Last Judgments

Last judgments were a theme of many painters before Michelangelo 1536-1541 did his fresco in the Sistine Chapel. After he finished very few artists tried it.

Last judgments embody a number of themes.

Usually there are three elements: Christ in the act of judgment (either portrayed as dignified or vengeful); the left side of the work the elect proceeding to heaven (either with a struggle or a gentle passage); and the artist’s delight — the area or pit of the damned usually with monsters dragging them to a cauldron of fire or to a satanic monster’s jaws on the right.

Michelangelo’s Last Judgment is dark, dark, a gruesome brown, placed at the end of the chapel above cardinals while they celebrated mass. Michelangelo glorified the nude male body. This Last Judgment huge, accentuates motion with the dynamic Christ as centre.

This work requires real attention (and binoculars). There will always be a noisy crowd about you, tour guides in many languages growing louder in voice, while the Vatican guards admonish, “silenzio, silenzio, silenzio.”

Michelangelo eliminates the weighing of the souls. This was a theme where Satan and St. Michael jointly weighed souls in order to decide who wins and who loses. This is not in the bible but became part of early church sculpture.

Here the anguish of the cast off damned inspires horror.

The entire fresco is in motion, all pulsing from the unrelenting Judge Jesus whose mighty extended arm pushes the fresco. His hands keep hundred of figures circling. The blessed ascending, the damned falling. There is no Satan here, no hoofs nor tails nor pitchforks, no tortures of the damned but the meaning of Hell is frightfully clear. The lost soul in the lower right with hand over one eye, his half face in fear, horror and hopelessness, being pulled down by three demons.

Michelangelo's Last Judgment (detail)It is a melée of fierce struggles between angels and demons for new souls. The result depends on the relative force of the contesting angel and demon rather than on the state of the blessed soul. Fierce fights abound. On the lower right angels fight to keep demons down, demons drag down the damned Acheron River?? He has introduced Charon from Dante’s Divine Comedy who ferries the damned across the River Styx and oar whacks any cringing body within reach.

Needless to say this caused a furor.

Aretino, a notorious writer, gossip, scandalizer — a man of murky reputation, raged:

“I as one baptized am ashamed of the license, so harmful to the spirit, which you have adopted. How could you have shown impiety of religion in the foremost temple of God? Above the main altar of Jesus? What you have done would be appropriate in a voluptuous whorehouse, not in a supreme choir.”

But on another occasion the slippery Aretino defended the naked parts, by insisting “excessive freedom in the portrayal of nudity [was] a source of particular vexation to the Protestants.”

Daniele da Volterra a painter was called in to paint over nudes, and add loincloths.

Michelangelo's Last Judgment (detail)Biagio de Cesena was the papal master of ceremonies. He had tried to persuade the Pope to stop the painting of the Last Judgment, complaining that the nude figures were shamefully exposed fit only for public bath or tavern. Michelangelo’s revenge was depicting Cesena as Minos (the consummate emblem of evil), a Judge in Hades in Greek mythology. A great serpent curls around his legs among a heap of devils in Hell. The snake serpent bites Cesena’s penis.

His family pleaded with the Pope to paint him out. The Pope refused saying if Michelangelo had consigned him to Purgatory he could have helped but over Hell he had no power.

Michelangelo in performance and story is bigger than life. A recluse of a sort, a composer of sonnets, a solitary, constantly unwashed stocky man, broken nose, smelly smelly, with leggings virtually rotting.

The Sistine Chapel with its Last Judgment and ceiling is of course the chapel of the Pope. The tourists line up for three hours, proceed through endless Vatican memorabilia, all in Latin, of popes long past, maps incomprehensible. Then you reach the Room of Raphael, crowded, poor lighting and you are mentally shoved through to reach the ultimate goal, Capella Sistina. Once inside, a long refectory hall, huge and full of tourists. Signs say no cameras — everyone but everyone is clicking, flashing, whirring, blazing away and the rumble of talk swings up towards a crescendo, then with the constant admonition of the Swiss Vatican Guards imploring ‘silenzio’ the sound falls off a bit for a little then returns — a river rising. It’s all a mid-level circus.

Julian Porter at the Kunthistoriches Museum in ViennaI used to lecture in the Chapel having received a guide’s permit. I know not how, but I did, and crowds would congregate, timid fish, listening then darting to another group. If I were in good form, sonorous voice, I would get the outer fish for my whole tour. Rarely did the cheapies ever tip and I had studied the huge tomes of deTolnay which are still in my cottage — four huge black volumes of concentrated wisdom.

I have come across three views of this vast enterprise.

Paul Johnson’s view was that it is a huge work and all the artists of the time must have collectively heaved a sigh of relief, “Well that’s done, we don’t have to try it.” or thoughts to that effect.

Vasari represents the epitome of ultimate unfettered exultation:

But the man who bears the palm of all ages, transcending and eclipsing all the rest, is the divine Michelangelo Buonarroti, who is supreme not in one art only but in all three at once. He surpasses not only all those who have, as it were, surpassed nature, but the most famous ancients also, who undoubtedly surpassed her…

The purpose of this remarkable man was none other than to paint the most perfect and well-proportioned composition of the human body in the most various attitudes and to show the emotions and passions of the soul, displaying his superiority to all artists in his great style, his nudes, and his knowledge of the difficulty of design. He has thus facilitated art in its principal object, the human body, and in seeking this end alone he has neglected charming coloring, fancies, new ideas with details and elegances, which many other painters do not entirely neglect, perhaps not without reason. Thus some, perhaps not so grounded in design, have tried varied and new inventions with divers tints, light and dark colours, hoping to win a place among the first masters. But Michelangelo, firmly founded in the profundity of art, has shown the true road to perfection to all who have sufficient knowledge … [Goldwater and Treves, Artists on Art, Pantheon Books, NY, 1972, pp. 98-99]

However, René Gimpel captures the third view, more subtle but perhaps closer to the mark:

October 23, 1922:
The Sistine Chapel is chaos, but an ordered chaos. Michelangelo, faced with a broad arched ceiling, created with his brush the illusion of beams or rather of vast stone masonry divided in a kind of colossal, highly architectonic trellis with a multitude of comparatively small rectangles, through which the sky may just be glimpsed, since these rectangles are filled with so many huge figures that the corners of blue are rare.

I tried to see the lyricism which painters and writers have found here. Michelangelo bowls us over like children, but I rebel and refuse to find this work gigantic just because I see giants, however strapping! The artist allows us no repose; it’s a torment, and an eternal torment is not part of our souls and therefore does not exist in nature. Thirty years later, he painted the great fresco at the back, The Last Judgment, in which his faults were aggravated; it’s an explosion of flesh. Michelangelo’s paintings are like a cannonade. I think, in contrast, of Puvis de Chavannes, of that silent creator whose every picture is a prayer. Yes, Michelangelo’s painting is find because Michelangelo is a powerful draftsman and a prodigious technician; but his work, being essentially profane, would have been more in place in an ancient temple, where the divinities were always an enlargement of man. Michelangelo was a romantic in the manner of Victor Hugo, but without his contrasts. He has raised himself above mankind, above his fellows; but he has not established contact with the mystical forces which should have been essential in a place like this. His contemporaries no longer understood such things, and Michelangelo lacked the genius to reforge the links of the divine chain. Perhaps aware of his impotence, he sought to achieve his end by painting on a large scale; at all events, he has managed to dazzle us from that day to this, and for a long time to come.

I think today I’ve seen evidence which supports my statement: I have never heard noise in a Gothic church, but here the visitors passing through unleash a deafening hubbub. They’re responding to Michelangelo.

… Michelangelo at least has his sense of the colossal, which always amazes us, plus an astonishing vision of architecture.

… Michelangelo has covered his surface so well, his giants match so effectively the scale of the architecture, that his compositions form a decorative whole. [Gimpel, Diary of an Art Dealer, Universe Books, NY, 1987, pp. 187-188]

Julian Porter at the Kunthistoriches Museum in ViennaToday’s tourist many of whom are ignorant of religion, are not quite as silent in a Gothic cathedral as in Gimpel’s time of 1922, but he has a point. The Sistine Chapel rarely entertains whispers.

In September of 2008 I again visit the Sistine Chapel. How many times is this? At least 12.

It has been cleaned and what was once muddy layers of brown from Candle smoke is now blue, a bright blue which is mentally inconsistent with damnation.

It was Pope Paul III who actually pushed the project. Michelangelo had been paid to complete Julius II’s tomb with 36 sculptures. Julius II’s nephew, a warrior with a reputation of violence, was demanding completion of the tomb.

Paul III (a portrait in Naples Museum of Capodimonte by Titian shows a frail furtive pope hunched in his chair encircled by two avaricious nephews whispering self-serving smears) recognized Michelangelo was frightened of Julius’ nephew. He visited Michelangelo’s house near Trojan’s forum with about a dozen cardinals asking to see Michelangelo’s preparatory cartoons of the Last Judgment. The pope was impressed and he successfully negotiated with Julius’ nephew (Francesco Maria Della Rovera, Duke of Urbino) about the tomb. He assigned to Michelangelo a lifetime salary of 1200 gold scudi to be paid from income from transit tolls on the Po River near Piacenza.

The Pope’s fiefdom of Rome suffered immense humiliation and ruin from Charles V of Spain, who sacked Rome in 1527. Henry VIII had impulsively quit the church and Martin Luther’s message was eating away.

So the Popes decided that the church had to respond with grand works.

Michelangelo’s self-portrait as the dangling skin held by St. Bartholomew looking reproachfully at Christ, I suppose asking him if he, Michelangelo, should be saved or fall. At this time Michelangelo was depressed, revealed in his sonnets. He felt hard done by:

Here I am poor and alone
enclosed like a pith in its rind
or like a spirit holed up in a decanter
and my dark tomb allows little flight …
About the exit are dung heaps of giants

Melancholy is my joy
I have a voice like a hornet in an oil jar
coming from a leathern cask and
a halter of bones

My face has a shape which
     strikes terror
Precious art, in which for a while
     I enjoyed such renown
has left me in this state
Poor, old and a slave in
     others’ power
I am undone if I do not die soon.

Ouch. But he did die a rich man.

The most striking part of this Last Judgment is the lower right where the ferry man Charn and the serpent coiled Minos of Divine Comedy hedge in cringing, humbling, shreaking, individuals. Each has a distinct face, almost a personality. In other Judgments the arena of hell meets the damned in a squirming blob.

Michelangelo saw Luca Signorelli’s 1503 The Last Judgment in Capella della Madonna di S. Brizio, Orvieto Cathedral.

Julian Porter at the Kunthistoriches Museum in ViennaOrvieto is a balanced town, propped on a hill over valleys north of Rome. The square before the cathedral is an ideal square for sitting and watching the setting sun reflect — on the pink façade of this Italian cathedral enlivened by dark green strips of marble and a galaxy of carvings, representing annunciations, judgments, seasons of the year, gargoyles, the whole medieval works.

Inside Signorelli has produced a startling fresco of wrestling athletic nudes enmeshed in a torrent of athletic lust and gymnastics. The most mesmerising part is where the dead rise through the earth, growing to the call of the judgment to receive a new spiritual body to replace the physical bodies worn out by earthly life. Spooky, solitary, the figures gingerly emerge, all in a ghostly grey green, their skin a yellow ivory. It portrays the sudden gust of unexpected life.

The mural is fresh, complex, colourful, full of unbridled energy and of such quality Michelangelo cribbed from it.

Julian Porter at the Kunthistoriches Museum in ViennaThe damned in Hell are caught in a cacophony of feverish angst, pushed by purple and green assed devils, gleefully shoving, yanking, twisting, strangling the wicked down. A dense riot. The ‘chosen’ have a yellow, very still and slow motion ascent, frozen, yet about to move. They have vigorous perfect bodies possibly reflecting the age of Christ at the time of his execution, a sign of the perfection of the resurrected and transfigured body.

Critics are not kind to this work but I am enthralled by it. All the torturing devils are strong and powerful, the victims in the prime of life, the women beautiful and sexually attractive without any sense of sin which medieval works gave to wicked women, a downcast look, a cringing — not here.

Signorelli was more interested in the theatrical than the theological. Some critics describe it: ‘Anatomical exhibition infused with homo-eroticism and sexual sadism could be a concise description of the work.’

Take his treatment of Signorelli, whose memory he revered as that of a kinsman who had encouraged him in his youth:

Luca Signorelli, an excellent painter … was considered more famous in Italy in his time and his works were more highly praised than had happened to anyone at any period before, because in his paintings, he demonstrated the way of representing nudes which, albeit with skill and difficulty, can be made to appear alive. He was the follower and disciple of Piero della Francesca and made a great effort in his youth to imitate and even to surpass his master. … In … Orvieto … he painted all the stories of the end of the world with bizarre and capricious inventions, angels, demons, ruins, earthquakes, miracles of the Antichrist and many other similar things; moreover nudes, foreshortened figures and very beautiful ones, imagining the terror of that last and tremendous day. Hence he aroused the mind of all those who came after him who therefore found the difficulties of that style easy. I am therefore not surprised that the works of Luca [Signorelli] were always highly praised by Michelangelo, nor that some things in [Michelangelo’s] Last Judgment were partly gently lifted out of Luca’s inventions, for instance, angels, demons, the order of the heavens and other things in which Michelangelo imitated the procedure of Luca as everyone can see … [Gombrich on the Renaissance, Vol. 3: The Heritage of Appelles, Phaidon Press, London, 1976, p. 117]

The Damned consigned to Hell has a pronounced cruelty beyond even the medieval depictions of Hell in church sculpture. Here colourful shimmering demons, satyr goat-like hairy athletic bodies cheerfully strangle, throw the rejects to the Hell fire, all under a cloud supporting three armed angels who look thoroughly pleased about the cleaning up operation.

In the Anti-Christ portion of the Last Judgment Signorelli inserted a portrait of Savonarola, the priest, being enflamed by Satan who is whispering in his ear.

Savonarola arrived in Florence in the summer of 1489. Now aged thirty-seven, he was a rather short, slender man, with deeply lined brow, hooked nose and prominent lips. What struck people most were his burning grey-green eyes under bushy dark eyebrows. His gestures in the pulpit were vehement, but the hands that made them were long, thin and translucent. … [Vincent Cronin, The Florentine Renaissance, Collins, U.K., 1967, p. 269]

I find the athletic bodies graceful. Others view them as mere cartoons.

The first painter to move beyond medieval stylization and general images was Giotto. He banished lifelessness from art.

In 1303 Giotto painted the Arena Chapel in Padua, the Cappella degli Scrovegni, a chapel donated by a money lender, Scrovegni.

Giotto's Last JudgmentGiotto’s Last Judgment in the chapel is an important fresco in the evolution of this topic. Christ is a serious, kindly, almost patient man. This is not a portrait of threat.

The part that interests is Hell and Satan eating the damned and defecating the sinners. Satan is a potbellied ape with horns, wild whiskers sprouting around the partially eaten bum of a nude sinner being gobbled. Out the bottom of this Satan plops a blond headed sinner clean as a whistle surrounded by a furry taloned flesh swallowing serpent.

There are four caverns of Hell passages surrounded by fire. Disembowelled men hang from a tree, a man hangs by his penis. There are actual portraits of existing machines of torture such as the spine roller. It hurts just to look at it.

Countless hairy devils grab, torture, beat, rape, spear hapless victims. Hell is not for sissies.

My favourite Last Judgment is by Tintoretto 1562 at the church Madonna dell’ Orto in Venice. It is huge — 1450 x 590 cm. The church is open occasionally so one must check the hours of admittance. It is close to Tintoretto’s house in the northern most area of Venice.

Tintoretto's Last JudgmentThis painting is hard to explain. Sometimes you must put coins in a light box to illuminate this immense canvas. When the light comes on for a minute or two you must look very hard. Time is money.

Tintoretto of course painted quickly with a method known as prestezza — a series of rapid brush strokes, some feet long.

The overall feeling is that this immense canvas cannot cope with this tumult, this rambling, roaring descent of bodies in a deluge.

In the lower part a waterfall over a slippery concave half tunnel serves as a catchment area for the slipping, sliding, rocking damned sucked to black shadowy creatures and below that the beginning of a crematorium. Some on the left are ascending to the top haven of safety and grace but it is all a whirling struggle.

The lower right is a mad retreat down to the body chocked hell, no fire, it’s too wet.

Venice must always curse excess water and here the floor or deluge of the Bible seems to be the central driving force.

There is no justice here, just a rush for the exit. All motion and divine justice just punishes, by sucking down the sinners, and the virtuous escape by edging up the left hand side sometimes met by tumbling bodies.

This is a concerted wet rage.

Last Judgment
Giorgio Vasari
Florence, Duomo

You climb up to the Dome, to reach the apex of all of Florence. The climb is a relatively claustrophobic ascent, round, round, round, round, up, up, looking at the intricate groins and lattice brick work in the interior walls, the occasional look out over Florence. At the end you are at the precise foot of Vasari’s vast work — you can touch the bottom (except there is a plastic cover on the bottom). The Judgment occupies the whole dome. This is novel because your head is adjacent to the bottom fresco part, all in a quick sketch form, it has a cartoon slash quality in oversize, therefore the touch.

Vasari’s Last Judgment has not received critical praise but it is breathtaking in its audacity. The lower circle of Hell around your head is a wonderful frolic with pokers placed in every sinner’s orifice; black cocks, six titted women. It is a “must see” because after an exhausting climb it illustrates precisely what fresco painting is about, far far above the distant nave. It is only Vasari’s ring of Hell which is a stunner, the top two circles of the saints and angels are ringed bores.

However, there are cherubs peeking out from under the robe of the athroned Christ.

There is a leering beast, 7 headed serpents, chewing at sinners and spitting out skeletons.

Other reprobates are pitch-forked to Hell.

October 2, 2008