Monday, November 16, 2015

A third note on Michelangelo's face in the skin of Bartholomew (III)

An additional note on Michelangelo's face in the skin on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel:

In reading about the confraternities which existed in Florence in the fifteenth century, it occurred to me that perhaps there might be yet another reference present in the hanging skin of St. Bartholomew that contains the self-portrait of Michelangelo on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel (1541).

Bartholomew is the patron saint of tanners and, as such, was adopted by the parishioners of the Church of Santa Croce, as a model for a confraternity that held meetings within the confines of that church as early as 1439 (See J. Henderson, Piety and Charity in Late Medieval Florence (1994).  The confraternity was known as the Compagnia di San Bartolommeo detta della Capanna (the Confraternity of Saint Bartholomew known as the "Tent.")
         Michelangelo's house, now the Casa Buonarroti in Florence, on Via Ghibellina, 70, is in the parish district of Santa Croce, and Santa Croce is the place where Michelangelo's body is brought from Rome to be buried after he dies. That he chooses the Santa Croce district in which to settle in 1508, the year he buys the house, is probably because his family had originally had a house on Via dei Bentaccordi, also in the Santa Croce district, when they returned to Florence from Caprese near Arezzo, where Michelangelo was born. His later choice to paint himself as a skin held by the patron saint of tanners shows his attachment to the Santa Croce district even near the end of his life.
         The vats for the treating and dyeing of cloth, including leather, were in the Santa Croce district, some of them on Corso dei Tintori (whose name contains still a reference to the colors used by the dyers, Road of the Tinters.) St. Bartholomew would be the saint of choice for tinters and tanners to pray to, since he died by being skinned alive. 
         Was Michelangelo as a youth a member of the Compagnia di San Bartolommeo della Capanna? Was he remembering his youth and the activities of Santa Croce which he engaged in as part of that Compagnia by painting himself as the skin of St. Bartholomew in the Last Judgment? He does not paint his face in the face of St. Bartholomew himself but rather puts his facial features in the skin. Is he thus identifying with the poorer people of his parish who were the tanners and dyers who handled "skin"in their work? and who used colors as he does on the wall? Is the image of the artist held out for the viewer by St. Bartholomew, then, a reminder
that Michelangelo came from Florence and the district of the tanners, of Santa Croce?

As a member of that parish in his youth he may have seen the altarpiece by Andrea Della Robbia where Bartholomew features prominently in the center as the model for youths in the compagnia to follow. (now in the Museo di Santa Croce.)      

In the image so intimately attached to that saint and his death, could he not be remembering the Latin phrase underneath the saint there, "Saint and Father Bartholomew, PRAY FOR US?
In painting a wall of Last Judgment that includes his own death and afterlife, the artist

perhaps thinks back to his childhood and the models available to him artistically in the parish of his youth. From the viewer's point of view, his painted Bartholomew turns left with his right hand holding the knife, exactly as the sculpted Bartholomew does in Della Robbia's bas-relief altarpiece. The turn of the head, the beard, the knife held out as the symbol of his identity are the same in both images. The face of the artist is suspended between early life and the end of life in his remembrance of the Santa Croce of his youth. "Pray for us, Saint Bartholomew," the skin says, "in the hour of our need."  

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