Michelangelo’s The Torment of Saint Anthony


Michelangelo would insist that he was a sculptor; but like most Renaissance masters, he would create paintings as well. Most of his painted works are in the form of frescos, in which paint is applied directly to wet plaster on a wall or ceiling, as in his renowned frescos for the Sistine Chapel.

Of his paintings on canvas only four are known. Two of these are unfinished and one of them was long in question, a remarkable painting of The Torment of Saint Anthony. This painting was recently purchased by the Kimbell Art Museum and even more recently, has been determined to be the work of Michelangelo’s hand by scholars at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The painting is also notable in that it is the first and only painting by Michelangelo in an American collection. It will be part of the Kimbell’s permanent collection, and will go on display at the Metropolitan Museum of art in New York on June 15, 2009 (though I can’t find reference to this on the Met’s own site).

This article on The Guardian shows some detail views of the work, as well as some infrared and x-ray images that reveal changes Michelangelo made as he created the painting (above, lower right).

The painting is in oil and tempera on a wood panel, and is painted after an engraving by Martin Schongauer, Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons (image above, lower left), which Michelangelo had access to and made a color drawing of, as well as this painting.

The story of the torment (or temptation) of Saint Anthony has always been a juicy subject for artists, in that it gives them free license to let their imagination go wild with hallucinatory visions of the tormenting demons. Many great artists have found it fertile ground. There is an article on culture xy about the subject, with interpretations by Bosch, Matthias Grünewald (see my post on Matthias Grünewald), Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí and Salvator Rosa that includes Schongauer’s engraving.

Michelangelo’s version brings Schongauer’s spiky Bosch-like demons to life with rich colors and vibrant textures, as they accost Anthony, their twisted forms a whirl of rage and threat; and their leathery wings lifting him into the air from the edge of a precipice and suspending him above a detailed landscape rendered in hazy atmospheric perspective.

Perhaps the most notable thing about Michelangelo’s The Torment of Saint Anthony is that it represents the artist’s earliest known work, painted when he was twelve or thirteen.

11 Replies to “Michelangelo’s The Torment of Saint Anthony

  1. Oh, I’ve read about this in the newspaper today. I was very surprised to find this northern imagery in an italian painting!:) It should be noted though, that there’s no actual proof that it’s from Michelangelo, it might be art historians’ wishful thinking. (The existence of this painting already was a popular legend at Michelangelo’s lifetime.) Ascribing pictures (esp. drawings) to him is so popular these days, it always makes me feel cautious.

  2. I think it’s an interesting work but let’s remember that this is a copy-and-color job. The rendering had already been established by Schongauer. Granted, Michelangelo added some fish scales and it’s a very interesting student piece by a fascinating genius but I’m not disappointed that the Met chose to pass on purchasing this.

    It is often the case in these sorts of stories that people remark on the youth of the artist, that this was done when he was a young teen. But during the renaissance and baroque periods, a great many artists’ studios routinely took on apprentices at ages 12 to 14.

    A very sensitive silverpoint self-portrait drawing by Durer survives with a notation in his own hand that he was 13 when he did it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Durer-self-portrait-at-the-age-of-thirteen.jpg

    A number of biographical entries for Anthony van Dyck comment that he was running the Rubens studio when he was 17. But when one considers that artists wanted to be submitting their own masterpieces for guild acceptance and the establishment of their own studios by 18, this should not be surprising.

    I think of all the former Rembrandt paintings downgraded to “circle of Rembrandt” in recent years by the prestigious Rembrandt Research Project. Given that these paintings were done by people in his workshop, then who did them? Well, the answer is they were done by teenagers!

    Gerrit Dou was 13 when he apprenticed to Rembrandt, who was a master with his own studio and himself all of 18 years old at the time. Hoogstraten was 13 when he joined Rembrandt as well. Drost was a comparatively old man of 16 when he came on board. And so on.

    This is an interesting piece but I don’t think it’s so remarkable that Michelangelo did this as a young teen. I do think it underscores how much we have unnecessarily distended adolescence in the modern era.

    1. Thanks, Dan. Good points all, and I appreciate the link to Durer’s wonderful early self-portrait. (I’ve been putting off Durer because there’s so much to say about him.)

      I should mention,though, that my own amazement is not in his accomplishment for that age (though he did create a very complete composition in his interpretation of the drawing), it is more that in a single act of authentication, art history has changed again, however modestly.

      We now have a single work by Michelangelo that is simultaneously:
      one of only 4 known works on canvas
      the only painted work by him in a U.S. collection
      one of few works by him that is a direct copy of another artist
      his earliest known work.

      I personally find both early works and copies of one master’s work by another particularly instructive, as we get to see the artist in the process of learning.

      You may also be right about the extension of modern adolescence, though it may be moderated by the fact that our overall lifespan has been extended proportionately.

      Thanks, as always, for your thoughtfiul comments.

      Other readers can see Daniel van Benthuysen’s online gallery here. Of particular interest to me are the the new entries in his series of shell-themed still life paintings.

  3. I don’t want to be a party-pooper, but this is clearly not a piece of work that can be usefully called ‘a Michelangelo’.

    My mind boggles at the numerous cases where history is fabricated like this, out of people’s desire for finding a ‘lost masterpiece’. If there is a dispute like this, museum/gallery people (i.e. those with a vested interest in the work’s star status) always err on the side of recklessness.

    It’s a great image, though, and I intend to enjoy it at the Met without thinking about Michelangelo.

  4. I agree with Harry – this is clearly not a work by Michelangelo. I am shocked that “experts” would attempt to assert otherwise and can only surmise that it is the product of wishful thinking on the part of museum staff. I have no idea who might have actually painted it but where on Earth did they come up with Michelangelo?

  5. it is definitely Michelangelo’s painting, experts have looked closely at the painting and looked at the how brushstrokes are made and have said that it matches up with Michelangelo’s paintings. The experts aren’t allowed to just “wishfully think” that this is one of Michelangelo’s paintings and put it on the market as that.

  6. If there was some evidence that Michelangelo is actually Flemish I might be convinced – Vasari would be turning in his grave. The brushstrokes comment is pretty funny though… He he, brushstrokes indeed….

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