Hilton, Tim, The Independent (London, England)
THE last "Making and Meaning" exhibition at the National Gallery was the popular show devoted to the Wilton Diptych and its place in early English life and art. I doubt whether the new exhibition in the series, "The Young Michelangelo", will have the same appeal. Michelangelo (1475-1564) has many qualities, but few people have ever found him lovable and the display in the Sainsbury Wing's basement is rather severe, especially in its treatment of Michelangelo's marvellous Entombment: one would like to be on intimate terms with this picture, while at the moment it's held away from us on an excessively hierarchical pedestal.
The National Gallery owns two of the three panel paintings normally given to Michelangelo, and this is one of them. They are at the centre of an exhibition which is also interesting for its sculpture. At the NG there are, in all, seven three-dimensional works. Two are called Sleeping Cupid. One is 16th-century Italian, the other Roman from the first or second century AD. A Pieta from a south Netherlandish artist is in alabaster. The four sculptures by Michelangelo do not come directly from his hand and chisel but are casts, two relatively modern and two from the late 19th century. They look very well and although I would like to have been closer to Michelangelo's Pieta - and to have seen the cast in clear daylight - one does feel in the presence of a masterpiece.
It was the last great sculpture of the 15th century: literally so, since Michelangelo carved it in Rome in 1497-1500 (the original is now in St Peter's) and with an emotional finality too, for it aimed to succeed and even eradicate the achievements of earlier quattrocento masters such as Donatello and Verrochio. Michael Hirst, whose exhibition this is, observes how shallow is the literal sculpting of the Pieta in comparison with its width. It is likely, therefore, that it was made for an awkward niche in a chapel. We also infer that this shallowness encouraged Michelangelo to show his mastery over previous relief sculpture - and painting too. It's a very detailed sculpture, and in the profuse but crisp details of drapery, hands and hair we find relations to the pictorial art of the previous century.
The Pieta was celebrated as novel when first seen. None the less there are aspects of the sculpture that one might call gothic. Its tenseness, angularity and emotionalism come from the period before the High Renaissance. Such qualities are not necessarily Italian. In fact the motif of the Virgin holding her dead son's body was a Northern invention. This is why the National Gallery exhibition includes the south Netherlandish Pieta (borrowed from the V & A and I suppose a late addition to the show, since it is neither illustrated in the catalogue nor mentioned in Hirst's text). The excellent little sculpture by the "Master of Rimini" does, however, demonstrate - as do the other supplementary exhibits - that Michelangelo wielded a supreme power over all artists who had preceded him or worked during his own times. …