The show draws its name from these two contrasts: the sacred and the profane, meaning mortal or earthly.
Spikes writes that the jarring contrasts are intended to suggest that "that the opposite face of mortal beauty is the danger of submitting to sensual pleasures and, ultimately, destruction."
The "Madonna and Child," separated by a panel from the rest of the exhibit, is a showstopper as well. It depicts a muscular infant at the breast of his mother, who is looking away from the child. The Madonna is drawn sparingly with black chalk, while the child's torso is highlighted with red chalk, appearing very much like polished marble.
"She looks very remote," Spike said. "She's not supposed to look with foreboding with what is to come."
Spike said the iconography is personal to Michelangelo.
"He seems to have suffered from the loss of his mother at age 5 and because of this alienation — or the disappearing mother — he does this three times in different sculptures," Spike said.
While the "Madonna and Child" and "Cleopatra" are studies in sensuality, many of the other drawings rendered in pen, ink and chalk are dizzying in their complex geometry: the fortifications for the gates of Florence; the facade for the church of San Lorenzo, which was never built; and the plan for the Church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini in Rome, which again was never realized.
The work represents Michelangelo's "tormented middle decades of his life," Spike said. The period included the Protestant Reformation, turmoil among the pope-producing Medici family and the sacking of Rome. At one point, fearing for his life, Michelangelo went into hiding as his fellow Florentines were executed.
"It's possible," Ragionieri said, "if you begin from the beginning to follow the life of Michelangelo to the last moment. They are the most wonderful drawings."
Michelangelo spent the final 30 years of his life in Rome. He died in 1564.
A parallel exhibit at the Muscarelle is "A Brush with Passion: Mattie Preti." It will feature 15 paintings on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the artist's birth.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sszkotakap.
If You Go...
MICHELANGELO: SACRED AND PROFANE, MASTERPIECE DRAWINGS FROM THE CASE BUONARROTI: Muscarelle Museum of Art, campus of The College of William & Mary, www.wm.edu/muscarelle. Open Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, noon-4 p.m. Admission: $15. Exhibit on view Feb. 9-April 14 before moving to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, April 21-June 30.