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Typically one thinks of Advent as a time to prepare for Christ's Second Coming, since the readings of that season focus our attention, not only on the coming of Christ incarnate at Christmas, but also on the return of Christ at the end of time. Considering the fact that Lent is a season to reflect on the role of sin in our lives, and its effect on our relationships with God and one another, I believe this, too, is a good time to ponder the mystery of Christ's parousia. In order to do so, I offer part of a paper I wrote on Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" for our Christian Iconography class at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology. The following excerpt deals with some of the artistic and Scriptural sources that influenced Michelangelo as he painted the altarpiece that now inspires so many visitors to the Sistine Chapel in Rome:
Anyone who has seen Luca Signorelli’s fresco of The Resurrection at the cathedral in Orvieto will notice a resemblance to Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. In both works, the dead emerge from the earth with great difficulty, some still buried to the waist, others as skeletal figures half-clothed in flesh. This is no coincidence. In his book on Michelangelo, Howard Hibbard writes that “in the scenes of punishment and damnation, no less than in the scenes of resurrection, Michelangelo was notably influenced by Luca Signorelli’s famous series of frescoes in Orvieto depicting the end of the world” and that “the images of skeletons clothing themselves with flesh and of the torments of the damned are surely indebted to Signorelli.”1 Art historian Antonio Forcellino agrees, noting that Signorelli’s work had a profound impact on Michelangelo, particularly in regards to the demons at the bottom right of the painting. He states that, “while Giotto in Padua and Buffalmacco in Pisa depicted devils as creatures alien to the human world, Michelangelo followed the example of Signorelli in the San Brizio Chapel in Orvieto and the sculptures on the façade of that cathedral, where the devils are depicted as a slight degeneration of men and the angels.”2 In addition to Signorelli’s influence, Forcellino asserts that, “Michelangelo was undoubtedly very impressed by the depictions [of the Last Judgment] in the Florentine Baptistery and the Cemetery in Pisa, both of which were distinctive for their aggressive and monumental emotive force,”3 while Hibbard points out that Michelangelo’s portrayal of Christ, “is like an antique hero-god…developed from the figure of Jupiter in one of the Cavalieri drawings.”4
Although it’s clear that Michelangelo owes a great deal to Signorelli and Cavalieri, one cannot assume that Michelangelo’s imagination was stirred by the work of these artists alone. Literary sources, such as Sacred Scripture, also played a role. For example, the seven angels blowing trumpets beneath Christ’s feet are a reference to the Book of Revelation, according to Ascanio Condivi, one of Michelangelo’s biographers.5 In chapters 8, 9, and 11 of the Book of Revelation, the author – who tradition holds to be John the Beloved Disciple – has a vision of seven angels with seven trumpets. As each angel blows its trumpet, a different disaster strikes the earth. Despite the fact that Michelangelo doesn’t show each of these disasters, he alludes to them by depicting the angels as heralds of the apocalypse, and not just ministers of God. Naturally this is not the only Scriptural allusion in Michelangelo’s work. Throughout the fresco one notices that, “the angels fight to release the souls that have been saved from the grip of the devils. And, to their great satisfaction, the devils fight to push the ‘iniquitous souls’ down to their eternal damnation.”6 While many scholars typically associate this illustration as being reminiscent of “The Judgment of the Nations” found in Matthew 25:31-46, in which the Son of Man separates the people like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, Forcellino is describing a scene which could very easily be associated with Matthew 13:24-27, as well. In “The Parable of the Weeds among the Wheat” we find a landowner who lets the weeds and wheat grow up together until the time of the harvest, at which point the reapers gather up the wheat for storage in the landowner’s barn, while the weeds are separated out to be burned in the fire. In addition to these illustrations from the Gospel of Matthew, Hibbard points out that Michelangelo’s representation of the bodily resurrection, i.e., his “skeletons clothing themselves with flesh,” is an artistic citation of Ezekiel.7 He is, of course, referring to chapter 37, when Ezekiel is told to prophesy to a valley of dry bones. After Ezekiel speaks to the bones, they rise from their graves, come together, and are covered in sinew and muscle, flesh and skin. Finally, Hibbard suggests that Michelangelo’s depiction of Christ, whose appearance is more like that of Apollo the sun god,8 is probably based on a particular description found in the Book of Malachi. Hibbard believes that “the equation of Christ with the sun of Justice (cf. Malachi 4:2) may have influenced Michelangelo’s conception.”9
1 Howard Hibbard, Michelangelo (New York, NY: Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc., 1974), 252.
2 Antonio Forcellino, Michelangelo: A Tormented Life (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2009), 193.
3 Ibid., 192.
4 Hibbard, Michelangelo, 246.
5 Ibid., 242.
6 Forcellino, Michelangelo: A Tormented Life, 194.
7 Hibbard, Michelangelo, 250.
8 Andrew Graham-Dixon, Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008), 165.
9 Hibbard, Michelangelo, 246.