The Michelangelo Principle
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This year, our head of school assigned us a book about art and faith called Rembrandt is in the Wind by Russ Ramsey. In the second chapter, Ramsey tells the story behind Michelangelo’s sculpture, “David,” a story I had never heard before.
Although Michelangelo completed his sculpture in 1504, the story really begins in 1463 when the Florence Cathedral commissioned an Italian artist named Agostino di Duccio to sculpt the statue. His work would be the second statue in a series of 12 biblical figures.
Duccio chose the stone he would carve his statue from; it was an 18-foot slab that weighed 24,000 pounds. It was so large it took two years to transport it back to Florence. When the city leaders examined the slab they deemed it poorly chosen and carved, misshapen and unfit for the task. And then they fired Duccio.
The slab sat for 10 years while various artists worked on it here and there. And then it laid outside for 26 years exposed to rain and thunder and heat. It wasn’t until 1501 (36 years later) that Michelangelo won the contract to sculpt the statue.
When Michelangelo had completed the majority of the work, the city planned to move the statue half a mile away. The statue required 42 men, four days, and an arch reconstruction to put it in place. Then they realized the statue was too large and heavy to put it up on Duomo’s buttress, so they compromised and stood it in Florence's public square. On its foundation, “David” stood 17 feet tall. Many years later they moved the statue to rest inside a museum; years later people would come from all over the world to witness this masterpiece.
LIMITATIONS AND AFFECTIONS
Michelangelo’s story reminds me that the creative process is not straightforward; we’re almost always working inside a circle of constraints, forcing artists to balance back and forth between determination and accommodation. Sometimes we can adjust our limits, so our circle is a little larger, but sometimes we push and plead only to realize our limits are immutable. The Michelangelo Principle says that our circle of constraints can produce unlikely and beautiful creativity.
The idea that we should submit to our constraints isn’t something that comes naturally to us. Culture says that what hinders self-expression impedes creativity. The voice plays all around me – be you, do you, for you.
A couple months ago, I saw Stephen Spieblerg’s semi-autobiographical film, The Fableman’s (2023). The story follows Sammy Fableman, a young man who dreams to make movies. On one hand, the film was beautiful and inspiring, and on the other hand it was shallow. Spielberg’s message was nothing new: to pursue our dreams we need to break free of what ties us down. Mitzi Fableman, Sammy’s mother, is the prime conduit of the film’s message. She says, “You do what your heart says you have to, because you don’t owe anyone your life.” As a Christian, I must disagree, especially with that last statement.
I’m not saying all constraints are beneficial, some are harmful and painful, and if we can escape them, we should. But at the same time, many of our constraints are there for our good. Too many choices and too much freedom are a recipe for overwhelm and boredom. Try teaching a creative writing class where the instructions are to “Write whatever you want, in whatever genre you want, in whatever style you want.” Try running a marathon where you’re free to run wherever you want for however long you’d like.
No fun. The end.
We all know, kids crave structure and limits. But, so do adults. It’s because we’re not autonomous creatures, and following every whim of our heart is a miserable path.
Classical Christian education argues that to cultivate children who are wise and virtuous we must not only shape what they think but what they love. We must push back against the culture and say, “No, you must love these things . . .”
Truth. Goodness. Beauty.
So, we do our very best to put those things in front of them . . . every day.
I visited a school recently who had a beautiful mission statement. They state that they assist “parents in shaping students’ affections for Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, for the benefit of man and the glory of Jesus Christ.” They get it.
Let’s talk more about the affections.
THE VIRTUE OF SHOWING UP
The process of shaping affections takes time and happens alongside the training of the will. Writing has taught me a little bit about this.
One of the best pieces of advice on writing I’ve heard is that to be a writer you must show up–again and again and again. For years I would wait for inspiration to strike, and when it hit, I would run like a madman to get it all down! What was the force behind my productivity? I was inspired, and I wanted to write. But other times inspiration wouldn’t show up, so I wouldn’t show up either. I think back on how many words didn’t meet the paper.
A scary time to write is after a long, productive session. You know you’ve given everything you’ve had and you feel satisfied. But then you start thinking about tomorrow and realize, “I can’t even imagine what I’ll write! I’m out of ideas and paragraphs and words and punctuation . . .”
Anne Lamont describes writing as an act of hope: “Hope,” she says, “begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work; you don’t give up” (Bird by Bird, xxiv).
What I’ve discovered from showing up at my journal or laptop is that if I wait long enough – the words come. If you show up enough and make it a habit, you know what also tends to wander in as well? The affections. And on those days you don’t feel like doing _________, you now have a little more courage to say, “I’m doing this, and affections . . . you need to follow me.”
Hope is at the heart of education . . . and parenting and leading and creating . . . all Kingdom work it seems. Our call isn’t to know the answers to tomorrow.
Like the Israelites, our temptation is to gather food for today and then horde it for tomorrow and the next and the next. But our God is a loving, sovereign provider. When tomorrow becomes today, he will provide. So, we walk in hope, continue to show up, and call to our affections (if necessary) to follow. The beauty of the Christian Story is that one day it won’t be so hard to love what we ought to love. It will be easy, a delight.
WRESTLING MY LIMITS TO THE GROUND
When I consider the statue of David, I’m astounded by the limits that Michelangelo faced. He didn’t choose his slab of stone. He didn’t pick his model. He couldn’t pick his workspace. He inherited a misshapen, unfit canvas that had to conform to the biblical story of David. Within that circle of constraints, I’m sure that he pushed and questioned and challenged the city leaders for modifications. Where did the circle of constraints really lie? But at some point . . . Michelangelo submitted to the task before him, and from within that circle, he produced an unexpected masterpiece.
Russ Ramsey makes the application for us–here is a model of faithful stewardship. When it comes to our lives and our vocation, there’s so much we don’t get to choose. I didn’t choose my parents, or the year I was born, or the amount of sleep I need, or my gifts and intelligence.
It’s not that we’re robots who can’t make choices, it’s that we’re finite, not infinite; we’re creatures not the Creator.
Time to be honest. What I’m saying, I preach to myself first and foremost.
Follow me around for a while, and you’ll see that I may understand the Michelangelo Principle, but I don’t always like it. Much of the time, I’d much rather be set loose to create what I want, how I want, when I want. I’d rather follow my heart and pursue my dreams. But I also know that for a fallen, broken man like me, following Dane Bundy and only Dane Bundy, is pain and misery. It comes with a yoke that’s heavy and demanding and cruel.
Christ’s yoke is far better. In his limits, we find rest.
One more thing about the Michelangelo Principle: I often resonate more with Duccio than Michelangelo.
Wait, who was Duccio again?
Agostino di Duccio was the dope that picked the ugly slab, and the guy the city fired. Do you ever feel like you labor and labor and labor and then God taps you on the shoulder and says, “I’m passing this task onto another.” In response, you agonize, even rage like Salieri against Mozart. Why? Because . . . deep down we want what everyone else wants–significance, meaning, even glory. We don’t see what God is doing.
But I’m encouraged when I realize that Duccio set the stage for Michelangelo. Duccio’s mistakes actually set Michelangelo up to create at a new level, in a new way. And if you think beyond that, even Michelangelo was a Duccio to others. It’s like somebody was thinking ahead, even ordaining this all.
Michelangelo didn’t ask for a Duccio, but for the sake of his creativity, he needed him. We rarely ask for our circle of constraints, but we need them. I love how Ramsey ties this back to the Church, “For the Christian, accepting our limits is one of the ways we are shaped to fit together as living stones into the body of Christ. As much as our strengths are a gift to the church, so are our limitations” (36). In submission to Christ, limits teach us humility, and limits lead us to contentment. Limits point us to gratitude and help us harness the clouds of joy.
Why would God task fragile jars of clay to carry the glorious gospel of Christ? If we scan Scripture, we see that limits are God’s conduits for his most creative and beautiful work.
So, onward storytellers and faithful stewards, let’s dance in our circles and sing in our limits. Christ, give us eyes of faith and hearts of hope! For the glory of Christ and blessing of our neighbor.
Dane Bundy is President of Stage & Story and Director of Fine Arts at Regents School of Austin, a classical Christian school in Austin, TX.