When my son was little, he would often get frustrated because his artwork didn’t look like that of the masters we studied. He figured that if his work couldn’t measure up to theirs, then what was the point of doing it?
Eventually, he got past this, but I can remember telling him: “That’s ok. Michelangelo couldn’t do that when he was little, either. You’re doing great!”
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Little did I know, back then, that even as a child Michelangelo showed amazing talent!
Michelangelo is one of the most well-known artists throughout history. His mastery of techniques spanned the spectrum – painting, drawing, sculpture, and architecture.
What a lot of people don’t know about him, though, is how young he was when he made many of the pieces he’s famous for!
Though he was born Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarotti Simon, we know this artist today as simply “Michelangelo.” He lived in Italy almost 600 years ago; he was born in 1475 in Caprese, in the region of Tuscany. His ancestors were bankers, and his father had hoped he would continue this tradition.
When he was sent to school at age 6, however, it became obvious that a life of numbers was not in his future.
He showed no interest in academics; rather, he was fascinated by the paintings in local churches and spent his time trying to copy them. He was eventually apprenticed to two masters. Domenico Ghirlandio mentored him in painting and Bertoldo di Giovanni taught him sculpture. He was so talented that his father convinced Ghirlandio to pay Michelangelo when he was only 14; this was extremely rare!
That same year, Lorenzo de Medici, the patron of Florence, requested that Ghirlandio send his two best students. Michelangelo was one of them.
Although he learned much from his masters, he really began to awaken to the world around him during his time in the Medici household. For the next two years, Michelangelo attended Lorenzo Medici’s school and was taught and influenced by some of the greatest minds of the Italian Renaissance.
This is an experience that would affect the rest of his career.
Michelangelo’s Reliefs and Sculptures
Michelangelo is famous for many incredible works of art, stretching from paintings and drawings to sculpture and architecture. Several of his most famous works were completed before he was 30!
Two amazing relief works, Madonna of the Stairs and Battle of the Centaurs, were completed by the time he was 17.
Around this time, however, Lorenzo de Medici died, and the politics of Florence were uneasy. Michelangelo was forced to return to his father’s house and find his direction elsewhere. Eventually, he made his way to Rome.
At the age of 24, Michelangelo was commissioned to sculpt the Pieta, a marble statue of Mary holding the body of Jesus after he was taken down from the cross. The amount of detail in his marble sculptures is truly amazing. To me, they seem as though he must have built them up rather than chipped away what didn’t belong!
At 26, he created another of his most famous works, the David. While many sculptors created an image of David that showed him victorious with the severed head of Goliath, Michelangelo chose a different route. He portrayed a David that is both thoughtful and purposeful. It is thought that this is the moment he sees his older brothers and countrymen hide from the pagan giant.
He seems almost lifelike, as though you can picture the thoughts running through his head and the prayer present in his heart. When those who are strong back down in fear, the faithful young boy decides to stand.
A Quick Note
One thing that is important to note, especially with works of this era: while many of them contain partial or full nudity, like the David, it is important to understand what the view of this was at the time.
Because the Renaissance was a “reawakening” of classical Greek and Roman knowledge that had been lost for centuries, much of the art world was also influenced by classical forms. This included studies of the body. Michelangelo and his fellow artists did not do this to be inappropriate or scandalous. Rather, they did so to show the beauty of form, and often to bring glory to its Creator.
However, if you do not wish your children to view various sections of Renaissance art pieces, strategically placed post-it notes work well!
Although he preferred sculpture, Michelangelo was also an amazing painter. In fact, he was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, only a little ways away from where Raphael was working on the Stanze della Segnatura! This feat took him four years of laying on his back on a scaffold, painting incredible details on a frescoed ceiling.
To get an idea of just how big that ceiling is, multiply 133 and 46. These are the dimensions of the Sistine Chapel ceiling! Michelangelo, over the course of four solid years, painted 6,118 square feet of fresco. And he did so with incredible detail. If you made a fresco project while learning about Raphael, imagine doing over 6,000 of those – all while lying on a scaffold!
One of the most famous sections of the Sistine Chapel ceiling is Michelangelo’s portrayal of the Creation of Adam. In this painting, God is reaching from heaven to touch his creation, Adam. Adam, in turn, reaches out to touch his Creator.
In this painting, we see Michelangelo’s understanding of the majesty of God and the frailty of man. God has finished his creative work and is reaching out in power and fellowship. In turn, Adam, newly created and still weak, yet potentially noble, is reaching out in trust to God.
This is just one small section of the Sistine Chapel, however. There are numerous panels, each telling a different biblical story. One of them, along the wall of the chapel, tells the story of the Last Judgment in Revelation. It has quite the political history as well, though. Those with older students may want to read about the history of it here!
Be sure to record Michelangelo in your Timeline of the Arts. He lived from 1475 – 1564. Also, be sure to record the dates of some of his most famous works. If you have not downloaded your free timeline, you can do so here – just enter your email, confirm, and it will be on its way!
Hands-On Activity: Sculpture!
Michelangelo is recognized as one of the most talented sculptors of the modern age. It is said that he could look at a huge block of marble and see what it would become!
Even though he had talent, though, he also worked very hard to refine his skill. He studied things in great detail and brought that detail into his work. Today, you can try your skill at sculpting!
Michelangelo sculpted most often from marble, but you can work with a material that’s a bit easier. There are several to pick from: clay, soap, wax, or Styrofoam, just name a few.
All you need is a block of your chosen medium to carve from and something to carve with. Older kids can use a knife or chisel, while younger kids can use a butter knife, plastic tools, and blunted skewers.
Before you start carving, it’s important to figure out what you want your finished piece to look like. How big will it be? What is the general shape? Are there any areas that will require some detail?
Take a few minutes to sketch these out on a sheet of paper. Then, you’re ready to begin!
You’ll want to work kind of carefully, but don’t be afraid to move your block of carving material around while you sculpt. The fun thing about sculpting is that you get to work in three dimensions, instead of just two! As you shave sections of it away, refer to your drawing to help you stay on track.
When you’re done, let your sculpture set for a while to dry. This way, your fantastic work will be preserved for a long time!
Khan Academy – Lesson on Michelangelo
Michelangelo for Kids: His Life and Ideas, with 21 Activities (For Kids series) – This book includes a fascinating history of Michelangelo and the world in which he grew up, as well as 21 hands-on activities to keep your kiddos busy!
Michelangelo by Diane Stanley – This beautiful illustrated children’s book tells the story of Michelangelo’s life and works.
Share Your Masterpiece!
I would love to see what your family or students come up with. Please feel free to share in the comments section below! And I would love to see pictures of your children’s masterpieces. Just email them to me and I will be happy to include them on my Gallery page!