The 11 essays published in the posthumous volume, Michelangelo’s Painting: Selected Essays by Leo Steinberg (edited by Sheila Schwartz, University of Chicago Press, 2019), discuss Michelangelo’s early “Doni Madonna” (1506); several scenes in the Sistine Ceiling (1509); the most recent cleaning of that work; and, also, his Last Judgment (1536-41) and two very late, little-seen works, “The Conversion of Saint Paul” (1542-45) and “The Crucifixion of Saint Peter” (1547-49).

Although the essays don’t represent a complete account of these paintings, the result is something more than a collection of fragments, for out of these materials, a view of Michelangelo’s entire achievement emerges, almost as if in a biography.

The young artist, aspiring to be a sculptor, “was […] . compelled to forsake the art in which he knew himself sovereign, to labor instead at fresco painting […]. “ In “The Deluge” (1509) on the Sistine ceiling:

[…] his ambitions, anxieties, and wasted hopes haunt every part of the image […] a marble sculptor painting against his will […] the hill in the foreground is safe, the ark indestructible. It is the marble pile at right – his marble, quarried for the aborted Julius Tomb project – that’s going under.

During his long lifetime, Michelangelo’s personal, private view of Catholic dogma was challenged by the developments of the Counter-Reformation. And so when, almost 30 years later, he painted the Last Judgment in that same chapel, his fresco “embodied a long-abhorred heresy […] doubting the eternal torment of sinners and the vindictive retributive nature of the Last Judgment,” — a “merciful heresy,” or what Steinberg calls a Vatican II vision of the Last Judgment.

Finally, this artist who, when young, formed impossibly grand plans for his sculptural projects, expressed in his last painting “the central conflict of his moral life,” the conflict between “action and contemplation,” between his “lifelong artistic activity” and “the direct contemplation of God.” Near the end, “his lifelong artistic activity became in retrospect a wasteful expenditure […]. “

Giorgio Vasari, who was a friend, and other near-contemporaries of Michelangelo described his paintings in ways that often guide commentaries. And Michelangelo himself claimed in a letter that the pope “had left him to paint ‘what he liked’ on the ceiling. No one today believes that.”

When verbal evidence fails to match our visual experience, then we must look for ourselves. In refusing to allow prior commentators to have the last word, we are guided by interpretations of more recent art. And some features of Michelangelo’s paintings — the view of hell in Last Judgment for example — were censored not long after the artist’s death.

Fascinated with art writers and copyists who got Michelangelo’s paintings wrong, and with popular cartoons of famous images, Steinberg’s goal is to assemble a full picture of the body of Michelangelo’s achievement, in a synthesis that best does justice to all of this information.

“Only modern minds, attuned to the experience of twentieth-century art,” he argues: “to the commonplace of stylistic pluralism that began in late Cubism and collage — can conceptualize what Michelangelo here envisaged as a possible mode of art.” And, also, modern life can aid us, as when “such recent experiences as, say, the Dunkirk evacuation in World War II condition us to accept the truth of Michelangelo’s vision” in “Conversion of Saint Paul.”

Steinberg, who was often criticized for over-interpretation, Steinberg says that “there are […] two ways to inflict injustice on a great work of art; by over-interpreting it, or by under-estimating its meaning.” Steinberg argues that diagrams connecting physically distant figures in a composition, as revealed by diagonal overlays on reproductions of artworks, identify meaningful pictorial relationships. Thus in The Last Judgment, a long line descends from the Virgin’s foot to “St Lawrence’s grille, the gridiron on which he was roasted.” That gridiron thus becomes a ladder, a pledge that divine mercy will reach downward.

Speaking of “the tyranny of the written word,” he writes of one rival scholar: “His glimpse of a Michelangelo picture is as from a speeding car bound for the library.” Steinberg aimed to make the visual artwork itself the primary source of analysis, “its own text.” Too much art writing, he repeatedly says, lazily repeats prior commentaries, turning misapprehensions into clichés. As he once told me, “never write without looking at the work.” He looks closely at the site of these frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. And he advises scholars to better understand Michelangelo’s figures by trying out their poses themselves.

Steinberg’s compelling narratives pull you into the interpretative process, asking you to see the drama he unpacks. Typically he extensively revised his publications, sometimes leaving the discussion unfinished, like some of Michelangelo’s sculptures. The first essay in Michelangelo’s Painting is part of a book on the “Doni Madonna” begun in the 1960s, unfinished at the time of his death in 2011. But the result is never at all labored. These continuously exhilarating texts sing, evidence of how much Steinberg loved to write.

Misled by his productive association with the theorists of October, which published his book-length essay, “The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion” (not in this collection), I naively asked him whether Michel Foucault’s books had influenced him. A little surprised, he told me that what rather interested him was logical positivism. The writer who did greatly inspire him, so editor Sheila Schwartz’s Preface reveals, was James Joyce. He studied Joyce’s English with care, for English was his fourth language. “Late in life, he still knew pages of Ulysses by heart.”

Every detail mattered for him — the book has been titled Michelangelo’s Painting, not his Paintings because, so I suspect, his focus is on the unity of the artist’s work. The close looking revealed in Steinberg’s scrupulous prose is continuously dazzling:

Hid in the lower depth of the veil of heaven (widely mistaken for God’s billowing mantle or cloak) are two dark angels – damnably hard to see, but once spotted not to be thought away […] . One of the pair lurches under God’s outstretched arm, showing only a head banked on one shoulder, his cheerless face darkened by a black mop of hair. He will not look at the earthling, though the rest ooh and aah and God himself points [from “Who’s Who in the Creation of Adam”].

If [Michelangelo] shunned the conventional formula of the toppled horseman, it was because he had more poignant ways of expressing humiliation — by lowering the protagonist to the trough of the field and through his contact with the bare ground [on “The Conversion of St. Paul” from “Michelangelo’s Last Paintings”].

Steinberg died, so his book says, “after years of being ‘afflicted with longevity.’” His writings will live. Although a number of Hunter College students are credited here with visual discoveries, there was, so Alexander Nagel says in his instructive introduction, “no Steinberg school.” Steinberg’s extraordinary legacy lies not only in this radical, highly suggestive vision of Michelangelo’s paintings, but also in the challenges he poses for his successors.

Left alone at lunchtime during the cleaning of the Sistine ceiling, Steinberg climbed the scaffolding and “yielded to an irresistible professional impulse, pressing chaste lips to” the image of a young unmarried young woman, one of the Ancestors. The bride-to-be of Aminadab, a minor figure in Genesis, she combs her hair, “taking her time,” her back turned to her betrothed. “At least you now know,” he says, “that she is a certified bride.” What other historian of Renaissance art could imagine doing that?

Michelangelo’s Painting: Selected Essays (2019) by Leo Steinberg, edited by Sheila Schwartz, is published by the University of Chicago Press.

David Carrier’s most recent books are Art Writing Online: The State of the Art World and Philosophical Skepticism as the Subject of Art: Maria Bussmann’s Drawings. His book In Caravaggio’s Shadow:...