Michelangelo in Bruges
In recent years, my travels have focused on the Mediterranean with trips to Greece, Turkey and Italy. I love ancient Roman art and the Italian Renaissance, but I thought it was time to diversify a bit. With a trip to Amsterdam and Belgium, I thought I could now finally spend some time with Dutch Primitives, also known as the art of the Northern Renaissance. And then look what I find tucked away in the Low Countries: a real Michelangelo!
Michelangelo finished this small (only 50 inches) Madonna and Child marble statue in 1504. Originally part of a commission of 15 statues for Pope Pius III, the project was discontinued following the completion of just this one piece. The Madonna and Child was then purchased by Jan Van Moeskroen, a wealthy Belgian cloth merchant and brought to Bruges a few years later. It is now known as The Madonna of Bruges and has been on display in a side chapel in The Church of Our Lady (Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk) since the Moeskroen Family donated the work in 1516. The Madonna of Bruges is the only piece by Michelangelo to left Italy during his lifetime.
This statue shows a seated Mary tenderly holding toddler Jesus who reposes between her legs and leans on her thigh. The two hold hands as the mother seems to both console the child with her presence and limit him from wandering way. This grouping seems altogether very natural and familiar. This child seems far more life-like (especially compared to Van Eyck piece I recently discussed). I can easily imagine him squirming under his mother’s protection. The composition further balances the chubby nudity of the child with the elaborate folds of Mary’s garment.
Eyes downcast, Mary’s gaze is distant and peaceful, but strikingly familiar. The face of the Madonna is very similar to the more famous Pieta at the Vatican which was completed approximately 5 years before the Madonna of Bruges. In both pieces, she looks downward at no one particular focal point. Her face is serene and emotionless. While the Bruges woman has slightly more Roman features, the physical and iconographic resemblance is very clear.
I had the pleasure of taking a very good look at the Madonna of Bruges. The Church of Our Lady is undergoing major renovation this year and so Catholic masses have been moved into the chapel which contains Michelangelo’s sculpture. I went for Palm Sunday service and since I don’t understand Dutch and was sitting near the front, I basically stared at the statue for an hour. The size was really what struck me. In just this small piece, you find all the balanced composition, softness and refinement one recognizes in the work of Michelangelo but normally at a larger than life scale.
The Church of Our Lady (Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk) has limited viewing hours this summer so check before you arrive in Bruges. You definitely don’t want to miss a chance to sneak just one Italian Renaissance piece into your Belgium trip.
- Want to read more about Michelangelo? Check out my article on his Unfinished David-Apollo.