Michelangelo’s David Vs Nellaiappar Karna – part 1

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 !

28 thoughts on “Michelangelo’s David Vs Nellaiappar Karna – part 1

  1. Agony and Esctasy is a fiction. Irving Stone did a great job there. The movie of the same name featuring Charlten Heston covered half of the book. Michelangelo portrayed himself as poor in public, in reality he died as one of the richest man, financially in Europe. This does not take away any merit from the great artist. I would recommend viewing of Michelanagelo and Davinici – BBC publication DVD. It gives great insight into the life of the 2 great artist. Agony and Esctasy is great read, Irving Stone’s team did a great work in keeping the reader’s fixed.
    Nellaiappar statues of the Nayaka Era are great sculptures, the size and hard granite should have posed a great challenge. The number of pillars and their intricate work, musical pillars are great. The work is too complex, for a simple work like David retains your attention for life.

  2. Fantastic post, Vijay… its indeed a pity that most of the people who see these sculptures dont even spare a second glance, for they dont even know what it is, and know its beauty even lesser! if only we could educate the common man about the greatness of our ancient unknown and unnamed craftsmen!

  3. நீங்கள் ஒப்பிட்டுள்ள இரு சிலைகளும் கலைப் பொக்கிஷங்கள்தாம் என்றாலும், கர்ணன் சிலைக்குப்பின் தூண் ஆதாரம் உள்ளது; டேவிட் சிலைக்கு அது கிடையாது; நடுநிலையில் நின்று பார்த்தால் அதுவே சிறந்த கலைப்படைப்பு


    • dear Dev, Again it is not a question of which is best – you are talking hard granite as against a softer marble. considering that David was a one piece – the sculptors of Nellai had to turn out a whole line of such ..maybe if we had given them just one to do… rgds vj

  4. One an anonymous artisan working for a Nayak king; the other a world-famous artist (though probably better known as a Ninja Turtle 😉 )…

    That too is a contrast!

  5. haha. ninja turtle – Shash you are too much…

    Kathie – We grew up on Karna via one movie – Our great actor Shivaji Ganesan immortalised him more !!


  6. Dear Vijay, This is a great post, and a great topic. while there has been a great amount of focus on the western art, particularly the artists their times, and their methods.. very little is out there in popular literature about the astounding works of south Indian art and architecture.

    Its a great combination of art, architecture, science and technology which has resulted in such marvels as these sculptures, and the mammoth temples, and their infinite decorations. Truly poetry in stone.

    Looking forward to the next part, and much more of your well researched articles here.

    Best regards,

  7. வில்லுக்கு ஒரு விஜயன். கலையார்வத்துக்கு ஒரு விஜய்.

  8. one of the best moustaches i have seen till date 😉
    while the core forms are the similar in mastery..culture and faith dictate the externals. Great post vj

  9. Vijay

    This is an impressive post. It’s a wonderful coincidence that you get hold of the book and also make it to Nellaiapar temple where you see the statue of Karna. This coincidence has worked out well in bringing out this interesting study. Very nice descriptions and narration.

  10. very well made site, read the article and was very impressed with the narration. Very good work, keep it going.
    Hope I can make time to read all your articles.

  11. Dear Vijay!
    It is a nice article. Please compare with Michelangelo’s David with Saraswathi Mahal’s Sivaji sculpture in the same manner.
    Thank you,
    Ayyampet J.Balachandran

  12. Nice posts Vijay! It would be a good idea to have a small board explaining this next to these sculptures which would help every one, atleast till the time people start getting the taste of these 🙂

  13. தற்செயலாக உங்கள் தளத்திற்கு வந்தேன். பதிவுகள் அனைத்தையும் ஒரே மூச்சில் படித்துவிட வேண்டும் என்ற ஆவல் வருகிறது.. நெல்லையப்பர் கோவிலுக்குப் பலமுறை சென்றிருக்கிறேன். ஆனால் கோயிலைப் பற்றிய சிறப்புகள் ஒன்றுமே எனக்குத் தெரியாது 🙁 🙁
    தெரிந்து கொள்ளும் ஆவலைத் தூண்டியுள்ளது உங்களது இப்பதிவு. நன்றி!
    வாழ்க தங்கள் நற்பணி(ஆராய்ச்சி)

  14. Thanks Vijay! Your photos are much clear than the face book photos! I had the chance to see the Michelango’s sculptures when I was on a trip to Europe 10 years ago! That time I did not see the sculptures with ur eye!

  15. Thanks for these nice post and research wok. I amdoing research on archeo acoustic marvel in India. while I as seraching about the temples I read you rpost where somebody wrote about We used to have an old Chola temple in a neighbouring village(Kandirathirtham, near Thiru Mazhapaadi)) with statues that make different sound on different parts of it’s body.

    Could you pleasse provide me the inormation of this ?


  16. Thanks for these nice post and research wok. I am writing a book archeo acoustic marvel in India. while I was searching about the temples I read you post where somebody wrote about We used to have an old Chola temple in a neighbouring village(Kandirathirtham, near Thiru Mazhapaadi)) with statues that make different sound on different parts of it’s body.

    Could you please provide me the inofrmation of this ?


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