February 24, 2024

Sebastiano and Michelangelo at the National Gallery #michelangelosebastiano

We live in an age when it seems our churches have to fundraise to afford a new kettle, so it’s hard to believe there was a time when The Church was the arts patron sans pareil. Of course that was because it was spending its money on shiny sculptures and paintings rather than helping the poor. That adds a layer of reproach to exhibitions built on ecclesiastical art, but if the Church hadn’t been mis-directing funds and creating competition between artists we wouldn’t have had much to peer at in the National Gallery this Spring.

Photo 7

The Risen Christ, Michelangelo, but finished by an unknown 17th century artist

Michelangelo and Sebastiano has just opened as a major exhibition at the National Gallery. The exhibition links the two 16th century artists as they were friends and sometime collaborators, although of the two names it is fair to say that one is the main hope for selling tickets. Few artists would find their work enhanced by being hung next to Michelangelo and unfortunately that is the case for the worthy Sebastiano. The paintings on show are mostly his work, but as you would imagine it is the few by Michelangelo that shine out.

From Florence and Venice, the two men met in Rome in 1511, when the Renaissance was in full swing. Given Michelangelo’s inability to keep friends their twenty-five year relationship was amazing, although it did end in rupture. Talk of collaboration suggests the two men stood in front of an easel taking it in turns to dab at the canvas with a brush, having conversations along the lines of this extract from a long lost one act play:

Michelangelo and Sebastiano: The Play (a fragment recently found whilst renovating a Florence caffè)

Two artists are standing in front of a large altarpiece.

Sebastiano Oh no Michelangelo, I think a bit more blue

Michelangelo No, no, Sebastiano, you are most mistaken. What it needs is more yellow.

Sebastiano Blue!

Michelangelo Yellow!

Sebastiano Haven’t you got a ceiling to paint?

However they actually collaborated in the sense that Michelangelo made available some preliminary drawings for Sebastiano to work from. This teamwork seems to have developed out of Michelangelo’s dislike of Raphael. He wanted someone to compete with his rival and saw in Sebastiano’s trendy Venetian colours something that might thwart Raphael’s ambitions. By providing designs he hoped Sebastiano’s quality would increase and he might displace Raphael in the Pope’s patronage. But the show – and Sebastiano’s portrait of Pope Clement VII in particular, where he uses the seated composition Raphael used for his portrait of Julius II – proves that Sebastiano was no Raphael. But then who is? Even Michelangelo himself was judged inferior to the youngster from Urbino.

Michelangelo’s most numerous contributions to the show are preliminary drawings and sketches, although there are three big hitters by him alone – The Manchester Madonna, The Entombment and The Taddei Tondo. These are masterpieces all and well worth seeing, even if they are unfinished. However all of these have been on view in London for years, the tondo in the Royal Academy and the first two images a few rooms away from where they are now in the National Gallery. The gallery-goer who gets about in London may fairly be disappointed that they have already seen most of the highlights of this show. However, the National has managed to borrow a statue of the Risen Christ from a church in Viterbo. (A general question for museums – if this can travel, why not more works?) It has been atmospherically displayed in a darkened room and is a creamy experiment that links the ancient Roman style with Jesus, the nudity maybe reflecting Christ’s role as second Adam. But to coin a phrase and however the previous however, this statue may have been started by Michelangelo, but was finished by an unknown 17th century artist. 

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Surely, but surely, this girl in Michelangelo’s Entombment is checking her phone

It’s a copy, but the pietà from St Peter’s is in the show. In a gallery setting it seems too aesthetically cleaned up. The small gash from the centurion’s spear looks more like a surgeon’s incision. The nail holes in Jesus’s hands and feet reflect nothing of the pain of crucifixion. The meaning of a work changes when it moves from church to gallery; maybe Michelangelo is moving our contemplation from Christ’s suffering to Mary’s loss, but somehow his intense ability seems to work against him. Here the masterful piece seems also to bellow Look at me!  One of Sebastiano’s paintings is labelled Judith (or Salome?) but it must be Salome, the expression of guilt making it surely the dancer who entranced Herod. There is a radiance and virtuosity here that are missing in other canvases and you wonder exactly how he links to Titian. What do you know, they studied together in Venice. As mentioned Sebastiano was able to call on Michelangelo for drawings for subjects he wanted to paint. In a well-displayed coupling of preliminary drawing and painting, Michelangelo’s sketch is placed ideally so that you can glance from it to the (strikingly masculine) Madonna and Christ that Sebastiano created.   

I counted around 24 works by Michelangelo out of about 73 pieces in the whole show. The vast majority of those are small drawings, whereas the walls are slathered with Sebastiano’s oils. Really this show should be called Sebastiano and Michelangelo. What should have been a great link between the two artists – a portrait of Michelangelo by Sebastiano – is only probably by Sebastiano. Think of the show as an introduction to Sebastiano with a little Michelangelo gold dust and you won’t be disappointed. Otherwise it feels a forced attempt to make an exhibition around the gallery’s existing Michelangelo paintings.

National Gallery

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