Angels and Demons

So just how did Michelangelo translate features from Botticelli’s Venus and Mars painting to the ‘damned man’ in the Sistine Chapel’s Last Judgement fresco?

The four satyrs (Botticelli and his three brothers) teasing and tempting the sleeping figure of Mars – aka Leonardo da Vinci  – form the group of three demons clinging to the ‘damned man’ alongside the trumpeter in the purple drape.

Michelangelo mixed and matched the features. For instance, his ‘extra’ angel with the trumpet represents the satyr sounding the conch into Leonardo’s ear, except that in this instance the trumpet’s bell end is directed to an alternative orifice.

The recipient is the smirking grey-coloured demon poking out his tongue and with both arms wrapped around the legs of the ‘damned man’. As in the Venus and Mars painting, he represents the middle of the trio of satyrs with their arms wrapped around the lance.

The Botticelli conch is symbolic of female genitalia and so the satyr can be understood as blowing ‘sweet dreams’ into Leonardo’s ear, his head ‘buzzing’ with thoughts from the humming sound of the nearby wasps . The wasps are a symbol of the Vespucci family and the woman of his dreams facing Leonardo, Simonetta Vespucci. Michelangelo echoed the sound of the buzzing with the group of trumpeters. The golden hair of the ‘extra’ angel is shaped and coloured to represent a buzzing swarm of wasps. His trumpet extending into the rear end of the grey demon can be deduced as a sting-in-the-tail feature.

The ‘extra’ angel (notice the lion face impression on his back) represents Leonardo da Vinci, and the colour of his purple drape coordinates with the rose tinted blanket beneath the Leonardo figure in the Venus and Mars painting.

Leonardo wears a pink or rose colour cloak with a winged sleeve in another Botticelli painting, the Uffizi version of The Adoration of the Magi. Notice also Leonardo’s bird-like stance.

The purple drape is also shaped in the form of a bird with an extended wing. Michelangelo has paired this with the bird-shaped white cloth covering the sleeping Leonardo. Note the bolt pressing down on the fluted tail. This is a reference to Leonardo portrayed as a fallen angel, “like a bolt of lightening from heaven” (Luke 10:18), or perhaps from his failed attempt at flying that seemed like a bird falling out of the sky. A ‘fallen angel’ motif representing Leonardo can be found in another Botticelli painting, The Birth of Venus, and also as a winged Medusa-type face on the breastplate of the terracotta bust by Andrea del Verrocchio depicting Giuliano de’ Medici.

As explained in the previous post, Simonetta also represents Medusa, the woman whose gaze can turn people into stone. Has this happened to the sleeping Leonardo? Notice the head of the middle satyr supporting the lance is turned to gaze at the Medusa figure. This explains why the demon gripping the ‘damned man’s legs is the colour of stone, except that his right hand isn’t. Could this suggest the process is ongoing or possibly a device to question why? 

The answer can be found by looking at the demon from a different perspective. When rotated 90 degrees to the left, the hazy cloud which the demon is facing takes on a dreamy shape representing the head of Medusa in Botticelli’s painting. It’s also another pointer to Leonardo’s presence in the painting and the ‘sfumato’ technique he perfected in his own work, where tones and colours are blended to produce soft, vague edges and outlines.

Understanding Botticelli’s satyrs as creatures of temptation helps identify the green creature biting into the ‘damned man’s‘ thigh. It represents the Botticelli satyr whose face is hidden under the helmet and the serpent that tempted Adam and Eve to bite and eat the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden.

The fruit is the circular shape formed behind the head of the serpent’s coiling body, similar to how the shield or buckle is formed out of the shaft of the lance. Truth is represented by the straight lance. The serpent’s lies and hidden deceit – represented by the helmet covering the satyr – is translated as the serpent’s twisting shaft behind the ‘damned man’. 

From this it can be determined that Michelangelo’s ‘damned man’ group also typifies the ‘Fall of Man’, the exit from Paradise into a world of lasting temptation and sin. So where is Eve, the woman who first conversed with the serpent? She can only be the dreamy cloud shape of Medusa, and the woman sat opposite Leonardo with snakes in her hair.

Michelangelo depicted the fourth satyr, Sandro Botticelli himself, as the horned demon with the walnut-shaped back, gripping the ankles of the ‘damned man’. In the Venus and Mars painting he is shown encased in a cuirass that serves as a cushion for the resting Leonardo.

Left: Leonardo da Vinci as a Fallen Hebrew and a Fallen Angel.
Right: Sandro Botticelli as a demon matched to the teasing satyr.

So what could be the reason for Michelangelo depicting the ‘extra angel’ as Leonardo, yet also doubling up as a tormentor – an angel in disguise perhaps, or even a possible falling angel? Another take on the four figures attached to the ‘damned man’ is they represent what is known as the Four Last Things in Christian eschatology – meditating on Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. This descending sequence is matched by Michelangelo’s placing of the four demons.

The green serpent represents the time in the Garden of Eden when Death came into the world; the stone-colour figure gazing at the faint and hazy Medusa represents Judgement – “Now we are seeing a dim reflection in a mirror, but then we shall be seeing face to face” (1 Cor 13:12);  The ‘extra’ angel attached to the trumpeters and set aside from the ‘damned man’ represents Heaven; and the horned demon that is ready to receive the ‘damned man’ represents Hell.

The Venus and Mars painting can also be considered from another religious viewpoint, a reference to the biblical and erotic Song of Songs. From a Christian perspective the poem reads as an allegory of Christ and his bride, the Church. Botticelli depicted the leaning figure of Venus in his painting of the Birth of Venus as Ecclesia (the Church) for which the model was Simonetta Vespucci.

Very likely,  Chapter 5 of the Song of Songs inspired some of the visuals in the Venus and Mars painting  … “I come into my garden, my sister my promised bride, […] I gather my honey and my honeycomb […] friends […] I sleep but my heart is awake […] my love, my dove, my perfect one […] I have taken off my tunic […] I have washed my feet […] Then I rose to open to my Beloved, myrrh ran off my hands, pure myrrh off my fingers, on to the handle of the bolt […] My soul failed at his flight […] I called to him but he did not answer […] My beloved is fresh and ruddy […] His head is golden, purest gold…

Two decades earlier Michelangelo made other references to Leonardo da Vinci when he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. More about this in a future post.