Sculpted Eyes

Poked eyeballs. Though we find some old Greek statues with painted eyes or even gem eyes (semi-precious stones implanted in the eye-sockets), most of them had smooth hemispheres for eyeballs. There was no attempt at showing a glance, a look, except as could be inferred from the direction of the hemispheres, which were really drop-shaped, with the bulge where the pupils lay. That was in keeping with the Greek aim of showing only the outside of the body. You were supposed to look at it as a beautiful natural object, not as an individual personality with its fleeting moods. Though there is nothing in animated “real life” as moving as some looks are, those old marble statues weren’t meant to give you any.

At first Michelangelo either didn’t understand or didn’t accept that old Greek aim. Precisely because all he saw around him were sleepy or praying saints with their eyes closed or other statues with empty, blindman’s stares, he thought he would try to do something novel with the eyes of one of his first statues, the St. Proculus. Maybe they could be made to show some fire, some anger, some energy.

Sometimes in the past sculptors had drilled a little hole in the stone eyeballs of their statues just where, in a real eyeball, the pupil would be. This was an outright misrepresentation of the shape of the eyeball. A pupil (or rather, the lens) stands out—it is a little hill on the hemisphere of the eyeball, not a hole. Seen from the side, the poked eyeball looked sliced off right where it should bump. But those sculptors considered that this little lie might produce virtuous results if the shadows from the holes they drilled looked like black pupils.
The results were usually of a very discreet virtue, or none, or going toward actual vice. Depending on how the light shone on the figure, the holes looked good or bad. When they were bad, they spoiled the face altogether; when good, they got a five out of ten. After drilling the holes, the sculptor often couldn’t resist the temptation to scratch circles around them to represent the irises too. This was his second sculptural outrage. Iris circumferences aren’t round scratches on an eyeball.

When his Proculus was carved, Michelangelo, probably against the advice of his old teachers, drilled holes in its eyes with a gimlet. He must first have made many trial drillings on clay and wax models, just to see the effects. He can’t have liked them completely but he went ahead: he was courageous.

The result was—what—a five out of ten? A six? The eyes stare. They are open too wide. They look like glass eye protheses.

But were those the last gimlet holes Michelangelo drilled into the eyes of his statues? No. He didn’t give up on the trick until he had made it crown his work, not detract from it. He was brave enough—seeing the results who can any longer say “foolhardy enough”?—to drill the eyes of his colossal David. That was one of the riskiest things he ever did. No one could say how the eyes would look from below or from a distance, with the ever-shifting light of day upon them. By poking those eyes Michelangelo might easily have ruined his statue—very easily. It is anyway hard to imagine how he carved the big figure without being able to stand back every now and then to have a look at it. But his biographer Vasari states that Michelangelo built a scaffold around the stone and then covered it all with a tarp, so no one could see what he was doing. This meant that he himself was not able to stand back, say, twenty yards to check his carving. He had to trust absolutely in his model (where was that? how large was it?) and its gimlet-hole pupils.

Notice that the holes are not simply round bores. They are heart-shaped: there are two to an eye, and they tunnel upward. There are no rules for making these holes. You try one kind of hole, step back if you can, and see how it looks from the front and the sides. Michelangelo thought he had done reasonably well on his Proculus with this butterfly or Valentine bore and staked the success of his big David on one like it. And he won—it was right, it worked. David looks anxious, just as he is supposed to as he prepares to whip that pebble at Goliath.

Yet on his next poked-eye figure, the Bacchus, he gave up the gimlet and tried a more subtle treatment of the eye. See Michelangelo’s Statue of a Drunk.

After that he gave up making holes or depressions in the eyes. Except for one figure—and I hesitate to mention it, to draw attention to it, because it is one of his greatest. It is one of the greatest figures any sculptor ever carved anywhere. It is so awe-inspiring that few ever see and fewer admit through their piety that they are seeing a terrible flaw when they look squarely at it. The statue is the Moses and the flaw is the eyes. Judge for yourself:

The pupil rings are too small—beady. The holes are rough, awkward digs without concern for the shadows they throw. In fact, they stop short—they are not deep enough, so that you see the flat wall down inside where they stop, which destroys the whole illusion. In a word, they are graceless, which is a most un-Michelangelo-like quality. I would like to believe that he didn’t make those holes but I lack any authority to do that. The Moses was put in place while he was still alive—he must have given it his final approval. It is hard to understand how a man who had given so much study to the problem and had invented so many ingenious solutions to it, could finally, in this figure of his maturity, have given up and simply drilled (or goughed out) those pupil-holes and scratched (actually: carved with a flat chisel) circles around them without experimenting first to see the results. Perhaps it was a case of overconfidence. He had (nearly) always been right. His eye was the best in the world.

(In this unfinished Victory Michelangelo finished only the right eye. Why ?)

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This entry was posted in aesthetics, art, art history, Beauty, Greek sculpture, Michelangelo, Renaissance, sculpture, stone carving and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Sculpted Eyes

  1. erikatakacs says:

    Had he used the same technique for Moses’ eyes as in David’s, the face would look quite different, don’t you think? Less intense, less powerful. These eyes are piercing. So the technique is right. He consistently ignored the laws of proportion and perspective in order to achieve what he wanted to achieve. All these eyes are great eyes, like you say in your title.

  2. 100swallows says:

    True, erika, those eyes of Moses are piercing but they have always struck me as of a lower technical quality than the face and the rest of the figure. It’s as if some unskilled sculptor scratched them on after Michelangelo had finished. Did you ever see his other David, the one they also call the Victory? Someone (not Michelangelo,I’d say) scratched a circle on only one of the eyeballs. Maybe the same happened here.

  3. erikatakacs says:

    I couldn’t find a good picture of the face of Victory. From what I see he left them blank originally. Scratching on only one eye is really strange. Did you see Moses in real life? On the picture those eyes don’t look bad.

  4. wrjones says:

    Very interesting. Thanks. I would never have given it thought.

  5. kimiam says:

    Great stuff to think about. Thanks for this post, swallows. That sculpture you mentioned the eyes on is still wet…I might go make a few more changes. :P~

    On the David, Michelangelo implied the protruding shape of the iris/pupil with the eyelid shape.

    I do like the un-round shape better than the round. I need to make some larger busts so I can have decent sized eyes to work with. right now my faces are so small that I settle for anything human-like.

    The thing about the poked eyes is they imply darkness. if you don’t paint color on your work, what you have left to work with is light and shadow. I tend to exaggerate shapes of the body to produce more shadow for the sake of contrast. I’ve seen poked eyes look quite nice and i’ve seen eyes done other ways look quite nice.

  6. 100swallows says:

    That’s it, kimiam–there are no rules. Each work has its own best way. Almost all the modern bust sculptors that I know poke deep holes in the eyes and it looks fine. The device is even more successful in little figures. Yours looked fine, so be careful.
    What you say about exaggerating the shapes to give deeper shadows–that is what one sculptor I know does BESIDES poking holes: his idea of the eyes is everything AROUND them–the eyebrows, the muscles, the frown, etc. Those are what give the look, he thinks. He downplays the actual eyeballs and sets them far back in their sockets.
    That’s right about Mike’s implying the protrusion of the eyeballs with the eyelid shape. But the irises are really rounded or modelled, aren’t they?–not so flat and simply “drawn” as Moses’s are.

  7. 100swallows says:

    You’re welcome, Bill. Now don’t you go poking holes in your canvases trying to give sexy looks to your models.

  8. 100swallows says:

    There, erika–I put a picture of the Victory’s eyes in my post for you. Yes, I saw the Moses and I thought the eyes, though intense and piercing (Moses is angry), were too small, beady. But I defer to the Master’s judgement. He must have drawn them bigger to start with (with black chalk, say) and then thought like you that smaller was better.

  9. erikatakacs says:

    Thank you, Swallows. So it’s unfinished. That explains the one eye. And he lets us see how he started working on the iris.

  10. It is trendy to beleive now that Greek marbles were painted, where do you stand on that? Perhaps their treatment of eyes give us a clue here?

    I think the most sucessful depictions of eyes (without paint) are when they are closed or nearly closed!

  11. John says:

    From all the things I’ve read about greek sculpture, its my conclusion that the lack of incised eyeballs in Greek sculpture is the best esthetic proof that Greek sculpture was routinely painted. Their eyeballs were given their form by color, just like our eyeballs. The Renaissance sculptors didn’t know that though, so they improvised their own very effective way of adding character and emotion purely through form.
    Regarding the theory that Greek marbles were painted, its no longer a theory. Its a proven fact.

  12. I am really impressed by the art work that you have shown here. We also do some of the finest art work like sculptures making, painting, mural designs.

  13. Pingback: Art Training Michelangelo Style | Taught By Grace

  14. Srikanth says:

    In art what you don’t see is as much important as what you see – Famous Artists

    I was trying to understand the these holes.
    It is great master’s own way of recreating transparent iris.

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