This is probably the earliest of Michelangelo’s surviving panel paintings. It is unfinished – the black modelling of the Virgin Mary’s mantle has not yet received its final coats of blue, and the angels to the left have barely been begun. We don't know why the picture was never completed.
The Virgin is seated on a rock with the Christ Child and young John the Baptist at her knee. She is flanked by standing angels – the two on the left are only indicated by their drawn draperies and by the greenish underpainting traditionally used to balance the pinkish flesh tones that would be painted over them.
The infant Saint John the Baptist in his camel skin looks out beyond us, perhaps to suggest his role in preparing the way for Christ’s ministry. The manner in which the figures fill almost the entire panel is reminiscent of a marble relief and reflects Michelangelo’s training as a sculptor.
This picture – known as ‘The Manchester Madonna’ since 1857, when it was exhibited in the great Manchester Art Exhibition – is probably the earliest of Michelangelo’s surviving panel paintings. There is also a Temptation of Saint Anthony (Kimball Art Museum, Fort Worth) that some experts believe to be a very early panel painting by Michelangelo.
On 27 June 1497, the 22-year-old artist withdrew money from the bank to pay for a wooden panel. That panel is widely believed to have been for The Manchester Madonna, but there is no further evidence. Given the picture’s less fluid articulation of its figures when compared with Michelangelo’s sculpture of these years, it may well date to his early years as an independent artist in Florence.
The picture is unfinished – the black modelling of the Virgin’s mantle has not yet received its coat of ultramarine blue, and the angels to the left have barely been begun. We don‘t know why it was never completed. Michelangelo’s panel painting The Entombment of about 1500–1 was also left unfinished.
The Virgin Mary is seated on a rock with the Christ Child and young John the Baptist at her knee. Her exposed breast suggests that she has just been feeding her infant, who reaches up to grasp the book she is holding. The book may be the Old Testament open at Isiah 53, which prophesies Christ’s future sacrifice, as she seems to try to hold it away from her child as though she doesn’t want him to see the destiny that awaits him.
She is flanked by standing angels – the two on the left are only indicated by their drawn draperies and by the greenish underpainting traditionally used to balance the pinkish flesh tones that would be painted over them. This was quite an old-fashioned approach, which Michelangelo abandoned soon after this painting. The infant Saint John the Baptist in his camel skin looks out beyond the viewer and appears to support his cousin Christ, who is balanced precariously with one foot on a fold of the Virgin’s mantle. His outward gaze may be to suggest his role in preparing the way for Christ’s ministry. John the Baptist is usually depicted with a scroll inscribed ‘Ecce Agnus Dei’ (‘Behold the Lamb of God’), referring to Christ’s sacrifice. This may be the scroll held by the angels.
Michelangelo trained in Florence, where drawing and inventive compositional design were paramount, in the studio of painter Domenico Ghirlandaio. Here he learned to conceive his composition and draw it out on paper before transferring it to the wall or panel. We can still see the lines of the angels' drapery where he has transferred this drawing.
Because it is unfinished, the Manchester Madonna allows us to see the technique of painting in egg tempera in action. It can be seen most clearly in the hatched and cross-hatched brushstrokes of the black under-modelling of the Virgin’s mantle, which were not intended to be left visible. Egg-based paints cannot be manipulated and blended on the surface of the painting and they dry rapidly, so they must be applied in hatched and stippled brushstrokes, and the different tones and values of colour required to depict form, light and shadow must be mixed in advance.
The pigments are used at their purest for the darkest colours then white is added to make the rest of the tonal scale. But this is not actually how colours look in real life and it creates an artificial appearance. The paints are applied in sequence, with the darkest applied first and the highlight last. Because tempera paints are thin, the sequence has to be repeated many times until the brushstrokes mesh together and the tones appear to blend when seen from a reasonable distance. It is a long and painstaking process, but the picture reveals Michelangelo’s mastery of this technique. The downy feathers sprouting from the nearest angel’s back and the fluttering edges of the Christ Child’s tunic are very delicate effects that are difficult to achieve in egg tempera.
The painting nonetheless suggests the work of a sculptor, reflecting Michelangelo’s opinion that painting is better the closer it resembles sculpture. He learned to sculpt at the Florentine court of Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449–1492), and it was with sculpture that Michelangelo would make his name in Rome in the last years of the fifteenth century, when this panel was painted. Michelangelo uses strong outlines to emphasise the Virgin’s form. He also scraped away the surrounding paint, which is a practice that resembles sculptural techniques, creating a strongly three-dimensional effect. The way the figures fill almost the entire panel, leaving no room for a landscape beyond, is also reminiscent of relief sculpture.
Several of Michelangelo’s visual sources for the painting are derived from sculptures: the angels recall the marble figures on Luca della Robbia’s organ loft of the 1430s (Cathedral Museum, Florence) and the pose of the foremost painted angel is similar to that of Michelangelo’s own marble Bacchus (Bargello, Florence) completed in 1497. However, the Bacchus is much more animated and assured, suggesting that the painting is earlier. This hypothesis is supported by the painting’s closeness in technique to the work of Ghirlandaio, with whom Michelangelo trained, and to his friend and colleague Granacci’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt with the Infant Saint John (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin), painted around 1494. In Granacci’s painting, the Virgin sits on a rocky seat in a landscape with the Christ Child in her lap and the young Baptist reaching up towards him. It is not clear whether Michelangelo was influenced by Granacci’s work or if Granacci based his composition on a design by Michelangelo. In Michelangelo’s painting, the pose of Granacci’s standing Baptist is reversed and instead given to the Christ Child, whose position between his mother’s legs underscores his human origins. Michelangelo has cropped his scene very tightly around his figures, leaving no space for the delicate landscape included by Granacci.
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