By Iona Mccombie Smith | The BL

A copy of ‘The Dream’ by an Italian painter: A closer look at the famous sketch reveals a transcendent moral message. (Creative Commons Attribution 3.0)

Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.” Michelangelo’s ‘Il Sogno’ (The Dream) is the perfect example of this symbiosis; a perfect combination of painting and poetry.

‘Il Sogno’ or ‘The Dream’, which is generally dated to about 1533, is one of four drawings gifted by Michelangelo to the object of his greatest expression of love – the nobleman Tommaso de’ Cavalieri – in the ancient city of Rome. The drawings dedicated to Cavalieri are somewhat ambiguous in meaning, however, upon deeper inspection ‘The Dream’ reveals a powerful message for us all.

Traditionally, the drawing has been viewed as an allegory of virtue and vice, but it is also considered a work to be meditated upon due to its endless unfolding of meaning.

The drawing features two main figures – a youthful nude male who has been imbibing on earthly temptations and an angel descending from the heavens to awaken him from the ‘dream’. Surrounding the pair is a cloud of figures, each representing the unholy vices of the earth.

The arc of smokey figures surrounding the man is almost undoubtedly designed to be a pictorial catalog of wicked Earthly behaviors. The battling figures at the right-hand side of the drawing seemingly personify anger, a hand holding a heavy bag of money represents greed, a drinking man connotes gluttony, a person tugging at another`s cloak invokes envy, kissing couples suggest lust and a lazy man sleeping on his arm depicts laziness. The figures in the cloud are generally interpreted as personifications of the seven deadly sins as mentioned in the Christian texts, including arrogance, greed, lewdness, indignation, voraciousness, envy, and laziness.

A copy of the work “Il Sogno” – Michelangelo. (Public Domain/United States public domain tag)

Taking a closer look at Michelangelo’s drawing and the male nude that is its focus we see that he is perched precariously on an open box filled with masks, covered by a soft cloth. The cloth equates to the curtain of the stage, once unveiled, it reveals the masks of life’s many different roles.

The sitting posture of the young man in the painting might suggest that he has just fallen asleep on the left side of the sphere, but just as he does an angel comes down from heaven and blows his trumpet to wake him up.

Notably, there is a strange connection between the two main figures: the young man is looking upward and over his right shoulder, watching as a winged creature descends from above, their eyes gaze each converges on the trumpet, drawing our attention to the end of the trumpet itself. The angel blows his trumpet not into the youth’s ear, but instead towards the center of his forehead. This is the very spot on the human forehead which corresponds to the location of the ‘celestial eye’ also known as the ‘third eye’ in Eastern philosophy. The delivery of trumpet sound to the celestial eye, rather than to the ears of the young man, connotes the depiction of a spiritual awakening rather than a physical awakening.

The end of the trumpet coincides with the position of the “celestial eye”. (Public Domain/United States public domain tag)

It can be seen that the large sphere that the man leans on is bisected by a line, a detail that suggests it represents the Earth – a mundane world full of temptations and sins. Moreover, the open box filled with masks, covered by a soft cloth resembling stage curtains, implies that this world equates to a drama, in which each of us plays various roles. On the stage of life, we assume many different roles: a saint or a sinner, a nobleman or a poor man, a virtuous man or an evil one, a scholar or an idiot, etc.

So, everyone indeed is as if under a spell of ignorance. It is not until the last moment when the stage curtain is lifted, where we would realize that all of the things we have struggled through, for the entirety of our lives, are meaningless. We would have nothing left but the accumulated karma/sins that, according to Christianity, would drag us to hell.

In this context, only divine energy from God or from his messengers can awaken humanity to the real purpose of human life.

Michelangelo, along with many of his contemporaries, believed that art serves to elevate the soul and raise the realm of human morality in order to ultimately bring the individual back to the Lord. Perhaps because of this, in the drawing ‘Il Sogno’, we see the hopeful eyes of the young man with a desire of returning to heaven, as he put in his poem No 285…

“Neither painting nor sculpture will be able any longer

To calm my soul, now turned toward that divine love

That opened his arms on the cross to take us in.”