MICHELANGELO once observed that painting is the art of putting on, while sculpture is the art of taking away. The sculpted image is right there in the block of marble — the sculptor sees it. He or she just needs to chip away, to take away the excess stone and reveal the image to others.
But the sculptor sees it from the beginning.
In the case of Michelangelo’s overwhelming sculpture, the David — 13’6” high — his achievement was even more remarkable considering that he needed not only artistic but angular vision. For him to see the David within the huge, rare, block of pure white Carrara marble, he had to adjust and tilt the image of the David in his mind by some 18%. The way Michelangelo envisioned the David, particularly its arms, the sculpture would not emerge from the block if he sculpted it straight up. There would be no room for the arms, one hanging but ready, the other tensed and taut.
So, in addition to the genius of Michelangelo’s artistry that took off the excess stone to reveal the David, every lined and rounded hammer cut had to be adjusted by roughly 18%.
When did sculpture, the act of taking away, happen before?
It happened, of course, two millennia before, in Greek and Roman times.
It also happened a millennium before the Greeks, in this week’s Torah portion.
This portion, Terumah or “Donation,” prescribes the construction of the first house of monotheistic worship, the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle contained many ritual objects, the holiest being the Ark. The Ark held the two tablets of the law from Mount Sinai, and it had a cover, capped with two Cherubs.
In the fashioning of those Cherubs we shall see the precursor to Renaissance sculpture. Exodus 25:17-22:
“You shall make a Cover of pure gold . . . You shall make two Cherubs of gold — hammered out shall you make them — at both ends of the Cover. . . . from the Cover shall you make the Cherubs at its two ends. The Cherubs shall be with wings spread upward, sheltering the Cover with their wings, with their faces toward one another . . . You shall place the Cover on the Ark from above and into the Ark shall you place the [Tablets of] Testimony that I shall give you.”
NOTE: The two Cherubs are to be made “from the Cover” (25:19). Rashi comments:
“From the Cover itself you shall fashion two Cherubs. This means that you shall hammer them out from a single ingot of gold. Do not fashion them by themselves and then attach them to the Cover.”
Netziv (R. Naftali Z. Y. Berlin, 1816-1892), based on a nuance in the Hebrew wording, comments:
“The two Cherubs at opposite ends of the Cover are to be fashioned simultaneously, which means that two separate artists are to fashion them, since one person cannot fashion two separated objects at one time.”
PRAY tell, where in the desert of Sinai was an ingot of gold large enough to contain within it a Cover and two Cherubs? And how did these two Cherubs emerge from that solid ingot?
The beginning of Terumah commands the Israelites to donate “gold, silver and copper” for the Tabernacle project (25:3). Presumably, the individually donated gold pieces — rings, bracelets, other jewelry — were smelted into one large ingot.
The more perplexing issue is how, from one large block of gold, two Cherubs were to be fashioned.
I do not write from any experience as a goldsmith, but, based on the command that the Cherubs be “hammered out” of the gold, I imagine a process similar to Michelangelo’s.
Piece after piece of gold was removed from the large ingot until only enough gold remained to be hammered into the shape of the two Cherubs, then further hammered into their fine detail and high sheen.
While the added miracle, over and above Michelangelo’s unmatched sculpting artistry, was his need to recalibrate each hammer stroke by some 18%, the added miracle in the fashioning of the Cherubs, over and above the artistry involved, was the need of two people, working simultaneously, to fashion two symmetrical objects, two Cherubs, exact replicas of each other, only in reverse.
THE technique prefigured the great Michelangelo, but the intent diverged. We have a parallel in form, but not in substance.
The two Cherubs of the Cover of the Ark in the ancient Tabernacle were unique in Jewish spiritual history. Judaism, beginning with the Ten Commandments which rested inside the Ark, frowns on sculpture, certainly of human beings, as a form of idolatry.
Michelangelo’s intent was also spiritual, but his medium fit the Christian sensibility he embraced, which apotheosized the human form — a sensibility alien to Judaism and at the root of Christianity’s dissent from it.
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