MICHELANGELO's SAINTS in the LAST JUDGMENT
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:
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.
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:
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 Christ on either side are St. Bartholomew on the right and St. Lawrence on the left.
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.
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.
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:
(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.