As we go about our daily lives we try to do the right things. Our ideals of right and wrong are so ingrained in us almost from birth that, except for unusual circumstances, we seldom give them much thought. And regardless of how religious we are, or the exact details of our religious beliefs, there remains lodged in the back of our minds an ultimate reason as to why we strive to favour right over wrong--the promise of heaven if we do, the threat of hell if we donít. It's a simple either-or situation and society today hates situations without shades of grey. We have come to complicate the whole matter with the field of ethics in which we attempt to evaluate our actions based upon the circumstances of the moment, or we invent a halfway house such as Purgatory where there is the opportunity for atonement before the final judgement. Though there is little or no Biblical support for such an idea, during Medieval times the church found this concept a slick way to raise funds by working out various financial arrangements with the heirs of wealthy deceased individuals whereby the loved-one's time in purgatory could be reduced by the contribution of guilt money or the doing of good works.
One of the greatest works of art from the Medieval period was the result of just such a dubious deal. Reginaldo Scrovegni of Padua was a notorious usurer, lending money at exorbitant rates--interest often approaching 100%. Today we would call him a loan shark. His sins were so grievous he was listed amongst the damned in Dante's Divine Comedy. In 1302, his son, Enrico, set out to "rescue" his father's damned soul, or more likely the family's reputation, by building a glorious chapel known today as the Scrovegni Chapel (sometimes referred to as the Arena Chapel). He commissioned the best architects, workers, craftsmen, and most of all, the best artists of the day to implement his guilt trip. And in 1302, that meant Giotto. Inside, over the main entrance, Giotto painted a Last Judgement (appropriate under the circumstances) that was to reign as the supreme statement on the matter until Michelangelo gave us his impression of the subject over the altar in the Sistine Chapel nearly 250 years later.
Not only did Michelangelo not invent the idea of the Last Judgement as a painting theme, but neither did Giotto in fact (though some would say Michelangelo was heavily influenced by Giotto). From about the year 1000 on, the church found it beneficial to emphasise, through its art, the ultimate dispensation of justice. A 1225 mosaic of the Last Judgement by Coppo di Marcovaldo features quite prominently a horrendous, flesh-eating devil while the Torcello cathedral has a Byzantine style mosaic Last Judgement dating from the 12th century featuring a river of fire sweeping away the damned. A later fresco, the work of Pietro Cavallini in Rome's Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome, is a much more touching and serene depiction. Giotto's version is a refinement of all these. It is just as colourful and graphic, especially given its greater realism, but shifts the emphasis much more toward the divine judgement seat of Christ. Giotto is said to have been quite sensitive to the needs of the Scrovegni family in decorating their chapel. He was, in fact, not above a form of usury himself. The wealthy artist was in the habit of hiring out his looms for exorbitant fees to the poverty-stricken weavers of his hometown of Florence.