Michelangelo: a drawing in the British Museum related to The Creation of Adam scene on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling

 

There is in the British Museum a drawing by Michelangelo depicting three nude men, two of whom appear to be supporting and lifting up a central figure. This group is at the left of the sheet and is drawn in black chalk . At the right of the sheet and rotated 90 degrees is a pen and brown ink sketch of the Virgin and Child.1

 

 

Michelangelo Drawing

Michelangelo drawing in the British Museum of three figures in chalk and a pen and ink sketch of the Virgin and Child, dated by the museum to 1503-05.
Photo: courtesy of the British Museum.

 

The drawing of the three men has always been a bit of a problem in that its purpose is unclear. That is, as a study from life it lacks any obvious link to any of Michelangelo's completed works.

 

If we start by looking at the verso of the drawing, we see that it depicts in black chalk a male figure seen from the back, certainly a study for the right supporting figure on the recto of the sheet. This suggests the black chalk drawings on the recto and verso of the sheet were done at the same time.

 

There are also in the verso two pen and ink studies of a child, seen from front and back. They are in a very dark brown ink, and they perhaps relate relate to the  sketch of the Virgin and Child on the recto of the sheet. They differ in that while the Virgin and Child sketch is an outline drawing, the two children on the verso are based more on internal modelling defined by bold hatching, making them a more concentrated attempt to define the form.

 

A third element on the verso of the sheet is a pen and light brown ink study of a man's left leg, which is orientated upside down in relation to the other sketches on the paper. This leg is in the  same fluid outline style, without hatching or internal modelling, and is in the same colour ink as the Virgin and Child on the recto.  It is also orientated  with the pen and ink poem Michelangelo has added at the bottom of the sheet.2

 

Michelangelo Drawing

Michelangelo: verso of the drawing in the British Museum, 1503-05.
Photo: courtesy of the British Museum.

 

It is clear that different elements were added to both sides of this sheet in different mediums and at different times. This means that the work cannot be seen as a snapshot of a single moment in Michelangelo's creative process. Instead, it crosses boundaries and represents diverse thoughts and ideas rapidly put down on a sheet of paper that could well have been in his studio for a number of years.

 

The Virgin and Child sketch on the recto has never been seen as a problem.  Indeed, it is so clearly related to Michelangelo's marble statue of the Madonna of Bruges, c1501-1504, that the relationship is beyond doubt.  The only difference between the drawing and the final statue is that while the statue has been turned into a detached iconic image, superior and remote from the real world, the drawing has the feel of a life study taken from a real  model sitting in the studio in front of Michelangelo.3

 

     Bruges Madonna

Michelangelo's sketch for the Bruges Madonna (left) and the compleded statue in The Church of Our Lady in Bruges (right).

 

This difference between the real people posing for Michelangelo and the neoplatonic idealism of the final works is of interest because it explains the way so many of his sketches search for the emotions in our physical reality and then transform them into a higher neoplatonic level of being.  The real woman with the child in the sketch, slightly nervous and hesitant and holding a grumpty child wanting to wriggle away, is transformed into a sublimely calm and dignified figure aware of her child's destiny, and facing up to and rising above the troubles of this world.

 

Because of this link to The Bruges Madonna, the drawing has tended to be dated to 1503-1504, the time when The Bruges Madonna was created. But that need not be the whole story.  Other sketches on the same sheet could be of a different period and could be for a different purpose.

 

The group of men to the left of the sheet also suggest a sketch done from life, albiet in a different medium, black chalk. They almost certainly depict three studio assistants adopting a pose for Michelangelo to draw. They show how two men can hold a third by the feet and lift him high into the air, giving him a bunk up as though he was trying to get over a high wall, a technique used throughout history. The outstretched hand of the raised figure does suggest he is grabbing hold of a support, like the top of a wall.

 

Detail of the British Museum drawing.

 

This movement is so physical and so strong that it has tended to be linked to one of  Michelangelo's most physical works of the period, the Battle of Cascina, a proposed fresco that was destined for a wall in the Sala dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. 4

 

It was in 1504 that Michelangelo was comissioned to paint a mural of the Battle of Cascina, while at the same time Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned to paint The Battle of Anghiari on the wall opposite. 5

 

The Battle of Cascina had taken place on 28 July 1364, and was between Florence and the forces of Pisa.  Michelangelo's work depicted the moment when the Florentine soldiers were bathing in the river Arno and were surprised by a sudden attack by the Pisan forces. They clambered out of the river and hurried to dress themselves. This moment of panic gave Michelangelo the idea of displaying a great many poses of men in action.

 

Michelangelo's proposed painting of the battle was, we believe, never carried out.  He did, however make a cartoon which, although lost, was copied by a follower, Bastiano da Sangallo (1481 – May 31, 1551).  Sangallo's copy gives us a fairly clear impression of what Michelangelo intended.

 

 Battle of Cascona

Copy of Michelangelo's cartoon of The Battle of Cascina by Bastiano da Sangallo (1481 – May 31, 1551)

 

The problem is that the drawing in the British Museum does not actually match any of the figures in the Sangallo copy of The Battle of Cascina cartoon. So has this drawing got any other identifiable function?  Is there the possibility that it was used at a different time for a different purpose?

 

There is one curious link, which is with The Creation of Adam scene on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling in Rome, which Michelangelo painted between 1508 and 1512, at least four years after the suggested date of the British Museum drawing.

 

The Creation of Adam

Michelangelo's Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling.

 

The link between the drawing and the fresco in the Sistine Chapel becomes clear if one turns the drawing on its side and then reverses it.

 

Michelangelo drawing

Reversed image of Michelangelo's drawing in the British Museum.

 

A comparison between the reversed drawing and a detail of God the Father from The Creation of Adam scene reveals a distinct similarity. The muscular supporting figure in the drawing is almost identical to the supporting figure underneath God in the Sistine Chapel fresco. Moreover, God is like an enlarged and highly developed version of the central figure in the drawing, the one who is being lifted up. The outstreched hand in the drawing, looking like it is seeking to grasp a support, is turned into a pointing gesture by God sparking life into Adam.

 

Creation of adam

Detail of the figure of God and supporting angles from Creation of Adam from the Sistine Ceiling.

 

Michelangelo made hundreds if not thousands of sketches of the human body throughout his life, and he could pick up on ideas made at different times and in different places. The British Museum drawing may well have been a study for any active group of men like those in the Battle of Cascina, but the idea emerges most clearly in the Creation of Adam scene on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling.

 

 

Footnotes

 

1Michelangelo drawing, British Museum Number 1859,0625.564. Dated 1503 - 1504. The drawing is on paper and is 315 millimetres high and 277 millimetres wide. It is the recto that shows the three nude male figures and the sketch of the Virgin and Child.

 

The link to the British Museum online catalogue is:
 http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=671386&partId=1&searchText=leonardo+virgin+child+cat&page=1

 

2The verso has the study of a man seen from behind, together with the study of a leg and the two sketches of a child. The poem at the bottom of the sheet reads as follows:

 

Sol io arde[n]do all ombra mi rima[n]go
qua[n]d el sol de suo razi el mondo spoglia
ogni altro p[er] piaciere p[er] doglia
prostrato in terra mi lame[n]to e pia[n]gho

 

I alone keep burning in the shadows
when the sun strips the earth of its rays;
everyone else from pleasure, and I from pain,
prostrate upon the ground, lament and weep.

 

Trans. J.M. Saslow, The Poetry of Michelangelo, Yale and London, 1991, no. 2

 

3Bruges Madonna, 1501-1504, in the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk (The Church of Our Lady) in Bruges.

 

4The Sala dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio was built in 1494 to house the 500 members of the Grand Council of Florence, the governing body established by Savonarola.

 

5The Battle of Anghiari had taken place on 29th June 1440 between Milan and Florence. It is believed that Leonardo at least partially executed the mural in the year 1505, but it is now lost and known only from copies, one by Peter Paul Rubens.