly blocked out and supine.”
The contract was re floated and against ( arguably) competition from Leonardo, Michelangelo won the commission. He breaks convention or rather the earlier version of David by Donatello and carves the now immortal David.
We are lucky that some of his rough sketches survive to this day and we can catch a glimpse of how the great artist tried to solve the problem of a tall block of marble.
The story was much popular then as well but it is clear that initially he went with the popular depiction of showing the slain head of Goliath underneath David’s feet. But then, I guess, he wanted his work to infused with more life. So he chose to depict David facing up to the Giant and caught him in a moment, where he contemplates taking on this task and breaking tradition from not portraying after the slaying.
For starters, the finished work stands all of 17 feet – if you understand how a rough block of marble is worked on, you can imagine the size of the original block.
That the great artist completed the task in just 3 years – 1501 to 1504 is itself mind boggling, but as we take time to study it in detail, it is truly astounding.
All David’s images in this posts are courtesy the internet, wikipedia – too many sources to individually thank but one big thanks to google.
To add to the complexity is the fact that this is a free standing sculpture and the sculptor would have to leave enough of the material at the feet as he reduced the weight from the top,else the weight of the load on top would crumble the legs. He must have blocked out the major limbs and steadily worked top down calculating the centre of gravity and weight distribution. And then the detailing and emotion, the sureness of form, the study of the human anatomy, limbs, nerves, bones, ribs, knee caps, ligaments and tendons moving over muscle and flesh.
Many scholars and experts have still argued about the expression on his face, but to me the entire frame is in suspended animation – his right hand holding the stone, the left hand with the sling, as he ponders his destiny, there seems to be a certain apprehension as he weighs his own skill and strength, a minor trepidation that he might not win and that is the very pinnacle of sculpting.
It slowly dawned on me that i had seen a similar scene that very day – of two rivals facing each other in battle. In the famed corridors of the Nellaiappar temple – is a rare sculpture of Karna – the eldest son of Kunti, elder to 5 Pandavas, but forced into the enemy camp by evil fate – yet the greatness in him, the Son of the Sun God, he who never sent back anyone from his door empty handed – even giving up his invincible body Armour and Ear rings in alms to Indra. He who fought for the sake of friendship against his own brothers and he who wanted to kill his own brother Arjuna.
Karna knew that the only weapon he had that could fell Arjuna was the Naga Astra – for which Arjuna had no counter, for it was the very personification of Awasena ( the snake – son of the Snake king, the only one who escaped the burning of the Khandava forest by Arjuna and Krishna and he was out to avenge his mother !)
The pillar sculpture is of massive proportions – with Karna sculpted to be about 12 feet, but is not free standing ofcourse – but carved out of hard granite with other sculptures in the round and the weight bearing load of the roof above supported by the pillar..
The period of this sculpture must be around the 16th -17th C CE – Nayakas – characterized by the slightly excessive ornamentation and distinctly over emphasized features. .
Here too the sculptor has chosen a moment in time in the action – Karna has drawn his bow with his left hand and is taking out the Naga Astra shown in its snake form. His facial features are shown as a confident man, he who knows that his opponent has no answer to his bolt, that the defining moment of the battle has come and he is going to be crowned as victor – sung in the exalted annals of history, as the one who slay Arjuna and the undisputed King of Archery in the world.
Now to consider, not as a comparison, but just as a study – the understanding of the human form by the Indian sculptor. The hard stone has been carved to depict the ease with which he is holding the bow, almost like a caress – you can make out the stone that has been removed between the finger holds and the beauty of the nails, you can even see a slight bulge of the muscles in the elbow !
He seems to taking a step back or moving his right leg to anchor his body, as he prepares to discharge the bolt. The resultant elevation of the knee caps and the bulging out of the ligaments on the side of the knee, are clearly seen.
He seems to be inhaling as he prepares to draw his bow, forcing his rib cage to expand thereby trusting up against the skin of the chest ! We will see the contrasting posture of Arjuna in the subsequent post.
Such a great work in stone. The intention of this post was to showcase the two works – not to show which is better or draw comparisons – but just that one is celebrated across the world while the other doesn’t even get a casual glance from the thousands who walk past.
We will see the contrasting posture of Arjuna who is going to face this bolt in part 2 of this post !