Sebastiano del Piombo (after partial designs by Michelangelo), Lamentation over the dead Christ, early 16th century, oil on poplar, 248 x 190 x 13 cm, Museo Civico di Viterbo.

Renaissance artists Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombo met in Rome in 1511. United by an embittered conflict with Raphael, the two painters became collaborators and friends, achieving a huge success in an extremely competitive art world.

While Michelangelo had been trained in Florence, the younger Sebastiano came from Venice. His name suggests that he descended from a middle class family and therefore had a higher social status that most contemporary artists, usually mere craftsmen. This enabled him to learn how to paint in a relatively informal way from the master Giorgione, being freer to experiment than the craftsmen connected to their masters’ workshops by a formal contract of apprenticeship. Thanks to this training, Sebastiano became incredibly skilled at handling oil paint, as we can see in this monumental altarpiece showing the Lamentation, namely the Virgin Mary in grief over the body of the dead Christ. Elements of the painting such as the loosely sketched nocturnal landscape can be connected to contemporary Venetian production and in particular to Giorgione’s work.

Nevertheless, the figures in the painting are modeled on drawings by Michelangelo. For example, Mary’s pose is based on Michelangelo’s studies and preparatory material for some of the ignudi (naked figures) of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. Michelangelo probably provided Sebastiano with anatomical studies on which to base his painting. Sebastiano must have enlarged Michelangelo’s drawings into large-scale patterns (cartoni) and then transferred them onto the canvas. Conservators have identified the existence of a sure-handed and precise under-drawing under the paint layers of some areas of the painting. Moreover, the back of the painting’s poplar panel features sculptural sketches of arms and legs realized in charcoal by an hand which may be Michelangelo’s. These quick sketches were copied by a less secure hand, which may be Sebastiano’s. Copying Michelangelo’s anatomical detail in this way would have been a useful practice for him before starting to work on the final painting. This process of copying suggests that Sebastiano and Michelangelo met frequently and probably worked close to each other.

Apart from its technical skill, the painting is also fascinating for its strange iconography. It is the first monumental painting to represent a night scene, and the first Lamentation where Mary does not embrace or sustain the body of Christ. While some features of the painting such as the flowers in the foreground can be linked to traditional ideas of natural symbolism, other reflect contemporary philosophical trends. For example, Mary’s body is so masculine because contemporary philosophers such as Marsilio Ficinobelieved that females were unable to feel the purely spiritual love due to God. In this perspective, Mary’s appearance reflects her perfection and her complete spiritual ascent towards God. These ideas were reflected in Michelangelo’s own poems and writings, and circulated in the progressive humanistic milieu of Giovanni Botonti, the patron who commissioned this altarpiece.

The Lamentation over the Dead Christ is on view at the National Gallery in London until 25 June 2017 as part of the exhibition ‘Michelangelo and Sebastiano,’ dedicated to the personal relationship of these two Renaissance outstanding artists.

Reference: Matthias Wivel, Paul Joannides, Costanza Barbieri, Michelangelo and Sebastiano (National Gallery, 2017).

Sebastiano del Piombo (after partial designs by Michelangelo), Lamentation over the dead Christ, oil on poplar, 248 x 190 x 13 cm, Museo Civico di Viterbo. Source: Web Gallery of Art.

Michelangelo, Separation of the Earth from the Waters (with ignudi and medallions), 1511, fresco, Cappella Sistina, Vatican. Source: Web Gallery of Art.

Michelangelo, Male Upper Body with Folded Hands (verso), 1511-12, red and black chalk, pen and brown ink, 272 x 192 mm, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna.  Source: Web Gallery of Art.

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