We tend to think of Michelangelo as a genius whose talent was in full bloom at birth. That he “sprang whole from the mind of Zeus” so to speak - creating 'Michelangelesque' works from boyhood. However, while visiting The National Gallery in London recently, I sat and had a long look at two paintings attributed to a youthful Michelangelo which, sorry for the pun, paint a different picture of his growth and development.
I’m starting to think that maybe... just maybe... Michelangelo was mortal after all. The narrative of his inherent and divine perfection was begun in his own lifetime by both of his biographers (Vasari and Condivi); and although we know today to take it all with a grain of salt, we still think of his abilities as miraculous and almost otherworldly in both their range (sculpture, painting, architecture, draftsmanship, etc) and in accomplishment. So it’s a rare treat to see 2 paintings by a young Michelangelo hanging side by side, where you can see the progression of his style, sensibilities, and skills and plainly see he's not yet the mature Master of the David or Sistine Chapel frescos.
So. At the National Gallery in London live two unfinished Michelangelo paintings (the majority of scholars believe them to be authentic Michelangelo paintings but there are - full disclosure - a few who doubt their authenticity)... both of which were made in his early 20’s.
There's “The Manchester Madonna” (painted in 1497):
And “The Entombment” (painted in 1500/1501):
*I do not own or claim any © of these images which belong to the National Gallery, London*
The first thing one notices when looking at the paintings is they aren’t what we’d typically consider “Michelangelesque." Especially the first/earlier one, The Manchester Madonna. Stylistically there are quite a few similarities between the two paintings so I can understand why the attributions stand. In both paintings there is more attention paid to the rounded, smooth, modeling of forms than to the power or anatomic mastery we’re accustomed to from Michelangelo. One is reminded of his maxim that 'painting is strengthened the more it resembles sculpture, whereas sculpture that resembles painting is weak.'
Both of these oil paintings are obviously unfinished, and both depict similar scenes (biblical narratives). Both are rendered in full color and the two paintings even utilize similar poses (in particular the two figures which appear in full profile). Nevertheless there is a clear maturation evident between the two works... he’s gotten better from one to the next.
In the earlier “Manchester Madonna” there is almost no hint of the direction his art will soon take. The Virgin is as exquisite and classically beautiful as the later, famous paintings we associate with Raphael. There is little congruity in the anatomy, which I find most striking; not just with regard to one another but within the figures themselves. He’s not yet using ideal proportions and appears to have not yet studied anatomy amongst the cadavers at Santo Spirito, in Florence... which he is said to have started practicing in 1497 - the same year this unfinished painting was executed. So this must have immediately preceded his studies, and perhaps even spurred them. His complete and unrivaled mastery of male anatomy and musculature - which was the kernel of his genius and source of his muse for all of his long life - was learned during his dissections and literal unraveling of the human form which he found in the cadavers at the church of Santo Spirito in Florence, not far from where he grew up in that same city, and where he learned his craft. It’s interesting to imagine this being the last - or one of the last - pictures he painted before turning down the path we all know him for today and 'becoming' the Michelangelo of lore.
By the time he paints “The Entombment” just 3 or 4 years later, he has made obvious strides both as an artist and an anatomist. HIs work is beginning to incorporate “Michelangelesque” elements - the central figure is a male nude. The figure of christ, even in death, is physically powerful and the forms of his body are tenderly descriptive. His anatomical studies have clearly paid off in the realistically foreshortened forms and musculature of the Christ, and his improved painting skills are evidenced by a more realistic and flesh-like modeling of forms.
Assuming these are genuine Michelangelo's... it was a real lesson for me to recognize that his style was developed over time and that his growth was linear and steady. Just like the rest of us... although perhaps accelerated. These paintings represent his work at age 22 and 26; before he carved his world-famous Pieta or even-more-world-famous David.
These are not the monumental, majestically straining figures of the Sistine chapel or marble carvings that we typically associate with Michelangelo. He’s not “there” yet... which is all the more reason to enjoy these paintings at The National Gallery.