Hailed as one of the most important shows of recent years, the Ashmolean Museum’s exhibition of Raphael drawings last year offered a tantalising view into the mind of a genius.

The art historian Andrew Graham Dixon described it as one of his favourites of the past 20 years and its curator Prof Catherine Whistler last week received a Global Fine Art Award for her work on the show.

Art-lovers may have been surprised to learn that many of the drawings on show came from the Ashmolean’s own collection. And it is not only masterpieces by Raphael which lie protected from damaging light in its Western Art Print Room. The museum also has a world class collection of drawings by another Renaissance master – Michelangelo.

On show until April 2, some of that work can be seen mounted, framed and on display in a beautifully curated display showing the development of his artistic eye and love of all things spiritual and temporal.

The 26 drawings have just returned from New York where they were a central feature of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, called Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer – which is an apt description for the work on show here.

The sketches range from fully formed portraits and architectural drawings to studies for greater works, such as his paintings for the Sistine Chapel.

“These 26 pictures from our amazing collection give an insight into who Michelango was as an artist and individual,” says Prof Catherine Whistler, head of Western Art at the Ashmolean.

Many of the drawings are on scraps of paper, some beside snatches of poetry, rough sketches and even doodles by his students – all of which bring us closer to Michelangelo the man.

It is a miracle they survive at all. Raphael was known for destroying his drawings and studies – frequently burning bonfires of his work.

“Michelangelo probably wouldn’t want us to see this as representing his ideas,” says Prof Whistler. “He wouldn’t want this to dilute or pollute our understanding of his work. He was a perfectionist but also melancholic and solitary. And he is deeply spiritual – constantly thinking of his own sinfulness, the grace of God and his yearning for salvation.”

A highpoint is The Crucifiction, which demonstrates the artist’s incredible knowledge of anatomy in its study of muscle tone and human form. It also presents a tantalising mystery, as to the identity of the individuals flanking Christ, who do nor look like the traditional figures of the Baptist and Madonna we might expect.

“You can see him changing his mind,” says Prof Whistler. “It seems to be highly personal.”

Other masterpieces include the beautifully featured Ideal Head and a sketch of a dragon which appears to be strangling itself. Thought to have been a joke, a satire on art itself, perhaps, its sinuous form overlays vignettes believed to have been done by his students. How do we know? “Because they are not very good!” laughs Prof Whistler. “He has an affectionate relationship with people who want to be artists but are not very good or artistic friends. He is a very contradictory character.”

She adds: “Raphael died aged 37, cut off in his prime, but Michelangelo lived until he was 89 and had a great sense of himself. He is such a complex artist but seeing these drawings, you’ll feel close to him as an artist in the act of creation – but also as a spiritual man.”

He was a Florentine, and Florence was a great centre for ideas about drawing and design, and his family believed they were noble, which is another reason he destroyed so many designs

“While Raphael was someone who wanted to train up people to work in his manner, Michelangelo did not.

One of the most outstanding and celebrated artists of all time, Michelangelo (1475–1564) was known and praised in his own lifetime as a brilliant draughtsman. The drawings on view, which have survived the centuries, reflect his wide-ranging career as a painter, sculptor, architect and designer. As well as inventive sketches, the artist made drawings as independent works of art for patrons or as gifts to intimate friends. A particularly beautiful and haunting image, the Ideal Head, is a warm-toned red chalk drawing of an intense, brooding figure made around 1518–20, probably as a gift from an artist who was also a poet. Here Michelangelo’s handling ranges widely from the sketchily indicated costume to subtle tonal modelling of the features and fine details like the silhouetted eyelashes. From later in his career comes another highlight, a Crucifixion with distraught mourning figures, made in the mid-1550s as part of a series of drawings on this subject. At this time Michelangelo explored themes of torment, repentance and salvation in both his poetry and art, and the passion of Christ had special devotional significance for him. The Ashmolean drawing is highly worked and imbued with emotion: the tremulous repetition of the outlines and the brushing over of corrections with white lead give it both a hesitant, tentative quality and almost visionary radiance.

Amongst the twenty-six drawings on display are architectural designs; studies for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the Medici Tombs; and the great religious subjects of high Renaissance art such as the Pietà and the Descent from the Cross.

The Met has now loaned eighteen exceptionally important paintings to the Ashmolean for our spring exhibition AMERICA’S COOL MODERNISM: O’KEEFFE TO HOPPER. With the return of the Michelangelo drawings to Oxford, the Ashmolean wishes to give its own museum visitors the opportunity to see them before they rest from the light in the Print Room. They will be on show to the public in a special display for just four weeks.