Gutenberg and Michelangelo and (Lack of) Rewards

Do you know Johannes Gutenberg’s story? I’m sure you know he invented the printing press, which changed the course of history and allowed the Renaissance to flourish. Books printed on his press allowed scientists, explorers, doctors, philosophers, and inventors to learn from each other, thereby enabling them to build on top of each other’s ideas. More importantly, of course, you know his press allowed the Bible to be widely printed for the educated public to study in their own language for the first time.


However, did you know Gutenberg was never paid for those first Bibles, and that he lost all of his first group of orders plus one of his printing shops due to an impatient creditor and a court date that he did not attend? He designed a beautiful Psalter, the credit for which went to the new owner of his shop. He lived in poverty after his invention was successful, and he wasn’t officially recognized for his invention until 15 years after his first printing shop was running, when he was given a salary and privileges for the three years before his death.

How about Michelangelo, considered to be one of the greatest artists who ever lived? I’ve seen his Pietà and his David in Italy, and not knowing much about them beforehand, I stood in awe in their presence. La Pietà brought me to tears. I’m disappointed I didn’t get to see his Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings because it was closed the day I was there.

My pathetic picture of La Pietà does not come close to doing it justice.

However, I learned recently that unlike most artists of large commissioned works at the time, who always used understudies to help paint unimportant parts of the painting before the plaster of the fresco would dry, Michelangelo (except for the help of a few inferior artists at the very beginning that he soon fired), painted the entire 5,800 square foot mural by himself (think how big that is!). He spent 4 years painting it almost every waking hour, standing up, his head stretched back, paint splattering on his face, not even stopping for meals but nibbling bread while he worked. He didn’t even want to do this painting, especially as his love and expertise was for sculpture, but was coerced into doing it.

I was reading the story of Michelangelo to my kids when somewhere around this point, Little E, remembering the story she had recently heard about Gutenberg, said, “I hope he was paid for all this. He was a great artist!” I assured her he probably was, but then I read on, and we found out that although Michelangelo was commissioned by a very wealthy pope, he was hardly paid the entire time he painted the Sistine Chapel. Yes, he was recognized throughout much of his life for his great artistry and was paid handsomely many times, but there were several times when he was commissioned for huge projects that he spent a lot of time working on only to have the projects dropped without warning or explanation or pay.

Why am I telling you about these great men and their hardships or lack of recognition? It struck me that we won’t always be rewarded right away or ever in this life for the good work we do here. Some great artists aren’t recognized as great in their entire lifetimes, artists like Van Gogh, Bach, or Keats. We do our best and follow God’s lead, but we may never know what positive impact we might have on the people around us.

This is not a new message, but I echo it once again to remind you not to give up. Keep following that passion that God has given you. Keep giving God’s love. Keep spreading your seeds. You never know when one might grow bigger than you thought possible.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches” (Matt. 13:31).


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