The National Gallery’s very first acquisition was a collaboration between Michelangelo and Sebastiano, The Raising of Lazarus. It’s a huge canvas, with the biblical subject of Christ raising a man from the dead depicted in vivid, glowing colours. A fine start to a great collection.
Creative collaboration then is not such a modern concept, and we are talking here about headline acts, not the supporting hordes that filled in the outlines. Michelangelo is perhaps not an artist one would think of as needing any help or input from another. After all, if you had to name the greatest artists of all time, chances are his name would be in your top five. So why would he, an artist at the height of his game, reach out to a newcomer from Venice, as Sebastiano was when he first came to Rome? And would Sebastiano have done better had he stayed in Venice and established himself as a great master, as Titian did soon after?
This is the intriguing concept explored in Michelangelo & Sebastiano, which runs until 15 June at the National Gallery. The answer lies in another great artist, Raphael, whose sheer brilliance threatened to unseat the older Michelangelo from his throne. Rather than allow large commissions to go to his rival, Michelangelo teamed up with Sebastiano. As a man who loved drawing and sculpture, he was happy to leave the actual composition and painting to the younger artist. Modern testing has found that the National Gallery’s foundation piece was almost completely painted by Sebastiano, with Michelangelo providing only the crucial dynamic energy of the twisting figure of Lazarus, writhing out of his shroud into new life.
It’s not easy presenting work so inextricably linked to the church as Renaissance altarpieces, but the exhibition shows two out of the three Michelangelo paintings on panels that exist. There is also a plaster copy of the Vatican’s Pieta, two sculptures of the Risen Christ, one of which Michelangelo discarded because of a flaw in the marble and a 3-D reproduction of the Borgherini chapel in S.Pietro in Rome – the final work the two artists executed. The narrative seeks to illustrate how these artists influenced one another – Sebastiano’s use of the figure taking on more of the older artist’s unsurpassed ability to express emotions, but also adding his Venetian flair for colour and composition to the artistic mix.
The exhibition demands much of the viewer, but offers a wide range of mediums, from unfinished paintings, huge altarpieces, sculpture and drawings to the letters that form a detailed record of the friendship that existed between the two men.
My favourite pieces were Sebastiano’s portrait of a laughing Michelangelo, relaxed and cheerful, contrasting with the general understanding of him as a difficult, solitary artist, and Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo, the unfinished marble roundel that has been tucked away in the Royal Academy, and here at eye level reveals its gentle brilliance.
It never was a fair contest between the great master and the younger artist, and when the aged Michelangelo dismissed the now deceased Sebastiano as lazy in his recollections, he ensured that Sebastiano would always be a footnote to Michelangelo’s career. Perhaps he should have stayed in Venice after all.