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Gabriel Shelton

Visual Arts, University of Birmingham

Thesis title:

The Macabre in Marble: Michelangelo's Knowledge of Surface Anatomy in its Wider Intellectual Contexts, 1493-1559

My thesis explores Michelangelo Buonarroti’s (1475-1564) knowledge of human anatomy, considering its artistic, philosophical and theological contexts. Throughout the sixteenth century and beyond Michelangelo’s achievements as an artist-anatomist were well documented and celebrated. There is also an abundance of literary source material, contemporary to the artist, that is illuminative of the period’s anatomical knowledge as it pertained to art. The difficulty presented to scholars is corroborating this evidence with the visual corpus of Michelangelo’s works, given that the primary source material relating directly to the artist’s theories is scant. Moreover, as the specialism of ‘Anatomy’ developed throughout the centuries and grew into its own scientific discipline, it became distanced from the superordinate subject of ‘Natural Philosophy’ to which it once belonged. This has engendered a growing misconception, amongst contemporary scholars, of its meaning to sixteenth-century artists.

The body – as it was understood by Michelangelo – was to be studied not only as an empirical exploit but also to better comprehend the human form as the creation of God, the harbourer of the soul and the prime model for artistic achievement. These aspects were inseparable from one another but, with regard to this artist, they have not been approached as such. The timeframe that my thesis covers ranges from the first known instance of Michelangelo practicing dissection in 1493 to the publication of Realdo Colombo’s De Re Anatomica in 1559 – a project which the artist had a mooted involvement in. Through this monographic study, I hope to open broader questions of how the body was perceived throughout the Renaissance, by intellects from a variety of disciplines.

Research Area

  • Visual Arts


'Augustinian Asceticism in the Reformist Theology of Michelangelo' at the Renaissance Society of America Conference, San Juan, PR - 9th March 2023

'Vostro Michelangelo in Turchia: The Theological Context of an Early Sonnet by Michelangelo' at Midlands4Cities Research Festival, Online – 15th June 2022

'Michelangelo's Risen Christ and Early Reformist Ideas in Rome, 1512-20' at Early Modern Rome Conference, Rome – 12th November 2022

Public Engagement & Impact

'An Anatomical Drawing by Michelangelo' at Late Night Exchange: Anatomical Drawing with Professor Alice Roberts, Birmingham - 27th June 2022