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The Human Condition as Seen Through the Art of Diego Rivera and Michelangelo Buonorotti


The question "what is our place in the universe?" has challenged mankind's understanding and creativity since before the dawn of history. At first, mankind lived in an uneasy harmony with nature, and saw itself as a part of nature. In time, people saw the world as being divided into two parts: things people could control and things they could not. It seemed logical to some that if mankind could not control the forces of nature, perhaps there existed someone or something that could. Some of "our Pagan ancestors honored -- even deified -- natural forces in their religions"(Fitch, ix). Two separate cosmologies arose; one saw mankind as being able to master the universe through mankind's mental and physical prowess, the other saw mankind as needing to rely on the aid of an outside, supernatural agent; "religion came into being when man(sic) realized that . . . his(sic) control of the universe is limited."(Gonzales-Wipplier, pg 6) The flower of humanism may be said to have come to full bloom in classical Greece, where, "the statement by Protogoras, 'man is the measure of all things', could be said to embody the Greek artistic ideal."(King) These two cosmologies, humanism and religion, are represented in today's civilization in such institutions as socialism-communism and Roman Catholicism. Frderick Engels, one of communism's founders, summaries the differences between communism and Christianity thusly, "Christianity places this salvation in a life beyond, after death, in heaven. So communism places it in this world, through a transformation of society."(Engels, pg 168)

Humanism, in the form of Socialism, became the driving force of the Mexican Revolution of the early twentieth century, as seen by the commissioning by the Mexican government of artists like Rivera to paint murals at the University of Agriculture at Chapingo and the National Palace at Mexico City. Religion, in the form of Roman Catholicism, was the driving force of Renaissance Italy, as seen by the commissioning by the Pope of artists like Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Though the societies of Revolutionary Mexico and Renaissance Italy had divergent cosmologies , they shared many social conditions, and found themselves faced with the same challenge: how to indoctrinate a largely illiterate populace. They found the same solution: the depiction of important themes in murals in public buildings. In Renaissance Italy, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was chosen as the location for art which presented Roman Catholicism's view of humanity's role in the universe. In Revolutionary Mexico, the walls of buildings such as the National Palace were chosen to display the goals and philosophy of socialism. Artists of the Mexican Revolution, such as Rivera looked to the Renaissance for inspiration and, "in the classical myths and forms of Renaissance art Rivera recognized a specific device and mode of procedure by which the ambitions of Mexico's new, post- revolutionary government could be achieved. Just as the Italian Renaissance artists had revived pride in their country's heritage from ancient Greece and Rome, so Rivera, with similar emphasis upon realism and humanism, would create murals that would evoke a pride in the heritage in a rich indigenous past."(Arquin, pp142-3)

Comparisons may be made not only between individual works of individual artists, but between the social and cultural conditions that brought these artists into being. Also, the lives of two artists of different times and different cosmologies may possess similarities. Thus, the lives of artists separated by centuries may be more similar than those of contemporaries. "The life of a Rivera . . . comes closer to that of a Michelangelo or a Cellini than it does to. . . a Puvis or a Picasso."(Wolfe, pg 197), These similar circumstances may have a direct impact on the content of the artist's work. Both Michelangelo and Rivera were the sons of middle class parents. Michelangelo was the son of "a city magistrate"(Hale, pg 122); Rivera was the son of "the editor of a liberal news paper"(Arquin, pg 21). Both Michelangelo and Rivera owe their careers to having their talents recognized and developed at an early age. The work of both was made possible by powerful patrons. For Rivera, this patron was the state in the form of Mexican Government. For Michelangelo, the patron was the Roman Catholic in the personage of the Pope. An understanding of their social settings is essential to an understanding of the iconography of the artists. The iconography of Rivera contains images drawn from the historical setting of the Mexican Revolution- socialism and Mexico's Aztec heritage; that of Michelangelo contains the images drawn from Renaissance Italy and Catholicism, under the influence of its Greco-Roman heritage. The works of both Rivera and Michelangelo are representative of the views of mankind's role in the universe held by the artists, and the societies in which they lived. I will demonstrate how this is so by comparing murals of each of these artist's cosmologies, Rivera's Creation and Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam". I have mentioned the need in both Rivera's Mexico and Michelangelo's Italy to us art to educate a largely illiterate populace. The iconography and content of Rivera's mural, The Creation, located in the Mexico City, Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, Anfiteatro Bolívar is an example of what Bertram Wolfe called Rivera's "Aztec approach to communism."(Wolfe, pg 149) In overall appearance, this mural at first resembles the work of a renaissance artist depicting a religious scene. However, there are distinct differences. Unlike a renaissance religious work, Rivera's Creation does not contain a divine image or a religious figure-- God is conspicuous by His absence. Rather than an image of God bestowing manna from heaven, we see an image of a man literally up to his arm pits in fruit. There is bounty, not by means of divine intervention, but rather as a result of the labors of enlightened men and women under the Revolution. Unlike the figures in a Renaissance painting, these figures have a more earthy than heavenly appearance in that they are not the stately, white-skinned saints of Michelangelo, but rather the dark-skinned peasants of the Mexican countryside. The background of earth tones reinforces the message that bounty, symbolized by the bananas, comes from the earth, through the labors of mankind. The figures on the sides do not represent saints or Christian virtues, but rather, The "Emanations of the Spirit of Woman" on the left, and the "Emanations of the Spirit of Man" on the right.(Helms,pg 238) It is important to note that these qualities arise from the nature of man and woman. They are not bestowed from on high. This point is emphasized by the lack of implied lines between themselves and any part of the painting-- they do not gaze at the central figure in adoration, but go on with the tasks at hand. . There can be seen an "elegiac quality of mood in his glorification of peasants and workers. . . ."( Myers, pg 219.)

Like Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam, The Creation seems to celebrate the creation of a new world. Unlike The Creation of Adam, it lacks clearly religious symbols. In this work is a new creation, one wrought by the labors of mankind rather than of God, through implementation of socialist reforms and the education of the people. Sr. Rivera's work seems to say, "By the fruits of the Revolution will you know us; by our labors will we prosper." The Creation of Adam (1508-1512, fresco) is located on the Vault of the Sistine Chapel. It is a asymmetrically balance painting with two dominant figures, the one, of Adam, on the left, the other , of God, on the right. The youthful figure of Adam reclines passively and expectantly on the ground, waiting on God. He appears to be lit from above, as by a heavenly light. The ancient figure of God hovers powerfully in the air, pondering Adam. He is attended by a host of genii above, below and behind him, and "The group assumes the aspect of a gigantic cloud." (Mariani, Plate XII) All of this iconography establishes the Roman Catholic view of mankind in relationship to God and the universe. Man is below, , and subordinate to God, dependent on this supernatural being for his very existence. The choice of colors in the background emphasizes the Church's opinion on the state of humanity. There is contrast between the backgrounds behind the figure Adam and the figures God and his host in that the figure of Adam reclines on a green and blue earth with a white, early dawn-like sky, while the figures on the right seem suspended in space and enclosed in a cloak of red-violet and blue-violet. Adam's side of the painting is green and blue, the colors of earth, with a view of the sky. God and the genii of his attributes a cloaked in royal purple. Adam's left hand rests limply on the left knee and his gaze, fixed on God, seems to lack independent will. God's outstretched hand seems vibrant and powerful, and his gaze is full of wisdom and creative purpose. I would like to conclude with a final comparison of the implied lined of The Creation and The Creation of Adam, that illustrates the differences between these two divergent cosmologies. Rivera was an adherent of a modern form of Humanism, communism. In ancient times, this cosmology was represented by the tau, which is made by placing a vertical line under a horizontal line; the vertical line connecting at its top end with the horizontal at its mid point. In simplest terms, it resembles the letter "T". The tau symbolizes the cosmological formula of "reaching the heights from below. It may be thought to symbolize the words of Marks," freedom is never given from above, it is taken from below.(Laskin, pg 8) The tau may be seen in the implied lines of The Creation. The center line, rising through Emerging Man, reaches the horizontal line of the top of the alcove. Also, Emerging Man forms the shape of the tau with his outstretched arms. He does not reach up beseechingly to heaven, nor does his gaze extend the implied line above the horizontal by gazing heavenward. Rather, he gazes outward, to the audience, That Emergent Man is reaching the heights by his own efforts can be seen as he arises from the stack of the bananas.. The symbol of the other cosmology, religion, is the cross. The shape of the cross is also made by first drawing a vertical line. The vertical line is not topped by a horizontal line, but rather crossed at mid point or at a point somewhat higher. More simply put, it looks like this: + . The cross makes the cosmological statement "as above, so below", or in the words of the Our Father, ". . . Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven".(Matt. 6:10) An implied vertical line separates the two halves of The Creation of Adam, and an implied line connects the figure of Adam with that of God, thus forming the cross. Implied lines following the gaze of Adam to God and the gaze of God toward God show the connection between God and mankind. We thus see the two world views of humanism and religion, of the Mexican Revolution and the Italian Renaissance, demonstrated in the lines and art of two of their artistic propagandists, Diego Rivera and Michelangelo Bounarotti.

Works Cited

  1. Arquin, Florence. "Diego Rivera, The Shaping of an Artist, 1889-1921". Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.
  2. Engels, Frederick. "On the History of Early Christianity", Feurer, Lewis S., Marx and Engels, Basic Writings in Politics and Philosophy. No Place: Anchor Books, 1959.
  3. Fitch, Ed. Magical Rites From the Crystal Well. St. Pali, Mn. Llewellyn Publication, 1992.
  4. Gonzales- Wippler. The Complete Book of Spells, Ceremonies and Magic. St. Pali, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1991.
  5. Hale, John R. and the Editors of Time-Life books. Renaissance. New York: Times, Inc., 1965.
  6. Helms, Cynthia Newman, Editor. Diego Rivera A Retrospective. No Place: Founders Society, Detroit Institute of the Arts, 1986.
  7. King, Kathleen. "The Gordon Writing Rlie".No Place: No Publisher, 1997.
  8. Laskin, Harold. Harold J Laskin on the Communist Manifesto, Clinton, MA: Random House, 1967.
  9. Mariani, Valerio. Michelangelo the Painter. New York: Harry N. Adams, 1964.
  10. The Gospel of St. Matthew. The Holy Bible, KGV.
  11. Myers, Bernard S. Encyclopedia of World Art, volume XII.New York: McGraw Hill Book Company, 1966.
  12. Rivera, Diego, The Creation. Diego Rivera Web Museum, Online, Internet, March 7,1997.
  13. Wolfe, Bertram D. The Fablious Life of Rivera Diego. New York: Wolfe, Bertram D, Stein and Day, 1963.