David. We’ve all seen pictures of him, read about him in our history textbooks, and some of us may have even got the chance to marvel at the 14 ft marble statue in person. The statue is well known across the globe, and for a good reason, but what I want to know is why I’ve never heard anything about Michelangelo’s Prisoners?
These four “non-finito” statues line the hallway leading up to the David. They seemed to be positioned in the museum with the purpose of building up suspense so that your enjoyment culminates at what people would consider is the pièce de résistance, David. But I find this very vexing.
I may be in the minority, but I find the unfinished works of art just as captivating as the polished David.
Aren’t they beautiful? Maybe I haven’t convinced you yet but keep reading.
Within a moment or two of observing these unfinished sculptures, you can sense their internal power and energy that is waiting to be liberated. Each piece gives us great insight into the sculpting techniques used by Michelangelo. Unlike most artists who used molds and marked up their marble before beginning to chip away, Michelangelo worked mostly freehand. He sculpted his pieces from front to back in a way that they seem to resemble “figures emerging from a pool of water”. These unfinished pieces allow us to understand what Michelangelo meant when he said he believed the sculptor was a tool of God, not creating but simply revealing the powerful figures already contained in the marble (www.accademia.org).
When I look at the prisoners, I sense a genuine representation of the human spirit. They are blemished, unrefined, and still-in-progress. Just like me. David on the other hand, is flawless, emanates a strong sense of purpose, is seemingly self-actualized, AND he literally has buns of steel marble! Just the opposite of me. I’m still trying to figure out what I believe and who I want to be, and most of the time I’m pretty hard on myself for not having the answers to such foundational questions. But there is something about the way the Prisoners illustrate so realistically the difficulties of being human and the often strenuous process of identity formation that allows me to accept my own flaws a bit more. In some weird way they encouraged me to start valuing who I am today, very much so a work still in-process, just as much as I value who I hope to be.
I also love the idea that Michelangelo felt he was “revealing the powerful figures already contained in the marble”. Maybe I already have all that I need in order to become who I’m meant to be, and with time and refining experiences, I will naturally get there? But then again I don’t know the answer that that either.
In sum, I am glad these unfinished works are on display for people to enjoy on their way to see David but I detest the idea of them being seen as stepping stones to the pièce de résistance. I’m beginning to believe there is just as much beauty on the journey to becoming who we are meant to be as there will be when we finally get there. So here’s to you reading this, those of you still on the journey, those of you feeling unsatisfied with who you are or where you are in life, take a few deep breaths, and know, although “non-finito”, you are beautiful and are of great value right where you are.
“Life is not a puzzle to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.”