by John Finlay
For the principle of the painting is this: Those who do
not know their letters shall read from it – and again.
The picture shall take the place of the book.
Summoning Michelangelo to the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican in 1535, Pope Clement VII, Giulio de’ Medici, gave the artist an astonishing commission that would crown his earlier biblical scenes (unveiled on All Saint’s Day, October 1512): a colossal fresco of the Guidizio Universale, The Last Judgement on the alter wall of the Sistine Chapel (and completed in 1541). In Christian tradition, The Last Judgement represents the moment when Christ returns to earth to judge the souls of the living and dead accordingly, to deliberate their right or wrong doing, good or evil acts. While the just ascend to heaven, the damned are cast into hell to suffer unending torment, and the composition itself, held within the curve of two arches, appropriately resembles the shape of the luchot, the tablets of Hebrew law, and better know to us as the Ten Commandments.
In the ethereal reaches of the painting, the objects of Christ’s martyrdom including the cross, spear of destiny, crown of thorns and the column on which he was flagellated, are borne by the weight of cherubs and angels who wrestle with the instruments of the Passion as if undecided whether to bring them down to earth or up to heaven. The ambiguity of Michelangelo’s illusionistic devices sets a standard determining the whole painting depicting a battle for the saved and the damned, for righteous and lost souls. Those true, holy and angelic beings form a circle around Mary and the central Christ figure, justly rewarded in the afterlife and a divine place bestowed upon all righteous people by a loving god.
Yet Michelangelo’s Christ has come to judge in the harshest possible terms. Even Mary, traditionally “full of grace” and according to Dante Alighieri, “virgin mother, daughter of thy son, lowest and loftiest of created stature”,[ii] turns away from Christ’s severe adjudication. Below Mary and the blessed a tempest rages amongst a swell human figures where the resurrection of the good is demonstrated by means of sinew and bone returning to the bodies of the humble and faithful. Those desperately scrambling up to heaven, hauled back by demons, but saved by the prevailing angels, represent the tussle for souls. Christ himself, a classical Apollonian/Herculean figure, cuts a sway through the crowd, and with his raised arm like the scythe of a reaper he stands to command the dead to life and condemn unworthy to the pits of hell: “Because he hath appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.”[iii]
With his raised right arm Christ brings human history to an end “and before him gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats.”[iv] While Saint Peter returns the keys governing heaven and earth, Saint Bartholomew holds the skin and knife of his martyrdom, the face on the flayed carcass none other than Michelangelo. In a poem to Tommaso Cavalieri of 1534-38, the artist imagined himself as vulgar serpent shedding its skin and likening himself to a soul discarding its body in hope of resurrection:
Would that my destiny wished the same for me as regards my lord: that I might clothe his living skin with my dead skin, so that, as a serpent sloughs on a stone, I might through death change my condition.[v]
In the lower regions of the fresco, beneath trumpeting angels beckoning to the dead, devils drag wicked souls down to everlasting condemnation. Ushered into the darkened caverns of hell, the mythical figure Charon ferries the damned in his bark across the River Styx (or Acheron) towards fire and brimstone. This famous scene is that of Dante’s L’Inferno where “Charon, his eyes red like a burning brand, thumps with his oar the lingerers that delay, and rounds them up, and beckons with his hand.”[vi] Most horrifying of all is the sight of a battle on the right where angry angels attack and batter the most foulest of souls, beating them back down to hell as punishment for the worst sins and vices. Greed and simony (exchanging ecclesiastical titles for monies) described in great detail in Dante’s L’ Inferno was particularly deplored by Michelangelo whose poem of 1512 espouses contemporary values and ideas attacking the church and Vatican for practising corruption and heresies:
Here from chalices helmets and swords are made; the blood of Christ is sold by the bucketful; his cross and thorns are lances and shields – and still Christ shows patience.[vii]
Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement was undoubtedly inspired by the poetry of Dante, but equally influenced by Petrarch’s Canzoniere (1443-1474), which like L’Inferno, denounced the practice of selling apostolic positions to the highest bidder and the general hypocrisy surrounding the Vatican hierarchy:
Fountain of grief, house of iniquities,
Heresy’s temple, school where errors dwell,
No longer Rome, but Babylon false and fell,
Cause of so many tears, so many sighs;
O cruel prison, burning forge of lies,
Where good expires, evils feed and swell,
Only some miracle, O living hell,
Can save you from the coming wrath of Christ.
Founded in chaste and humble poverty,
Against your founders now you lift your horns,
impudent whore: where have you placed your hope?
in those who share your foul adultery?
or your ill-gotten wealth? Now Constantine
will stay where he belongs, and not return.[viii]
The Last Judgement and the Sistine ceiling cycle might hence be understood in this way: the beginning and end of salvation, history of the world and the “eternal city”, but through Christ’s message and fulfilment of “eternal life”, Rome and the Vatican are freed from heathenism, corruption and hypocrisy. Historians have always insisted that Michelangelo consistently felt tormented and exploited by the Vatican Popes, and that the artist’s ageing state of mind was convinced that there were more evil than good souls within its walls: “my house set here among such rich palaces.”[ix] Perhaps, then, Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement was his final act of pleading for the soul of the Christian church, and the artist did indeed give greater credence to the damned precipitating into hell’s dark pits than highlighting those of righteous ascending into God’s grace. Whilst a figure depicting ‘remorse’ suffers the bite of a demon (‘morso’ means to be bitten in Italian) and realises the immensity of his sins, others, including a man carrying a bag of full of money and another being dragged down by his testicles (and biting off his hand in the process) possibly represent greed and lust. The keys dangling from one tormented soul seem indicative of the corruption and confusion behind the doors of the Vatican in Michelangelo’s era and, most notably, a commission overseen by a succession of, if cultured, unpopular, treacherous, cruel and greedy Papal rulers. Similarly, in the bottom right hand section of the painting is the soul of Biagio de Cesena, (Pope Paul III’s master of ceremonies and second in command) being crushed and bitten on the genitals by a huge serpent. He is also portrayed as King Minos – lover of gold, miser and misanthrope: an insidious figure acquiescing eternal damnation.
The Last Judgement was clearly inspired by classical mythology, poetry, philosophy, religion and politics. The poetics of Dante, Petrarch were especially important to Michelangelo’s fresco cycle, and perhaps even the arcane writings of the Kabbalah.[x] However, there is an undeniably personal touch to the tragic programme of The Last Judgement where woeful beings are weighed down by the burden of their fate. Even the shed skin symbolising the artist’s own soul hangs in the balance from the hand of an undecided Saint who questions Christ as whether to allow him to rise with the saved or elapse with the fallen. The macabre self-portrait is undeniably a reflection of the entire composition: for the design morphs into a huge skull (Golgotha?) made up of writhing figures and to the faithful the darkest moment in the history of humankind. Not surprisingly, the finality it portrays corresponds directly with Michelangelo’s philosophical and pictorial vision of hell, of a “face fit to terrify”[xi] the perfidious.
[i] Alexander Rauch, ‘Painting of the High Renaissance and Mannerism in Rome and Central Italy’, in The Art of The Italian Renaissance: Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Drawing, Rolf Toman (ed.) Ullmann & Köneman, 2007, ‘Michelangelo’, pp. 316-331 [p. 329].
[ii] The Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Cantica III, Paradise (Il Paradiso), Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds, Penguin Books, Sussex, England, 1962 , ‘The Celestial Rose – St Bernard’s Prayer’, Canto XXXIII, 4, p. 343.
[iii] The Holy Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998, ‘The Acts of the Apostles’, 17, 31, p. 190.
[iv] The Holy Bible, St. Matthew: ‘The Last Judgment’, 26, 31 and 32, p. 41.
[v] Michelangelo: The Poems, Edited and Translated by Christopher Ryan, J.M. Dent, London, 1996, ‘Sonnet for Tommaso Cavalieri’, c. 1535, sonnet, 94, p. 91.
[vi] The Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Cantica I, Hell (L’ Inferno), Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1949 , ‘Passage of Acheron – The Damned: Charon’, Canto III, 109, p. 88.
[vii] Michelangelo: The Poems, ‘Sonnet for Giovanni da Pistoia’, 1512, sonnet 10, p. 10.
[viii] Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), Canzoniere: Selected Poems, Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Anthony Mortimer, Penguin Books, London England, 2002, ‘Part One’, 138, 5-10, p. 75.
[ix] Michelangelo: The Poems, ‘Sonnet for Giovanni da Pistoia’, sonnet 267, Capitolo, 1546-50, p. 221.
[x] Benjamin Blech and Roy Doliner, The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo’s Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican, HarperOne, New York, 2008, especially Chapter 15, ‘Secrets of The Last Judgment,’ pp. 248-272.
[xi] Michelangelo: The Poems, sonnet 267, p. 219.