Monday, December 30, 2013

MICHELANGELO's FACE in the skin (I)

MICHELANGELO's FACE in the skin (I)

In the Last Judgment painted on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel between 1534 and 1541 Michelangelo paints himself into various places in the afterlife, as we have seen in a previous blog entry. The most curious insertion of a self-portrait in his painting, however, is in the image of St. Bartholomew's skin:
Michelangelo's face is painted into the sagging skin of St. Bartholomew; we see the skin of the limbs and private areas, and as Bartholomew holds up the back skin in his left hand, out of the flesh emerges the scowling face of the artist. He has a receding hairline, mustache and beard, down-turned mouth and deep eye-sockets similar to the features in a drawing portrait of Michelangelo done by his pupil, Danielle da Volterra:

His face and flesh hang in line with the gesture of wrath about to be delivered by Christ in heaven.
While Christ's left arm is in horizontal balance with the blessed figures in heaven and calmly seems about to bless, his right arm is lifted up as if to strike the damned in the next moment of action. The stance of Christ's legs is the same, in reverse, of that of Michelangelo's Moses carved in 1513 for Julius II's tomb.  Moses sits with two bent knees, but the right is firm while the left is about to stand up and move towards his left, where his head has turned; he holds the Ten Commandments in his right hand and appears angry, as though in the next moment he will punish the Israelites for their worship of the golden calf.  In much the same way, Christ's knees are both bent, but this time the one firm leg is his left, the one in motion and pushing off a cloud is his right, as he, too, turns to the "sinister" side, his left side, in rendering angry judgment to the souls who are condemned. 
        Why would Michelangelo place himself in the direct line of Christ's anger here? and why choose the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew in which to show himself?  St. Bartholomew is a disciple who, after the Crucifixion, travels around the Mediterranean preaching; he is martyred, according to the Golden Legend, in Armenia, by being flayed alive. His skin is often his attribute in later pictorial representations of him and he is also often shown with a knife. In Michelangelo's Last Judgment Bartholomew is a portrait of Aretino, a caustic critic and scathing satirist:
But the knife the saint holds is not a knife but a sculpting file, a tool used by sculptors to polish marble surfaces: 
Several things are going on in this image. On the one hand, Michelangelo is portraying himself in the mutilated state of the saint in order to separate out his fleshly nature and his pious nature. This self-portrait does not wear the hood of the Misericordia and is purposely naked. It is not the first image of the artist where he takes on the role of martyr or the role of mutilated flesh. In the spandrel of the same chapel earlier he had painted himself as the head of Holofernes on a platter being carried by Judith and her maidservant:
 In the Holofernes painting he imagines himself as the severed head of a dead man, enemy of Israel.
In the Last Judgment he imagines himself as the newly removed skin of a saint. 
Both images are masochistic views of his own talent and body, but both images display Michelangelo's own strong dislike of the world of the flesh in opposition to his own preference for the world of the spirit, personified in his role as a member of the church group dedicated to taking care of the dead. While painting himself as a dead person, either as Holofernes on the platter or as Bartholomew after flaying, he takes care of himself as he would have taken care of other dead people actually in his real life activities associated with the Misericordia. He hates the fleshly urges that go with natural life and views his carnal side as sinful. He has no trouble painting himself as Holofernes because the ancient Assyrian general was punished for his lustful desires and overindulgence in the hedonistic life of flesh, drink, and food. (Judith kills him after seducing him and getting him drunk, in retaliation for his attacks on Israeli villages.)
          Likewise, Michelangelo has no trouble painting himself as only skin, only carnal sin, because he feels his appetites, sexual or otherwise, should be punished, especially in the afterlife. Bartholomew in his real life is punished for his belief in Christ, his spiritual insistence that Jesus was the Messiah, but in the afterlife, Bartholomew is up in heaven with God, his skin left hanging as a reminder of his sacrifice. The skin is also Michelangelo's way of leaving behind his sacrifice, but on the wall of the papal chapel; he appears as merely flesh, but he appears in the middle of a painting he hopes will win him a place in heaven among the saints, like Bartholomew. Painting the ceiling and the altar wall in the same chapel has reduced him to a pile of flesh, used up his spirit, but he is still hoping that Bartholomew can intervene to save his soul; his friend Aretino's file, his weapon, almost touches Christ's skin, as if Michelangelo imagines that his friend could defend him even from God's wrath with his sharp incisiveness.
The sculptor's file is a hint that he knows his carnal desires deserve punishment from Christ, but the fact that the skin is not displayed in Hell suggests that he hopes for his own salvation, in spite of his past life of the flesh. In Italian the phrase "salvarsi la pelle" is the same as it is in English: to save one's skin, that is, to save oneself. His literal "skin" hangs out in the sky between heaven and Hell because Michelangelo wants to "salvarsi la pelle" in the next world. He paints his own hanging features to present his anxiety about his sinful fleshly desires. His own features are painted in less anxious states on the same wall, so the saint's skin is only one aspect of his view of himself, but it is central and pronounced enough that viewers remember
the flayed skin long after they have left the chapel. It is a haunting visual reminder of the sacrifice that gave Bartholomew entry into heaven and of the painter's sacrifice tied to his hope for his own entry into heaven, as his soul hangs in the balance:

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