Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Manchester Madonna

Michelangelo 1475 - 1564
The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels ('The Manchester Madonna')'about 1497
Egg tempera on wood
104.5 x 77 cm.
National Gallery, London

Nowadays, if one was to speak of Madonna in Manchester, one might think of a sell-out concert involving the American singer. It was not always the case.

The 'Manchester Madonna' is probably an unfinished work from Michelangelo's youth.

In it, Christ (as a young child) indicates a passage in a book held by his mother involving his future sacrifice. The right side of the painting (the angels) is largely finished as are the central figures of Christ and his mother (except for her hair). The figures on the left are barely roughed in.

Note that the mother is not looking at her son and the minimal contact - both features are present in most of Michelangelo's works.

It was nicknamed the 'Manchester Madonna' due to the excitement it caused in the city on its first visit in 1857. The Virgin and Child caused a sensation because it had only recently been attributed to Michelangelo.

Crowds flocked to see it - and 16,000 other paintings, sculptures, watercolours, photographs, ceramics, glassware and textiles - gathered in a vast crystal palace at Old Trafford. The pavilion cost £25,000 - that’s £41m in modern money.

More than 1.3 millon visitors came to the 1857 exhibition in just five months, an attendance figure that probably only Tate Modern could match today. Queen Victoria, Dickens, Tennyson, Florence Nightingale, Elisabeth Gaskell, John Ruskin, the Duke of Wellington, Benjamin Disraeli, Lord Palmerston, and the French emperor Louis Napoleon all headed north to wonder.

Charles Dickens, who visited the exhibition, wrote:

“The care for the common people is admirable...but they want more amusement, and particularly something in motion, though it were only a twisting fountain. The thing is too still after their lives of machinery; the art flows over their heads in consequence.”

But Engels wrote to Karl Marx about the exhibition:

“Everyone up here is an art lover just now and the talk is all of the pictures at the exhibition…”

The exhibition was described modestly as "the greatest show on earth" and according to Victoria Whitfield's catalogue essay, "remains the largest temporary exhibition ever to have been held in Britain.

The Transept Gallery of the Art Treasures Palace, 1857