Moscow Florentine Society

Peter Barenboim


A Key to the Medici Chapel Interpretation

Michelangelo's sculptures in the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo can be discussed in terms of history, of technique and of style, and their particular language and historical context can be analyzed objectively. But they are far more. They are the emotions aroused in those seeing them for the first time, and they are the distant and chance associations evoked in the mind of the visitor who has seen them many times before. The aura of their reputation has a profound psychological effect on the viewer, who sees them, not as an objective reality, but as a reflection of his own expectations and desires. Michelangelo's sculptures are part of the myth surrounding their creator. Vasari and Condivi's eulogistic view of him as a unique and divine being, carefully fostered by the artist during his lifetime, has been taken over, practically unaltered by the tourist or television producer.

Antonio Paolucci

Interior of the secret room under the New Sacristy of the Medici Chapel.

The Sacred Feminine and the Triads of Michelangelo and Botticelli

The New Sacristy (Sagrestia Nuova) of the San Lorenzo Basilica in Florence, also known as the Medici Chapel, is the only architectural and sculptural complex that Michelangelo could bring to completion the way he had designed it. Many art experts believe the Medici Chapel sculptures to be the pinnacle work of the Great Florentine.

In 1976, a concealed corridor was discovered under the New Sacristy. That corridor might have been some kind of a secret abode where the sculptor extraordinaire and architect of the New Sacristy could rest and relax. There, in complete solitude, he could think, draw and enjoy a quiet atmosphere. But in 1530 he was hiding there, at every minute expecting to be found and killed by the soldiers of Alessandro Medici. Michelangelo, aged 55, was then very ill. He probably felt that the sculptures of the New Sacristy were the last in his creative career. His self-portrait on the wall of the concealed corridor reflects this fear of death (through violence or from an illness). This drawing is critically important for realizing the entire atmosphere in which he had been working in the last three years of the New Sacristy completion.

Michelangelo was making his ideas real in a situation when he had to conceal his true intentions from the project's patrons — Pope Clement VII and, later, from Pope's heirs.

Michelangelo used to destroy most of his sketches right after completion of sculptural work. Fortunately, quite a few still have survived.

Some of these drawings may be the key to understanding the mysterious concept of the Medici Chapel, which has been feeding many a heated discussion for over a century.

A wall drawing in the secret room under the New Sacristy of the Medici Chapel.

Young Michelangelo was brought up in the household of Lorenzo De'Medici, the Magnificent (il Magnifico), whom he worshiped. He was aware of Lorenzo's grand and never-ending sorrow for his brother Giuliano, who had been stabbed to death in the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore during a plot jointly contrived by the Pazzi, an eminent Florentine family, and Pope Sixtus IV.

A wall drawing in the secret room under the New Sacristy of the Medici Chapel.

From that day, the jovial nature of Lorenzo and the open-minded style of Florentine rule had changed. Michelangelo had been idolizing Lorenzo the Magnificent and the memory of his brother Giuliano, but he did not feel the same for the later Medicis. “If Florence, for three generations, seemed to acquiesce in the Medici power, which, by force of circumstances, had become hereditary, it was only because the Medicis appealed to the public with their talents and merits. They were powerful, because their authority did not depend on titles, so nobody could either challenge or abolish it. They were considered the first citizens of Florence, because other people recognized them as such or took it for granted”[1].

[1] Marcel Brion, Michelangelo, Moscow, 2002, p. 41 (in Russian).

Soon after Lorenzo's death, his rather mediocre son was ousted from Florence. Afterwards, several Medicis in succession managed to return to their seat of power, almost always riding on the shoulders of foreign troops. In 1520, commissioned by cardinal Giulio De'Medici (the future Pope Clement VII), Michelangelo starts working on the Medici Tombs complex of San Lorenzo. According to the ordering customer, it was to host the tombs of Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother Giuliano, plus the sepulchers for the two later Medicis named Lorenzo (Duke of Urbino) and Giuliano (Duke of Nemours), and the tomb for Giulio De'Medici himself.

Nobody has yet surpassed the Great Florentine in sculpture, and until it happens (remember that Praxiteles had been “waiting” for Michelangelo for almost two millennia), we will be still living in the epoch of Michelangelo Buonarroti. The details and shades of his art, the mysteries of his ideas and designs will ever remain important to us, being a hundred times more sophisticated than our imagination.

Many misinterpretations of the Medici Chapel design are due to undervaluation of the difference between the first (Giovanni — Cosimo — Lorenzo) and the second (Pope Leo X, Pope Clement VII, Duke Giuliano, Duke Lorenzo, Duke Alessandro) generation of the Medici politicians, as well as the difference in their evaluation by Michelangelo himself.

Supervising the building of fortifications for the Florentine Republic, then at war with the second generation, in the person of Giulio Medici (Pope Clement VII), Michelangelo used every spare moment to work on the tombs of the first generation, the ones of Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother Giuliano (the father of Clement VII).

While fighting against the usurpers and persecutors of traditional Florentine republican freedom represented by the second generation of Medici, Michelangelo “idolized” and immortalized the first generation who had been the republican leaders of the Florentine Republic in the fifteenth century.

The seeming contradiction between the sculptural and architectural perfection of the Medici tombs, being completed by Michelangelo, and his direct participation in the armed struggle against offsprings of the Medici, whom he was immortalizing with such devotion, should help us to uncover his original plan — one of the yet unsolved mysteries of the Medici Chapel.

A wall drawing in the secret room under the New Sacristy of the Medici Chapel.

In our opinion, what the great Michelangelo was trying to immortalize in these tombs should be the memory of Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother Giuliano. Michelangelo consciously shunned the idea of portrait-like similarity, for he had decided to immortalize Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother, but not their cachectical posterity.

It is difficult to find a different explanation. Certainly, this is one of the great secrets of the Chapel and of Michelangelo himself, since he could never disclose his real thoughts. A well-known art expert James Beck assumes that the sitting figures of the so-called duce capitani should also represent the two senior Medicis[2].

[2] James Beck, Antonio Paolucci, Bruno Santi, Michelangelo. The Medici Chapel, London & New York, 2000, p. 27.

A wall drawing in the secret room under the New Sacristy of the Medici Chapel.

Michelangelo makes the best of his creations — the two sculptural tombs for Lorenzo and Giuliano (officially, those of the second generation), the statue of the Madonna Medici, and the architectural design of the interior, where he does not leave any space for more tombs, and, after that, stops all further work.

Marcel Brion, one of the best experts on Michelangelo, asks, “Why should Michelangelo have started with the tombs of the dukes, both being equally petty characters, instead of choosing Lorenzo the Magnificent, who was his dearest friend and generous patron, and who entirely deserved to be glorified by the sculptor's genius? Let everybody explain it in his own way[3].

[3] Marcel Brion, Michelangelo, Moscow, 2002, p. 41 (in Russian).

In which exact moment had Michelangelo opted for limiting his design only to two sculpturally decorated tombs?

Did his plan change over time? We do not know that for sure, but one should not forget that Michelangelo was also the architect of the New Sacristy and, as some critics reasonably note, could hardly be mistaken in his calculations. In fact, he himself had drawn “an architectural borderline” for the deployment of sculptural monuments.

In his book, Irving Stone vividly depicts Michelangelo, when the latter, after 14 years of work and just before his departure for Rome, examines the Chapel and concludes that, for himself, it looks complete, since he has expressed in it everything that he wanted. His criterion for such an evaluation is the idea that Lorenzo the Magnificent would have been pleased with the Chapel in its present form[4].

[4] Irving Stone, The Agony and the Ecstasy, London, 1997, p. 667.

One of the Chapel's secrets is this desire of Michelangelo's to immortalize only the two senior Medici, while freeing himself from really “impossible obligations” to immortalize their offsprings. This fully explains the lack of portrait similarity.

Michelangelo usually stated his authorship by introducing a self-portrait (sometimes, in a grotesque form) into the composition. The best-known example of this is his “flayed skin” self-portrait on the Last Judgment fresco in the Vatican Sistine Chapel.

The altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. A fragment of the fresco
with Michelangelo's alleged self-portrait.

In this connection, it may seem appropriate to reflect upon the possibility of an assumption, that in the statue of Day the sculptor presented his heroic image and did his grotesque image in the mask just beneath the figure of Night.

A wall drawing in the secret room under the New Sacristy of the Medici Chapel.

Irving Stone saw a self-portrait of Michelangelo in the figure of Dusk, assuming that the sculptor had modeled this statue after himself[5]. If Stone was right, then both of the male images and the grotesque mask should reflect facial features of our sculptor. This shows how personal this work was for Michelangelo. Besides, the mask may remind us of the Faun from the Medici Gardens — the first sculpture Michelangelo created in his life.

[5] Ibid., p. 658.

Speaking about the Medici Chapel, we should immediately note that even the technically perfect imagery cannot serve as a substitute for one's physical presence in that place. This concerns not only the aura and the general atmosphere of the complex, but also the effect produced by each of its statues. There, it becomes obvious that the three female statues: Dawn, Night and the Madonna dominate the whole Chapel, creating a magical triangle, inside of which your heart falters and your breathing accelerates.

English scientist Kenneth Clark remarks that the Medici Chapel stands apart from other sculptural creations by Michelangelo, since two of the four main figures are female. But why should he forget about the statue of the Madonna?

We want to stress Clark's idea that Michelangelo used “his own discretion” to create the Chapel's composition. In fact, the sculptor was always dominating in the discussions of this project with Giulio Medici (Pope Clement VII). Besides, the Pope had never seen the work of Michelangelo, being unable to visit the Chapel; and, as for Alessandro De'Medici, the then ruler of Florence, the sculptor merely did not let him inside the Sacristy. Such situation allowed Michelangelo to create the Chapel the way he wanted, while preventing him from disclosure of his true intentions.

A wall drawing in the secret room under the New Sacristy of the Medici Chapel.

It is known that, when Vasari after many years asked Michelangelo about the plan, which the latter had incorporated in the Medici Chapel, the elderly sculptor answered that he could not remember it. At the same time, Michelangelo had effortlessly drawn an accurate sketch of his plan of the Laurentian Library's principal staircase. This story makes us strongly doubt the truthfulness of his answer to Vasari. What was that Michelangelo wanted to conceal?

In the last 13 years, I was privileged to visit the Chapel many dozens of times, with the total time spent in it well exceeding a couple of days, including many hours, almost a solar day, of being there alone.

The personal feeling sometimes could help but obviously one cannot deny it when speaking about art. One famous expert mentioned that both “Dukes” look at the Madonna, another also famous expert said that they look in direction of entrance door, etc. Its pure magic and a multitude of inconceivable impressions it leaves you with are impossible to describe. The similarity between the images of Dawn and Night in my perception was augmented by the similarity of both of these, especially the former, to the Madonna.

I asked several artists, good friends of mine, to tour the Chapel, and they all confirmed my observation. Every work of art needs to be peered into very closely. Its meaning can reveal itself under the heat from our eyes. The sculptor had incorporated his original meaning or several meanings, some of which might have been added subconsciously. There may be just one solution or a whole multitude of them. In the art criticism of the mid-twentieth century, there was a popular school of “steadfast observation”, which preferred the conclusions drawn from a direct observation of an artwork, as the ones free from stereotypes.

The first concept, based on the striking similarity of female images, was a rather presumptuous idea that in the statue of Dawn, which on a fine morning gets lit by direct beams of sunlight, Michelangelo had represented the Immaculate Conception. In fact, the Dawn's face may not necessarily represent a difficult awakening, but, on the contrary, it may display a carnal languor of a satisfied desire, which can hardly be confused with anything else. Such interpretation of the statue has some obvious grounds. In a recent British study on the statue of Dawn, its author writes, “Dawn is offering herself for the first time. She is awaking or dozing in a kind of drugged daze[6]. Anthony Hughes writes that on the one hand “Dawn is a virginal figure of inexperience”, but on the other hand, “her torpedolike breasts and softly rounded limbs had created a svelte type that became an erotic ideal for later Italian artists”.

[6] James Hall, Michelangelo and the Reinvention of the Human Body, London, 2005, p. 154.

According to this concept, all three female statues of the Chapel reflected different images of the Virgin, and the statue of Night may be an image of the Mother of Christ, tormented by the travails of Crucifixion, who has fallen into leaden but already tranquil slumber after the Ascension of Christ.

A wall drawing in the secret room under the New Sacristy of the Medici Chapel.

Malcolm Bull mentioned in his book The Mirror of Gods (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005, p. 382) that though the Madonna might have the face of Venus, there is very little attempt to offer images of motherhood that compete with the cult of the Virgin. “It was not just in the area of sexuality and fertility that mythological art filled a gap. Christian imagery was also low on positive images of secular power.”

However, this concept of an image of the naked Virgin in the scene of Immaculate Conception seems rather risqué.

Therefore, we would like to present another concept that appeared somewhat later, but, unlike the previous one, has a substantial, though indirect, scientific rationale.

My favorite sculptor is Michelangelo, and my favorite painter — Botticelli. In the Botticelli Hall of the Uffizi Gallery, one can easily notice that the head of Venus from Botticelli's The Birth of Venus is used by him for, at least, two of his Madonnas: Madonna of the Pomegranate and Madonna of the Magnificat. Another thing to be noticed just as easily is that the naked body in Botticelli's The Calumny of Apelles (by the way, the last nude he had painted in his life) also resembles the image from The Birth of Venus, though a bit deformed and aged one. This is a known fact. Yet nobody has ever tried comparing all these three images—the enigmatic female triad of Botticelli's—to one another.

The triad of Michelangelo from the Medici Chapel alongside the triad of Botticelli.

November 7, 1357, was the day when a significant event for the future Florentine Renaissance took place. On that day several Florentines dug out an ancient statue from the ground. It was the same Greek statue of naked Venus, which had been already unearthed a few years earlier in Sienna. Then, the righteous citizens of Sienna had not stood the test of her naked beauty and, on the above-mentioned date, had secretly buried it in the ground, but on the territory controlled by the Florentines, thus hoping to jinx the enemy. But, in fact, this sortie brought good luck to Florence. Quite soon, Florence became the capital of Italian Renaissance, one of the pinnacle works of which became Sandro Botticelli's The Birth of Venus.

Here, we should note that in 1310 Giovanni Pisano's creation — the statue of naked Venus representing Chastity — was installed in front of the pulpit of the Pisan cathedral, what had become the first known attempt to “christianize Venus”[7].

[7] Kenneth Clark, Nagota v iskusstve, St. Petersburg, 2004, p. 117 (in Russian).

The convergence of the ancient image of Venus and the contemporary Christian morals coincided in Florence of the mid-fifteenth century with the convergence of the Christian female saints imagery and the ancient idea of nudity. For example, in a painting by Fra Carnevale, the Virgin Mary was shown fully naked, while taking a bath, and another character — St. Anne — depicted topless[8]. So, we see a clear tendency, as it were, to “platonize” or “paganize” the Madonna and other female Christian saints.

[8] The International Herald Tribune, Paris, February 27, 2005.

Kenneth Clark, an eminent British art expert and former director of the National Gallery (London), notes that Botticelli, for the first time in the history of Christian painting, managed to “reuse” the head of a naked female figure from one of his paintings to create an image of the Madonna on another canvas.

Clark mentioned that Botticelli used the same head for his Madonnas, and this circumstance, quite shocking as it may seem at first, shows (to those who are able to understand) the highest degree of human thought, a shining halo in the pure air of imagination. He said that the fact that the head of our Christian goddess, with all her innate ability to sympathize with people, with all her rich inner life, can be set up upon a nude body, without looking alien or out of place, proves the ultimate triumph of the Celestial Venus[9].

[9] Kenneth Clark, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, New York, 1956, p. 126.

The same may and should be said about the statue of Dawn and that of the Madonna in the Medici Chapel.

To explain the statue of Night as an image of Venus-Aphrodite, we need to draw another parallel with Botticelli's art. The last nude female image painted by Botticelli was a figure, usually referred to as “Truth”, in his canvas The Calumny of Apelles. Kenneth Clark points to the similarity between Venus and “Truth” from the Calumny. He writes:

At first blush, she reminds Venus, but practically everywhere the required flowing smoothness appears to be broken. Instead of the classical oval of the Venus' figure, her arms and head fit into a zigzag rhomboid medieval pattern. A long lock of hair entwining her right thigh purposely refuses to follow its form. The hand of Botticelli draws firm and graceful lines, but in each curve we feel his utter rejection of the thrill of lust...

But, having noted the similarity, Clark did not go any further so as to connect this triad — Venus — the Madonna — “Truth” (Wisdom) — together, using the unity of the artist's plan. Probably, this was because Botticelli had created these works in different creative periods, lying many years apart.

Our concept presumes that Michelangelo in his Medici Chapel decided to recreate the above-mentioned Botticelli's triad.

Michelangelo had been creating the Medici Chapel as an artistic entity. He started his work at the age of 45, being already recognized as the best sculptor and painter in Rome (in Rome, though, but not in Florence!). There, Botticelli was still reigning as the sovereign of painting (but already with certain reservations).

Michelangelo could not be unaware of Botticelli's triad. He could even have known its exact sense and meaning, either from Botticelli or from his contemporaries.

Besides, Botticelli was the principal Medicean painter, a favourite of the Medicis. He preserved on his canvas the images of Cosimo, his son Pietro, his grandsons: Lorenzo (the future il Magnifico) and Giuliano (to be killed in the Pazzi plot), and the staff of the Platonian Academy. Even after Medici's deposition, they continued to support Botticelli financially.

Some art experts like linking The Birth of Venus to Neoplatonic ideas, most often tying it to the poem by Policiano and the ideas of Ficino, — both of whom belonged to the Platonic Academy. Among possible advisers to Michelangelo during his work on the Medici Chapel, Edith Balas names the Ficino's best known disciple who could have explained to Michelangelo the same ideas that earlier had been explained by Neoplatonists to Botticelli. It is known that Michelangelo and Botticelli met several times and could have exchanged their ideas[10].

[10] Edith Balas, Michelangelo's Medici Chapel: A New Interpretation, Philadelphia, 1995, p. 135.

According to Karl Burdach, the proper Italian Renaissance had started with Dante and ended with Michelangelo. He writes, “Humanism and Renaissance... sought not the branches of a dead culture, but a new life for their present and the future[11]. Burdach continues by saying that the rise of Renaissance could be explained by the desire to revive Christianity by invoking the spirit of Antiquity. He writes, “ occurs from the religious excitation by a seraphic exciter of a new piety in people... Based on my ever growing studies in the field of religious phantasy ... which, in particular, are connected with the legends about St. Longinus and the Holy Grail, I can now clearly see all the relationship and body of evidence[12].

[11] Karl Burdakh, Reformatsiya, Renessans, Gumanizm, Moscow, 2004, pp. 9, 16, 17 (in Russian).
[12] Op. cit., p. 18.

A burst of public interest in the topic of the Holy Grail after the publication of Dan Brown's book “The Da Vinci Code” is probably based on the similar feelings of people living in the early twenty-first century.

In his best-selling fiction book, Dan Brown, among other things, invents a “fact” that, according to the materials discovered at the National Library in Paris, one of the members of the Priory of Zion, who practiced the ancient cult of Mother Earth (Magna Mater), was the famous painter Sandro Botticelli.

Therefore, Dan Brown continues, Botticelli's paintings “whispered of the quest to restore the banished Sacred Feminine”[13]. Early religions, according to Dan Brown, were all based on the primacy of Mother Nature, so the goddess (and a star in the sky) Venus, which in other nations was also called Cebele, Ishtar, Astarte, Ashtoreth, Inanna or Mylitta, symbolised the powerful female deity related to the Nature (or “Mother Earth”)[14]. Once every eight years the star-like planet Venus completes drawing a “pentacle” on the bigger circle of the celestial dome. That is why a perfect five-point star had originally become a symbol of excellence and simplicity, until it did eventually change its popular meaning.

[13] Dan Brown, The Da Vinchi Code, London. 2004, p. 315.
[14] Ibid., p. 49.

Dan Brown writes that trying “to hammer down” these ancient beliefs in the Sacred Feminine, on which the early Christianity was also based, the Catholic church for three centuries of the Middle Ages has burnt at the stake an astounding five million women, many of which, according to the instructions from the Holy Office, were suspected of being “suspiciously attuned to the natural world”[15].

[15] Ibid., p. 152.

Perhaps, some art experts will consider my reference to “The Da Vinci Code” not too scientific, but over 30 million copies, printed in all main languages of the world, speak for themselves. The London “Sunday Times”, in an attempt to explain the phenomenal success of this, in fact, a popular-science book (only spiced-up with a detective plot), writes that interest in the Brown's book is ignited by the desire to restore the importance of its religious values, hidden in the collective subconscious of Western civilization.

It might be about this book by Dan Brown that Rainer Maria Rilke wrote almost a century prior to its publication, “If somebody wanted to show in one way or another that our epoch embosoms an inner heat, he should have spoken about the painful bliss of its great masters. The book about this should be entitled The Great Mother in Our Art — but then it would disclose the secret, this book would”.

Perhaps, Dan Brown has embellished something, but his hypothesis partly coincides with the opinion of some researchers, writing that Botticelli himself was a philosopher who generated his own ideas and did not need scholarly advisers.

Art expert Antonio Paolucci writes that Botticelli was the most intelligent witness and interpreter of his contemporary lite, who was in the best position to comprehend the spirit of his time.

A famous historian John Ruskin in his lecture, dated 1874, characterizes Botticelli as “the most learned theologian, the best painter and the most pleasant communicator ever produced by the City of Florence”.

In other words, one should not doubt that Botticelli's triad: Venus — the Madonna — “Truth” (more likely just another image of Aphrodite) was not purely coincidental.

In a book entitled The Fifteenth-Century Painting, its German authors mention the likeness between the images of Venus and the Madonna in Botticelli's works.

”During Renaissance, it was popular to depict two Venuses side-by-side, one of which displayed the Sacred Love, and the other — the Earthly Love”, writes an English author[16].

[16] Marcus Lodwick, The Museum Companion. Understanding Western Art, London, 2003, p. 113.

How much was sensed and recounted to us by the young Rilke:

But what are those obscure and yet obvious pictorial fairytales of Venetians in comparison with the deep mysteries and the original plots we find in the Botticelli paintings! Thence comes the shyness of his Venus, the timidity of his Primavera, the tired meekness of his Madonnas. These Madonnas — they all as if feel guilty for having avoided the tortures and wounds of Crucifixion. They cannot forget that they have given birth painlessly and have conceived without sexual gratification.

There are moments when the magnificence of their long days, spent on a throne, puts a smile on their lips. Then, their smile strangely pairs with their tearful eyes. But, as soon as this brief and happy oblivion of pain leaves them, they again become faced with the unwonted and frightful maturity of their Spring and, in the entire hopelessness of their heavens, they start longing for the mundane caresses of ardent Summer.

And as the languorous woman mourns over the miracle, that failed to happen, tormented by her inability to give birth to Summer, whose sprouts she feels to move inside her ripe body, so Venus is afraid that she would never be able to give away her beauty to all those who crave for it, and likewise, Spring palpitates for she has to be silent about her hidden splendour and mysterious sanctity...

As a matter of fact, we can decide in favour of similarity or dissimilarity, only by looking at a photographic image. The similarity expressed by the master, is related to the appearance of model, same as the ecstasy is related to the exhaustion. Does Botticelli in his portraits appear humiliated, renouncing his own self? His own Madonna and Venus appear to him as such a rebuke.

More likely, it is Michelangelo whom we can consider to be sentimental — however, only from the formal aspect. His ideas are always as much stately and plastically tranquil as restlessly agile are the contours of his most serene sculptures. It looks as if someone is talking to a deaf person or to a person who does not want to hear. The speaker tirelessly and forcefully repeats his address, and the fear not to be understood leaves a mark on everything he says. Therefore, even his deeply personal revelations look as if they were manifests waiting to be displayed for public attention at every street corner.

And that from what Botticelli was sad, was making him vehement; and if Sandro's fingers thrilled from a disturbing melancholy, the fists of Michelangelo cut the effigy of his rage into a shuddering stone”.[17]

[17] Rainer Maria Rilke. The Florentine Diary.

Michelangelo could not be unaware of Botticelli's triad. In the female statues of the Medici Chapel, Michelangelo was greatly inspired by the works of Botticelli. This assertion can be proven by drawings of the nudes from the exposition of Casa Buonarroti — a memorial house of the sculptor in Florence. In these drawings, according to some art experts, we witness an obvious similarity with the portrait of Simonetta Vespucci, who, according to a common belief, was Botticelli's model[18].

[18] Gilles Neret, Michelangelo, Taschen, Köln, 2004, pp. 80-81.

But, most likely, the prime goal for Michelangelo was to materialize and bring to a close that dispute on painting and sculpture, which once had occurred between himself and Leonardo da Vinci. Michelangelo had presented his own Birth of Venus, where the goddess' head (unlike the one in Botticelli's painting) was already covered with a scarf. The hair fluttering in the wind, allowed Botticelli to make the Venus' face distracted and almost indifferent. Michelangelo, on the contrary, was able to express his idea exclusively in the marble of the Venus-Dawn's countenance. The left foot of his Venus-Dawn rises from a substance that cannot be but the sea foam.

The girdle on Dawn-Venus is explained by some as a symbol of innocence (here we should recollect our first version), while others interpret it, though it is impossible to understand why, as a symbol of slavery. The latter explanation works well for the political version of the Chapel, but it fails to provide any tangible evidence in its support.

The most correct, as it seems to me, is to pay attention to the tradition of depicting Venus with a girdle under her breasts on her naked body and, in any case, under the clothing.

We see such a girdle in Piero di Cosimo's painting of 1488, entitled Venus, Mars, and Cupid (Uffizi, Florence), and in a canvas by Lorenzo Lotto (about 1520), where Venus wears not only a girdle, but also a sophisticated headdress, similar to that of the Night (Metropolitan Museum, New York).

A headdress, looking like the one seen on Michelangelo's Dawn, can be seen on the Venus in The Death of Adonis (1512) by Sebastiano Piombo displayed at the Uffizi Gallery.

In the Allegory with Venus and Cupid (1540) by Agnolo Bronzino (the National Gallery, London), the figure of Venus, with her muscled arms, position of her breasts, and her headdress, is closely similar to the figure of Dawn. In Paolo Veronese's The Allegory of Love, or the Happy Union (the National Gallery, London), the girdle under Venus' breasts is decorated with gold embroidery and pearls, and in Venus Entrusting an Infant to Time (1754) by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (the National Gallery, London), a gold-decorated girdle on Venus' body looks a bit askew, probably, to impart some dynamics to her otherwise quite static figure.

Diego Velasquez in his Toilet of Venus (1640, the National Gallery, London), created in the strictly Catholic Spain (where another nude would appear only a century and a half later — La Maja Desnuda by Francisco Goya), depicts Venus in the nude with her back turned to the spectator, and to prove she is really a goddess, and not just a naked woman, Velasquez adds Cupid, showing to Venus, who is looking at herself in the mirror, her girdle.

On the painting by Hedrick Goltzius (The Hermitage, St. Petersburg) entitled Bachus, Venus and Ceres (1606) we notice that the girdle is exclusively attributive of Venus and is not seen on the other beautiful goddess (i.e. Ceres).

The girdle under the breasts of Dawn is, therefore, a direct indication to Venus. Michelangelo had not added it, as Irving Stone wrote, merely to emphasize the naked beauty of her bosom; or, as Panofsky believed, to be a symbol of virginity.

Looking at the European painting of XV-XVI centuries, we find such an unusual detail as a girdle, either decorating the nude, or worn under semi-transparent clothing, only on those images which depict Venus. Surely, a similar detail can also be seen on some ancient Roman frescoes, but one must note that those were created at least a millennium earlier.

We can observe such a girdle on the small statue of Giambologna Venera Urania in Vienna.

Michelangelo could not be unaware of Botticelli's triad. In the female statues of the Medici Chapel, Michelangelo was greatly inspired by the works of Botticelli. This assertion can be proven by the drawings of the nudes from the exposition of Casa Buonarroti — the house-museum of the sculptor in Florence. In these drawings, according to some art experts, we witness a direct link to the portrait of Simonetta Vespucci, who, according to a common belief, was Botticelli's “model”[19].

[19] Gilles Neret, Michelangelo, Taschen, Köln, 2004, pp. 80-81.

Michelangelo bases his sketches of models for the statue of Night and, especially, for that of Dawn on the contemporaneous portrait of Simonetta Vespucci, painted by Piero di Cosimo, where she is depicted wearing a serpent-necklace. This evidently shows the connection between Michelangelo's female statues for the Medici Chapel and the image of Venus typical for Botticelli.

Michelangelo's drawings are the key to the mysteries of the Medici Chapel. Art experts note their similarity: on the one hand, with the portrait of Simonetta; and, on the other, many of those link the sketches, obviously made for the statues of the Chapel, to the image of Venus. In his drawings, Michelangelo not only demonstrates his interest for the images dear to Botticelli, but also expresses a desire to compare his models with Botticelli's legendary model, which posed for his The Birth of Venus, — the then reigning beauty of Florence and the bereaved amante of Giuliano Medici.

Edith Balas, professor of the Pittsburgh Carnegie Mellon University, in her book on a new interpretation of the Medici Chapel, produced convincing proof that the figure of Night should be identified with the twin sister of Venus — the goddess Aphrodite. Aphrodite means wisdom, eternity and peace, contrary to the generally accepted meaning of Venus-Aphrodite's image as the goddess of carnal love and the lusts of the flesh.[20].

[20] Edith Balas, Michelangelo's Medici Chapel: A New Interpretation, Philadelphia, 1995.

Edith Balas brings her attention to Vasari's remark that in the first project of Medici Tombs there was a mention of Cybele — a mother goddess of Phrygia and Asia Minor, known since antiquity. Therefore, images of Cybele, Ishtar, Venus, and Aphrodite are interrelated and appear as different variations of the Magna Mater cult, which was the primary cult in antiquity.

Professor Balas emphasizes that the name 'Night', even though used by Michelangelo himself once, does not completely reveal his plan. She also mentions that, in his correspondence, Michelangelo refers to the two female statues of the Chapel as “allegories” and “images”; while his authorized buyer of Carrara marble simply calls them “the two women” or “the nudes”.

The main problem is that Michelangelo's personal interpretation still remains unknown to us until now. For example, according to a general belief, it is a sheaf of poppy—or, more likely, pomegranate—flowers that lies under the feet of Night. But this fails to correspond with the canonical image of Night.

The fruits of pomegranate were traditionally considered as an ancient symbol of human fertility and a key attribute of the Great Mother Goddess. (Here one should remember that one of the representatives of Botticelli's triad was Madonna of the Pomegranate).

Another piece of evidence comes from the picture by Francesco Brina (1540-1586), entitled La Notte (Casa Buonarroti), where a bunch of pomegranates is seen under a foot of the Night quite clearly.

Edith Balas argues that the paired naked female figures of the Chapel show two different roles of the Mother Goddess (identified with the Earth), which coincides with the imagery of the goddess twins, Venus and Aphrodite.

In 1538, in the presence of Michelangelo, Francisco de Holanda had once remarked, “The Chapel of the Medici in San Lorenzo... has such a generous number of statues in full relief that those could certainly compete with any of the greatest works of antiquity — especially the goddess of Night, sleeping above the nocturnal bird.[21]

[21] Francisco de Holanda, Dialogues with Michelangelo, London, 2006, p. 70.

To sum it up, professor Balas, after her twenty-year-long studies, made almost the same conclusions, to which we have just arrived, starting from the idea of similarity between the images and their affinity with Botticelli's triad. Unfortunately, in her book, she failed to pay any sufficient attention to the image of the Madonna, even though having provided an important quote from a letter of Michelangelo's contemporary, Mutcanus Rufus, who had mentioned the Virgin Mary among the goddesses impersonating the sacred feminine of the Great Mother deity. In the quoted text we see an added magic formula: “But be careful, speaking about such things. They should remain in silence... the sacred ideas need to be shrouded in legends and mysteries”. Michelangelo, in relation to the Medici Chapel, had obviously utilized the same approach. The sculptor had left the marble of the Madonna's face unpolished, possibly to conceal the likeness to the image of Dawn — Venus — Aphrodite, closely related to the widely known Ishtar — Astarte — Cybele, as impersonations of the Great Mother Goddess.

The triad, which Botticelli had been so painfully creating for an entire decade—The Birth of Venus (1484), Madonna of the Pomegranate and Madonna of the Magnificat (both completed in 1487), and, finally, The Calumny of Apelles (1495)—was recreated by Michelangelo, who had also spent ten years of his life working on the statues of the Medici Chapel.

Dear readers! You are mostly welcome to pursue in your attempts to discover the plan of the Medici Chapel and solve its mysteries.

This page of human history and culture has not been turned yet, and the strong currents of the Renaissance art of the Great Florentine, after nearly five centuries, are still able to create the fields of the highest intellectual force.

An Orientalized Interpretation of the Statue of Lorenzo Medici

Camera — like a third eye — has also discovered hitherto unknown or unpublicized aspects of the sculptor's genius. The decorative elements are a good example. The total impact of the New Sacristy is so strong that they usually escape notice. The visitor tends to be totally involved with, or even hypnotized by, the great statues, which, within the total concept of the Sacristy, symbolize the heroic struggle between the Temporal and the Eternal. The world Michelangelo conceived for the Medici tombs is a nocturnal world, heavy with sorrow and shot through with horrific and grotesque images. Amendola forces us to look at it as if we are gazing into a darkened mirror or staring into the depth of an abyss.

Antonio Paolucci
(speaking about the works of art photographer Aurelio Amendola)

Author's Note: The concept described here was first introduced in the book I had written together with Alexander Zakharov (see: Peter Barenboim, Alexander Zakharov, The Mouse of Medici and Michelangelo, Moscow, 2005).

* * *

The sculpture of Lorenzo de Medici by Michelangelo from the Medici Chapel has long since been nicknamed Il Pensieroso ('The Thinker'). In spite of the armour covering his body, Michelangelo's Lorenzo greatly surpasses in expression Le Penseur (1880) — the proverbial naked bronze by Auguste Rodin.

Officially, the work of Michelangelo depicts Lorenzo de Medici, the Duke of Urbino, who was a military commander, but by no means a thinker. Moreover, Lorenzo was extremely unpopular in Florence. So one soon comes to a conclusion that the statue was actually conceived by Michelangelo in memory of a grandfather of the said Duke of Urbino — Lorenzo the Magnificent whom the young Michelangelo had always revered as his godparent. This Lorenzo really was a thinker, philosopher and poet. Still, Lorenzo the Magnificent was also celebrated as a winner of many a jousting tournament.

Furthermore, he was the last representative of the Medici family who had formal control over the Medici European banking network. Yet at the time of his rule, most of the Medici money were invested into the public and cultural life of Florence. As a result, Lorenzo's banking business was gradually declining, while his more than liberal donations and commissions to artists, philosophers and sculptors, including Michelangelo Buonarroti, had largely contributed to his fame and his informal title “The Magnificent”[1].

[1] Tim Parks, Medici Money. Banking, Metaphysics, and Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence, Atlas Books, New York, 2005, pp. 244, 247.
[ib.] Raymond de Roover, The Rise and Decline of the Medici Bank, 1397-1494, Beard Books, Washington D.C., 1999, p. 374.

The left elbow of the statue of Lorenzo is resting on a small box with an animal head. It is interesting that on a well-known fresco by Luigi Flammingo in Museo degli Argenti in Florence we see Lorenzo the Magnificent sitting in an armchair with his left arm also resting on an animal head. This painting refers to the 16th century, probably it was created already after Michelangelo's death.

It is not by chance that the above mentioned fresco opens the list of illustrations collected by Italian art historian Lorenzo Tanzini for his article devoted to the Magnificent. This list finishes with the picture of Lorenzo's statue from the New Sacristy with an appropriate attribute to the Magnificient[2].

[2] Lorenzo Tanzini, L'importanza di essere Magnifico, MediovEvo, Settembre, 2005, p. 56.

The tomb of Lorenzo Medici. A fragment of the statue of Lorenzo.

The small box ends with a mouse-like head (if you look at it from below) either looking out from the box, or serving as an ornament. Many researchers argue, though, that this is a bat's head.

I would doubt the fact that Michelangelo, despite some animal images in his works, could be called an “animalist”. Well-known art expert Antonio Paolucci was very correct when he said, “A great animalist is the one who succeeds in understanding and representing, not only the individual creature which is the object of his attention, but the very character of the species which this creature embodies[3]. This animal head on the statue of Lorenzo was obviously stylized by the sculptor and probably not without a reason.

[3] Antonio Paolucci, The Animals of Giambologna, Florence, 2000, p. 5.

Michelangelo's pupil Ascanio Condivi, in his biography book about Michelangelo, mentioned that the sculptor wanted to carve a mouse in the Chapel. He wrote, “And to signify Time, he meant to carve a mouse, for which he left a little bit of marble on the work, but then he was prevented and did not do it; because this little creature is forever gnawing and consuming, just as time devours all things[4].

[4] Ascanio Condivi, The Life of Michelangelo, Pennsylvania, 2003, p. 67.

Condivi was not personally familiar with New Sacristy at the time when he wrote his book and, from Michelangelo's words, he described the content of the Chapel as the Madonna and the tomb of Juliano. He did not specify the place where mouse would belong to and said nothing about Lorenzo's tomb and its sculptures. Also, he mentioned also the four sculptures in the Chapel (there is a typo or a translation error in the Pennsylvania 2003 edition where we see “four tombs” as a translation of “le statue son quattro”). We can easily pardon some gaps in Condivi's memory, or maybe, which is more likely, the elderly Michelangelo just did not wish to disclose to the young man all he that had had in mind concerning the Medici Chapel.

Maybe the box is not exactly a box but a small block—a bit—of marble which Michelangelo mentioned to Condivi. Using a special camera and custom lighting allows us to see on the resulting picture much more than what a conventional spectator might be able to distinguish — namely, it is another voracious mouth with dangerous-looking teeth on this mouse, making this small rodent look like a monstrous devourer. Edwin Panofsky did not recognize this mouse on Lorenzo statue, probably, because he distinguished between a mouse and a bat — for him these were completely different creatures. He has written a special article entitled The Mouse that Michelangelo Failed to Carve[5] and stressed in another article of his — Neoplatonic Movement and Michelangelo that this was the head of a bat[6].

[5] Edwin Panofsky, The Mouse that Michelangelo Failed to Carve, New York, 1964.
[6] Edwin Panofsky, The Neoplatonic Movement and Michelangelo in Michelangelo: Selected Readings, ed. by William E. Wallace, New York & London, 1999, p. 599.

In Russian, we have the same word mysh both for mouse and bat, only the latter is called letuchaya mysh (flying mouse). This is because we find these two animals quite similar, especially when it comes to the shapes of their heads. In French, German, and Dutch, the same lexical duality is preserved. It means that speakers of those languages psychologically perceive these two creatures as the same or similar animal. In Italian and English, mouse and bat are called differently, i.e. there they are perceived as different animals. But the similarities are still in place.

Albrecht Dürer used the image of a bat (or eine Fledermaus in German) for his famous line engraving Melancholia (1514) that dates back at least 10-15 years before the statue of Lorenzo. Michelangelo both theoretically and practically might have seen a print made from this plate. Condivi mentions that when Michelangelo studied Albrecht Dürer, he found his work to be very weak, imagining how much more beautiful and useful in the study of this subject (proportions of human body) his own conception would have been”[7].

[7] Ascanio Condivi, The Life of Michelangelo, Pennsylvania, 2003, p. 99.

However, we have to admit that the above passage from Condivi's memoirs refers to the period at least twenty years after the statue of Lorenzo was completed.

Some researchers argue that at least in the early 16th century “flying mouse” traditionally symbolized melancholia. Maybe the influence, which Dürer's engraving had exerted on the future researchers trying to determine the head of what animal they saw on the statue of Lorenzo, was so strong that it overweighed any of their purely zoological considerations.

But no matter what approach is taken, there still exists a head of a mouselike animal with a small murine mouth located in a recess, more than a meter above the line of sight of any spectator of average height, so a leonine nose, as well as the second mouth with an appalling set of razor-sharp teeth, can hardly be seen if at all. Is it possible that Michelangelo had intentionally hidden the nose of a lion by placing it up high and by putting the murine mouth into natural shadow? Can it be that he had specially placed the mouse head at such a height as if waiting for the time when people would be equipped with optical and lighting devices, sophisticated enough to see it in its entirety?

Vasari, quoting from Michelangelo, wrote that in a thousand years' time it would be absolutely unimportant who resembles whom when talking about the statues of Lorenzo and Juliano. So the Master knew that future generations would care only about the meaning contained in his sculptures. Does it mean that Michelangelo could have encrypted his message until another millennium would have passed and the time for understanding would finally be ripe? Maybe today, only 480 years after his death, it is still early to understand and we are just not ready for it?

Panofsky in his article on the Michelangelo mouse quotes from the ancient story of Barlaam and Josaphat, formerly attributed to John of Damascus; the story which may have inspired Michelangelo to consider using the mouse image. Also, he mentioned that this story had Indian origin[8].

[8] Edwin Panofsky, op. cit., p. 243-244.

It is important to mention that in 1976, after Edwin Panofsky had died, a great discovery was made in the Medici Chapel. A secret room with the mural drawings by Michelangelo was discovered exactly under the New Sacristy. Some experts still question whether these drawings were made by Michelangelo. Some art critics are taking their time before making full recognition of his authorship; but, as the time goes by, these drawings appear on the pages of art books and albums dedicated to Michelangelo more and more frequently.

We completely agree with Charles Sala, who has published several of these drawings with a note that the technique of these drawings witnesses that they had been done by none other but Michelangelo[9].

[9] Charles Sala, Michelangelo, Librero b.v. (Nederlandstalige editie), 2001, p. 128.

Speaking about the box with a mouse head, it is more and more frequently regarded as a money box. This assumption commands special attention so long as a money box would be the most appropriate attribute of Lorenzo the Magnificent as a banker; while it would hardly be suitable for his grandson — also Lorenzo — who had died early and was infamous for his notoriously bad rule of Florence. Furthermore, he neither had anything to do with banking nor had he ever been remembered for his exploits in the field of charity. It is worth quoting from Mary McCarthy's witty remark about the two younger dukes, Lorenzo and Juliano, as “the two members of the family who would better have been forgotten”[10].

[10] Mary McCarthy, The Stones of Florence and Venice Observed, London, 2006, p. 40.

The money box could serve to ascertain that the statue is dedicated to Lorenzo the Magnificent rather than to his lacklustre grandson. Famous art expert John Pope-Hennesy in his book Italian Renaissance & Baroque Sculpture makes an important point. He writes, “It is often difficult to follow the minds and motives of the great artist and at first sight nothing is stranger than the fact that Michelangelo should have looked for the last time in 1534 at the great statues strewn about the Chapel floor, and then for 30 years refused not only to place them in position, but even to explain how he intended that they should be placed. But his reason becomes more intelligible when we examine the individual sculptures”.

How can one prove, however, that the box under the statue's elbow indeed money-related? What does a mouse have to do with it? An unexpected clue can be found in the Orient.

We will use the word “mouse”, because on various Oriental sculptures, statuettes and paintings, the mouse, rat, mongoose, or weasel — all look quite the same. A former member of the Monty Python comic band, and now a successful TV series author and writer, Michael Palin, in the hardcover edition of his book Himalaya made a comment on the wall painting he saw on his way to the Taksang Buddhist temple in Bhutan.

He writes, “What I thought was a rat was a weasel, seen here disgorging pearls of wisdom”. In the previous paperback edition of his book he wrote about “the curious symbol of a weasel disgorging pearls”. He was told that “the Guardian King of the North Direction traditionally holds a weasel, so anything emanating from a weasel's mouth denotes good fortune[11].

[11] Michael Palin, Himalaya, London, 2004, p. 257.

It might have been a translation error of the local interpreter — and Palin had actually seen the picture of another animal, because in the Indo-Buddhist tradition “the pearls of wisdom”, just as easily as conventional gems, are disgorged by the mongoose attributed to the God Kubera; or, as we can show later, by the mouse (rat) that belongs to the elephant-headed God Ganesha. (Perhaps, the weasel should also be added to the traditionally known list of sacred animals.) It is more important to note that all these animals look very similar on the paintings and sculptures, as we can see it from Palin's passage and from our personal observations of many thangkas (icons painted on paper or silk) and statuettes in Nepal, as well as from Oriental paintings and sculptures collected by the world's largest museums, such as the British Museum, Metropolitan Museum and, especially, the Hermitage.

Robert Beer writes, “The symbol of a jewel-raining, -spitting or -vomiting mongoose, which produces treasures when squeezed, traces its origin to the ancient Central Asian custom of using a mongoose skin as a jewel container or a money-purse filled with coins, precious stones or cowrie-shells all of which can be squeezed upwards through inside the skin to be finally ejected from the mongoose's mouth”. This author also mentions that mongoose “often gets confused with other small animals”[12].

[12] Robert Beer, The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs, Chicago, 2004, p. 212.

Looking at the statuette of the “Buddha Mantreya” (Buddha of the Future), dated between 10th and 11th century AD, from the Hermitage collection, we cannot fail to notice that his pose is very similar to that of Lorenzo's statue, only the former has two very small animals under either of his feet. These images reflect traditional Buddhist symbolism, being two deer which on such a small scale look rather like two mice.

A full-scale copy of Raphael's Vatican Loggia from the Hermitage creates even more mysteries.

Russian Empress Catherine the Great ordered in 1778 to build her a replica of the Loggia created for the Vatican palace by great Raphael Santi and his school in 1517-1519. Raphael had decided to use the motifs and symbols of ancient Roman drawings discovered in the early 16th century in the grottoes and therefore called “grotesques”[13].

[13] N. Nikulin, The Loggia of Raphael at the Hermitage, St. Peterburg, 2005, p. 2.

As the result, looking at the Hermitage replica of the Loggia, we can see that Raphael and his pupils had drawn at least four different kinds of mouse (rat) figures. One of them, is fighting a big and dangerous snake, which clearly is typical of a mongoose but not of a rat.

We can admit that in the time of ancient Rome, and even in the time of Raphael and Michelangelo, any artistic or scientific zoological descriptions and differentiations of these animals just did not exist. Probably, mongoose was considered to be a some kind of rat. (A big rat has approximately the same size as a small mongoose.)

We do not know what a mouse (rat) could mean in ancient Rome or in Michelangelo's Florence, but in the memorial house of Michelangelo — Casa Buonarroti — we can see a small old Roman statuettes of Topolino (a small mouse).

In the famous Studiolo — office of the Duke Francesco Medici the First in Palazzo Vecchio — we also can see, between other splendid paintings on the ceiling, the image of a mouse- or a rat-like animal located exactly above the entrance. It is difficult to figure out what it symbolized in the past and why its image was placed between the images of angels and beautiful naked goddesses.

We will not take the risk of stating that — based on its various features — the statue of Lorenzo resembles Indian statuettes depicting Hindu deities and gods. Some scholars have already pointed at its digression from the European tradition of sepulchral sculpture that had existed before Michelangelo. However, in doing so these experts usually attribute this fact to the innovative approach of the great sculptor.

A sketch of legs of Lorenzo's statue gives a better proof of the originality of Michelangelo's approach to the wall drawings in the secret room under the New Sacristy. We may see that on the drawing the legs are not crossed which means that this is not a later copy, but the initial sketch made before the statue. And, of course, we see the sketch of a mouse-like animal on the left side of this drawing. This means that the box, from which this animal looks out or to which it serves as an ornament, was of less importance; and that it was the mouse which really mattered as the most important symbol. Of course, both are meaningful in their own right but when taken together they acquire a synergy of meaning. This is the crucial proof that on the statue of Lorenzo we see the mouse exactly as it was conceived and carved by Michelangelo.

We will now try to focus on the image of the mouse which is directly associated with the image of the Hindu-Buddhist God Ganesha who is traditionally depicted with an elephant's head.

The mouse (rat) is his vahana — i.e. the companion animal that allows to distinguish this god from other deities. Statues of many Indian gods have their own vahanas for the same purpose, but Ganesha because of his elephantine head is easily recognisable anyway. But artistic depictions of the mouse of Ganesha and the mongoose of Kubera obviously look very much alike.

Ganesha is the God of wisdom and success. The mouse serves as his magic vehicle. It can usually be seen under his arm or foot, or (in its considerably overblown proportion) as his carrier. Sometimes, Ganesha holds in his hand a pot filled with jewels (ratna kumbha). We found the statuettes of Ganesha where this treasure pot was seen offered by a mouse.

Throughout our stay in Nepal, where the mixed Hindu-Buddhist tradition has been preserved in the same form as it existed in the Hindustan Peninsula one thousand five hundred years ago, we have discovered that, according to the generally accepted belief, Ganesha's mouse merges with (and plays the same role as) the mongoose depicted usually in the left hand of Kubera, the God of wealth and prosperity (his Buddhist name being Jambhala). Both animals produce (disgorge) precious stones thereby symbolising the creator of affluence. Such images may be found on traditional Buddhist thangkas — the icons drawn on paper or silk.

During our meeting with a former Buddhist monk Lama Tsonamgel who currently owns the famous art painting workshop in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, which produces thangkas, we have found out that the image of Ganesha's mouse as a symbol of the wealth producer is very similar or even the same to the mongoose of the God of wealth and prosperity Kubera. On the thangkas, the mongoose of Kubera (Jambhala) looks much like the mouse of Ganesha (the Tibetan Tsog Dag), and both are seen disgorging jewels. Lama Tsonamgel explained to us that it was a graphic tradition very typical of Nepal and Tibet.

Well-known expert on the Medici Chapel, professor of Carnegie-Mellon University (USA) Edith Balas, following Panofsky, suggests that the sculpture of Lorenzo is very similar to the image of the Roman god Saturn. She writes, “The cash box that Lorenzo leans on refers to Saturn's identification as the god of hidden things. Metaphorically, this correlates with Michelangelo's habit of developing encrypted, elaborate iconographies... Michelangelo's success in accomplishing this approach may be judged by the profound mystery that enveils his images — the one that was too deep even for Vasari's or Condivi's grasp, the one that his contemporaries and colleagues were unable to fathom.”[14]

[14] Edith Balas, Michelangelo's Medici Chapel: A New Interpretation, Philadelphia, 1995, p. 67.

So we can see that the idea of a certain connection between the statue of Lorenzo and that of some ancient god has already been discussed. It is important to mention that according to The Encyclopaedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs the elephant-headed God Ganesha had lost his original (anthropomorphic) head having been decapitated by the gaze of the planet Saturn.”[15]

[15] Robert Beer, op. cit., p. 82.

We suggest considering a possibility that Michelangelo, as well, might have been aware of the mouse being a symbol of prosperity and wealth, and that he could have used the images he observed on the Indian thangkas or statuettes brought to Florence.

Someone may raise a doubt that Michelangelo could hardly ever see any images of Oriental deities. To assuage such doubts, we would like to mention that Indian warriors were visiting Ancient Greece as part of the Persian troops already in 480 BC.

Famous British historian Arnold Toynbee in his book A Study of History writes about rat-like gods and mouse images used in Buddhism. Also, in his description of the role of different gods of Hinduism, he makes a reference to a thangka dated the fifth century AD.

Thangkas and statuettes from India could have been brought to Italy with other Oriental products, and Michelangelo might have been familiar with them; he could also have met the people who could have told him of Indian statuettes and images on thangkas.

Later, in the 4th century BC, surving soldiers of Alexander the Great were sure to bring back home from India the statuettes of Hindu deities made of ivory, gold and silver.

The Indian-Buddhist thangkas had been known in Europe since the 7th century AD, while the bustling trade with India made across the Mediterranean Sea in the days of Michelangelo was very likely to bring to Europe great varieties of Indian statuettes and silk thangkas.

Socrates was described to engage in a dialogue with an Indian Brahmin, and there is a provoking historical concept according to which Pythagoras had acquired most of his scientific and philosophical ideas in the 6th century BC when he was travelling across India. Incidentally, the distance of the Ancient Greek towns in Asia Minor from India exceeds but slightly their distance from France.

Neo-Platonism, which had become the state ideology of Florence during the reign of Lorenzo the Magnificent of the time of Michelangelo's maturity, is deeply rooted in ancient Alexandria of the first century — a large city already known to host the Hinduist and Buddhist communities at that time.

We should bear in mind that Buddhism is six centuries—and Hinduism is almost three millennia—older than Christianity.

The exchange of pieces of art between India and Europe might have provoked a respective exchange of ideas and artistic concepts that could have laid the basis for discussions at the Platonic Academy in Florence, which might have been attended by the young Michelangelo: especially the discussions with participation of such renowned philosophers as Pico della Mirandola, Ficino, and Policiano.

We should also remember that in the Ancient Greek tradition the mouse was closely associated with Apollo and Dionysus, and that ancient Greeks used to refer to India as “Dionysus' sacred territory”.

We hope that researchers of the Medici Chapel would pay more attention to the symbolic significance of the mouse-like animal under the arm of the statue of Lorenzo, and that our materials might become helpful in further studies of this matter.


The New Sacristy of the Medici Chapel in Florence is the most mystical and mysterious work of art by Michelangelo. For almost five centuries, it has been giving rise to a multitude of different interpretations.

This book has been prepared by Peter Barenboim under the aegis of the Moscow Florentine Society. The author argues that all three female sculptural images in the Medici Chapel constitute, in fact, a mystical triad that correlates to a similar one created earlier by Botticelli. The author also believes that some elements of the Hindu-Buddhist culture had indeed influenced the imagery and style of the statue of Lorenzo Medici.

A traditional figurine of the elephant-headed Hindu God Ganesha
alongside a downscaled image of the statue of Lorenzo
from the Medici Chapel.