An Extraordinary Exhibition

Gallery visitors enjoying USD's "Life of Christ" art exhibit


The lights were low, the air smelled faintly of new paint and fresh wood, and while the perfectly controlled climate was decidedly cool, the excitement in the Hoehn Family Galleries was palpable on the morning that its latest art exhibit was so carefully uncrated and installed.

A team from the British Museum and the University of San Diego’s galleries watched as art handlers unscrewed the bolts on the face of each crate, broke the customs and security seals and lifted the tops off.

The Michelangelo drawing known as The Three Crosses was among the first to be revealed for the exhibition Christ: Life, Death and Resurrection, which was displayed on campus throughout the fall of 2019. It included more than 40 original drawings and prints by Italian Renaissance artists. 

“As we unwrapped the plastic sheeting from the frame, we were especially curious to see the artwork we had built this exhibition around,” says Katherine Noland, operations coordinator for the University Galleries. Noland oversaw the installation and breathed a sigh of relief to know it had made its journey across the Atlantic safely.

“When the art handlers finished installing the frame on the wall, we paused our work and all took a step back to admire it for the first time,” Noland recalls. “The red chalk shone against the blue wall and the effect was as beautiful as we hoped it would be.”

The Three Crosses, which depicts Christ on the cross between two thieves, is one of the few large-scale, fully finished drawings by Michelangelo to survive to present time — not just because it’s estimated to be nearly 500 years old, but also because it’s a sketch, a draft or a study of a larger commissioned piece that was either never completed or simply lost in time.

Art historians date this 11-by-15-inch piece to sometime between 1521 and 1524, when Michelangelo was at the height of his career. There are several hundred drawings in the world that scholars have identified as being done by Michelangelo. Some are just scraps of paper where he was working out an idea in his mind, but The Three Crosses is rare.

“There’s no finished work that relates to this piece,” says Derrick Cartwright, PhD, director of the University Galleries, who returned to the University of San Diego in 2012 following his tenure as an art professor at USD from 1992 to 1998. “Also, this drawing has very little in common with the established iconography of the time.”

Typically, what’s shown is Christ’s family and his apostles who are supporting his mother, Mary, while she swoons at the sight of her son. But that’s not the case in Michelangelo’s drawing. In his version, Christ is still alive on the cross. He’s turning his head toward the thief on the cross to his left.

Cartwright wonders, “Why did Michelangelo draw Christ this way? What was he saying to the thief on his left?”

“I don’t know what Michelangelo was thinking,” says Cartwright, who, once the exhibit closed, announced that it attracted a record-breaking 6,125 visitors — more than any in the history of the university. “Maybe he is making us rethink the Crucifixion. Sometimes we think we know a story or we know the artists and then they show us something new.” — Krystn Shrieve

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