The Dying Slave

While studying the History of Art in my third year at college, my reaction to seeing Michelangelo’s sculpture of the The Dying Slave projected on a slide screen still remains crystal clear.   I could hardly anticipate its arrival and when it came, after so many lesser works I had seen, I was awestruck.  My reaction was like that of a child gazing in amazement the first time she had beheld a rainbow.

I barely paid attention to the professor who gave some brief facts about the sculpting of the piece.  The slave’s face wears an incandescent glow that lends a proud indifference as his body appears to pull him back away from the life he has lived.  His muscular torso represents that of a strong individual unafraid of the consequences of his actions.  If this is his last gesture on earth, he will let the world see his fortitude before his captors take him away.  His physical posture, almost nonchalant, one arm is thrown across his chest with the other, his right arm, thrown behind his head, conveys a sardonic air. These arms telegraph a source of strength and perhaps some defiance toward those who seek to end his life.

Michelangelo’s statue moves us to see a human dying, yet at the peak of his physical powers.  He is young and virile, hardly the picture of an individual whose maltreatment may have drained his strength.  Even on the threshold of death, we are able to see in him the classical features of early Greek art.  It is this obvious incongruity perhaps that, unwittingly, drew me to the underlying power and beauty embodied by the sculpture.

I view this work by Michelangelo as characteristic of what the Renaissance, that is rebirth, represented that began in the 14th century.  Humans had emerged from the bloodbath of pestilence, disease and warfare to begin to tap into their innovative and artistic energies to create a new more beautiful sense of life that had been lost during the Dark Ages.  The wealth of human savoir-faire and knowledge started in Italy and branched out throughout Europe.  It was a time when human achievement had reached the pinnacle of one’s esteem.

Years later I visited the Louvre in Paris.  Most people that go to the Louvre want to see the Mona Lisa, painted by Leonardo da Vinci.  Rather than competing with the tourists, waiting their turn to make it to the first row of sightseers, I immediately descended into the basement of the Louvre where I knew The Dying Slave was stored.  Few people know about this location so I had the basement of the Louvre and Michelangelo almost to myself.  There I saw the original sketch that Michelangelo drew before working on the actual marble.  I took a picture of the statue with its drawing, framed it and, since, have kept it. Whenever I happen to look at it, I am reminded of the greatness of both the human spirit and its potential.

As we emerge from the pandemic that has taken so many lives, hopefully, we can once more open the door to the ingenious inventions that have sprung from our technological prowess.  Just as the Gutenberg Printing Press spread the accomplishments of the Renaissance masters throughout the world, today’s Internet has increased, beyond all measure, our ability to communicate.  Perhaps we are entering into a Second Renaissance.