(b. 1475, Caprese, d. 1564, Roma)
Christ on the Cross with the Virgin and St John1555-64
Black chalk, white heightening, 412 x 279 mm
British Museum, London
The six drawings of Crucifixions, depicting Christ on the cross between the Virgin and Saint John, the drawings Michelangelo did for his own personal use, show us better than any of his other works something of the artist's development during his last years. The present Crucifixion is probably the final drawing in the series, although it cannot be established with absolute certainty. It does, in any case, differ with regard to both form and content from the other Crucifixion scenes of the artist's last period, in which the mourners are depicted completely isolated, lonely, and abandoned. In the present drawing, on the other hand, Virgin Mary is tenderly nestled against the side of Christ, while St John finds protection and reassurance beneath the Cross because of Christ's close proximity. In no other Crucifixion scene by Michelangelo do mortals enter into such a close relationship with Christ.
The present drawing shows us, once again, those same ideas which had tormented the artist during his work on the Pietà Rondanini: "Oh! Flesh, Blood and Wood, supreme pain, Through you must I suffer my agony." These lines, which the artist had written at the age of 57, seem to convey the dominant feeling in the Madonna and Saint John, gathered around the Cross. Fear and pain have drawn the Madonna to Christ's body, while St John turns towards Him in supplication, with one arm around the Cross. In this female figure there is nothing of the Mother of God represented in his 1499 Pietà, nor does the Evangelist recall anything of the 1505 St Matthew. Nowhere are the changes of this half century so clearly demonstrated as in the life and work of Michelangelo Buonarroti.
The elementary human feelings common to all mankind that Michelangelo reflects in his depictions of Christ's death are unique in his oeuvre of drawings. In their exceptional depth and intensity they are comparable to the Requiem that Mozart would compose more than two hundred years later when confronted with his own imminent death.