Saturday, January 4, 2014



The realm of the blessed that Michelangelo paints into his Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in Rome (1534-41) is inhabited by many figures, both male and female. None of the figures have haloes, but most are saints considered worthy of being painted close to Christ and on the same level with Christ and Mary. Many of these saints are easily identified by the attributes they hold. Many of the figures have no attributes, however, and may not be saints, but some saints may have no attributes. Michelangelo seems to have included portraits of contemporaries among the saintly figures as well as among the unidentified. He also includes Old Testament figures who will be examined in another blog entry. While at first the groupings of people seem to have no order at all and are random, after examination arrangements emerge that give structure and meaning of the heavenly view he depicts.
           I have labeled the saints and figures that seem most evident in the realm of the blessed, starting at the right side of the clouds in heaven:
Beginning with the figures to the right of the standing cross on the far right side, two prominent attendants at the Crucifixion crouch behind the cross near the corner of the wall:  Mary Magdalen with her wavy red hair, and above her, Nicodemus, who helped take Christ down from the cross. Directly on the other side of the cross, as we move left in our identifications, is St. John the Evangelist, also present at the Crucifixion and surrogate son for Mary after Christ's death.
The next major figure left of John the Evangelist is the kneeling St. Sebastian, who holds his symbols, arrows; though pierced in many places by the arrows, he did not die a martyr until he was later beaten to death; the arrows are associated with him, nonetheless. Next to him left is a woman leaning over to pick up a large part of a pronged wheel; she is St. Catherine of Alexandria, who was tortured on a wheel for her belief in Christ.
Standing above her is a man holding two instruments for carding wool, the symbols of St. Blaise (San Biagio in Italian). He was tortured with iron combs.

He looks up at Christ, while the saint next in line looks down at one of his symbols, the saw; this is the figure of Joseph, but he is not the usual old man Joseph, but rather a middle-aged one; he appears to climb out of a wooden construction that looks very much like a coffin; Joseph, Jesus' father on earth, was a carpenter and the wood and saw are his material and tool.
The coffin may also be a reference to another Joseph, Joseph of Arimathaea, who gave up his own tomb for Christ's body after the Crucifixion. The two name saints are embodied in the same figure here with two different signs of the name.
The skin of St. Bartholomew that is also a self-portrait of Michelangelo (see the other blog entry on this skin) follows in the same line on the left, and, above this group, and easy to recognize because of the keys he holds, is the most prominent saint on this side, St. Peter. He holds the keys out toward Christ and looks at him in the center.
        Since Peter and Paul are usually paired together on altarpieces, and this is an altar wall Michelangelo is painting, it is natural to look around for the figure of Paul. He stands in a space all his own just behind and above Peter to the right. He and Peter both have white beards. The figure of Paul steps forward on his left foot and lifts his left hand higher than his right in wonder at Christ's light; he represents not just Paul, the early Christian saint, but Paul, the Pope who was Michelangelo's patron during the painting of the Last Judgment. He is Pope Paul III, a member of the Farnese family, a prominent patron of the arts. That he should wish to be remembered in a portrait as his name saint in heaven is certainly understandable; even if he didn't request this position, Michelangelo is enough of a diplomat to include him here as the funder of the project.

His hair is not as grey or ragged as it is in Titian's portrait of him on right, but his position behind the first pope and set off from the group of people behind him marks him as Peter's companion, Paul, and Paul, the Farnese Pope who  commissioned the Last Judgment. Compare his portrait here with Michelangelo's later portrait of him  as St. Paul in the Pauline Chapel cycle:
        His position also explains why, when Pope Paul III was asked by Biagio da Cesena to intercede on his behalf when Michelangelo painted Biagio's portrait as Minos in Hell, he is said to have replied, "Well, I might have some say in heaven, but not in Hell." He already knew he was painted into the heavenly realm and need not worry about the fate of his master of ceremonies. His hand gestures suggest awe at beholding the deity and he steps gingerly, as if treading on sacred ground. His beard has been tidied up for his presentation in heaven:
What he beholds, from Michelangelo's point of view, is not just Christ, but the entire project of St. Peter's, the basilica to which the chapel is attached. After we have examined the rest of the identifications, it will become clear why this is so.
           In the center above and behind St. Peter is Moses. He is older than the saint, his beard is longer, his facial skin as ashen as the skin of St. Bartholomew, and while he no longer has the horns that he had in Michelangelo's sculpted portrait of him, the treatment of his hair and his face are very similar to the sculpted version.  The reaction he has to the judgment of Christ cedes power to the central deity. (The translation error in Jerome that led to Moses being depicted with horns in 1513 has been corrected in this painted image of him.)
Moses in the Last Judgment raises both hands, and his right shoulder painted in a plane with his torso almost looks like the tablets of the Law that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai as conceived by Michelangelo in his statue of Moses of 1513. It is worth keeping in mind that that statue of Moses made for Pope Julius II originally was to have been placed in St. Peter's, not in St. Peter in Chains, where it is today.  Julius wanted his tomb to be in the center of the crossing in the great basilica, and Michelangelo may be placing Moses close to Peter here as compensation for that wish denied. Moses is an Old Testament figure, but in Venice during this period a church is built to him as a saint, San Moise, so his presence here in heaven surrounded by Christian saints is not unusual; he is Saint Moses. (Venice also consecrated churches to Samuel and Zacharias.)
Below left of Moses from the viewer's stand and next to Peter's keys is a nude woman with her left hand out; is she wearing a bracelet to indicate wealth? I think she is St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, the first emperor to convert to Christianity and build the first church of St. Peter's in Rome. Above Moses hovers another male figure associated with the Crucifixion, Longinus, the Roman centurion who converts after sticking his spear into Christ's side. When Longinus sees water and blood flow from the wound, he
is so moved that he purportedly says, "Behold, surely this man is the Son of God." In Michelangelo's painted Longinus, he lifts his hand up as if to reenact his conversion.
          Below Christ on either side are St. Bartholomew on the right and St. Lawrence on the left.
Lawrence was martyred by being burned on a grill and is supposed to have said during the process, "Turn me over, I'm done on this side," refusing to give in to the pain and suffering of being burnt for his beliefs. In Michelangelo's version he is inserting his arm into a section of the grill and holds on to one of its rungs as he bends over to look up at Christ.
          Mary is placed above Lawrence and under Christ's raised right arm. She looks towards the group of figures to the left of her. Who are the saints in this group? The one with the clearest attribute is St. Andrew, who faces away from us and holds an x-shaped cross with his right arm nearest Mary; Andrew's symbol was an x-shaped cross.
Above him is a woman whose clothes wrap beyond her face and body and are emphasized: I think she is Veronica, who wiped Christ's face with her veil while he carried the cross. Her veil miraculously retained the features of the deity. Her veil billows out behind Andrew's cross in Michelangelo's image.
          Left of these two as we look at the wall is St. John the Baptist, the prophet who foretold Christ's arrival and who baptized Christ. He has been identified as this saint because of the animal skins that cover his genitals and wrap around his thighs; John is often depicted wearing animal skins to remind viewers of his time in the wilderness before meeting Christ. He is John the Baptist, but the features of his face remind us of a portrait done of Pope Clement VII by Sebastian del Piombo in 1531:
Both men have long pointy noses and dark hair and beards.Why should Michelangelo choose Clement's face for John the Baptist? Clement VII was a Florentine, Giulio di Giuliano de' Medici, and John the Baptist is the patron saint of Florence. Why include Clement VII at all, though, in a painting commissioned by Paul III?  Clement, who was Pope from 1523-1534, had actually been the first to request that Michelangelo paint The Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine. He died before the artist began work on the wall, but he was Michelangelo's initial inspiration for the work, hence his prominent position in the realm of the blessed. 
          If John the Baptist is standing so close to Mary and Jesus, his parents will not be far behind;
Elizabeth, Mary's cousin, John's mother, touches his arm as a mother might, while she looks towards her cousin and Mary's son, Christ, who is 6 months younger than John the Baptist.
Between Elizabeth and John emerges Zacharias, John's father, in the red cap and gown denoting his occupation as occasional priest in the temple. He was an old man when John was born and God struck him mute as a sign that his son's birth was miraculous. His red robe continues below the legs of Elizabeth and John, which suggests he is not just a Jewish priest, but a Catholic cardinal, too. His face, though bearded, looks very much like the portraits of Pope Leo X, whose real name was John, (Giovanni di Lorenzo dei Medici.) Has Michelangelo placed him as Zacharias so that he can be in heaven near his name saint, John the Baptist? If it is he, his position here also links him with his first cousin, Clement VII (also a Medici, but illegitimate son of Giuliano de' Medici.) These two cousins grew up in the same household with Michelangelo in the Via Larga palazzo in Florence. The artist then watched them become popes within his lifetime; they, in turn, supported his artistic career in Rome during their papacies. John (Pope Leo X) was pope from 1513-1521; Giulio (Pope Clement VII) from 1523-34, only two of the thirteen popes of Michelangelo's lifetime.
        It is worth comparing Zacharias' face with Valore Casini's portrait of Leo X in red cardinal cap with white beard added:
The bulging eyes, sagging facial skin, arch of the eyebrows, and worried look are the same in both portraits.
          What about Pope Julius II, who ordered Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? He is hidden under John the Baptist's legs; this figure, with papal tiara and long white beard looks very much like his portrait on Julius' tomb, a sculpted version by Tommaso di Pietro Boscoli:

Since a Protestant treatise of 1514, attributed to Erasmus, specifically excludes Julius from heaven, Michelangelo makes sure to include him, but hides and protects him between the Baptist and Andrew.
    Which brings us back to four of the saints painted in large bodies in the first inner circle around Christ: Andrew, Veronica, Helena, and Longinus. What is the point of putting these saints, who seem less important to Christ's story, in such prominent positions in heaven?  Even Peter's gesture, holding the keys towards Helena, Andrew, and Veronica, may be painted in by the artist to signal his intentions.
What KEY connects Andrew, Veronica, Helena, and Longinus?  They are all saints whose relics were owned by the Vatican and all saints whose relics were to receive special display in the basilica of St. Peter's:  each crossing pier of the building was to contain a relic of one of these four saints, and on the feast day of the saint, the relic would be presented to the public for veneration from the balcony of the piers (something which still takes place). By the time of the painting of the Last Judgment, these piers were in the process of being constructed in the crossing, and Michelangelo, as architect of St. Peter's, would have helped plan the central position of the saints' relics in them. The colossal statues for the niches would not be completed until the Baroque period, but Michelangelo, as a sculptor, is imagining his own versions of these statues and where they might go, Andrew and Veronica on the left, Helena and Longinus on the right. In fact, as you enter St. Peter's basilica's crossing from the nave, Andrew and Veronica's statues are on the left, Helena and Longinus are on the right, numbers 53 and 48, 50 and 49:



Andrew                              Longinus

          In the process of painting the saints into heaven Michelangelo is laying out on the altar wall the design elements for the basilica which stands right next door:
Far from a Universal Judgment (Giudizio universale, as it is known in Italian), Michelangelo's heaven is populated by people he knew, name saints of deceased popes, and saints whose body parts make a physical connection to the history of the Vatican monument.

(The actual relics are: for Andrew, his head; for Veronica, a piece of her veil; for Helena, a piece of the True cross which she retrieved from Jerusalem; for Longinus, a piece of his spear.)

For the inclusion of Old Testament figures in Michelangelo's heaven, see the next blog.

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