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madonna of the stairs (c. 1491), michelangelo

Artist: Michelangelo

Technique: Marble relief

Dimensions: 56.7 cm x 40.1 cm

Year: c. 1491

Location of creation:

Current Location: Casa Buonarroti, Florence, Italy

Movements: High Renaissance

Theme: Religious

Subject: Madonna and Child

Image Credit (banner): CC BY 3.0, Sailko

sculpture summary

Known as Madonna della Scala in Italian, the small relief sculpture created by Michelangelo when he was only seventeen years old, is one of the two earliest surviving works produced by the artist. Greatly inspired by Donatello and the Greek stele, he explores his technical abilities in carving and narrating a story in an unconventional way.

general description

Carved in shallow relief (a technique often employed by the sculptor Donatello, in the early 15th century), it portrays a Madonna in profile sitting in a square box (one of Michelangelo’s hallmarks), as she lifts her dress to feed the child asleep. The Madonna carries herself in a natural pose, as she sits with her legs crossed, with the drapes wrapped around her right one. In the background there are three putti dancing or fighting with each other, while another leans on the handrail, as they all handle a long cloth.

This is Michelangelo’s earliest known work in marble. It is considered to be the first of his mysterious works, with an enigmatic and ambiguous depiction of a traditional and common subject.

This relief is generally considered to be an homage to the works of Donatello, especially to his technique, and, despite this fact, this was not a commission, as it was carried by Michelangelo as a further exploration of his technical abilities, created for his own artistic quest.

intrinsic content

The work triggers in the viewer a feeling of strangeness and peculiarity, impassiveness, restlessness and motion, as Madonna and Child seem to be caught in motion and captured in a transitional action. Although one might think of this narrative in one unique way, there are two opposite emotional prospects. On one hand, one sees the tenderness between the mother and child, as she approaches the baby in a protective and bounding embrace. And in another contrasting perspective, Madonna’s gaze is seen as distant and detached, acting as a sort of prophecy for the future misfortune events. This idea is believed to be echoed in later work, such as the Madonna of the New Sacristy, known as the Medici Madonna (1521-1534).

The ladder in the background that gives the name to the work, can be seen to have various symbolic connotations and multiple associations, most of them ambiguous. In one way, it is related to the Ladder of Paradise or The Ladder of Divine Ascent (c. AD 600), a literary early Christian book believed to have been a source of inspiration for Michelangelo. In the book, St John Climacus described the Christian life as a ladder with thirty steps (connecting to the thirty years of Christ’s life),  illustrating the virtues through parables and historical notes. In this view, Michelangelo’s steps create a resonance and parallel with the virtuous life as described by St John, and allude to the whole life of Christ, that the little baby child awaits.

The right hand of child/Christ is turned out and dropping away from the body, which is seen to symbolize the abandonment of the body which naturally occurs in sleep or in death. This became a common symbol in Michelangelo’s works, and is later used in other creations such as in the portrait of Lorenzo de Medici (1524). In addition, the cloth the putti carry in the background is believed to be an allusion to the cloth used to cover Christ when he is helped down from the cross.

There’s a great uncertainty of the narrative that creates more questions than answers. The viewer is left wondering if the child is sleeping or nursing, why Christ is so muscled, the strange twisting motion, by which is greatly accentuated and juxtaposed by Madonna’s stillness and rigid frame. Displaying a balance between opposing and contrasting elements, most of these mysterious attributes became Michelangelo’s trademarks of his later works: the twisting movement of the body was later used in various other sculptures as a way to suggest motion,  the muscular power of the Child Christ’s right arm and back, is a pose that would be echoed in the sculpture Day in the Medici Chapel, and finally the overall mysterious theme and ways of approaching a traditional subject can be found in many of his works.

Christ-Like Self-portrait: Michelangelo believed that the purification of the soul (unification with God), would lead to becoming Christ-Like. In this perspective, the infant child acts as a metaphysical and spiritual symbol of a ‘new-born’ spiritual life. The child can also be seen as a self-portrait of the artist, echoing his own journey of artistic and spiritual purification. In this perspective, it is generally accepted that the hand behind his back holds an unseen hammer, a symbol of Michelangelo’s artistic journey as a sculptor.


A fundamental aspect of the composition includes the play of perspective and scale. The exacerbated scale of the steps in the background and foreshortened handrails, and the lack of diverse scale among the figures, showcase the fact that the composition does not quite follow perspective rules. Whether it was intentional or not, remains a mystery. The composition of the figures themselves is creative and original, which seem to be both blocked and dynamic, and create a spiral movement of the limbs. In addition, it is believed that the Madonna’s halo, which slightly transpasses the confinement of the unfinished frame, was a deliberate act to convey an effect of depth to the space of the composition, and not merely an unfinished detail.

Despite his young age, Michelangelo already exemplifies a subtle carving technique. Carved in what can be described as ‘rilievo schiacciato’, the work represents Michelangelo’s early exploration with the quattrocento techniques, specially explored by Donatello, of which Madonna and Child With Four Cherubs (1440), is a great example. Michelangelo uses the chisel delicately and subtly to create the illusion of depth, which can be exemplified by the Madonna’s gown, barely rising from the background.

Inspired by the Greek Stelai (or stele), a carved or painted wooden or stone slab, which was adorned with text and/or intricate decorations (seen as a monument in ancient times, to mark funerary or celebratory events). In the particular Greek case, these reliefs often displayed mythological tales, and are clearly demonstrated in this work, as Michelangelo explores his carving techniques in a similar manner and with a similar theme.

The work innovates in numerous ways, especially in the suggestion of a different parallel narrative. By changing completely the usual approach to the subject, Michelangelo created a completely innovative way of narrating the scene, with different ideas that structure it. A main innovation is found in the way Christ’s face (the main subject of the work) is turned with his back to the viewer. One last fundamental difference/innovation, besides the ones already pointed above, is the fact that there seems to be a lack of emotional connection between the Virgin and Christ, usually accentuated by interlocking gazes between both or an empathetic gesture of tenderness.

  1. The Madonna and the Stairs and the Battle of the Centaurs were Michelangelo’s first two sculptures.
  2. This relief remained unknown during Michelangelo’s lifetime, and was only mentioned for the first time in the Giunti edition (1568) of Giorgio Vasari’s Lives. In these texts, this work is said to have been donated by Leonardo Buonarroti to Duke Cosimo I, not long before these were written, considered by him to be one of a kind. It is possible that this work was lodge in Buonarroti’s house on Via Ghibellina, before it was donate, and later return to the same location, when it was given back to Michelangelo the Younger by the Grand Duke Cosimo II, in 1616, as an act of recognition, honoring the great work of his great forefather.
  3. The claim, regarding the date of this work, that it was created during Michelangelo’s adolescence is still very much disputed, but a consensus indicates a date around 1490, which means it was probably created before the Battle of the Centaurs.

direct influences and connections

In his texts, Vasari asserts Donatello’s influence on the young Michelangelo, linking this relief with the work of Donatello, by saying that it “was executed… after the style of Donatello, and he acquitted himself so well that it seems to be by Donatello himself, save that it possesses more grace and design.”


related works

Artist: Unknown
Discovery: Vari, Attica
Title: Mnesagora and Nikochares (grave stele)
Date: 420-410 BC
Medium: Marble
Size: 119 x 74 cm
Location: National Archaeological Museum of Athens, Athens, Greece

Artist: Anonymous
Title: The Ladder of Divine Ascent Monastery of St Catherine Sinai
Date: 12th century
Medium: Painting on gold leaf
Size: unknown
Location: Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Church of Sinai, Egypt

Artist: Michelangelo
Title: Battle of the Centaurs
Date: c. 1492
Medium: Marble relief
Size: 84.5 x 90.5 cm
Location: Casa Buonarroti, Florence, Italy

Artist: Jacopo Tintoretto
Title: Study after Michelangelo’s Giorno
Date: c. 1550-1555
Medium: Black and white chalk on blue paper
Size: 35 x 50.5 cm
Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA

Artist: Michelangelo
Title: Day (Giorno)
Date: 1524-1527
Medium: Marble
Size: unknown
Location: Tomb of Giuliano di Lorenzo de’ Medici with Night and Day, New Sacristy, Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence, Italy

(CC BY-SA 3.0 – shakko)

Artist: Donatello
Title: Madonna and Child with Four Cherubs
Date: c. 1440
Medium: Marble relief
Size: unknown
Location: Bode-Museum, Berlin, Germany

(CC BY-SA 3.0 – Sailko)

Artist: Michelangelo
Title: Medici Madonna
Date: 1521-1534
Medium: Marble
Size: 226 cm in Height
Location: New Sacristy, Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence, Italy

Artist: Donatello
Title: Pazzi Madonna
Date: c. 1420
Medium: Marble
Size: 74.5 x 73 cm
Location: Bode Museum, Berlin, Germany

(CC BY-SA 4.0 – MiguelHermoso)