I am overwhelmed standing in front of “Awakening Slave”. It is a 2.67m marble statue that was originally commissioned by Pope Julius II for his tomb in the Basilica of St. Peter’s as part of a slave series to include more than forty figures in a three-level structure that would surround Moses. The elaborate plan was stopped when Michelangelo was pulled away from the project to paint the Sistine Chapel. The project was then redesigned and restarted. Over many years, it was stopped and started and eventually, it was aborted. Awakening Slave now stands in Florence in the Galleria dell Accademia.
I feel a rush of emotions as I stare at the slave making a momentous effort to break away from the marble block--twisting and pulling. I can feel the prisoner’s power and agony. His muscles bulge, his torso strains. The lack of finished detail adds to its immediate and monumental power. The visible chisel marks on the stone elevate the struggle to a new level.
Michelangelo spent months trying to find the perfect marble for his subjects in the quarries of Cararra, Italy. He wanted to reveal the human experience and he felt it was his job to “set the sculptures free” from the confines of the marble. Michelangelo sculpted in a very different manner from the sculptors in his day. While many sculptors would create a plaster cast model and mark the marble block so they would know where to chip, Michelangelo created a groundbreaking process--working by hand. He called his approach to sculpting the art of “taking away.” He would begin in the front and progress to the back of the block.
I wonder if Michelangelo finished this piece and deliberately left this work unfinished or is the Awakening Slave an unfinished piece? An unfinished piece enhances the tension; showing the never-ending personal and professional struggles and burdens that we encounter in everyday life and need to address. Michelangelo was a person, like you and I, who had faults and insecurities. He was solitary. He had a melancholic personality. He battled with his sexual identity. He struggled with his relationship with God.
Perhaps the slave is trying to free his spirit? I can only imagine that at times, out of sheer frustration and angst and hopelessness, Michelangelo wanted to jump out of his own skin! Sound familiar? None of us want to feel imprisoned.
How we so struggle to break away from our temporal selves, to be free, to soar…