This precise paradox can be seen in the works of Michelangelo. We know that his massive sculpture, David, was addressing the contemporary concerns of Florence at the time; David was meant to be symbolic of the courage of Florence in standing up to its enemies. But that is not what strikes you about this giant sculpting if you see it with your own eyes at the Accademia in Florence. What you see is this colossal figure. You see the calm of his limbs and the anxiety of his knitted brow. And you might notice a certain glow round the figure. It is not caused by any lighting. It is perhaps caused by the way the sculpted body, in the perfection of its shaping, gathers to itself an inexplicable light, a palpable aura, the force and presence, the mythic force and the mythic presence, of a great personality. That aura, that mythic force, is transcendence, the sum total of craft and art and spirit that went into the work, and which the work then acquires in the centuries of being admired and being the object of constant aesthetic pilgrimages. But transcendence calls to transcendence, magnetises it. And no work can draw to itself a transcendence that it doesn’t already have, which it reveals in us in the aesthetic wonder of our encounter, whether it be for the first or the thousandth time.
The first sighting of the Pietà in the Vatican, made when Michelangelo was still in his twenties, causes in one a revelatory gasp that one never quite recovers from. It is perhaps the single most beautiful piece of sculpture in the world, barring perhaps the anonymous Greeks, and encountering it sets up in the soul such a charge of wonder and awe and pity and tears and joy and immortal longings that perhaps the soul itself overflows with the immeasurable beauty of its achievement.
Perhaps one can say that transcendence in a work of art is the combination of qualities that perceived as a whole stops the mind in its restless tracks, brings analysis and cogitation to a halt, stills the million cogs of attempted understanding, and in the stillness, in that cessation of thought, in what Joyce calls “aesthetic arrest”, the mind, rendered incapable of dealing with the enchantment that has held its process in abeyance, now becomes transparent to the higher and more mysterious revelations of the spirit, things without word or thought, where the individual, for a moment, is lifted far beyond themselves, into a numinous state, where they experience what can best be called the bliss of the soul, which the mind interprets as beauty.
Transcendence in Michelangelo is inseparable from the ideas that animated him, the new ideas which werein fact rediscoveries of ancient ideas, the rediscovery of Greek form in sculpture, the translation of the Egyptian-Greek texts of the Corpus Hermiticus by figures like Ficino, and the re-entry of the philosophy of Plato into Western thought after its quiescence in the culture. The works that artists create can be no greater than the central ideas that animate them, that give their work its resonance. But the artist has to be ready for those ideas, has to be of such a level of artistic and spiritual development that the ideas embody themselves naturally in the forms that realise them. The best artists of the Renaissance were particularly receptive to the possibilities of transcendence because the key ideas infiltrating the culture were ideas that magnified the human, that linked the human with the divine, best exemplified in that mysterious code of the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus of the Corpus Hermiticus: “As above, so below.” This Hermeticisation of Christianity, this Hellenisation of Christianity, created an unprecedented conjunction.
For the first and last time these great bodies of thought came together in an extraordinary synthesis, a kind of rare cultural alchemy, and Leonardo and Michelangelo are the chief hierophants of this golden realisation of the magnification of the human. The magic of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, for example, or in those late gigantic unfinished sculptures, is the way he gives a new stature to the possibility of the human. The light of that sacred knowledge shone in Western art for a while and then it never blazed with quite that concentrated brilliance again. There is no getting away from it. Art reveals the greatness or the poverty of what a people truly believe or what they take to be their highest truths.