Michelangelo is not one of my favourite painters. He’s not even among the Renaissance masters I think about most; Giovanni Bellini, Giovanni di Paolo, Simone Martini, Piero della Francesca, Giotto and Andrea Mantegna come first. Still, it is an event when Michelangelo’s first known painting goes on view during an otherwise recession-slow summer, and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art made the most of exhibiting this extraordinarily precocious piece of juvenilia, on loan from the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth. So, as the last torpid days of the season arrived, I bestirred myself sufficiently to go uptown to see it.
It is indeed a remarkable and curious picture. Based on an engraving from around 1470 by the German master Martin Schongauer, Michelangelo’s The Torment of Saint Anthony (c. 1487–8) is scarcely larger than its source and was displayed, alongside a facsimile of Schongauer’s print, with large educational placards on all sides that mostly served to make one aware of how small the painting really is. That said, Michelangelo was at pains to improve upon the original by inserting into roughly the same pictorial area a deep blue landscape vista and various other details, in particular a craggy mountainous ridge in the corner where the beleaguered saint wrestles with his demons like a bearded Sherlock Holmes beset by a Matrix Reloaded squad of monstrous Professor Moriartys bent on bringing the gravity-defying man of God down to their diabolical level.
As in the majority of such aesthetically lush and lurid battles between Good and Evil, Evil grabs the most attention. For that, after all, is where the imagination of Fallen Man has the advantage over Divine Creation and is freest of inhibition – to the extent that making Evil’s imperfections hideously obvious can be excused as the ultimate tribute to Good’s unimaginable perfection.
Given such license, this gem-like work is, overall, oddly tame, even dainty. In most respects faithful to Schongauer’s unequalled fantasia in scales, claws, scrofulous skin and gaping orifices – seldom before or since has a flexing anus had such a prominent place in sacred imagery – Michelangelo embellished his distant mentor’s linear composition with rare and ravishing colour developed, the didactic materials tell us, through the study of fish, reptiles and birds in Florentine markets. Such research accounts, in the words of the label, for the demons’ ‘arresting veracity’. But as skilful as they are, these refinements also disappoint the viewer – or this viewer at any rate – for ‘naturalism’ is not what the dark side of our souls craves most when conjuring ‘unnatural’ worlds.
Michelangelo undertook to paint the scene while in the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio, who, it is said, envied the young artist the success he had with the exercise. By the criteria of the period – which art historians perpetuate – such Oedipal resentment was the highest praise. However, I do not judge works of this kind by standards of mastery so much as by the measure of wonderment they contain. According to that rule of thumb, The Torment of Saint Anthony, The Remake, fails in direct comparison to its paradigm and that failure is tinged by sadness at the thought of what might have been had Michelangelo not been so much the dutiful disciple of his master as a true sorcerer’s apprentice.
The crucial fact is that Michelangelo was 12 when he started the project, standing at the threshold of adolescence and all the earthly torments and temptations that that hormone-drenched and Id-driven juggernaut entails. Under different circumstances this deep dive into libidinal impurity should have tipped the balance of his mind in favour of unprecedented grotesquery. Instead, after having made an unexpectedly age-appropriate choice of theme for his debut painting, the prodigious man-child sublimated his own age-specific perspective on the nether regions of the body, soul and psyche into hand-me-down travails of an old man and the manner of an artistic elder.
But just think of what this presumably spotty, sex-on-the-brain but supremely gifted tween-ager might have done in an era that was both less hierarchical and more tolerant of liminal states of human development. A trip downtown to see an exhibition of work by the maverick illustrator Basil Wolverton the same afternoon I visited the Met, sharpened the point of that nagging question. In the 1950s the dyspeptic cartoonist Al Capp extended an open call to artists to draw the face of his tauntingly-veiled character Lena the Hyena. The weirdly pious Wolverton, who, from 1952 to 1974, worked on illustrations of the Bible, won Capp’s contest with pock-marked, snaggle-toothed hag that would have done Schongauer proud, and the deliriously immature readers of Mad magazine, where his creature was reproduced, revelled in the result. What if Angelic Mike had read Mad before embarking on his own excursion into icky?