We have examined in other blog entries the identities of Christian saints and popes in Michelangelo's heaven in the Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, a fresco painted from 1534-1541. What did Michelangelo do about Old Testament figures, though? Does he consider any of the Jews of the Old Testament worthy of a place in heaven? The answer is yes, and the ones he paints there may surprise.
The identities of the saints are clear in the attributes painted near them, like Catherine's wheel.
But the identities of the Old Testament figures are not always straightforward. In this blog I will make suggestions for identifications that seem apparent from the placement of the figures and the gestures or objects painted with them. Michelangelo selects out only certain Old Testament figures to portray; some of his selections are based on his own previous experience in sculpting Hebraic figures, and some of his choices are helped by the selection already made by previous artists, especially Lorenzo Ghiberti, in his Old Testament panels for the East door of the Florentine Baptistery. The ten figures (or couples) Ghiberti chooses are: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David, and Solomon and Sheba. I think Michelangelo includes all 10 groupings in his Last Judgment, too.
In the previous blog, we already saw that he includes Moses in the closest inner circle with Christ.
Anna's face shares features with Giotto's Anna as well, but both are pretty generic so harder to tell:
Mary's cousin Elizabeth, too, is married to a man who worked occasionally for the Jewish temple, Zacharias. Elizabeth and Zacharias are painted to the left of Mary and Christ, as we have already shown in the previous blog:
The presence of these Jewish relatives of Jesus in heaven, even on an altar wall in the Catholic papal chapel can be explained by their personal relation to Jesus. But Michelangelo and Pope Paul III and his advisers also thought about what to do with prominent Jewish figures from the Bible who were not part of Jesus' immediate family or story. Certainly they are interested in these people because they feel that their stories prefigured the stories in the New Testament. For example, Abraham's sacrifice of his son, Isaac in the Old Testament, was seen as a prefiguring of God's sacrifice of his son, Jesus, on the cross, in the New. But they also knew the Old Testament stories had value for their outline of human history.
The artist here, therefore, reserves a special section of the Last Judgment for Old Testament figures of note. It is to the right of the central group around Jesus and up above some of the Catholic saints identified by their attributes. I have circled the section with a yellow line here:
The identities of several Old Testament figures can be discerned here, and they include the same list of figures or sets of two figures whose stories were told in the bronze door panels on the Baptistery in Florence by Ghiberti between 1425 and 1452. Michelangelo called those East Ghiberti doors the "Gates of Paradise" because of their beauty, but he may have also thought that the Jewish history presented on them deserved to be preserved in the papal chapel and updated. Because Jesus is ultimately related to Adam through David, Michelangelo seems to have believed the Judeo-Christian chronology entitled particular Jews to a place actually "in Paradise" in his depiction of Heaven; their ancestral blood relation to Christ merits a high place in the realm of the blessed.
Whom does he paint into this special Jewish section? On the far lower right of this group at the right edge of the wall is an old man with white beard who holds the cross that is also touched by St. John the Evangelist. Next to him is a woman whose face is hidden by his hair; are these not Adam and Eve, mother and father of all, in Genesis, the first book of the Bible?
Eve here mildly resembles the Eves of Michelangelo's ceiling paintings, but those images of Eve don't resemble one another, so she is not as easily characterized:
Neither figure is as young as they are in the ceiling scenes; they have become the parents of the world and are placed at the edge of heaven, the furthest away from Christ's inner circle. They are old as Eden.
Adam's grasp of the cross signals they are saved, however. According to the Golden Legend (a synthesis of saints' stories written in 1329), when Adam died, his son Seth planted seeds in his father's mouth from the tree of original sin. The tree which grew on Adam's grave became the tree used in the Crucifixion of Christ. Christ's suffering on the cross and his Resurrection redeem the parents' sin and make it possible for them to live in heaven. The conversion of Jews to the belief that Christ, the Messiah, has actually come, is here given pictorial realization, when, in real history, many Jews were not converted and many continue to believe that the Messiah will come in the future. In paint Michelangelo has predicted a sea change in Jewish belief in the presentation of Adam grasping the cross.
The figures painted directly above them, then, are some of the descendants of Adam and Eve. Their two sons, Cain and Abel are embracing at upper left of the group; Abel is younger than Cain and is the younger of the two men embracing; Cain is the older brother, the one who says to God, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Cain is the first murderer in the Bible. He kills his brother Abel out of jealousy when God prefers Abel's sacrifice of meat to Cain's sacrifice of wheat; does their reunion here suggest that Abel forgives his brother for murdering him? Are acts of hatred allowed if carried out before Christ's birth, or only as long as God pardons them in the Second Coming? Abel is the one to kiss Cain and Cain closes his eyes in disbelief that he has been forgiven.
Abraham and Sarah are just above Adam and Eve.
Sarah touches her husband's shoulder with her left hand. Abraham's beard is extremely white and long, suggesting that he is the oldest of the descendants of the first parents.(I find Abraham's face less skillfully painted than the others, perhaps carried out by a helper.) With his left arm he points to and touches his son, Isaac, as he looks towards God/Christ. Abraham held a covenant with God to such an extent that he was willing to sacrifice his own son on an altar to God. An angel is sent down by God to prevent him from killing his own child, and a ram is substituted in his place. None of the elements normally shown in Abraham's story are painted here, but his touch and look give the viewer the sense he is showing God the son he was willing to give in honor of his beliefs.
Isaac has his own story after he survives the sacrifice incident and becomes a father himself. Michelangelo depicts him as an old man, too; he has twin sons, Esau and Jacob, born in that order. Their mother, Rebecca, prefers Jacob, the second-born, and wants him to have the birthright and blessing of his father because God has told her in a dream that Jacob's descendants will form a strong and prosperous nation. Esau sells his birthright, first, to Jacob, in return for some porridge. Then Rebecca takes advantage of a moment when Esau is out hunting to bring Jacob to Isaac for the blessing of the first-born. Isaac, who is blind, is fooled into giving the blessing because he thinks he is touching Esau's hairy skin when he is really feeling the goatskins Rebecca has placed on Jacob. Esau was "a hairy man," the Bible says. Isaac's blessing aimed at Esau, falls on Jacob.
Isaac touches the hair of his beard (remembering his error in touching the goatskins?) as he looks at the twin boys embracing and presented in front of him. In heaven here Esau kisses Jacob as he stretches out from Adam and Eve, a position meant to convey the long line of descendants from Jacob who received the birthright that should have gone to Esau, the firstborn of the twins. Jacob's long bare back signals that he is not the "hairy" twin. Esau's has longer hair on his head and perhaps some hair on his back. Esau kisses Jacob to forgive his brother for usurping his power. All is forgiven in Michelangelo's heaven, murder, deceit, jealousy, and families go back to loving each other without reservation.
The major Jewish patriarchs are present and accounted for here in this corner. Then below Jacob (naked back) is a another group of later Old Testament figures:
Jacob's son, Joseph, is the young man with the cape, his coat of many colors, surging out of his father's body:
Above Joseph is an old woman with a turban who reaches across the space of the group and touches the man whose head leans back to look at her. Is she not the exotic Sheba reaching out to meet Solomon in his Kingdom? The man who leans back is then Solomon as I have labeled him. The long distance she travelled to visit Solomon is implied in the two outstretched arms.
Two other major figures in Ghiberti's doors are Noah and Joshua: are they the two young and old male figures left in this circle, Joshua with red hair, Noah with white. That leaves David in Ghiberti's list, the prophet and King, whom Michelangelo had sculpted in 1501-04 for the city of Florence.
Surely he has a prominent position near Mary, who was of the lineage of David. There is a young figure, similar to Longinus but on the left and above Mary in the central circle, who must be David, another Jewish king included in Christ's inner sanctum.
Does he still hold a rock in his left hand as his attribute? His right hand extends out in a fashion that rewrites the restrained positions of the arms in the artist's marble David and prefigures the active David sculpted in a later era by Bernini.
Most of the Jews from the Old Testament stories are gathered in a group together over on the right side of the painting. The two Jewish figures sculpted earlier by the artist, David and Moses, are given the privileged positions near Mary and Christ, whom he had also sculpted into the Pieta still in St. Peter's. Michelangelo pays tribute to the Jewish members of the community and to Gli "Ebrei" (Jews) from the Bible. They are up in heaven along with Christian saints as part of the longer history of Biblical religious thought. That they are blessed rather than sent to Hell is already a sign of the importance of their lives to the Christian story. That they are gathered together to the right of Paul, a converted Jew, is a sign of their linked cultural and genetic heritage that retains a dignity separate from the Christian story. But they are nude bodies, as all the other figures were before being covered up after Michelangelo's death. Their distinction is acknowledged by their separate grouping, but they melt into heaven along with all the other Christian saints and disciples. In the end they are just "naked souls" whose fates are decided in their favor within the clouds painted on the chapel's wall.