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Chapter II

The Terror of Salvation

The Last Judgment

John W. Dixon, Jr.
All Rights Reserved

A quarter of a century elapsed between the painting of the Sistine ceiling and the end wall. This raises the question of the connection between the two. Early critics, under the tyranny of the principle of style, considered them as two different works, the earlier High Renaissance humanism and the later a distinctive form of tormented Mannerism. Many critics ignore the one when dealing with the other and some assume that the one contradicts the other.

It is not probable that an artist would make a work of such prominence in the central chapel of Catholic Christendom, return twenty-five years later to make another work that physically abuts the first and ignore what he had done earlier. It is not only psychologically improbable but wholly irresponsible: there were obligations to the place and to the task at hand that would have compelled a wholeness of program. The spectator who stands at the entrance door sees them together, overpoweringly, and Michelangelo knew it. They make a single work.

Inevitably, there are differences between the ceiling and the end wall. When Michelangelo did the ceiling he was a mature man in the fullness of his physical and intellectual powers. When he did the wall, he felt himself to be an old man. Much had changed, in himself and in Italy. He had lost much and learned much. His hand moved in a different rhythm, his mind worked to different patterns. The task was different. Earlier, he was charged with a complex area and an intricate program of subjects, now with a single space and a single subject. There is no continuation of pattern from ceiling to wall. Nevertheless, the two paintings are, deeply, a unity.

First, it is necessary to establish what is descriptively present on the wall. Description is not a neutral act but is itself interpretive and represents a position on matters in scholarly dispute. Since the wall has not yet been cleaned, description is problematic, particularly along the lower edge, which is unusually dirty.

Before Michelangelo began his work, the wall was not empty. At the top were two of Michelangelo's own lunettes of ancestors of Christ. At the bottom there was a frescoed altarpiece of the Assumption of Mary, by Perugino, and two paintings beginning the earlier series. In between, the wall was blank. Under Clement VII, there had been discussion of painting a Resurrection on the wall. Clement had also proposed a Fall of the Rebel Angels for the entrance wall. Both subjects were on Michelangelo's mind.

There is no architectural framework. It is possible to make too much of this; the circumstances are different. The ceiling has its own peculiarities of shape that have to be organized into fields. Since it cannot be seen intelligibly from any one point of view, it had to be dealt with in segments. Michelangelo fitted his program into the requirements of the physical form; the procession on the ceiling parallels the procession on the floor.

The wall is a single area, a plane compromised only slightly at the top in the curvature of the lunettes. The spectator sees it instantly and whole from any point within the Chapel; to have divided it in the traditional way would simply have diluted its effect. With his characteristic view of the function of art, Michelangelo designed the painting so that its impact is immediate and powerful from the farthest point of view at the entrance.

The composition is very much a part of the initial effect. Many scholars describe the movement on the surface as rising on the left, falling on the right (de Tolnay 1960, passim). This description can originate only in a need to impose a desired pattern on the composition or to preserve the traditional distinction between the saved and the damned; this in turn makes possible the traditional description of Christ as the terrible judge. Actually, the only falling movement is in the lower right corner, comprising less than one sixth of the painted surface. Even there, some figures are trying, however vainly, to rise. Otherwise, all the figures on the wall are rising or are placed stably within the action; their erect postures contribute to the sense of vertical movement. Compositionally, every element of the painting is a part of the vertical patterning, curving or zigzagging upward.

Michelangelo divided the composition into several distinct zones, although he does not mark them insistently as in traditional representations of the Last Judgment.

There are four horizontal zones, each of which is divided vertically. The lowest zone, divided by the mouth of hell, has the resurrection of the dead to our left, the movement into the deeper regions of hell to the right. The second zone above is divided in the center by a group of angels sounding the trumpets that announce the end of time. To our left the resurrection of the dead is completed; those who have recovered their bodies variously float upward or are drawn upward. To the right, some figures are being driven down by angels or dragged down by demons.

The third zone, appropriately the largest, is divided in the center by the figure of Jesus with Mary at his side. Two groups on either side are joined at the top by an indeterminate crowd of figures, at the bottom by the figures of St. Lawrence and St. Bartholomew. (These figures are so prominently placed because of their special place in the liturgy of the chapel.) These groups form a kind of mandorla around the figure of Jesus, surrounded as it is by its radiance of light; Michelangelo was not oblivious to the tradition of the mandorla but handled it in his own way. The group to our left seems composed of the patriarchs of the Old Testament (including John the Baptist). Mary is placed partly in that group, partly close to Jesus. Apostles and martyrs compose the group to our right. There is a slight but perceptible separation of the two central groups forming the mandorla and the outer groups on either side.

The fourth zone is comprised of the two lunettes filled with angels carrying the instruments of the passion.

The lowest zone is particularly problematic. It is very dirty, and so hard to decipher in places. This zone centers on the mouth of Hell. Although nearly all commentators speak only of the entrance that is immediately in front of us, there is another at the left side. It is, perhaps, more accurate to say that there is a single entrance divided by a pillar at its corner.

The space to the left is taken up with the resurrection of the dead. While some of these are within the convention of the dead resuming their earthly form, there are unusual elements. Two horizontal figures have their feet almost within the side entrance. In one case, a demon is attempting to hold on to an escaping soul. This is in no way an illustration of the Buonconte episode in the Divine Comedy (see below, p. 7) but it is compatible with the spirit of it, that angels and demons struggle for the soul until the time of decision is complete.

The right hand side is taken up with the transport of the souls to Hell. Charon has carried the damned souls across Acheron and is driving them from the boat; some leap from it of their own accord. In the corner, Minos (if it is he, which is not certain) is pointing into the further reaches of Hell outside the painting, specifying the appropriate circle by wrapping his strange tail around his body. The tail is strange because, while Minos (and Charon) are adopted from Dante, this tail is not a proper tail but is a snake with its mouth fastened over the genitals.

The next level is separated from the bottom by a narrow strip of sky and should be seen with the zones below. On the left, the souls of the redeemed variously float upward or are drawn upward into the realm of the blessed above. On the right, there is another unique iconographical feature: as generally described, several of the damned are attempting to break out and are being driven back by angels and dragged back by demons. So identified, there has been no satisfactory explanation for this strange motif.

It may be less complicated than it appears. The group becomes intelligible as a survival of an earlier program; Pope Clement VII had proposed a Fall of the Rebel Angels for the entrance wall. Some (but not all) of these figures have the bodily beauty of angels. They are not trying to break out of Hell but are being driven to it, carrying with them several depraved humans. At the same time they serve an important compositional purpose. The painting is generally characterized by powerful movements upward across the entire surface. By this device, Michelangelo has injected an upward movement into a part of the painting that, in traditional representations, contains only a downward fall.

The center of this second zone is taken up by the angels of the Last Judgment blowing trumpets. Two angels are holding books, one toward the saved, one toward the damned. Since the traditional account of the painting has it as an epic of condemnation, the standard interpretation is that the small book contains the list of the redeemed, the large one the list of the damned. This reverses the proportion of figures on the wall. The number of the damned is very small, taking less than one-sixth of the painted surface, while the number of the redeemed is uncountably large. The best explanation is Condivi's: "Amongst these are two other angels holding an open book in which everyone reads and recognizes his past life, so that he must almost be his own judge" (Condivi 1986: 84). This interpretation is certainly the most congenial with the present argument.

It is necessary to insist on this proportioning of the figures, because so many interpreters simply ignore it. The first and second zones are equally divided between the saved and the damned but, overall, there are considerably more of the saved. The third zone is made up entirely of a crowd of the redeemed, the fourth of angels. This proportioning is not compatible with interpretations of the painting as an epic of condemnation. It is the end of time, which is a terrible thing. It is more. As Marcia Hall, in a paper of fundamental importance, clearly established, it is a celebration of the Resurrection of the Body, not the rejection of the damned (Hall 1976).

The tremendous figure of Jesus, right hand raised above his head and the left stretched across his body, dominates this third zone as he does the whole painting. The gesture of the hands with the right hand open, palm forward and the left inverted, is traditional but their placement is not. Traditionally, the hands are lower, the right clearly a welcoming gesture directed toward the redeemed, the left repelling the damned. This change in placement is significant for the interpretation in the later part of this chapter.

The face is calm, impassive. If the expression can be defined at all, it is a firm, unsentimental compassion.

At Jesus' right side, Mary is sitting, drawing close to Jesus. She is one of the most beautiful of Michelangelo's female figures. As the figure of Jesus is all masculine force, she is all feminine grace; characteristics that are combined in some figures are here separated, for Mother and Son fulfill each other. She is subordinate to Jesus; she is an originating condition of the redemptive act but not part of the act itself. Her expression is comparable to that of Jesus, calmly, benignly compassionate. As he looks down to the right, she looks to the left.

Earlier I described the action in the lunettes as angels carrying the instruments of the passion. "Carrying" is a problematic term since both objects and angels are floating freely in space; gravity has here lost its force. In all parts of the painting angels are without wings.

With the figures thus located, it is now necessary to discuss the space and the action of the figures within the space.

On the ceiling, Michelangelo used the fictive architecture to articulate the surface and thereby give a measure to the space; both advancing and receding space can be measured against the established level of the architecture, and the surface of the actual architecture is not denied. The space of the wall is not so direct. Since there is no fictive architecture, there is nothing to measure the advancing and receding against. On the right, Simon of Cyrene (or, as some would have it, Dismas, the Good Thief) is setting the cross down on the actual cornice. Otherwise, there is barely any acknowledgment of the wall. The wall, nonetheless, cannot be described as dissolved or destroyed. There is an in-and-out movement of the bodies that captures within its reciprocal tensions the inevitable plane, vertical and horizontal, determined by the wall. Nor is the space infinite; it is the intelligible space between earth and heaven. Some figures appear to be behind the painted surface, some in front, invading the actual room. There is no vision of another space, another world, beyond or outside this one and separate from it. The space of the wall completes and fulfills the space of the room.

The painted bodies, so essential in creating the particular space, are the completion and fulfillment of the action of our own bodies. Their structure is, to a degree, consistent with the structure of the bodies on the ceiling. Many figures are thicker, heavier, and broader but others are barely so. Many (e.g., Simon, Sebastian, Lawrence, the angels) could take their place with the ignudi of the ceiling. Michelangelo makes greater use of frontality in his placement of the figures. Many are squared up to the picture plane (which has the further, controlling effect of affirming the wall surface). The angels, however, float freely in and out. The demons are, by and large, frontal but the damned are a confusion of movement without order.

It is possible to find a greater strain and tension in the figures on the wall. This is probably true and may reflect Michelangelo's psychic state and social involvements. Strain and tension are entirely accountable within the subject matter; the End of Time is hardly an event to take quietly and calmly.

Since the subject is single and inclusive, there is no occasion for the multiple levels of human character and quality that are present on the ceiling. All the figures move with intelligence and will in the full range of response appropriate to their situation. At the lower left there is bewilderment, astonishment, stupefaction, beatific ecstasy. At the lower right, there is intelligence and will in frantic violation of control. Each action is appropriate to the situation and within the range of an essentially human response. Even the angels are very much purified human beings and not apparitions of another world.

Every movement, every gesture, is directed toward the figure of Jesus or is determined by the pattern centered on Jesus. This is not simply a compositional feature, it is the primary unifying device in a widely dispersed composition. Therefore, it is a theological assertion of the first order.

The essential movement of the Chapel is the orthodox Christian process down the processional way from entrance to altar. The action of the Mass gathers this movement and carries it upward. Where, in the normal service, the upward movement is gestural, here it is figural as well; the eye is carried upward, to and through the figure of Jesus with his up-flung hand directing the movement on its way. This is the central axis of the composition but all the other compositional movements (which, by the nature of Michelangelo's art, are actions of the human body) in their intricate and varied web, cohere in the figure of Jesus.

The painting involves more than just this compositional web. Michelangelo's presentation of the body in painting expresses an unparalleled exuberance of energy. Except in Rubens, who worked to a different purpose, nowhere in art is there any equal to this superhuman energy that permeates every figure. This exuberance is itself a symbolic form of the first importance in the understanding of what Michelangelo (and the Renaissance) stood for, since it is the em-bodiement of the glory of the Lord. It has a more immediate function in this work. While every figure in the vast complex of figures on the wall functions fully according to intelligence and will, every movement of the human figures is dependent. The angels are not very different in this dependence but are perceptibly so. Only the figure of Jesus, set apart in the great aureole of light, moves with complete freedom and mastery of bodily action. It is as though both energy and purpose flow from him through all the other figures.

This is, after all, the transfiguration of the body at the end of time. While the painting is, in its own distinctive way, clearly a Last Judgment, it is not simply that. It is necessary to repeat: it is the Resurrection of the Body at the end of time.


The Problem of Jesus

Understanding the figure of Jesus is the essential condition for understanding the wall and the whole program of the chapel. First, I will undertake to state the interpretive problem, then consider the idea of judgment and finally the idea of Christ to put this figure into the context of the whole.

The principal problem in the interpretation of the figure of Jesus is the upraised hand. The canonical interpretation can be traced back to Michelangelo's associates and biographers, Vasari and Condivi: [He] wrathfully damns the guilty and banoishes them from his presence into eternal fire." Nearly every critic since the sixteenth century repeats this interpretation. Atr historians have made their history conventional, not only by depending on written sources but by giving those sources precedence over their eyes.

Although Vasari and Condivi were close enough to Michelangelo to be presumed to know his purposes, nothing in the figure as seen justifies such a description. Since Jesus's mouth is shut, there is no reason to think he is uttering condemnation. There is no indication of wrath in the facial expression. The only remaining evidence is the upraised hand and nothing requires us to see it as a gesture of condemnation or as hurling anything. The hand is open and faces forward, toward the worshiper. The direction of the gesture is up, not down. The figure is looking generally toward the lower right as though his attention is directed toward the damned, but there is, without indication in the eyes themselves, no specificity in the look and there are many redeemed between Jesus and the damned.

The figure is beset with ambiguity of position and action. It is not clear whether he is standing or sitting (most see him as rising). The gesture of the left hand is as ambiguous as the right. Critics interpret it variously as open toward the resurrected and as a condemning gesture toward the damned.

Perhaps if Michelangelo made an ambiguous figure, he intended to make an ambiguous figure. If so, the ambiguity should be the key to its interpretation. It is necessary, therefore, to examine the question of judgment.




The Nature of Judgment

Even the most conscientious attempt to reconstruct the mental world of past peoples can sometimes go astray on the definition of words that appear to have a universal meaning. Thus, the act of judgment is often, even usually, understood on the model of human legal judgment, the assignment of an appropriate punishment by the individual judge. On this model, God weighs the offenses and assigns the judgment accordingly. This makes inevitable the anguished appeal: how is it possible for a finite being in a finite lifetime to merit infinite punishment?

It is possible to speak with some confidence of the idea that underlies Michelangelo's thinking in this matter.

As a Florentine, Michelangelo was saturated with Dante. He was a passionate, life-long student of Dante. He appears to have commanded all the critical literature and he was a regular participant in learned discussions of Dante. It cannot be proven but I am assuming he understood judgment as Dante did. Such an interpretation makes the painting intelligible. For Dante, judgment is not a matter of God's action at all. Judgment is a choice of the individual soul. God sends no one to Hell. Hell is what each person chooses. Hell is what the damned most desire. They do not know the full nature of the choice when they make it, since they see only its deceptively desirable aspects; they are horrified when they learn what they have chosen. By willfully disregarding the soul's disciplines (which the Comedy is in part intended to rectify), they blind themselves to the nature of their choice. They make their choice freely but they cannot escape its consequences or the shocking afterlife that is the true nature of what they chose.

In Dante, the damned are overpowered by a combination of terror and revulsion, which is transformed into desire; they become fully what they have chosen to make of themselves. Their sentence is theirs, not inflicted on them by an arbitrary judge. Dante's most vivid expression of this apparent paradox is found precisely in the passage that presumably was Michelangelo's source for Charon and Acheron, Canto III of Inferno: "...and they are eager to cross the stream, for Divine Justice so spurs them that their fear is changed to desire" (Dante 1970: 33).

For Dante, divine justice has nothing to do with human justice and there is no quantitative measure of sin that causes damnation. Damnation or salvation is what each soul chooses, out of free will and desire, and God only confirms the choice. It is a state of the soul, not a punishment.

In a famous passage, Dante meets Buonconte da Montefeltro in Purgatory. Buonconte has died in battle, unshriven, with all his sins on his soul. In one of the most painfully lovely passages in all the Comedy, Buonconte describes how, wounded, he fled across the plain, collapsed on the bank of a stream and died with the name of Mary on his lips:


I will tell the truth, and do you repeat it among the living. The Angel of God took me, and he from Hell cried, O you from Heaven, why do you rob me? You carry off with you the eternal part of him for one little tear which takes him from me.

Purgatory V, 103-107. (Dante 1970)


Dante implies that Buonconte's behavior was not such as to make his presence among the redeemed expected (Dante barely conceals his surprise on seeing him there). If the judgment were made after the fashion of sculptures on medieval cathedrals, with angels holding scales, Buonconte would have much in one pan, little in the other. But he made the choice that was decisive for the future of his soul.

In judgment, there is no weighing out of sin and virtue, no damning of anyone to Hell. There is only the soul's free choice. This is confirmed by the function of Minos. Minos may have been a judge in Hades; in Dante's Hell he is more like a traffic policeman. The souls present themselves before him, announce their sins and Minos assigns them to the proper circle by winding his tail around himself the appropriate number of times.

The assignment has nothing to do with a calculating justice, which assigns punishment according to the severity of the offense. For Dante, the decisive sin is the determinative choice. Dido, for example, killed herself in her despairing and frustrated desire for Aeneas. She is not in Circle VII among the suicides, which is lower in Hell than lust, and is thus a more serious offense. She is on Circle II among the lustful for lust is what she chose, not so much to do as to be; her suicide was a consequence of her lust. Sinners become their sin and remain so for all eternity.

Dante affirms a doctrine of free will beyond anything produced in our deterministic and irresponsible age. God binds himself by the choice made by his creatures. Intersecting this understanding of judgement, is Dante's conception of time. For Dante, at the Last Judgement, time stops; it is no more. There is only a state of being that is timeless and unchanging. It is not a matter of finite persons receiving infinite punishment, for there is no such thing as infinite time; time has modulated into timelessness.

The world exists as the arena of choice; human decision is ultimately decisive for the human state. Since, for Michelangelo, the choice is made with reference to the Christ, it is now necessary to say something about the principle of the Christ before trying to define Michelangelo's idea of Christ.


The Idea of the Christ

Christian sentimentality and liberal humanism have an equal and related difficulty grasping the principle of Jesus as the Christ, and, for that matter, the nature of divinity itself. Certain limited moral categories intrude: Jesus, God, are considered the benign forces in the universe, gentle, kind, forgiving, the source of good as the sensitive and timid modern intelligence understands the good. It is not simply that most of the religious history of the world stands squarely against this interpretation; the originating documents of Christianity do so as well.

It is hard to see how it could be otherwise; the power capable of creating and sustaining all things is a force, an energy, so far beyond human imagining, that the response to it can only be a terrified awe. In the Old Testament, the uniform response of those called to the service of God is to wish they were dead. The God of the Book of Job is outside moral categories and is pure mystery and awe-fullness.

The same is true of the New Testament picture of Jesus as the Christ. Behind the teacher of morals and devotion, there is a figure, human and more than human, with an extraordinary capacity for compelling a division among people. For those who were responsive, he compelled a decision for or against him, a passionate love or a passionate hate. Only so can we understand the enigmatic statements of his purpose ("I come to bring not peace but a sword"); they do not state a moral intention, they simply assert the nature of the process. The choice was not intellectual or reasonable; it was a response of the total being. The crucifixion was not simply or only a parable of sacrificial love; that is something ordinary human beings have often done. It was a parable of infinite love itself inspiring infinite hate. The power to attract carried with it equally the power to repel. The power of transformation worked both ways: divine grace could heal and redeem; equally it could call forth gross savagery, which is a principal cause and function of the crucifixion.

Thus, in the theology that is relevant to the understanding of this work, God is not one fixed thing with varying attributes. The "wrath" of God and the "love" of God are not two different modes of action of a single person. They are the same thing functioning in different relations. The love of God is simultaneously destructive. The peace of God is a fearful thing.

To those who have chosen damnation, redemption is itself evil. The love of God is the wrath of God. Mercy is condemnation. Compassion is simultaneously damnation.

The essential character, the essential act, of Christianity is not its moral code or its devotional system, both derivative, but the act of decision: Jesus as the Christ compels, by his nature, the decision that ultimately becomes the act of judgment.

Only so can the Christ be understood. Only so can Michelangelo's Christ be understood.


The Christ of Michelangelo


The word within a word, unable to speak a word

Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year

Came Christ the tiger.

-T.S.Eliot, Gerontion


For Michelangelo, the human body was always the most important metaphor of divine order. It is a great symbolic form; like all symbolic forms, its symbolism depends on its reality. The human body is, for Michelangelo, superabundant, powerful, full of the abundance of life. All human life proceeds from the creativity of God; the exuberance of the bodies is the symbolic form of the majesty, the awesome creative energy of God, the glory of the Lord.

This, the infinitely fascinating aspect of the divine, is most completely manifested in the figure of Jesus, who is simultaneously the most commanding, the most beautiful and the most aweful figure in the Chapel.

He is not the terrible judge, for there is no act of judgment. There is only the terrible drama of human choice. The Christ is the focus of the whole movement of the Chapel. He is the fundamental encounter with the reality of the sacred, the impossible paradox of the God-man, the desire and the terror, the beauty and the horror, the terrible contradictions that define humans in their response to it.

The ambiguity of posture and gesture is, therefore, part of this theology. The gestures do not have a determined meaning, for it is only the response of the worshiper that defines them. The hands are seen as blessing or damning, receiving or rejecting, according to the disposition of those who perceive them. The mighty up-flung hand is a terrible rejection or a summons upward to the vision of God. The gesture of invitation can be felt, by those who chose to do so, as a gesture of damnation. The expression of compassion is wrath to those who reject compassion.

A small detail clarifies the act of decision. To the right and below the figure of Christ is the figure of Saint Bartholomew who was martyred by being skinned. In his right hand, he holds the knife, the instrument of his martyrdom, in his left the empty skin. The face on the skin is not his but Michelangelo's. This fact has intrigued scholars since it was noted in 1925 but explanations of it have had little to do with the true function of the painting and have depended on various psychological interpretations.

It lies at the exact half-way point of a diagonal line that starts at the highest point of the lunette at the upper left, passes across the place on the cross that would have had the head of Jesus, bisects the crown of thorns, passes through the wound in Christ's side, through the face on the skin, then through the face of the horrified sinner being dragged down by demons, through the genitals of the so-called Minos at the lower right, ending finally at the corner.

It is easy to draw lines on paintings and various things will fall on each line but this is too precisely done to be accidental. Such an arrangement must surely have fundamental significance. Michelangelo has poised his bodiless face at the exact center of a line running from salvation to damnation through the wound that shed the blood that is the saving sacrament. In a painting that is a celebration of the resurrection of the body, he alone has not received his eternal flesh, either for salvation or damnation. Steinberg sums it up:


Christ's glance and gesture direct themselves pointblank at the wretched likeness of Michelangelo's sel—fthe whole cosmic drama collapses on his destiny. Not because the artist thinks himself foremost amongst mankind, but because the Last Judgment conceived as more than a fable, and more than a warning to others, is really only so to the extent that the man who tells of it knows himself to be the first on trial. This is why the detritus of the artist's life usurps Christ's attention. It had to be Michelangelo who was first in line, because the narration was his. Or put it this way: the Last Judgment—as I believe Michelangelo pondered it—is not staged for generic mankind but for each self within mankind. (Steinberg 1980: 435)


As Steinberg had no occasion to point out, this is an eminently Dantean motif in a painting that contains almost no detail directly adopted from Dante but is so Dantean in spirit. By the uncomprehending, Dante, too, has come under criticism for his self-centeredness: the whole drama of salvation re-enacted for his private delectation. This is a criticism born of an exclusively individualistic age, whereas Dante could see how the drama of the individual is related to the whole, is a figure of the whole. His pilgrimage is his but it is the type of all pilgrimages of choice. Each person has a Christ-bearer as Dante had Beatrice. The choice faces each person in personal terms; Dante's terms were his but they were figures of all. Michelangelo, at the center of choice, represents each of us, is each of us.

The construction of the figure of Jesus is as important as its action. Obviously, classical art strongly influenced Michelangelo in his design of the figure of Jesus. Consequently, many observers speak of the figure as though it were Apollo and of Michelangelo as though he were reviving ancient gods. (de Tolnay 1960: 38; Clark 1959: 102). Michelangelo knew the difference between Christ and Apollo; he also knew the depth of meaning in the figure of Apollo.

Such figures as the Apollo Belvedere have trained the western imagination to a view of Apollo as sensuous beauty and grace. To the early Greeks, however, he was that and more. Second only to Zeus, he was a terrible god, the archer, the far shooter, the deadly awesomeness of the sun. The sun as the power of light is the source of life and the condition of life. It is also deadly in its pitiless power. This awesome power of the Apollonian, this terrible beauty, is one dimension of the image of the Christ and the figure of Apollo provided the instrument for Michelangelo's imagination when he faced the necessity of making manifest the terror of redemption. He is not translating Christ into Apollo or importing Apollo into a Christian chapel; he is using characteristics of the Greek imagination to set forth an image of his own. The classical becomes a vocabulary for a different statement.

The figure is not so Greek as it may appear. It has the youth and beauty that is part of the Greek idea, but the actual construction of the body is not in the least Greek. In the first place, the proportions are Michelangelo's later style, thickset, broad almost to the point of being square. A knotted energy flows over the surface. The figure does not rest serenely within its own being, as a Greek work normally does, but extends outward. It is organized around the lower abdomen, which is the center of the figure. The great action of the limbs projects outward from that center with an energy that flows through the entire surface of the painting. This is not a Greek way of handling the figure and this is not Apollo. Neither is the construction of the painting in any degree Greek.

Defining "the idea of the Christ" does not stop with the account of this figure alone for the whole painting is part of that idea. Only the figure of Christ is self-contained and self-motivated. Michelangelo constructs the other figures in the painting on the same dramatic and anatomical basis; they are fully sentient human beings. They are, nevertheless, inextricably enmeshed in the web of energy that flows from the figure of Christ and carries them back to him. They are the resurrected dead, those who have passed or are passing beyond the bounds of earthly will and move now fully at the will of another, whether in acceptance or rebellion.

It is necessary to look more closely at the construction of these other figures. Michelangelo's psychology is known by the forms of his figures and the psychology is as necessary to his theology as his theology is to his psychology. As a Florentine, heir of Giotto and Donatello (and of Dante), Michelangelo could not and would not present figures whose act and will were distinct from each other. However extravagant, the action emerges from a willful personality; the act is an integral projection of the quality of the person. This is not, as a structural principle, in the least incompatible with the variety of willed acts that are present in the painting. In some figures, the intention and the act are one. In others (e.g., the rebellious damned), the intention is blocked, but the structural principle is the same. In still others, the will is paralyzed in the stupefaction of rebirth, and so the figures act at the will of another; this is the affirmation of community. All the figures, whatever the immediate will and intention of their movement, are, finally, elements in the great upward streaming toward God; for Michelangelo, man, however willful and powerful, can never act outside the sacred order.

So intensely physical an art is correspondingly intensely empathetic. Confronted with bodies so much like our own but purified, we respond, when we do so properly, with our own bones and muscles. As we see in detail, so we can participate in the action and, therefore, in the inner world of each figure. Since the action proceeds from a state of the soul, that inner world is recognizably related to our own. Since the bodies are both more exuberant and more beautiful, that world transcends our own and so can, if we will, enable us to transcend our selves.

None of this analysis is fully intelligible except as we see it in relation to the space of the Chapel and the complex movements of the ceiling. The fictive space of the painting is the most extensive of any by Michelangelo. It is the space between heaven and earth, felt tangibly and traversed by bodies in their physical integrity. As is usual with Michelangelo, the bodies determine the space by their action through it. They move with consummate freedom in and out, not tapestry-like on the surface. More to the point, Michelangelo opened the surface so there is no barrier between the fictive space and the real space of the Chapel. If the painted figures invade the space of the Chapel, so those in the Chapel are drawn into the fictive space as participants in the action. The intensity of the bodily movements of the painted figures is so great that an empathetic reaction compels response. Thus the painting not only sets forth but requires the reenactment of the sacred event. It is not simply a representation of the process of redemption, and it is not an illustration of any doctrine of redemption. It is the translation of the redemptive action into a form that makes possible the participation of the worshiper. Since there is no boundary between the world of the painting and the world of the worshiper, those in the presence of the painting, whether they come as worshipers or spectators, are confronted with the same necessity of decision.

The unusual (although not unprecedented) placement of the Last Judgment on the altar wall now becomes intelligible. Traditionally, the Last Judgment is placed over the entrance; the church is the city of God and those entering the church do so by undergoing, going under, the Last Judgment. Michelangelo has here transformed the symbolism. The church is not now the goal, the City of God on earth, but is the pathway to redemption. Judgment becomes the fulfillment of purpose, the final entry into the company of the redeemed beyond time. The action of the wall is a completion and a fulfillment of the action of the ceiling. In this interpretation, he saw the wall as a completion of the action of the ceiling, an indispensable link between the determinative liturgical action on the floor and the artistic action of the ceiling. He was careful to link the wall with the ceiling.

The most obvious linkage is compositional, although the demonstration of a simple compositional connection would not suffice if there were not a relation of program and belief.

In the analysis of the ceiling, I mentioned the remarkable figure of Jonah, the single prophet on the end wall above the altar. In the whole of the ceiling, no figure outside the central range of narrative paintings, except Jonah, shows any awareness of the scenes of the main story. The prophets and the sibyls variously attend to their books. Their attention may be directed outward or inward but never to the ceiling itself. Only Jonah does so. He falls backward in open mouthed awe as he looks directly up at the figure of God dividing chaos.

This action is significant for two reasons. First, among all the prophets, only Jonah is a figure of Christ, three days in the belly of the fish as Christ was three days in the tomb. Second, Jonah is one of two figures first seen from the entrance. He looms above the altar and thus makes explicit that the goal of the pilgrimage is the initiating creativity of God. Therefore, in the original absence of any connecting link on the wall, the figure of Jonah performed the necessary joining of the altar to the ceiling.

When Michelangelo returned to the wall, the figure of Jonah was there to be made the key link in the chain of relations he established. A whole series of compositional movements connects the two paintings through the figure of Jonah. The most immediate is the axial movement that begins at the bottom (in the mouth of Hell) immediately above the altar, goes up through the knot of trumpeting angels, across the open space, between the two central saints, up through the dominant figure of Jesus, through the up flung hand to the spandrel immediately beneath Jonah. The same movement also divides at Saint Bartholomew and Saint Lawrence, circles the figure of Jesus, back to the center and up to the figure of Jonah.

Nor is this all. Seen compositionally, not narratively, the pattern of the surface is a series of curved and angular lines directed vertically; the narrative reinforces this series of patterns. Except for the small section at the lower right, all the figures are either ascending or participating in the ascending movement of another (some figures bend down to help others up). These variously link with the central group and carry the eye to the spandrel below Jonah or move to the side and culminate in the lunettes.

The lunettes provide a small but most interesting clue to this patterning. A minor mystery of the wall is the curious position of the angels with the instruments of the passion. The cross and the column are represented as resting on nothing, but floating in the sky with the angels variously holding on to them; their angles sharply incline toward the center. This position has no apparent reason until the cross and the column are seen in relation to the ceiling. The column is exactly in line with Jonah's left thigh, the cross exactly in line with his left arm. Since the subsidiary movements of the composition come to a focus at the lower ends of the cross and the column, the connection is evident; Michelangelo has taken advantage of the placement of the earlier figure to tie the two paintings together compositionally.

Every line in the wall comes to a conclusion at one or another of the points that then carry the eye through the figure of Jonah to the panel of God the Creator above. Many critics have noted that the cross and the column also parallel the cross of Hamaan and the cross of the Brazen Serpent in the lunettes, another feature that links the wall to the ceiling.

This compositional linkage is vital to the argument, but it is not sufficient to establish the interpretation apart from the program of the wall. Program implies doctrine and raises the issue of the place of this painting in contemporary doctrinal disputes. So far, I have avoided all reference to the contemporary context of theological controversies to demonstrate the conviction that art, whatever program it may require, is a primary symbolic language not determined by and, therefore, not explicable in terms of causes outside itself.

Michelangelo, more than most artists, was an integral part of the intellectual life of his age. He was a literate man who read books and talked about intellectual problems. He was working at the center of Catholic Christendom at the time of its greatest peril and most intense controversies. There is every reason to suppose that he was aware of the controversies and the issues involved in them; his contemporaries discussed his work, and specifically the Last Judgment, in terms of Lutheranism, some angrily condemning him as a heretic. Nevertheless, there is no reason to think he saw the wall as requiring him to take a position on faith and works or on the role of the church in the process of salvation.

The confidence of this assertion is determined by some familiarity with Michelangelo's character but even more by the painting itself. The painting is, in short, one of the most powerfully catholic presentations of Christian eschatology to be found in any product of the Christian imagination.

The painting, and the attitude set out in it, is, absolutely and without qualification, Christocentric. The awesome majesty of the Christ in his great aureole of light dominates the room. The energy that flows from him gathers up and enspirits all those who are, in turn, drawn back to him. The up flung hand carries the energy up to its source in the Creator God dividing chaos. As no Christian is apt to deny and no non-Christian apt to see, this energy is the Holy Spirit.

Both the artistic and the human energies focus on the Christ and yet the creatures determine their fate by their faithful choice. Mary, in all her human beauty, shares the glory of light around the Christ yet draws herself protectively under the mercy of the mighty arm. She is not the co-redeemer of a Mariolatry that Michelangelo never shared but the most blessed among women; her look of compassionate love encompasses the redeemed to the right of Christ and completes the invitation.

There are saints and martyrs enough to satisfy all but the most extreme of those who see salvation as the consequence of human action. Yet they, too, are as much a part of the web of energy as those drawn upward in the helpless awakening.

This is not a work to be admired as a work of art. It is an action that comes at the end of the processional way. The movement on the floor, paralleling the return to God on the ceiling, is the movement to the altar, which stands at the foot of the central vertical that passes through Christ. The sacramental action on the altar is the beginning of the upward movement. At the same time there is no ecclesiolatry. The action at the altar is part of a whole that is not to be grasped by taking hold of any of its parts. The whole is the liturgy whose essential action is laid out in the painting. It is a high liturgical action, which requires the total participation of the worshiper and should receive the sympathetic participation of the unbelieving spectator.

On Order, the Sublime and the Numinous in the Sistine Chapel.

Whatever the adequacy of analysis and interpretation, they do not account for the extraordinary effect of the Chapel. The normal response, from disciplined scholar to the untrained layman, is a singular exultation, an exaltation, a sense of being transported into another world, larger, grander, than our ordinary world. In short, the sense of the sublime.

The sense of the sublime is one of those things most of us can feel and none can truly define. It is an experience that, by definition, lies outside definition; anyone who has not or cannot experience it can never grasp it by any definition.

Rudolph Otto has provided a summary treatment that is all the more to the present point in that he relates it to his classic concept of the "numinous". The sublime "...must approach, or threaten to overpass, the bounds of our understanding by some 'dynamic' or 'mathematic' greatness, by potent manifestations of force or magnitude in spatial extent" (Otto 1958: 41). Mere size or even greatness are no more than conditions for the sublime, not its essence. It is, ultimately, mysterious, both daunting and attracting. "It humbles and at the same time exalts us, circumscribes and extends us beyond ourselves, on the one hand releasing in us a feeling analogous to fear, and on the other rejoicing us" (42).

Otto is careful to say that the sublime is not the numinous but, "schematically", it is a close analogy. Michelangelo's painting in the Chapel possesses to the fullest degree all the qualities of the sublime and, at the same time, requires the terminology of the numinous. It possesses the aweful energy that arouses terror and at the same time exultation. It is overpowering and at the same time, because its energy is humane, exalting.

Both the energy and the humanity require further statement, for these are not mysterious emanations that happen to be in this place but a work of the hand of a human being. So far in this account, "energy" has been a term applied to the action and potentiality of the human body. This is correct, for the human body is Michelangelo's fundamental instrument. It is not, however, an energy confined to the single bodies, for the ceiling is a rhythmic pulsation of forms that, in their distinctness, contribute to the overpowering energy of the whole. The framing architecture gives a powerful stability to the whole; the energy is never uncontrolled or indefinite in its action. Neither action nor energy exist outside the figures that em-body them; the individual does not, even in the Last Judgment, disappear in the whole.

We focus on a single figure, grasping, being grasped by, the powerful coherence of its action. Out of the corners of our eyes we are aware of other figures, harmonically, harmoniously related to the focal figure. The order is not simply powerful and harmonic; it is very nearly complete. No, not truly complete, for we live in a world of things and air and growth and little of this is in Michelangelo (although a powerful presence in so much Florentine art). It is the greatness and the completeness of the human. There is the terrible beauty, the dominating majesty, of the human form and the human personality. Equally there are the fearful energies that we like to think of as sub-human but, inescapably, are parts of ourselves.

The forms themselves determine this energy and it was perfectly apparent to thousands of people, despite the dirt on the surface. The cleaning of the ceiling enhances it, leaving us with an analytical task that is barely yet begun. Michelangelo's color is as powerful an instrument as the three dimensionality of the forms. Flesh is luminous with a luminosity that would not be out of place in Veronese. The colors of the garments are not at all like Veronese or anyone else. Each hue is powerfully distinct, yet shot through with lights of other hues; garments are independent elements but surround and define the distinctness of form of the persons. The rhythmic pulsation of surfaces is counterpointed against the pulsation of colors across the surfaces.

This is the sublime, requiring the terminology of the numinous. Yet sublimity alone can be a dangerously misleading principle. It is congenial to the modern temperament to divorce qualities from content. We "communicate" without regard to what is communicated or we have "relations" with no specification of the nature of the relation. We yearn for the spiritual or the sacred apart from the discipline of location and definition, only the detached and isolated experience.

This is not Michelangelo's way. It is probable that most spectators respond to the sublimity of the Chapel. The temptation is to see only the sublimity, relegating the religion to program and belief, ignoring the numinous. There is no reason to believe this was Michelangelo's purpose, every reason to think it was not. Neither sublimity nor the numinous lie within reach of deliberate human purpose, for they are among those things that are achievable only if they are not sought.("Seek you first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you.") Sublimity was a necessary component of what Michelangelo did but not its purpose.

The action of the ceiling is determined finally by its goal, one of the small paintings, the solitary creator God, separating light from dark. The sublime is, for those who will see it, transmuted into the numinous.

In his greater maturity, his greater depth of soul, he completed this action on the end wall. I earlier said that the figure of the resurrected Jesus is the focus of the chapel and so it is, both compositionally and psychologically. The full understanding of the chapel requires seeing this figure more as fulcrum than single focus. He is the central point of an axis that begins in the mouth of hell below (evil and damnation are human possibilities), proceeds upward through the inviting, judging, lifted hand to the same figure of the creating God, now transformed into the redemptive God.

When Pope Paul III first saw the Last Judgment at its unveiling, his response was, according to report, to fall to his knees, crying "Lord, charge me not with my sins when thou shalt come on the Day of Judgment" (Hibbard 1978: 252). This is usually quoted as evidence for the sense of Christ as the terrible, damning judge. I cannot say what was in the Pope's mind. His response was appropriate to a true understanding of that strange word "sin", a principle necessary to the full understanding of the chapel.

In ordinary language, sin is a wrong action, something we do, something we can confess and describe in detailed specificity. In no full and mature religion is this ever the definition of sin. It is something we are, not something we do. It is the human response to the vision of the numinous. It is not, as Otto points out (pp.50-51), a transgression, but a feeling of absolute "profaneness", of an otherness in kind and not just degree, requiring abasement. It is uncleanness, a soiling of the infinite purity of the divine.

Sin is not a natural experience. Many people and whole cultures (the ones anthropologists used to call "shame" cultures) have not felt it at all. It cannot be a natural experience for there must be something to measure the human reality against; without measure, there is no reason to feel the guilt. In this sense, Michelangelo's Christ is the terrible judge. His very appearance imposes on us (on the worshiper, if not the spectator) a sense of what we are. He is the Glory of God, the final, fulfilling vision that imposes the confession and contrition that are the necessary prelude to redemption.

The Chapel is fully possessed of the terrible, the awe-ful, the incomprehensible majesty of the divine. Yet at one point, the response of the faithful worshiper is at one with the response of the unfaithful spectator: both are overcome with the sense of the sublime, both can feel the exaltation that comes with the sublime. For the spectator this is an experience within itself. For the worshiper it is hope.

Michelangelo's presentation is not a full presentation of the Christian evangel. Particularly in the Last Judgment, it altogether lacks joy. This is not entirely true of the ceiling. There, the powerful exuberance of forms is an exaltation that is not far from joy. Michelangelo was not a happy man, nor did he lead a happy life. Unfortunately, his faith seems not to have brought him much joy, that delight that so markedly characterized such figures as St. Francis or Fra Angelico. His work is somber, serious. It is not without hope.

For those who choose to make it so, his Christ is a vision of condemnation. For those who come to the numinous by way of the sublime, who can sense the numinous within the sublime, it is redemption.

The Transfigured Flesh and the Resurrection of the Body.

At this point it would be well to return to the themes of the beginning of the essay, the bodies as presented in the Chapel. As presented on the ceiling, the bodies are transfigured flesh. As presented on the wall, they are the resurrection of the body. These are, specifically, beautiful bodies. Not all are beautiful; the original of St. Catherine, for example, was grossly obese. The question of beauty cannot be put in the abstract; even more specifically defined, the problem is that of beautiful flesh. The modern temperament, indifferent to religion or defining religion only as doctrine, tends to interpret the presentation of beautiful flesh in one mode only: erotic desire. It is not fitting to deny the presence of either desirability or desire, which would be to offend against the integrity of the human body. The question is the motive and the function of such a presentation.

The undeniable influence of ancient sculpture on Michelangelo often serves as a distraction from what he is doing. It raises the complex, difficult question of "idealization" in Greek art, a problem beyond the scope of this study. As applied to sculpture, it seems to mean the art work as imitation of the idea, the essential principle of the human. Despite the resemblance of much of Michelangelo's work to the Greek, his is never truly an idealization. In this, as in so much else, Michelangelo is a Florentine and a Dantean.

In Canto XIV of Dante's Paradiso, Beatrice asks, for Dante, if the souls in paradise will retain the light in which they now appear after they receive their resurrected bodies. Solomon answers:


As long as the feast of Paradise shall be, so long shall our love radiate around us such a garment. Its brightness follows our ardor, the ardor of our vision, and that is in the measure which each has of grace beyond his merit. When the flesh, glorious and sanctified, shall be clothed on us again, our persons will be more acceptable for being all complete;...

Paradiso XIV, 38-45. Singleton: 155


"The flesh, glorious and sanctified", or, as Charles Williams translated it, "Reclothed in the glorious and holy flesh" ("la carne gloriosa e santa") (Williams: 207). As is normal with Michelangelo, he does not here illustrate Dante, for he is not representing Paradise. Shaped by Dante and his own insight, he defines the body as it had not been before (except, perhaps by the very non-carnal Fra Angelico).

Michelangelo does not present the idealized body but the transfigured body, the body as it is in the creative mind of God. The flesh is luminous in its transformation, a luminosity that was discernible even under the dirt but now is revealed in all its glory by the present cleaning. It is the flesh as such that is holy and glorious. The ignudi possess it and the soft and glowing back of the Libyan Sibyl is female flesh at its finest. By its nature, all flesh is glorious and beautiful. He eliminates the immediate and the adventitious, not for a Platonic idea but for the uncovering of the glory.

Classical figures are at ease in their bodies; body and spirit are in complete harmony by their ideal nature. Michelangelo's figures are willful and intense. The beauty of the holy flesh is an achievement. It is not an achievement in the sense of starting from nothing or even from corruption; the holy flesh is the original quality of creation. It is not for nothing that Adam is the most beautiful male figure on the ceiling. Quite unlike the Greek, Michelangelo's figures always posses will and will is corruptible. That corruption comes to its full statement in the sodden collapse of Noah's drunkenness. Its workings are explored in its various moments of human history, presented to us in the different levels of the ceiling.

Always Michelangelo transcends the pain of history in terms of his vision of the transfigured body.

The holy and glorious flesh was at the heart of what he had to say on the ceiling. On the wall it was the resurrection of the body. When the cleaning is completed we will know better how far he went in presenting the transfigured flesh. As it is, we can see the bodies in their magnificent strength and energy but no longer so self-sufficient or self-contained as they were on the ceiling. Now they are participants in the redemptive action, defined by their place in it, that place determined by their free choice.

The damned move with freedom of action but, since they have rejected the source of humane action, they achieve only violence, despair, vain rebellion and confusion. The redeemed are variously taken up into the coherent unity of divine presence. They participate in the energy that proceeds from the central figure of the redeeming Christ.

Perhaps Michelangelo himself summed it up best in a poem he wrote for Vittoria Colonna at approximately this time in his life. Its concluding lines are:


To you, Lord I must own

My envy of the dead.

I am frightened and confused,

Such, for myself, my soul's convulsive fear.

Lord, in the final hour,

Stretch out thy pitying arms to me, take me

Out of me, make me one that pleases Thee.

(Gilbert 1970: 106)


















Iconography and Program in the Sistine Chapel

A Note to Scholars


In the tradition of Michelangelo scholarship, an enormous amount of energy has been expended on the attempt to determine the program and to identify the theologian responsible for designing the program. The most notable thing about these attempts has been their failure to achieve anything like agreement; one dyspeptic critic said that most of these attempts achieve a consensus of one. Something is wrong with this approach.

The question is not the usefulness of iconography and the programs that link iconographical elements into a whole. They are basic instruments of art history and the richness of their results is evident. The question is the extent to which they apply to Michelangelo.

Iconographical method is grounded in the assumption that, in a certain range of art works, details are determined by a text. Therefore, appropriate text or texts account for the work. Inevitably, the argument becomes circular: since details are necessarily determined by a text, this apparently appropriate text determines the detail. The proof resides in that process rather than in the visual evidence itself. The process of iconography works through much of medieval and Renaissance art. It may not work for Michelangelo.

Iconography, for all its usefulness, surrenders art's birthright in making art subservient to a different mode of thought. Artists, from Lascaux to our own day, think primarily as artists, which is to say they think in formed matter. The forming of matter is as serious, and as necessary, a mode of thought as philosophy.

Art's thinking is not an a-historical category. The matter includes the physical material but it also includes the represented things and actions with all their shape and energy. The subject (including the concerns of the iconographers) is not only what they think about but also what they think with. Good artists, working within the confines of patronage and the market, must work with assigned subjects and derive their subject material from the iconographical repertoire of their own day. If they are good, they can form this material to their own purposes.

My contention is that Michelangelo, who was a very good artist, achieved a greater degree of independence from assignment than any other artist of his time. He is not, therefore, to be understood by tracing his sources to texts but by the program he spread before our eyes.

I run the danger, both now and in my general contention that Michelangelo speaks distinctively to us, of taking him out of the context that was the place of his commitments and concerns. This is not permissible.

We are all—artist, critic, reader—immersed in, shaped by, conditioned by, our social and economic class and structures of power, our gender and gender conflicts, our family and sexual histories and desires, our race, by the intricacies and the difficulties of our language, by all the modes of self-interest and power that make up the human world. All this is a secular version of "original sin", (which has nothing to do with Adam and everything to do with the Calvinist account: everything human beings do is sinful and corrupt). For the moment, we can leave aside the principle of sin (as Michelangelo did not) and rephrase it: everything we do is conditioned and probably corrupt; the "hermeneutics of suspicion" is sound up to the point it excludes itself from suspicion.

More benignly, it affirms another theological principle: the incarnation (with a small "i"; we are not here dealing with Christology). We are fully human and our mental, critical, constructive work does not emerge from a mind detached from the body or the whole of our humanity. Critics cannot stand apart from artists and explain them by a theory that does not apply equally to themselves. Whatever their temptation to reductionism, modern critical movements have established inescapably the extent and the power of our involvement with the forces, the energies, of the earth, of our bodies, of our social and political organization. We are of the earth earthy, we are human under the conditions of our involvements with history and with the structure and energies of our worlds.

The lesser artists can be explained by these forces. The greater artists relate to them in a different way. In their own way, in their own terms, they already "know" these things. Their work is a matter of coming to terms with them, of forming a human life within these immediacies of the human condition, to generate the work out of, by means of, the essential and inescapable human conditions. Art is an independent mode of thinking about the world, not merely evidence and illustration of thinking going on elsewhere.

Iconography is an essential discipline in historical study. It should be considered an essential tool, not a controlling principle. A text might seem appropriate, according to an interpretation adopted by the critic. It cannot, however be assumed as the controlling principle of the work unless that is demonstrable. it cannot take precedence over the evidence of the seen work.


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