Could a famous painting by Michelangelo hang unattributed at the Metropolitan?

With Renaissance art over four centuries old, one might think all Michelangelo paintings were known and attributed.  Wrong!

Everett Fahy, the recently retired Chair of the European Paintings department of the Metropolitan, asserts that a painting presently attributed to the workshop of Francesco Granacci (1469/70 – 1543) is actually a Michelangelo painting.  As Fahy notes,

“Michelangelo, like van Gogh, attracts a lot of crazy ideas, and people are going to say this is another absurd idea.  I’m expecting that they’re going to throw brickbats.”

St. John the Baptist Bearing Witness, ca. 1506-07.  Oil and gold on wood, 29 3/4″ x 82 1/2″.  Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Fahy, a pre-eminent, internationally-known scholar of Renaissance art, introduces his thesis in ARTnews.  This previews his forthcoming, 65-page article, “An Overlooked Michelangelo?”. Fahy investigates a series of panels detailing the life of Saint John.  The first of these, Scenes from the Life of Saint John the Baptist, is held by the Met, and shows an angel informing Zacharias about the birth of his son, John the Baptist.  This is a “typical work by Francesco Granacci”, according to the Met, which states that the second panel (possibly a pendant, or paired painting) is by “another, superior artist.”

Enter Fahy, who persuasively argues that this “superior artist” is none other than the Renaissance genius, Michelangelo. Fahy documents similarities between Michelangelo paintings and this second panel. For instance, on the right of St. John, who wears a rose-colored robe on top of his hair shirt, are two pharisees; one of them is pointing up toward Christ, who enters the scene with five disciples.  This pair of pharisees, Fahy observes, resembles the Michelangelo drawing, Philosopher, at the British Museum.

Michelangelo.  Philosopher, ca. 1495-1500.  Pen and Brown Ink, British Museum.

Further, the panel’s St. John is evocative of Michelangelo drawings at the Louvre, Nude Man and Study for the colossal statue of David victorious.  The Met observes that figures in the panel are similar to those in the background of Dona Tondoone of the unquestioned, fully attributed Michelangelo paintings.

Michelangelo.  Holy Family (Doni Tondo),ca. 1504-05.  Oil tempera on wood, approximately 47″ diameter.  Galleria degli Uffizi.

Further evidence comes from the Met’s conservation department, which examined each underdrawing in the five panels. Four revealed detailed, careful preparatory drawings, while the second panel showed a more fluid and bold style like that of Michelangelo. It should be noted that in Renaissance art, especially in Florence, a commissioned artist would retain other painters to assist him; it was generally assumed that the assistants would follow designs from the lead painter, which was clearly not the case here, Michelangelo painting or not!

The evidence is leaning toward another Michelangelo attribution (although the Met still claims that this Renaissance artwork is from Granacci’s circle). For more details of Fahy’s persuasive argument, read the ARTnews article,  Why It’s a Michelangelo.