Michelangelo’s Unseen Self-Portrait: A Visual Illusion

Until now the only known "self-portraits" of major significance by Michelangelo have represented other people like Nicodemus in the Florentine Pietà or the flayed skin as St. Bartholomew in the Last Judgement (left). Today you will see, with a bit of luck, an astonishingly realistic self-portrait of Michelangelo even though buried in the torso of St Peter and mostly hidden. It screams 'Michelangelo'. However, not everyone has the patience or aptitude to see it so be forewarned. Persevere.

Click next thumbnail to continue

Captions for image(s) above:

Michelangelo, Detail of St. Bartholomew's skin in the Last Judgment (1537-1541) Mural. Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome

Click image to enlarge.

Just above and to the right of St. Bartholomew (on the far right of this image) is St. Peter whose figure is even larger than Christ's, a discrepancy which makes St. Peter even more important. Literalists note that he seems to be returning the keys of the Church to Christ as though to say that the Church will be less important than personal faith at the end of time. To a mystic the doctrine of the Church would have been misleading anyday. Church doctrine is for the masses; the only way for a spiritual individual to become like Christ is to look inwards regardless of dogma. 

Click next thumbnail to continue

Captions for image(s) above:

Michelangelo, Detail of St. Peter looking towards Christ in the Last Judgment  

Click image to enlarge.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the self-portrait, never before seen by anyone but artists, in the torso and legs of St. Peter. Look carefully and follow the instructions. Michelangelo's face is seen from close-up and to the side with his eyes and part of his nose hidden behind St. Peter's arm. He looks towards Christ.

Click next thumbnail to continue

Captions for image(s) above:

Michelangelo, Detail of St. Peter's torso in the Last Judgment

 

Click image to enlarge.

Before we start, here is a life-time portrait of Michelangelo seen from the front; the illusion will be seen from the side. Nevertheless, look carefully and make sure you remember the high cheekbone, the broad flat nose and the flowing beard.

Click next thumbnail to continue

Captions for image(s) above:

Daniele da Volterra, Portrait of Michelangelo (rotated)

Click image to enlarge.

Using the diagram on the right, locate Michelangelo's left "eye", only the far left edge of which can just be seen in the curve of light under St. Peter's tricep (yellow on diagram). His "nose" and its broad "nostril" are in St. Peter's ribs, on the left by the elbow (green). Supporting this claim is the shadow under his "nostril"; it makes no sense on a torso, only as the shadow of a projecting "nose." His "mouth" is the dark fold of muscle around St. Peter's hip (red) while his long beard flows down St. Peter's thigh (gray). A bulging muscle on the right of his torso replicates the artist's high cheekbone (blue).

See conclusion below

Captions for image(s) above:

L: Detail of St. Peter's torso and leg from Michelangelo's Last Judgment
R: Diagram of the detail at left

Click image to enlarge.

For those who can see it, the discovery is stunning. There can be no doubt that it was intended by Michelangelo because it is virtually impossible that such a recognizable portrait of the artist could have been achieved by coincidence in his own work. It is just not possible. There is, however, a tendency in academia to require a claim of intentionality like this one to be proven while allowing claims of coincidence to pass by unsupported. As Frederick Ahl has noted, it should be the other way round. Vast sums are spent on developing random sequences for computers; they are very difficult to come by. An element of chance is so much rarer than one of intention that there should be no need for further proof.1 Thus, if you are one of the lucky ones, you have just seen the only realistic self-portrait of Michelangelo ever found. If you haven't yet seen it, keep trying. The result will be worth the effort.

Notes:

1. Frederick Ahl, "Ars Est Caelare Artem (Art in Puns and Anagrams Engraved)" in On Puns: The Foundation of Letters, ed. J. Culler (Oxford: Blackwell) 1988, pp. 25, 29

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 29 Sep 2011. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.