Michelangelo’s first truly mysterious work was made during his teenage years, the Madonna of the Stairs. Despite its small size, the young sculptor’s imagination was already working on a colossal scale.
Michelangelo used the chisel more as a pencil to create the illusion of the Madonna’s gown as it barely rises from the background. By subtly dissolving the barrier between object and background, the artist introduces dimension and depth as mere suggestions. The classical Roman character of Mary’s profile finds its roots in fifth-century Greek grave designs. Extraordinary in Madonna of the Stairs is the fully mature, muscular power of the Christ Child’s right arm and back.
Yet even at first sight the scene looks strange. Why, for instance, does Christ have his back turned and why is he so muscled? What are the stairs for? Why is the nursing Virgin so impassive? The answers appear, and the incongruities resolve, only if one tries to think through Michelangelo’s mind.