100 Works of Art: (Visual) The Dying Slave, Michelangelo

For an overview of the nature of this series of posts, please read the first in the series (and familiarise yourself with my thrilling thoughts on “Black Virtue” by Matta).

19. The dying slave, Michelangelo (1513-1516)

Being an uneducated oaf whose artistic interests sprang up primarily on the basis of whims, I’d very little knowledge of Michelangelo outside of the odd Renaissance documentary until I came upon this piece at  le Louvre. It was 2005, and I was in Paris on holiday with a friend over Christmas, for the primary purpose of eating a lot of food and failing to master the French tongue any better at 23 than I had when I was 11: later in the same exhausting day we would find ourselves lost amid Iranian Antiquities, lose our collective heads, and rush through that venerable collection of works bellowing “SORTIE” frantically as our fellow-tourists lobbed small children into our path and lucky bastards who hadn’t suffered a loss of direction poured spitefully out into the winter air purely to taunt us.

I remember doing several circuits of this statue and saying something faux-sarcastic about ponces, as was the tradition of the era, but the image – ridiculously sensual and completely inappropriate for the subject matter – remained in my mind. I ended up including it as the starting point of a short story in a (now out-of-print) short story collection, and doodled an illustration of the main character sardonically aping the pose of the famous statue.

The Dying Slave, Michelangelo
The Dying Slave, Michelangelo

For all the seriousness of the subject matter there is something very comical about his pose. It looks almost more like a sluggish playboy waking in the afternoon and having a first decadent stretch before continuing his debaucheries. There’s little about this handsome devil to suggest that he’s in the throes of mortality; much like the St Sebastian pictures I’ve talked about before, it seems more as if he’s enjoying whatever suffering’s been inflicted on him, and unlike Sebastian (a free man and former captain of the Praetorian Guard) there’s a little less chance that he can convince himself he’s doing it for the glory of God.

What Michelangelo intended in this piece, which was originally for the tomb of Pope Julius II (an overseas aggressor, supporter of the arts, and papal cockblocker of the Borgias), is not entirely certain. I assume it serves some cod-allegorical purpose, although as with a lot of Michelangelo’s work I rather suspect that it was a combination of “maybe if I suppress my desires into religion hard enough I’ll stop having these pesky erections” and “I am still going to have a lot of naked men on everything that’s perfectly okay”.

For myself what I enjoy about the statue is that completely inappropriate, lascivious or luxuriant response to the apparent footfalls of the grim reaper: instead of having a panic or resigning himself with serenity to his fate, instead of railing against the cruelty of morality or  the injustice that has led him to die a slave, the statue has adopted what I’ve thought of for a while as the Drag Approach To Suffering, which is: life is hell, death is agony, I’m going to look fabulous and flirt with it.

Whatever swoon of misery is supposed to be coming across in the drooping eyelids of a slave about to be freed into (one hopes) the kingdom of Heaven, what more solidly comes over is the idea that he’s giving the spectre of perpetual cold and eternal sleep the saucy come-on. There is always something attractive to me in the kind of perversity that embraces death with not only open arms but a subtle self-stroking of the stomach (as here) or a nod and a wink and licking the lips. Regardless of whether it speaks of weaponised sexuality or just of a different approach to bravado, I’m fond of it, and this statue can definitely be interpreted that way.


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