Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Passing Judgment

On this date in 1541, Michelangelo unveiled his epic painting of The Last Judgment to the world, completing the work he began six years before. When I stepped into the Sistine Chapel years ago, I almost got whiplash trying to take in both The Last Judgment and the ceiling frescos all at once. Some people complain about the boldness of the colors after the 1993 restoration (as seen above), but I think that the boldness of the colors is perfectly in tune with the audacious composition and humanism that Michelangelo painted onto every inch of his mural.

Any discussion of The Last Judgment must start with the star of the show, Jesus Christ in majesty, separating the saved from the damned. However, instead of the bearded, early Ted Nugent-variety Christ common to Christian iconography today, here is a clean-shaven, nearly nude savior, the fresh-faced youth of Greek and Roman classical humanist ideals. Michelangelo’s Christ fully embodies the incarnation here, as real and as physical as those upon whom he passes judgment. Unfortunately, this rampant, exuberant humanism was too much for the generations after the Renaissance, who placed fig leaves upon the nude figures, ashamed of the human sexuality that Christ himself assumed unashamedly. Today, those fig leaves are gone, thankfully, even if the Church itself suffers from that old time sexual repression.

Michelangelo’s humor comes through in the image of St. Bartholomew holding his own flayed skin (above), one of the bizarre iconographic representations of saints in Christian art in which they brandish the means of their own martyrdom. The flayed skin is a Michelangelo's self-portrait. St. Bartholomew is reportedly modeled after one of Michelangelo’s harshest critics. “You flayed me while I was alive,” Michelangelo allegedly told the angered critic when he recognized himself as St. Bartholomew. “Now you’ll flay me for all eternity.” Even in the midst of the apocalypse, Michelangelo takes the time to show his lighter side.

What always strikes me about detail shots of The Last Judgment is the personalized psychology of each figure. Each saint and sinner acts out their own personal drama in the larger tableau and could stand alone as an entire independent work of art. The damned figure above ranks among my favorites, even though it’s easily lost in the cast of seemingly thousands flitting about. He covers one eye in fear of judgment while hopefully keeping the other eye open. Or maybe that other eye remains open in sheer fascination at the horror around him as Hell gapes open to accept the souls destined to go there. Either way, it’s impossible to take your eyes off The Last Judgment, especially in person, something that I’m sure was as true 466 years ago as it is today.

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