Topic: Judgment

Br. Michael James Rivera, O.P.'s picture

Theology, Art and Judgment

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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.

Br. Chris Brannan, O.P.'s picture

Advent, Finals, and the Day of Judgment

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Advent has now begun, and for us students that means that the Day of Judgment is quickly approaching. Of course, by “Day of Judgment” I mean Finals Weeks in mid-December, when all of our studies for the semester are summed up in term papers and final exams, and our professors “judge” our learning for the semester by assigning grades. It is a time of busyness and of stress, of late nights, and those disconcerting moments when we think, “can I get it all done in time?

 I suppose that, in general, the several weeks before Christmas are that way for many others as well: gift-purchasing, holiday party-planning, travelling arrangements, and general preparations for the Christmas season tend to fill our time and generate a bit of stress. And Christmas day itself becomes a sort of “Judgment Day”, when the results of all of our prior efforts are revealed – and we hope that our work will not have been in vain!

 IMG_0169 copyWhile all of this busyness and stress can indeed seem to take away from the season of Advent, there is, at least, one thing fitting in all of this: Advent is supposed to be a time of anticipation and preparation; but it is a preparation for the coming of Christ – at Bethlehem and at the end of time. Thus, at the very least, our preparations for our own “judgment days” – whether that be the last due date for a research paper, the day of the final exam, or Christmas day itself – can serve as a reminder for us that something “big” is indeed coming, and we ought to be prepared.

 But how are we to prepare for the real “Final Exam” – that anticipated coming of Christ, whom we believe “will come to judge the living and the dead” (Apostle’s Creed)? Not indeed by sheer busyness, nor by worry or stress. Instead, I think one important way to prepare is made clear when we notice that the New Testament Greek word for Christ’s coming – παρουσία (“parousia”) – also simply means “presence”: we are called to prepare for  Christ’s presence in our midst. And yet, his presence is not simply a future reality: “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). That is, Christ’s “coming”, or presence, has already begun in our midst; we must, therefore, acknowledge and respond to Christ’s presence now if we want to be ready for His presence in the future.

 As religious, we are reminded of this every morning, during Matins, when we pray Psalm 95, which exhorts us: “If today you here his voice, harden not your hearts” (Ps 95:7b-8; cf. Heb 3:7-4:14). That is, “Judgment Day” begins today; Christ’s presence is before us, now – in his Church, his Sacraments, his Word, his servants, and his poor. Do we see him? Do we hear him? Are we watching? Listening?

 This advent, then, may our other preparations remind us to prepare for the presence of  Christ. Let us keep watch and adore his Presence in our midst, and let us today listen to and heed his voice in his Word, his Church, and in our conscience. Let us allow Him to call us, to change us, to make us holy. And, then, indeed, the Day of Judgment will not be a day of woe or of stress for us, but a day of fulfillment and of completion – of dwelling in Christ’s Glorious Presence.