A self-portrait by the Renaissance genius Michelangelo has been discovered in his final painting, the Crucifixion of Saint Peter in the Vatican's Pauline Chapel, it emerged last night.
Maurizio De Luca, the Vatican's head of paintings restoration, said the finding, possibly the only clear Michelangelo self-portrait in existence, was "extraordinary and moving", and was given extra poignancy by appearing in the artist's last painted work.
Tantalising evidence of the find began to emerge during a major restoration, started in 2004, of the Crucifixion of Saint Peter and the other Michelangelo fresco in the chapel, the Conversion of Saint Paul. Until then, no one had suspected who the figure in the top left-hand corner of the work might be. But as the five-year, £3m restoration progressed, scholars began to wonder if it could be the artist himself. And when they compared the facial features to those of portraits of Michelangelo by other artists, the conclusion was inescapable.
"What has emerged is a later Michelangelo work seen in a new light, a work which marked the end of his painting, as he dedicated himself to sculpture and architecture," said Mr De Luca. He said that after months' of research and discussion with some of the world's leading art experts he was convinced the artist had painted his life-like image on the fresco, which he created between 1545 and 1550.
The figure identified as the artist is one of three horsemen in the picture. Michelangelo is depicted wearing a blue turban of lapis lazuli blue.
Mr De Luca said the plaintive intensity of the facial features, together with similarities in dress and physiognomy with contemporary depictions of Michelangelo, had convinced him and his colleagues. "Having spoken with people like Cristina Acidini and Giorgio Bonsanti of Florence University, I do believe this is Michelangelo," he said.
Mr Bonsanti told La Repubblica newspaper: "The blue turban is a very strong indication because it's very typical of the hats worn by sculptors to keep the powder off themselves."
Until recently, some art historians had suggested that the bearded figure in the bottom, right-hand side of the fresco, with his arms crossed, was Michelangelo. Mr De Luca said this idea had now been comprehensively dismissed. The only other generally accepted self-portrait of Michelangelo appears in his most famous work, the monumental Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, which he created between 1534 and 1541. This rather grotesque image, however, represents the artist's features on the flayed skin of a man held by Saint Bartholomew.
Michelangelo Buonarroti, who lived from 1475 until 1564, and made colossal contributions to painting, sculpture and architecture, is widely regarded as the greatest artistic genius the world has seen.