An Italian Notebook VI
Bill Long 7/7/06
The Sistine Chapel--Last Judgment
Almost everything that could have been said about this huge fresco by Michelangelo on the wall behind the altar of the Sistine Chapel has probably been said, and so I won't worry about adding anything new to the discussion. Rather, I will tell you the impressions I felt while looking at this magnificent work of art on June 21. I was fortunate to be in the Sistine Chapel (so named because of the Pope--Sixtus IV--who commissioned the building of it) with a group that numbered no more than about 100 people, and so I had the leisure and relative freedom to wander through the Chapel. Of all the art work in the overloaded Chapel, my attention was drawn to the Last Judgment scene. It was the final piece of work completed in the Chapel, having been done by Michelangelo during the late 1530s (the earliest parts of the Chapel frescoes--on the two side walls--were completed in 1482).
Here, by the way, is a picture of the fresco. Savor it. I would like to speak briefly about the idea behind the piece--the Last Judgment in Christian Theology--as well as the depiction of Christ and other figures. Since I want to confine my thoughts to one essay, I will be very brief.
The Concept of the Last Judgment
The biblical idea, present in every part of the New Testament (Gospels, Epistles, Apocalypse), is that in the fulness of time Christ will return to judge the living and the dead. The majestic cadences of Revelation 20 and the more ominous tone of Matthew 25 give a refined and serious tone to the concept, but the New Testament mentions over and over again that those who are "in Christ" have nothing to fear regarding this judgment.
Indeed, it was this concept of what you might call the "comfort" of the Last Judgment which first informed my theological reflections as an Evangelical Christian. I recall committing the hymn "How Great Thou Art," to memory, the last verse of which begins: "When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation, to take me home, what joy shall fill my heart..." The Last Judgment, then, in Evangelical theology was one which filled the Christian with a sense of wondrous joy.
But a different tone suffuses Michelangelo's depiction of the last judgment. The dual tonalities I hear/see are those of power and fear. Christ is not the gentle savior leading the flocks by the flowing rivers. Instead, he is the powerful judge, ready to cast people into the outer darkness--represented in the fresco by the Greek mythological characters of the ferryman Charon and the judge Minos. Judgment day is not joyful day for Michelangelo. Amazing powers will be unleashed, and Christ will be the one doing the house-cleaning.
The Figures and Tone of the Fresco
Though many things about the fresco allure, the most arresting to me are the image of Christ, the movement of the figures and the final destiny of those judged. (1) Let me start with the sense of "movement" of the figures. Dozens of people are depicted in this fresco and they are, though frozen, moving in a dextrorotatory movement. I thought you might not be familiar with the word. Dextrorotatory is the "big word" for describing clockwise movement (levorotatory means "counterclockwise"). You should notice that the dead are "pulled up" from the ground on the left of the fresco (as you face it), clothed with resurrection bodies and then are moving upwards towards Christ. Those on Christ's left (our right) are those whom he may indeed plunge into the outer darkness of hell. Thus, I love the notion of movement in this supposedly "frozen" fresco. Not all the "movement" makes sense (i.e., some of the saints, such as Bartholomew are on the "left hand" of Christ, which in the Gospel of Matthew signifies those who will be sent to eternal death, but certainly the saints will not suffer this fate).
(2) The figure of Christ is the dominant figure in the fresco, even though he is not portrayed as "larger than life" or especially huge. This was perhaps my most interesting discovery upon examining the fresco more closely, since I had always thought of him as being a huge figure in the center. But he is no larger than some of the bodies on his right, even though he is set off from both collections of people by a sort of roundish, illuminated background. Notice that Mary his mother is looking away at his side (an interesting juxtaposition to the Pieta and other works where Mary is the strong one in the center of the action holding the lifeless Jesus), as if expressing the idea that she can't bear to look on those who will be damned and that she is powerless to change their fate.
Jesus draws our attention not only because of his strapping presence--indeed, you get the impression that he not only could consign people to hell by his word of power but, if push came to shove, he could, like Big John, "with a crushing blow from his huge right hand, send a Louisiana fellow to the Promised Land Big John"--but because of the position of his arms. Some interpreters see his raised right hand as "drawing up" the spirits from the grave, and his lowered left hand as "sending down" some spirits to hell, but I have a much more practical reading of it. Jesus looks to me exactly like a classical concert conductor the moment before the big note is played by the symphony. That is, Jesus in this picture reminded me of Seiji Ozawa, conductor of the Boston Symphony in the late 1970s and 1980s, who would before a dramatical burst of symphonic energy, wind himself up into a sort of corkscrew, with his right hand raised and his left hand down. When Ozawa would bring his right hand forward with lightning quickness, the orchestra would explode with a dramatic note. This is how I see Jesus---just about ready to explode with all the energy of a symphony conductor as he sends people to hell.
(3) Space doesn't permit a discussion of several of the individual figures, but I especially like Charon the boatman. The fact that Michelangelo populates hell with images of leading figures from classical mythology shows that he has learned his Dante well. Some even claim that he has "memorized" Dante and thus reflects that writer's approach to peopling hell. The reason I like Charon is that he is in the boat, with condemned souls, ready to clobber them over the head with his oar if they try to get out of the boat to save themselves. Very vivid.
After studying the Last Judgment for a while, I began to wonder once again (years after I have left the Evangelical faith), about the "truth" to which it points. No argument will make me believe in a Last Judgment. But Michelangelo might.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long