A new display makes it possible now to see Michelangelo’s Santo Spirito crucifix more clearly in the round, and creates a dialogue between it and visitors to the church.
The work, which was attributed to Michelangelo in the 1960s, has a varied history with regards to its placement at Santo Spirito. Vasari cites a crucifix, which is generally believed to be this one, as having been made by the young Michelangelo as a gift for the Agostinian prior of Santo Spirito in thanks for his hospitality. After the death of his patron Lorenzo de’ Medici in 1492, Michelangelo lived with the monks and Vasari writes that the prior “placed rooms at his disposal where Michelangelo very often used to flay dead bodies in order to discover the secrets of anatomy.” A 1.4 meter high nude crucifix would understandably be the appropriate thank-you gift in this case.
Vasari speaks of this crucifix placed in the lunette above the high altar, which must have been its original placement from 1494 for about a hundred years, until a new altar structure was made for Santo Spirito. The work was thought lost until a plausible candidate in the convent was rediscovered by German art historian Margrit Lisner in 1962. Badly overpainted, she was convinced by the contrapposto of the work, which she sustained was the first of its time, and by the similarity of the legs to those of Christ in the Rome Pietà.
After restoration in 1963 to remove overpainting, the work was moved to Casa Buonarroti, while another restoration became necessary when some of the original paint started to fall off. The work was moved back to Santo Spirito in 2000, and installed in the sacristy, an example of architecture by Giuliano da Sangallo commissioned by Lorenzo de’ Medici and contemporary with the crucifix and Michelangelo’s early works (the sacristy dates to 1489-92).
Within this octagonal space that echoes that of the Florence baptistery, the sculpture has moved around somewhat, being located at times against the wall and at times in the center of the room. In both cases it stood on a heavy base that blocked the vision and interpretation of the marble floor.
The decision was recently made to suspend the work from the ceiling, at the height of 22 meters. This collocation and move was made possible thanks to a donation from the Friends of Florence (an American non-profit). The “new location” might not seem like a huge change to the casual passerby, but in fact it has two major advantages. First, it’s more visible from the left side aisle of the church, creating a direct dialogue that attracts visitors to the church. Second, it allows us to see it in the round, as intended in the case of the original location suspended above the altar.
Father Giuseppe Pagano, prior of Santo Spirito, underlined the message of the work of art, the expression of the power of life. He expressed pleasure at the greater visibility of the work and the chance for this humanist message to reach more people. The mission of the Agostinian church is to welcome visitors not in a dry manner but in one that can nurture the mind and the heart. “We feel like this crucifix is a bit ours, forgetting that the soprintendente exists.” He apologized jokingly for his protectiveness of the work; after all “it was given to the Agostinian community, to the prior, by Michelangelo.”
Access to the sacristy is through the Santo Spirito Cloister (to the left of the facade); there is a €3 entry ticket.