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The Unfinished Captive

Updated: Apr 4, 2022

Unfinished artwork can sometimes be more fascinating than completed pieces. Leonardo da Vinci was notorious for not finishing commissions and he left a trail of work that was never completed. His most famous example is probably The Adoration of the Magi. Just down the road a few miles from here FDR suffered a fatal stroke while sitting for Elizabeth Shoumatoff’s portrait. Today the unfinished piece is more famous than the completed one she did later from memory.

This is an unfinished sculpture by Michelangelo, one that aficionados have nicknamed The Atlas from Greek mythology. It’s one of four meant to adorn a tomb commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1505. Neither they nor the tomb were ever finished because the Pope pulled Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The sculptures are thought to be prisoners, symbols of the soul’s captivity to sin.

I like this piece because of the insight it gives into Michelangelo’s method, which fascinates me. We may think of the sculptor carving an image out of marble but he thought of it in reverse: the image was there in the rock and he was freeing it from the crude slab. It’s kind of mystical, really, to think of his work as revealing a sculpture rather than creating it. I think of that when I see this unfinished captive, because he looks so much like he is struggling to free himself. Most sculptors used wax models and tracings to guide them as they carved. Many more, Leonardo da Vinci included, used measurements and formulas to get proportions right. Michelangelo worked entirely freehand, trusting his own eye to achieve beauty and proportion. Genius is the only word I have for that.

Looking at this piece now, I can picture Michelangelo in his workshop chiseling away, working long hours without food or sleep in an obsessive hunt to find the captive inside the marble. Obviously, he only found part of this one and we’ll never see what else he may have found. It’s a little sad but maybe that’s why I like looking at it so much.

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