How does an artist begin to paint? How does a sculptor produce an image of such high quality in what is generally regarded as his first work? We know that Michelangelo had lived for some time with a stonecutter and his wife during his childhood. Perhaps his introduction into working with blocks of stone was far more intensive than we first imagined.
Most artists have early work that can be used to chart the later development of their style. But The Madonna of the Stairs seems at first glance to be a fully mature piece of sculpture, the carving of the drapes half covering the infants head is indeed wonderfully executed. Perhaps Michelangelo did produce some inferior earlier work that has not survived or that he himself destroyed, whatever the reality may be, this stone masterpiece remains as a wonderfully realised, emotionally charged, piece of sculpture.
The sculpture is carved in low-relief following the style of
Donatello, this has created an impression of depth within the work. The figure
of the Madonna fills the full height of the marble block, she is seated on a
large square plinth and is placed to the right of the composition. Her face is
in classical profile and is framed by a curving halo, her drapery folds down
over the shoulders slightly caressing the head of the infant Christ.
The Madonna’s right foot is crossed beneath her left leg in what is a beautifully observed piece of carving.
In the background children are playing on the steps, they are not fully realised perhaps to add to the impression of depth within the work. The Madonna seems to be ignoring the children, her gaze is focused at a point beyond the left of the sculpture’s dimensions.
Some historians say that this is too sophisticated to be one of Michelangelo's early sculptures but look at the carving of the figure on the left. The arms and legs are not so well defined, the pose is unsure and disproportionate.
In contrast, the infant, cradled in the arms of the Madonna, displays the heavy muscular form that we associate with Michelangelo's later works.
The head of the Christ child can only be partially seen as
he snuggles into the body of the Madonna.
Is the child breast feeding or he has fallen asleep after nursing?
It would seem that the infant is no longer feeding rather his head has slumped onto his chest after finishing his meal, his muscular right arm hangs behind his back cradled in the folds of the drapery.
This small sculpture does not appear to have any particular purpose, perhaps it is a practice piece by the young artist, or Michelangelo may have created the work for himself. There is little doubt that The Madonna of the Stairs is a masterpiece that remained in Michelangelo’s possession throughout his long life.