Christ and the cross
The surprising thing is that this work, the Risen Christ in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, is not generally admired. It is only rarely shown in compendiums of Michelangelo’s work, despite the fact it was a popular favorite at the time Michelangelo first showed it to the world. It has been dogged by bad luck: this is the second version of the sculpture, since half way through sculpting the first statue, Michelangelo discovered a flaw in the marble block, and abandoned it.
The statue itself is certainly unusual, and perhaps this is why it is not as popular as, for example, the Pietà or Moses. Jesus is presented as the ideal of classical antiquity: nude, and perfectly formed. The nudity, all the more striking given that this is a life-size, three-dimensional figure, seems more appropriate to a pagan than a Christian statue.
In fact, through most of its history the lower part of the figure has been covered in a variety of ways, ranging from a dainty wisp of drapery to a Baroque loincloth.
Many critics of the Risen Christ point out the odd proportions of the figure: a weighty torso and broad hips atop a pair of tapered and rather spindly legs. Particularly displeasing is a side or rear view of the figure that show Christ’s buttocks. But this ungainly rear view was not supposed to be seen. The statue was meant to go in a wall niche, so that the back of the statue was hidden. Michelangelo of course knew this, and shaped the statue so that it would appear well-proportoned from the front. If we view the sculpture from the front left, perhaps its best side, then Christ is no longer a thickset figure. Rather, his body merges with the cross in a graceful and harmonious composition.
The turn of Christ’s body and his averted face suggest something like the shunning of physical contact that is central to another post-Resurrection subject, the Noli me tangere (“Touch Me Not”). The turned head is a poignant way of making Christ seem inaccessible even as the reality of his living flesh is manifest.
We are encouraged to look at not Christ’s face, but the instruments of his Passion. Our attention is directed to the cross by the effortless cross-body gesture of the left arm and the entwining movement of the right leg. With his powerful but graceful hands, Christ cradles the cross, and the separated index fingers direct us first to the cross and then heavenward. Christ presents us with the symbols of his Passion – the tangible recollection of his earthly suffering.
Behind Christ and barely visible between his legs we see the cloth in which Christ was wrapped when he was in the tomb. He has just shed the earthly shroud; it is in the midst of slipping to earth. In this suspended instant, Christ is completely and properly nude.
We must imagine how the figure must have appeared in its original setting, within the darkened confines of an elevated niche. Christ steps forth, as though from the tomb and the shadow of death. Foremost are the symbols of the Passion, which Christ will leave behind when he ascends to heaven.
For centuries, the faithful have kissed the advanced foot of Christ, for like Mary Magdalene and doubting Thomas, they wish for some sort of physical contact with the Risen Christ. To carve a life-size marble statue of a naked Christ certainly was audacious, but it is also theologically appropriate. Michelangelo’s contemporaries recognized, more easily than modern viewers, that the Risen Christ was a moving and profoundly beautiful sculpture that was true to the sacred story.