Screenreader Navigation - [ Skip to Content | Skip to Main Navigation ]
[FSU Seal Image] - Return to Home
Florida State University - Return to Home

English Department Writing Resources / First-Year Composition / Our Own Words / The James M. McCrimmon Award / Our Own Words 2003 - 2004 Edition / Research Writing / Neoplatonism and its Influence on Michelangelo's Artwork by Caroline Shin

Neoplatonism and its Influence on Michelangelo's Artwork by Caroline Shin

Neoplatonism and its Influence on Michelangelo's Artwork by Caroline Shin

Neoplatonism is an assimilation of the thoughts of Plato with other ancient and medieval thoughts, other classical ideas, and the modification of certain Christian doctrines. Neoplatonist thought first appeared in the works of a group of pagan philosophers during the third and sixth centuries. Periodically over the next centuries, philosophers revisited these Neoplatonic works and thus revived Neoplatonic thought throughout the ages all the way to modern times (Gregory vii). The age of the Renaissance was no exception to the reappearance of the influence of Neoplatonism (Harris 17). Michelangelo often derived his ideas for his artwork from Neoplatonic philosophy, and many critics attempt to make Neoplatonic interpretations of Michelangelo's artwork (Motzkin 208).

During the mid-nineteenth century, German scholars invented the term "Neoplatonism" "to distinguish the thought of Plotonius and his successors from the more complete form of Platonism that emerges from all of Plato's writings" (Harris 2). The chief document of Neoplatonism is Plotonius's Enneads (Harris 2). Plotonius's successors are Porphyry, Iamblichus, and Proclus, thus completing the group of philosophers who gave a new direction to Platonic philosophy by writing in terms of Neoplatonic philosophy (Gregory vii). "Renaissance Neoplatonism formally began with the founding of the Florentine Academy in 1462 by Cosimo di' Medici, an action inspired by George Gemistus Pletho in 1438 when he was a delegate to the Council of Florence for the reunion of Eastern and Western Christianity." In general, the Florentine Academy read and interpreted Plato through Neoplatonist eyes. "The affairs of the academy mainly revolved around the work of Marsilio Ficino," who lived from 1433 to 1499 and who was the main source for Neoplatonic thought during the Renaissance. "Ficino produced an edition of the works of Plato, with commentary, and the first Latin translation (in 1492) of the Enneads." His own major work, the Platonic Theology on the Immortality of the Soul, was finished in 1474. Ficino's pupil, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, also had a prominent influence on Renaissance Neoplatonism, and his major work was Oration on the Dignity of Man. Unfortunately, Giovanni Pico died in 1494, five years before his master's death. "Although the academy dissolved after the death of Ficino, its tradition was carried on at the universities of Florence and Pisa until the 17th century" (Harris 17-18).

"The first step is to recognize one's kinship with the universal Soul; then, to learn to see intelligible form, reflecting the light of Good, through the medium of physical beauty, of virtuous character and noble institutions, and of the abstractions of the sciences." Here is the framework for the process of spiritual ascension and the various elements that encompass the means of this process, i.e. light of the Good, medium of physical beauty, virtuous character, and the abstraction of knowledge. First comes the understanding of the process and the preparation of the mind for interpretation. During the Renaissance, there was much study of how to "learn to see intelligible form," or to appropriately interpret visual forms in order to gain intellectual, then spiritual ascension (Gregory 4). This alludes to the idea that the image or object being reflected upon can be linked with "'symbolic values' that pervade a given culture" and reflect certain themes and concepts from literary texts, both contemporary and classical, thus connecting intrinsic meanings or ideas to the visual form. This last level of interpretation of images is "attainable...through the scholar's sudden leap in intuition or...divine revelation." As a result, this leads into another theme in the Enneads, the "preference for intuition over empirical forms of knowing." After having absorbed particular ideas and thoughts from many literary texts and different types of philosophy and having the knowledge of certain worldly and cultural concepts and themes, a spiritual understanding may arise in the mind of the scholar when interpreting the visual images (Payne 112).

Plotonius affirms several Platonic themes in his own work, Enneads. One important theme is "the tendency to identify the beautiful, the good, and the true as one and the same" (Harris 3). This refers to the prominent Neoplatonic belief that the symbolic meaning of the ideal nude male figure is nuditas virtualis, or "the state of innocence." Since this nude male body is ideal and completely void of sin, it follows the Christian Neoplatonic belief that an idealized nude beauty is the mirror image or reflection of God himself; a body both beautiful and good. Through this perfected depiction of an idealized nuditas virtualis, the mind may transcend to a higher level of thinking, in which the light of the Divine is attained and the soul may leave the body. Michelangelo embraced the symbolic meaning of nudity as nuditas virtualis and believed the "nude figure to be far nobler than anything that might clothe it." This belief is evident in his David, which has an idealized and youthful (yet somewhat adult) body, and David appears to be unashamed of his complete nudity (Snow-Smith 147). His portrayal of the body of Adam in his Creation of Adam (Fig. 1) is also that of an idealized, nude physical beauty, however, the lifelessness of Adam's body upon the earth emphasizes the need for the light of God to revive his soul (Snow-Smith 149).

Another theme from Plotonius's Enneads is "the conviction that the visible and sensible refer to a still higher level of being than the level on which they occur." This suggests that the visual image embodies much more than is discernible to the unlearned eye. The image surpasses the beauty of material forms in nature and encompasses in its idealized beauty unseen worldly concepts and themes (Harris 3). This Neoplatonic theme is similar to the influence of the "medieval distinction between natura naturans and natura naturata, between the dynamic creative, generative principle and the inert material result of that creation" that was evident in Renaissance art (Garrard 71). Based on this idea, Renaissance artists believed that their "art was not to imitate the mere phenomena of nature (natura naturata) but, rather, its higher invisible principles (natura naturans)" and therefore, their perfected and idealized forms would "successfully compete with Nature herself" (Garrard 71). Thus, Renaissance artists understood that the depiction of the natura naturans in their artwork would bring enlightenment to its viewers rather than the imitation of natural forms (Garrard 71).

In his writings, Plotonius refers to having "mystical experiences" throughout his life. He interprets this as the "union of his highest self with the Divine" after having "seen beauty of surpassing greatness" (Gregory 4). Plotinus's system of thought is that the process of spiritual ascent begins with an inward movement into the depths of oneself, a spiritual progress by which the soul is gradually purified of all its bodily associations (Gregory 4). "The Neoplatonic concept of the ascent of the lower soul from a physical life of struggle and suffering" comes from this train of thought (Gregory 4). The Dying Captive (Fig. 2) is Michelangelo's attempt to portray the human soul struggling to break free from his bonds and ascend to heaven, which reflects the Neoplatonic concept in combination with the "Christian doctrine of the imprisonment of the soul by bonds of sin" (Snow-Smith 151). Although this Christian doctrine contains a Neoplatonic concept, the Christian doctrine includes the idea of original sin (Snow-Smith 151). The Neoplatonist concept is that the soul is leaving the material world of perfected physical beauty, whereas Christian doctrine holds that the soul is leaving a corrupt world full of his sins (Snow-Smith 151). Platonists had a more "vulgar or concupiscent concept of love" derived from Plato's Symposium, which equates this love with the earthly Aphrodite and with the emphasis of the sensual nature of the body as sinful (Snow-Smith 151). Early Christian theologians borrowed from this Platonic belief in lieu of the fall of Adam and the belief in original sin, and its incorporation is reflected in Michelangelo's Rebellious Captive (Fig. 3) (Snow-Smith 154). Note how the sculptural figure's groin is draped over with cloth, instead of portraying the figure as completely nude (Snow-Smith 154). This belief was in opposition to the Neoplatonic belief of the "terrestrial manifestation of pure love which the human soul bears toward God, called amor divinus by Marsilio Ficino and Neoplatonists" (Snow-Smith 154). Thus, Christian influence tends to blot out a Neoplatonic interpretation of the Rebellious Captive (Snow-Smith 154), but the works of Michelangelo that portray an idealized, completely nude male figure reflect this Neoplatonic belief in "pure love" not infiltrated with sin and shame (Snow-Smith 154).

The "rough-hewn image of an ape" included in the base of the Dying Captive, which is the "Christian symbol of the licentious and prurient lower nature of humanity," enforces such implications from Christian doctrine (Snow-Smith 152). During the Renaissance, the ape was recognized as a negative caricature of Man's own distorted, ignoble self and as an image associated with vice and sin in general (Snow-Smith 152). The ugly appearance of the ape reinforces the Platonic concept of linking the object's physical beauty with its moral state (Snow-Smith 152). Michelangelo's The Fall of Man and the Expulsion from Paradise (Fig. 4, 5) panel from the Sistine Chapel is another excellent example of linking physical and moral states (Snow-Smith 152). The physical appearance of Adam and Eve differs dramatically from the left side to the right side of the panel (Snow-Smith 152). On the left side in the scene where Eve receives the apple from the snake, Adam and Eve are quite physically beautiful (Fig. 4), but in their expulsion from paradise on the right side of the panel, their bodies look heavier and less attractive and youthful (Fig. 5) (Snow-Smith 152). The decline of their physical beauty reflects their loss of innocence and their corrupt nature (Snow-Smith 152). In addition, attempts from late nineteenth century onward to discover "'hidden' meanings" in Michelangelo's panels on the Sistine Chapel ceiling reveal the Neoplatonic belief of the soul being enslaved in the body (Hughes 140). "The movement from God Separating Light and Darkness to the Drunkenness of Noah depicts a degenerative process" that "depict[s] a Neoplatonic allegory of the history of the soul as it becomes gradually enslaved to the flesh" (Hughes 140).

In 1497, the leading Renaissance Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino made a new translation of the works of Dionysius the Areopagite, most notably the Celestial Hierarchy, which was written 500 A.D. and guided the Renaissance belief in light metaphysics (Snow-Smith 151). Dionysius the Areopagite describes how the radiant light of God descends to the angels, and then the highest-ranking angel passes the divine light to the next highest-ranking angel, and this process continues in descending order amongst all the angels until the divine light finally reaches the human soul, thus completing the celestial hierarchy (Snow-Smith 151). Therefore "with the aid of angels, man is able successfully to ascend to the hierarchy of divine light, that is, God" (Snow-Smith 151). This may occur in the "action of divine love" or, as Dionysius calls it, "'divine madness,' an ecstatic motion in which the divinity leads and conserves all in every manner while it enraptures the soul" (Snow-Smith 151). This "spiral" motion of the divine light and the "unlimitedness of the best imagined through fire" (Snow-Smith 151). From this visual metaphor of the divine light as a flame-like movement, Renaissance Neoplatonists were able to form a relationship between the idea of the celestial hierarchy of light and the classical idea of figura serpentia in sculpture (Snow-Smith 151).

Michelangelo was able make this "intellectual concept" from Dionysius the Areopagite "into a physical reality" by his use of figura serpentia, which is "a calculated construction of the body to obtain the maximum of torsion in the minimum space" (Snow-Smith 151). Michelangelo studied antique sculptures, such as the Laocoon and the Belvedere Torso, which are excellent examples of the use of figura serpentia, which is the contortion and the extreme twisting of the muscles in an almost violent movement of the body (Snow-Smith 150). By applying the concept of figura serpentia, the sculptural figures obtain a "Neoplatonic ecstasy," which symbolizes an externalization of the spirituality of the soul" and expresses visually the divine light's flame-like spiraling movement as it enraptures the soul (Snow-Smith 150). As of recently, some critics believe that Michelangelo's Moses is another example of a body being "'petrified' by a Neoplatonic ecstasy," since Moses has been described as portraying "'movement without locomotion' or 'arrested movement' constricted within the 'stone space' of the block" (Rosenthal 545). It is more difficult to ascribe the figure of Moses as an ecstatic state because the use of figura serpentia is not very obvious (Rosenthal 545). In addition, Rosenthal points out how when seen at the appropriate angle from below (the angle from which the viewer is suppose to look at Moses), Moses shows even less movement and tenseness (545). Rosenthal continues his argument that recent critics have erred by interpreting Michelangelo's Moses with Neoplatonism, instead of realizing that Michelangelo probably based his Moses more on the biblical account than Neoplatonic sources (546). Neoplatonic thought is better suited for the first design for the tomb in 1505, which had the combination of "Moses and Paul with the vita activa and the vita contemplativa," that is, the active life and contemplative life (Rosenthal 546). As Panofsky points out, "Florentine Neoplatonists often paired the two inspired leaders and pointed to their lives as outstanding examples of a synthesis of action and vision" and Panofsky continued to create "a brilliant Neoplatonic interpretation of the first project" (qtd. in Rosenthal 546). Unfortunately, in the second version of 1513, St. Paul was excluded and representations of the Madonna and Child and several saints were added to the design of Julius's tomb, additions which "indicate a new emphasis on Christian references" (Rosenthal 546).

The Medici Chapel in San Lorenzo, Florence has also been interpreted as a "Neoplatonic figure for the Universe." "This was based on the idea that the human soul, sent down from heaven to earth and passing through the rivers of the underworld (a passage that caused the partial forgetting of its divine origin), emerged enslaved to matter until the time came for its release and eventual joyful reunion with God." If the chapel had been completely finished, River Gods were to be placed on the lower levels of Giuliano and Lorenzo de' Medici's tombs (Hughes 206). According to the Neoplatonic interpretation, these River Gods are suppose to be "personifications of the rivers of Hades," and thus the lower levels of the chapel represent the underworld (Hughes 206). Above the River Gods, the "allegories of the Times of Day" (i.e. the sculpted figures called Day, Night, Dusk, and Dawn) would "represent the earthly sphere characterized by restlessness and change," since the human soul is struggling to leave the material world (Hughes 197, 206). Then, the serene statues of Giuliano and Lorenzo de' Medici above the Times of Day represent a "purer realm." Thus, the chapel is divided symbolically into three zones: the underworld, the earthly sphere, and the heavenly realm (Hughes 206).
Those who favor the Neoplatonic interpretation point out how the hypothesis addresses the marked contrast of the "restlessness of the allegories...and the relatively serene effigies above" and draws "attention to the role that architecture plays in establishing the mood of the interior as a whole" (Huges 206). Later writers have suggested that the rivers may be "symbolic of geographical regions," i.e. Florence, Rome, Nemours and Urbino, which undermines the symbolic zones of the Neoplatonic interpretation (Hughes 206).

In their combination of a sophisticated philosophy with religious aspiration, the pagan neoplatonists had only one serious rival, which was Christianity; yet it was the incorporation of their ideas into Christian theology that ensured their permanent influence on European culture (Elsee 139). Neoplatonism was often an extension of the development of Christian theory and "helped to bring out some aspects of the truth which might otherwise have long remained unnoticed" (Motzkin 226; Elsee 139). Sometimes Neoplatonic and Christian beliefs closely coincided, such as the basic concept that man was struggling to free himself from a lower world, yet at other times, Neoplatonism and Christian doctrines diverged, like the treatment of the nude body and its pudenda, or "shameful parts" (Snow-Smith 150).

In conclusion, it is possible that Michelangelo incorporated Neoplatonic philosophy into several works of his art. In a few of his artworks, he used figura serpentia and the expression of Neoplatonic ecstasy, which depict the Neoplatonic concept of divine light enrapturing the soul. He linked the physical state of his figures with their moral state, which is another theme in Neoplatonic philosophy. Also, certain interpretations of his artwork express the similarities and differences between Neoplatonism and Christian doctrines.

Works Cited

The Creation of Adam. 15th century. Sistine Chapel. 17 Nov. 2002 . [Adam's partially lifeless body is visible, as well as God and his outstretched arm toward Adam.]

The Dying Captive. Circa 1513. Musee du Louvre, Paris. 17 Nov. 2002 .
[This picture depicts Michelangelo's Dying Captive in full-length so the viewer can see the posture of the figure and the bands of cloth around its chest, aspects which are relevant to its interpretation.]

Elsee, Charles. Neoplatonism in Relation to Christianity. Cambridge: University P, 1908. [This book extensively explains the main Neoplatonic beliefs and compares and contrasts Neoplatonic beliefs to Christian doctrine.]

Fall and Expulsion from Paradise 1509-1510. Sistine Chapel. 17 Nov. 2002 . [This shows the entire panel called Fall and the Expulsion from Paradise. Adam's and Eve's physical looks change in their expulsion from paradise.]

Fall and Expulsion from Paradise. 1509-1510. Sistine Chapel. 17 Nov. 2002
. [This detail from the panel focuses on Adam and Eve before their expulsion and shows their physical beauty.]

Harris, R. Baine. The Significance of Neoplatonism. Norfolk: Dominum, 1976. [This book has background information on Neoplatonism, such as the main Neoplatonists philosophers and works, and explains the main ideas of Neoplatonism.]

Hughes, Anthony. Michelangelo. London: Phaidon P, 1997. [There is a small part in this book that mentions how the nude bodies in certain works of Michelangelo express intellectualism and the divine through its physical positioning.]

Garrard, Mary. "Female portraits, Female Nature." The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and Art History. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992. [Garrard's essay explains the Neoplatonic concept of how the image surpasses the beauty of material forms in nature and encompasses in its idealized beauty unseen worldly concepts and themes.]

Gregory, John. Neoplatonists. London: Routledge, 1999. [This book has background information on Neoplatonism, such as the influence of Neoplatonism over the centuries.]

Motzkin, Elhanan. "Michelangelo's Slaves in the Louvre." Gazette des Beaux-Arts 120.6 Dec. 1992: 207-28. [Motzkin takes an in-depth look at Michelangelo's "Slaves" and compares Neoplatonic beliefs with certain details of the works.]

Rebellious Slave. Circa 1516. Musee du Louvre, Paris. 17 Nov. 2002 . [This photo shows the Rebellious Captive in full-length and the loincloth covering the figure's groin is visible.]

Rosenthal, Earl. "Michelangelo's Moses, 'dal si soto in su'." Art Bulletin. 46 (1964): 544-550. [Rosenthal explains how Michelangelo's "Moses" is in a Neoplatonic ecstasy.]

Payne, Alina. Antiquity and its Interpreters. Cambridge: University P, 2000. [Payne explains the main themes from Enneads and the Neoplatonic process of spritual ascent. ]

Snow-Smith, Joanne. "Michelangelo's Christian neoplatonic aesthetic of beauty in his early oeuvre: the nuditas virtualis image." Concepts of Beauty in Renaissance Art. Brookfield: VT, 1998. [This essay explains the Neoplatonic belief that the symbolic meaning of the ideal nude male figure is nuditas virtualis and shows how Michelangelo used this belief in his works. Snow-Smith also shows how Michelangelo expresses the Neoplatonic light symbolism in his works.]


Balas, Edith. "A hypothesis on Michelangelo's 1505 project of the tomb of Julius II." Gazette des Beaux-Arts 104.6 Oct. 1984: 109-12.

Elsee, Charles. Neoplatonism in Relation to Christianity. Cambridge: University P, 1908.

Harris, R. Baine. The significance of Neoplatonism. Norfolk: Dominum, 1976.

Hughes, Anthony. Michelangelo. London: Phaidon P, 1997.

Gregory, John. Neoplatonists. London: Routledge, 1999.

Garrard, Mary. "Female portraits, Female Nature." The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and Art History. New York, 1992.

Motzkin, Elhanan. "Michelangelo's Slaves in the Louvre." Gazette des Beaux-Arts 120.6 Dec. 1992: 207-28.

Payne, Alina. Antiquity and its Interpreters. Cambridge: University P, 2000.

Rosenthal, Earl. "Michelangelo's Moses, 'dal si soto in su'." Art Bulletin. 46 (1964): 544-550.

Shrimplin, Valerie. "Hell in Michelangelo's Last Judgment. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City." Artibus et Historiae 15.30 (1994): 83-107.

Snow-Smith, Joanne. "Michelangelo's Christian neoplatonic aesthetic of beauty in his early oeuvre: the nuditas virtualis image." Concepts of Beauty in Renaissance Art. Brookfield: VT, 1998.