Michelangelo’s Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs (c.1492)

One of Michelangelo’s earliest sculptures, Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs, depicts a scene in which stones are being hurled between the combatants. Paul Barolsky has noted that the choice of stones - weapons not specified by the classical poets - was Michelangelo’s and is related to his medium of choice.

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Michelangelo, Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs (c.1492) Marble. Casa Buonarroti, Florence

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The sculpture resembles the verbal description of a battle-relief by the Greek sculptor, Phidias, in which he was said to have included his self-portrait as ‘a bald old man holding up a great stone with both hands’.1 This figure appears at the left of the sculpture and would appear to represent Michelangelo himself in the ‘likeness’ of Phidias, one great sculptor as a visual synonym for the other. ‘Phidias’ holds a stone crafted from stone, thus blending reality with imagination in a battle that is on its principal level an allegory of creative struggle. This is an image of the battle in Michelangelo's own mind to create the sculpture.

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Detail of Michelangelo's Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs

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Barolsky has written of how in the life-story that Michelangelo created for himself "he is in a sense one of his own sculptures, which are metaphors of the self....Michelangelo's creation of himself is the central motive of his work."2 Barolsky's contributions to understanding Michelangelo's art have been very significant. The artist's focus on his own self, though, would have looked less original had Barolsky known that every painter paints himself is the underlying principle of all art from well before Michelangelo's day. Michelangelo's meaning, then, is not as original as his bold determination to expose what earlier artists hid. He made the artist the hero and turned the Sistine Chapel into his own mausoleum in which he, the artist, is God.3

Notes:

1. Barolsky, Michelangelo's Nose: A Myth and Its Maker (Pennsylvania State University Press) 1980, p. 107
2. Barolsky, p.140
3. Abrahams, Michelangelo's Art Through Michelangelo's Eyes.(online)

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