ART / Anatomy of a genius: Despite recent claims to the contrary, Andrew Graham-Dixon believes that The Entombment is not only a Michelangelo, it is also the perfect expression of the artist's unique synthesis of sensuality and spirituality

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Few great paintings can have come quite as close to destruction, and survived, as Michelangelo's Entombment. Its narrow rescue, by the Scottish painter and photographer Robert Macpherson, deserves to be better known - not only because it is so curious and romantic, but also because it records one of the most eloquent compliments ever paid to the power of a picture.

Macpherson, we know from the autobiography of his close friend James Freeman, first came across The Entombment while looking through a job lot of pictures which had just been sold cheaply at auction in Rome in 1846. 'Mac had carefully observed among these paintings,' Freeman tells us, 'a large panel over which dust, varnish and smoke had accumulated to such a degree as to make it difficult to distinguish what it represented. There was, however, something in its obscured outlines which made an impression on him, and haunted his recollections of it. Knowing the dealer who had bought the pictures, he went a few weeks later to his shop, and, while looking at some other things, asked carelessly, 'What is that old dark panel there?' 'Oh, that,' replied the dealer, 'is good for nothing, beyond the wood on which the daub is painted. I am going to sell it to a cabinet-maker who wants to make tables out of it.' ' Macpherson bought it for a little more than pounds 1, smuggled it out of the country and sold it, years later, to the National Gallery.

'There was something in its obscured outlines which made an impression on him, and haunted his recollections' - a fine tribute, not only to Macpherson's perceptiveness but also to Michelangelo's draftsmanship. The story as a whole is a reproof to the two gentlemen who recently claimed that The Entombment is a minor Renaissance painting too deficient to have been painted by Michelangelo - claims which depend on eccentric notions both of Michelangelo and of deficiency, as indicated by the non-controversy which has so signally failed to rage following the non-event of their publication.

The Entombment was most certainly painted by Michelangelo, and even though it is unfinished it contains some of the most transcendently beautiful painting that he ever did.

'Making and Meaning: The Young Michelangelo', at the National Gallery is above all an occasion to reconsider The Entombment, his only altarpiece.

Bernard Berenson once and without ulterior motive described the picture as 'the quintessence of Michelangelo'. Perhaps no other of his works provides quite so stark a demonstration of the intense sensuality and spirituality that were so strongly and uniquely combined in him.

The oddity of the picture's composition has often been noted. The dead Christ, coiled round with winding sheets, has been hoisted into a slumped but upright position facing the viewer of the picture. Saint John (on the left), along with a figure thought to be one of the three Marys (on the right) and Joseph of Arimathea (behind) are carrying the body backwards up a flight of stairs to the tomb. The balletic symmetry of the two figures flanking Christ introduces a somewhat incongruous elegance to an extremely sombre scene. (There is a portent of the future here, perhaps; Leonardo da Vinci, when he saw Michelangelo's now lost cartoon for The Battle of Cascina, not far distant in date from The Entombment, detected in its ingenious variety of poses the seeds of Mannerism.) All this is less than convincing, if judged by the criterion of realism. The Entombment, however, is not a narrative painting but an iconic one, the job of which is to present, as matter for contemplation, the image of the body of the dead Saviour. The fact that it was intended as an altarpiece, with all the Eucharistic significance that implies, requires emphasis. This is a picture designed to be looked up at by the kneeling faithful during the celebration of Mass: a hushed, sacred image of the redeeming body of Christ, that same body which shall be ritually eaten and drunk in the form of bread and wine.

Only if you kneel before the picture and look up at it (you may receive some sharp looks, but the guards will not object) does its otherwise peculiar perspective make sense. The figure of Christ, seen from this angle, becomes both more monumental and more ethereal, a weightless spirit only just contained in flesh, who looks as though he may float effortlessly up into the heavens away from those who bear him. His feet hover just above the ground. This entombment has something of the ascension about it.

It is a relatively early work, but already Michelangelo is himself. He has disdainfully abandoned the fussiness and genteel horror vacui of his master, that painter of materialistic Nativities, Domenico Ghirlandaio. Although it belongs to a well-established genre, the Ostensio Christi or showing of the body of Christ, The Entombment is really an Ostensio Michelangelo: a showing of the painter, a revelation of his overriding preoccupation, the male nude.

The naked figure of Christ is so much its raison d'etre that it may explain why Michelangelo never finished The Entombment. It is difficult to see how he could have finished the painting without diluting its concentration on that single, sublime body. The system of checks and balances which he presumably intended to contain the other figures has clearly proven ineffective, and he has left off rather than elaborate them into the fatal distractions which they were fast becoming.

It has become customary to dismiss Benvenuto Cellini's assertion that Michelangelo never drew the male anatomy more beautifully than when he was a young man. But the figure of Christ in The Entombment suggests that Cellini may have been right: here is a body of tremendous sensual immediacy, painted with a delicacy and a strength of feeling beyond description, yet also one that is somehow abstracted and unreal. By comparison with it there is not another figure in Michelangelo's painted oeuvre which does not seem (however slightly) heavy or coarse.

It may be argued, of course, that by painting a figure who seems both so palpably human and so mysteriously divine, Michelangelo was only responding to theology and incarnating the most beautiful paradox of the Christian faith. But this is to ignore what it is, in Michelangelo's painting, that continues to move those of us who do not share that faith - the sheer weight of feeling that seems lodged within it, which in turn produces the conviction that it expresses a profound personal struggle.

Kenneth Clark wrote one of the subtlest descriptions of the tensions which may have formed Michelangelo, which also serves to describe the effect of The Entombment. 'Michelangelo, like the Greeks, was passionately stirred by male beauty . . . The passage of violent sensuous attachment into the realm of non-attachment, where nothing of the first compulsion is lost but much gained of purposeful harmony, makes his nudes unique.'

The distanced eroticism of Michelangelo's art showed itself, above all, in the rapt emphasis he placed on parts of the body which were not usually the conventional foci of sexual interest. Think of the outsize hand his David hangs by his side or the fingers of Adam, that lazy reclining river god reaching out to be animated by the sparking finger of the Almighty on the Sistine ceiling. He was also deeply affected by the line traced by the curve of the calf just beneath the knee. The eye is unaccountably drawn to this part of the body in his Bacchus and his Pieta and in the figure of the standing angel in the 'Manchester Madonna' - and it may not be entirely eccentric to find in the use of that same line, with its generous suggestion of pendulous flesh, an explanation of the mysteriously sensual character of the bulging stone steps in his great late architectural project, the staircase for the Laurentian Library.

The temptation to judge Michelangelo by these perhaps anachronistic standards is some measure of his greatness. Maybe the best clues to The Entombment's private significance are found in those two great sculptures which he carved shortly before he undertook the altarpiece: the slight, floppy-legged child-cum-Saviour, lying limply in the arms of his mother, that is his Vatican Pieta; and the dangerous, giddily drunk, cheap little rent-boy that is his Bacchus, the most vividly real and sexually vital creation in Michelangelo's entire oeuvre.

The Entombment seems to resolve the two sides of Michelangelo represented by the two sculptural masterpieces of his youth. Aside from the figure of Christ, the eye is only drawn for long to one other member of The Entombment's incomplete cast: the slightly louche, androgynous figure of St John, with his plump young voluptuary's face, who has the air of a Dionysus reluctantly brought to order. What might this indicate? A victory, perhaps, for the pious Michelangelo over the sensualist; for the religious, ascetic Michelangelo over the Michelangelo who was drawn to the pagan world of antiquity like a moth to a flame; for the pure Michelangelo over the erotic Michelangelo. In The Entombment, he subordinated the Bacchus of his fantasies to the Christ of his dreams.

Exhibition continues at the National Gallery, WC2, until 15 Jan 1995 (Photographs omitted)