Artist As Witness

Entry by: MONARCHB

19th June 2015
Artist as Witness

Ever since his wife died, he was alone--lost in a labyrinth of his own grief. After several years of mindless routine, he wanted a change. He booked a vacation trip to Italy for the first time hoping to be overwhelmed by all the magnificent art: Venice and the gold mosaics of San Marco; Florence and the green-hued Duomo; Rome and the massive space of the Pantheon. Day after day during his two-week tour, he visited countless museums and galleries. He experienced Botticelli's "Venus," Raphael's "Transfiguration," and da Vinci's "Last Supper."

Overwhelming, yes. But instead of lifting his spirits, the magnificent art made him feel insignificant and even more aware of who he was--a grieving husband from a small town in America overseas for the first time. His art history books back in Iowa and his guidebook in his backpack prepared him for the "usual suspects" of the Renaissance, but nothing could prepare him for Michelangelo's "Slaves" in the Galleria dell 'Academia in Florence: the four massive pieces--raw, unfinished, imperfect.

The Academy's big attraction is, of course, "David"--arguably the artist's sculptural masterpiece. But it was those four figures down the hall from the main gallery that haunted and mesmerized him. As if Michelangelo was creating four allegories of the soul imprisoned in four stone bodies.

Allegory of the Bearded Slave whose arm cradles his head, whose hand is lost in his hair, whose left foot disappears in mid-stance. Is he the allegory of Wind? The breath of God that won't leave him alone?

Allegory of the Awakening Slave whose body is submerged in marble, half-born, half-shadow, who almost forgets he could be alive. Is he the allegory of Water? The primordial dream before land and sea were separated from each other?

Allegory of the Young Slave whose arm hides his face, whose back is still attached to stone, whose mouth doesn't exist. Is he the allegory of Fire? The constant heat that destroys and baptizes in blue flames?

Allegory of the Atlas Slave whose neck curves with the weight of the world, whose leg dangles over the precipice, whose face is a contour of sorrow. Is he the allegory of Earth? The green man from the first garden before it was called Eden?

The American tourist stared at the four figures--oblivious to the crowd around him--oblivious to the tour guide urging him on. He could only think of the past few years: the emptiness, the incessant dreams about drowning, the searing memories of her death, the cool rain blessing the ground at the funeral. As if Michelangelo hadn't merely created these sculptures but actually bore witness to the man's own life. Every single breath of it like a song that he had forgotten. But a song, in that crowded hall, that he was finally learning to sing again. Every word, every melody. For the first time in three years, he wanted to open his mouth and sing. He knew the "Slaves" imprisoned in their silent homes would hear him.