An opportunity to see some works from the great Michelangelo should never be shrugged off and, given how rare it is for museums to loan their works from this great Renaissance artist, credit must be given to the National Gallery for collating so many of his drawings, and even a couple of his sculptures, together for this show.
Yet this exhibition isn’t a straightforward opportunity to marvel at Michelangelo’s greatness – though that is appreciated. More than this, it is a genuinely interesting and illuminating glimpse into art history. For what the National Gallery has set out to do is explore the friendship, collaborations and rivalry of two Renaissance artists – Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547) – through some of their work.
Remarkably, their friendship lasted 25 years, though it did end rather acrimoniously just before Michelangelo started work on the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. Nevertheless, their friendship spanned a rather tumultuous time both for Italy and its artists, including Michelangelo’s feuds with Raphael, the latter’s death in 1520, and the Sack of Rome in 1527. Their own friendship wasn’t always smooth and much of the intimacy and tensions in their relationship, as well as the big events at the time, are reflected in their letters on display in the show.
It seems remarkable, given the art surrounding the display cabinets, that their correspondence should be such a draw but these letters from their own hands are fascinating. Michelangelo’s ego is unfiltered – at times he mocks his friend, even to third parties, which is painful to read – and yet at times they could be so mutually supportive of each other.
And that support is behind some of the collaborations included in this exhibition.
The big loan for this, literally as well as metaphorically, is the huge Lamentation over the Dead Christ, (or the Viterbo Pieta) 1512-16. Rarely seen outside Italy, the painting was radical for its separation of Mary from her dead son. The two bodies are usually shown in some form of connection, such as the cast of the mighty Pieta nearby where Mary is cradling Jesus. But here they are split with Mary praying as her son is laid out before her. And, just as radically, the scene is one set at night; the background a dark, hostile terrain.
This painting was the result of their shared vision but, as ever, there is always keen debate about how much involvement Michelangelo had. It’s known that he gave suggestions to Sebastiano and drawings too, though this his motivation in doing so may have had more to do with his personal desire to check the success of Raphael, who he envied, rather than an act of generosity to Sebastiano.
However, either way, when this painting was finished, it secured Sebastiano’s reputation as an artist of great repute. Only, to look at it now, there is not much that is attractive about it. Christ’s body seems awkwardly placed, his head jarred upright as if to squeeze it on to a canvas where room was rapidly running out. And the head is not in proportion to the body either.
There’s also nothing feminine or serene about this Mary. She is a very bulky woman. With her extremely thick neck and bulging biceps, this bears all the signs of a male figure. Such a decision seems unlikely to come from Michelangelo, who always seemed to promote a reverence for the divine through its depiction as immaculate beauty.
A more remarkable collaboration comes later in the show in the form of a mightily impressive colossal three-dimensional reproduction of the Borgherini Chapel in Rome. The primary scene is one of Jesus’s flagellation in the cells before his crucifixion and, here, Jesus’s body just reeks of Michelangelo’s touch – the powerful muscles, and the dynamic movement of the body as it breaks under the whipping. And that is supported by the preparatory drawings around the print where you can see the development of Michelangelo’s ideas for the painting.
If all of this seems to undermine Sebastiano’s talents, well, maybe that does seem harsh. But not all of his solo efforts here bring the Oohs of wonder. His own version of the Lamentation of the Dead Christ, 1516, tries desperately to conjure up drama but his figures lack the anatomical accuracy and weight of the Renaissance greats. They don’t feel fleshed out.
And similarly for his The Raising of Lazarus, 1517-19 (which does incorporate designs from Michelangelo), the composition is set out to be dynamic but the drama just isn’t there. The faces lack expression and individuality.
In truth, you’ve got to feel a bit sorry for Sebastiano. It’s a tough gig having your work hung alongside a great such as Michelangelo – your pieces are always going to come off second-best – but there are some attractive pieces here that do showcase his talents.
His Mary and Elizabeth (The Visitation), 1518-1519, is a close-cropped study of these two women’s faces – Mary’s soft, unlined features a stark contrast to the far older Elizabeth, whose face shows all the signs of a hard life. Sebastiano has filled this intimate scene with so much emotion – you can sense the anxiety and concern in both women, their furrowed brows and their clenched fingers accentuated by a great use of light and shadow.
And there’s a terrific Judith (or Salome?), 1510, which shows the influence of his mentor Giorgione in the simple setting, the sullen expression on the young woman’s face, and her billowing sleeve that almost falls out of the painting towards us.
But though these are highlights from Sebastiano’s showing in the exhibition, it is Michelangelo’s greatness that shines brighter.
As well as the opportunity to see a version of the Pieta (a quality cast not to be sniffed at. Many can’t travel and its always an honour to see the detail in this masterpiece up close), there’s also The Risen Christ, 1514-1515, a life-size marble statue of Christ and his cross, his marble marvel, the Taddei Tondo, 1504-5, of the infant Jesus playing with a young Saint John the Baptist as the Virgin Mary looks on, and a myriad of preparatory drawings for the Sistine Chapel.
Each of these is wondrous. Michelangelo’s skill really was breath-taking. His talent for capturing the human body in all its dynamic movement and emotion, whether that be carving it out in marble or capturing it in drawings, is something to behold.
Overall, this is a genuinely fascinating show. Perhaps not all the paintings hit the high notes but perhaps that has a lot to do with context. It’s hard to be come across as more than just ‘very good’ when your work is hanging alongside a great’s.
National Gallery, London, to June 25, 2017
Admission £18 (concessions available)
1. Michelangelo, The Risen Christ, 1514-15. Installation image by me.
2. Lamentation over the Dead Christ (Pietà), Sebastiano del Piombo, after partial designs by Michelangelo, about 1512-16 © Museo Civico, Viterbo
3. Christ at the Column, Michelangelo, 1516. Preparatory drawing for Borgherini Chapel © The British Museum, London
4. The Raising of Lazarus, Sebastiano del Piombo, incorporating designs by Michelangelo, 1517-19 © The National Gallery, London
5. Judith (or Salome?), Sebastiano del Piombo, 1510 © The National Gallery, London
6. The Risen Christ, Michelangelo, about 1532-3 © Royal Collection Trust / Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II