“Night” by Michelangelo Buonarroti

The Night sculpture is a part of an allegory of the four quarters of the day adorning the tombs of Giuliano and Lorenzo de’Medici. The sculpture bears a diadem adorned with a crescent moon, a star, and is surrounded by various symbols of the night including a grotesque mask, an owl, and a bed of poppy heads. Although clearly indicative of sleep, the beauteous figure portrays night as a woman who appears strangely unrelaxed rendering this artwork to stand out as a genius representation with each element sculpted to symbolize night aspects in an artistic depiction. Notably, each element in the Night sculpture not only bears a symbolic representation of the night as a day facet but also has direct relationship with the Medici family as well as the artists personal life

A close inspection of the grotesque mask under the upper torso of the female figure in the sculpture show that its physical features resembles Michelangelo and Lorenzo’s own features. Therefore, besides symbolizing the night, the mask is also a self-portraiture using the mask as a conceit. Figure 3 in the appendix section shows Michelangelo’s picture while figure 4 is a portrait of Lorenzo. Indeed, both faces clearly depict unmistakable similarities with the mask. However, in the Night portrait the artist has exaggerated the muscular aspect of the mask on purpose so that it reveals a prominent nose with flared nostrils, curiously unnatural curved upper lip revealing two lips, and a curling beard and mustache (Paoletti 423). Therefore, beside bearing a personal meaning to Michelangelo, the mask has also disguised his face on purpose so that it appears somehow evil-related pointing out to the nightmarish visions associated with night times in the ancient Florence (426). In fact, this mask reveal the distorted features of the mask through the drilled mouth revealing a tongue and two upper teeth that are exaggeratedly enlarged to symbolize either the nightmarish visions or night-appearance or both.

Apart from the mask Michelangelo portrait entails a muscular female with an imbued figure and dramatic intensity through contrasting the contorted pose and muscular realism of the woman’s torso with the serenity of her face. According to (Paoletti 423) the female figure with exaggeratedly masculine aspects in this artwork is a typical artistic personality of Michelangelo who in many of his nude artworks portrayed female as masculine and men with breasts. In fact, Night is not a typical female but a unique creation of Michelangelo that goes farther away from the expected nature of the Medici figures. However, several analysts have claimed that the seated figure represents Prudence while others hold it is Vanitas and the mask-wearing Putto is mocking her (434). Nevertheless, apart from the personal meaning to the artist the female figure in the portrait has a significant representation to night aspects evident on the how she lays back as if preparing to sleep depicting night time as shown in figure 1. Additionally, Night’s face is represented in a dull shadow-like appearance meant to portray night time. Therefore, the female figure has a personal relationship with the artist and is a symbolic representation of the night as a timeline in the day.

Another distinct element in the sculpture is the clutch of poppy bulbs that appear to support the slightly bent left leg of the female figure alluding the oneiric hallucinatory facet of the night. Historically, the poppy visible in figure 1 is a symbol of including but not limited to restful sleep, messages delivered in dreams, and peace in death. Therefore, besides portraying night time as a time for rest and sleep the artist also brings up aspects associated with darkness and night such as dreams and death. In fact, according to Paoletti (423) the artist includes the poppy heads in the sculpture to create an Ovidian notion in their connection to the night. Apparently, the ancient Greeks linked the poppy flower to night due to its sedative effect causing sleep. Therefore, in this specific artwork, the use poppy bulbs relate to sleep as a nighttime aspect in relation to the ancient Romans.

Similarly, the owl in the artwork represents darkness present during night time since it is a nocturnal bird. Apparently, humans including the ancient Greece have always viewed the night as a time facet filled with mystery. Owls being nocturnal and as such living in the darkness have been historically associated with various aspects including a symbol of night, feminine, and wisdom of the soul. Therefore, apart from depicting night time in the artwork the owl also symbolizes Night’s feminism and wisdom. In fact, the Greeks believed the owl was a depiction of higher wisdom and also a guardian in the night. Additionally, there exist superstitious associated with the owl most revolving around death and grief both of these elements also associated with the night. Indeed, although Paoletti (434) does not explain the meaning of the owl beyond depicting a time of the day he acknowledges that Michelangelo’s positioning of the owl under the raised leg as depicted in figure 1 must function symbolically as something more than representation of the night.

Idiosyncratically, the most intimate nature of the artwork by Michelangelo is that of quietness and soft sleep lit by the star and the sickle moon sculpted on the diadem. Whereas the star plainly symbolizes the night the crescent moon as shown in figure 1 serves more than just signifying a time in the day in Michelangelo’s artwork. In the ancient Greece culture, the crescent-shaped moon served as symbol fertility, life, and death. The sickle moon is symbolizes the changing seasons in relation to fertility and also highlight cosmic events. Therefore, in the Night portrait, Michelangelo depicts the night not only as a time for sleep and one filled with mysterious occurrences but also as a time for procreation. Additionally, bearing in mind that the artwork is a tomb sculpture it serves the purpose of symbolizing one’s life stages namely birth, life, and death as a journey. Hence, the star and the moon in the portrait serves the purpose of representing night as a facet in the day and also as a Medici’s tomb monument.

Therefore, Michelangelo’s Night artwork stands out as a masterpiece entailing numerous details and elements all well-placed in the sculpture to symbolize the night as a time in the day while relating to the Medici’s as well as the artists personality. Indeed, not only do each symbolism aspect bear its roots from the ancient Greece but they are precisely positioned so that they provoke viewers to think past the general appearance of the artwork. In fact, it is for this reason that the Night is arguably the most intriguing sculpture of the four-part allegory.


Paoletti, John T. “Michelangelo’s Masks.” The Art Bulletin 74, no. 3 (1992): 423-434

Prof. Angela


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