Among the many faces painted into Michelangelo's Last Judgment painting in the Sistine Chapel in Rome (1534-41), one face is instantly recognizable, the face of Dante Alighieri, the Florentine poet (1265-1321). He is painted in the shadows up in heaven and his face is hard to see:
His small mouth, thin lips, acquiline nose, and heavy lidded eyes are all recognizable features in Michelangelo's portrait of him.
Michelangelo may have also been familiar with
two other portraits of Dante made in the 15th century, those of Castagno and Botticelli,
not to mention the 16th-century Raphael portrait of the poet in his Disputa in the same room as the School of Athens (1509-11) in the Vatican, down the hall from the Sistine painting:
Michelangelo's Dante seems to be looking intently at the Old Testament sets of brothers we have discussed in another blog, Cain and Abel embracing, and Esau and Jacob to the right of them with cloak and bared back.
Why does the artist place Dante in heaven and why next to these Old Testament figures? For the first question, the artist acknowledges Dante's greatness as a poet by putting him in heaven with a laurel wreath; Dante is rewarded for his literary genius. Since Michelangelo was a poet, too, he is also perhaps acknowledging his own indebtedness to the earlier Florentine. We have seen Michelangelo's use of Dante's image of the "descending old flesh"("vecchia scindi da te la carne") from Purgatory XI in his own self-portrait in the Last Judgment painting here. But Michelangelo paints Dante in heaven also because Dante writes his own description of heaven in the third part of his famous work, La Divina Commedia. The artist is showing that he has read Dante's Commedia and paints his face as a signpost for the viewer to compare the ways in which he has changed Dante's own view of the afterlife in his pictorial version.
Michelangelo adheres to Dante's ideas in his portrayal of Charon and his boat in Hell in the lower right corner of this painting. But the artist shows no Purgatory on the wall, and he imagines many Biblical enmities resolved in the heavenly realm, something not present in Dante's Paradiso. The artist also knows that Cain as well as Esau and Jacob are mentioned by Dante in his poem by name. Michelangelo's places Dante near these brothers to show the medieval poet how he re-imagines the fates assigned these figures in the Commedia.
Neither Cain and Abel nor Esau and Jacob are spirits that Dante the pilgrim encounters in his voyage to the afterlife. But they are referred to in his major work. Cain is mentioned twice, once in Hell (Inferno Canto XX, line 126) and once in Paradiso (Canto II, line 51). Both times Cain is used as a metaphor for the moon as Dante supposes that Cain was exiled to the moon by God as punishment for the murder of his brother Abel. Esau and Jacob are mentioned in Paradiso, (Canto VIII, lines 130-131), but the brothers are not seen in Heaven, just talked about by the French king, Charles Martel, whom Dante, the pilgrim, does see in Heaven. They are discussed by Dante and Martel as examples of two boys with the same father who emerge from the womb with very different characters.
The fact that Michelangelo paints Cain into heaven, reconciling with the brother he killed, is a new view of God's treatment of Cain.
His painting of Esau and Jacob embracing in heaven is also a reconciliation not imagined by Dante.
All of Michelangelo's revisions of Dante's view of life after death reveal Michelangelo's desire to show that his heaven is more compassionate than that of the earlier poet. His revision of Dante's description of the afterlife is radical. The poet does not look very happy in this portrait; perhaps the painter also imagines Dante's response to the artist's revision. The artist reaches back into history to find a worthy critic for his work, then defends his own vision with painted bodies next to his best critic's portrait.