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Last Judgements
The Christian church and the artists they have supported down through the ages have a wonderfully simple view of history. It begins with the creation and ends with the last judgement. Anything in between is, by contrast, largely irrelevant. Even before Michelangelo, numerous other artists had fairly well covered the creation. But it probably wouldn't be going too far to say that he pretty much rewrote the book on the subject, or at least illustrated it, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And at first glance, one might assume he did the same with regard to the last judgement. On the wall behind the altar of the Sistine Chapel would seem to be the definitive last word on that subject too. However, this is not nearly so much the case as with his version of Genesis and the creation of the world. Like his creation, Michelangelo's Last Judgement came after a long line of earlier efforts in depicting the subject. However in this case, far from being the "last word," it may even have spawned others in the years that followed. For various reasons, creations have not held nearly as much interest for artists as have last judgements.

It's not hard to see why. The creation of the world, beautiful and inspiring as it was, has long been ancient history. The last judgement, on the other hand, looms over everyone on earth as Christian artists see it, even those who are not Christians, and more particularly, even the artists themselves. Thus it is far more relevant to their daily lives. Likewise, pretty pictures of Adam and Eve cavorting nakedly in the Garden of Eden, even images of their being expelled for their sins, were of little use to the church in times past for cowing the unwashed, illiterate masses into unquestioning obedience to church doctrine as were images of a mighty king on a throne, meting out salvation on the one hand (the right hand, of course) and hell and damnation on the other (always the left hand). And it's no accident they often appeared behind the altar in various churches. There's nothing like the contrasting prospects of heaven and hell to help keep the attention of parishioners from wandering during a long, boring sermon.

Last judgements date from at least as far back as the sixth century, as seen in mosaics located in the apse of San Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy. There we see Christ separating sheep, representing the saved, off to his right and goats, representing the damned, off to his left (hence the oft-used phrase, "damned goats," I suppose). It was another three hundred years, however, before anything like the more literal iconography we are now accustomed to began to take shape in Byzantium, and then moved westward. One of the better last judgements from this period is the work of Roger van der Weyden, a multi-panelled altarpiece commissioned by the chancellor of the Duke of Burgundy for a hospital chapel in Beaune, France around 1443-51. Christ, resplendent in vivid red robes, dominates a heavenly gathering of apostles and other saints, flanked by a throng of angels bearing the cross and assorted banners, all hovering over the Archangel St. Michael, who uses a set of scales to weigh the vices and virtues of the multitudes, sending nude figures representing the righteous off to eternal bliss to his right and similar, contrite sinners to the gates of hell on his left.

Luca Signorelli took two enormous frescos located in the chapel of the Oriveto Cathedral in Italy to say the same thing. In one mural, spread lavishly beneath an arched opening, Christ, playing a guitar, and accompanied by a six-piece orchestra of winged angels with other stringed instruments, serenades the saved in a brightly lit celebration of their salvation. Meanwhile, next door, in an identical space, we see a dark, forbidding scene of archangels with swords drawn driving a flock of the devil's angels as they carry off to hell individual victims from a chaotic crowd of the damned staggering under the weight of their sins. Neither scene is likely to lose your attention even during the longest of sermons. Then came Michelangelo. Actually Michelangelo's Sistine masterpiece, though certainly impressive and frightening enough, was initially not very well received for the simple reason it was not very much like any that had ever gone before it. First of all, Michelangelo, being Michelangelo, painted nearly all his figures naked, or nearly so, even Christ (what we see today is a rather slapdash attempt by a counterreformation era artist to correct this assumed fault). Secondly, rather than the right/left symmetrical balance of saints versus sinners as seen in earlier works, Michelangelo has used a rather circular composition of the saved rising toward heaven and a massive, powerful, and very judgmental Christ, while the damned fall into the clutches of the devil's cohorts below. He even went so far as to depict the pagan figure of Charon from classical mythology escorting them across the River Styx to Hades and the ancient underworld (no doubt influenced by Dante's Inferno).

In the years that followed, Michelangelo, or at least the church, inspired artists as diverse as Tintoretto in the sixteenth century and Rubens in the seventeenth to rise to the occasion in trying to strike terror into the hearts of viewers with their own last judgement efforts. Even the twentieth century is not without its own apocalyptic vision of the last judgement as seen by the English artist, Stanley Spencer. But Spencer departs even more dramatically from the accepted norm for this type of work than did Michelangelo. He sets his resurrection during the final days in the church graveyard of his local parish at Cookham, England. A beardless Christ, sitting on the flower-bedecked front porch of the church, presides benignly over the emergence of the dead from their graves to be ferried off by boat to heaven. The artist even depicts himself (in the far right corner), and nearby, his wife, both rising from their graves. It is a peaceful, transfigured world of love, sweetness, and grace without even the hint of the ultimate punishment to disturb the joy and gentle, placid tranquillity of this "last judgement." It's so twentieth century, it would put me to sleep, even without the sermon.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
15 May 2001

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