“Christianity’s contribution to our culture does not need to accept the great rift that divides our modern world, but consists rather in healing it. The resurrection of the flesh is precisely a witness that this healing is possible.”
When Michelangelo’s fresco of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel was unveiled for the first time, Pope Paul III fell to his knees in an act of reverent adoration, fearful before the figure of Christ in judgment.1 This impression of a Christ condemning the damned has become a widespread interpretation of the painting. It is not the only possible reading, however; Jesus’ raised hand could indeed signify a rejection of the wicked, but it may equally well be viewed as an invitation to the blessed to advance toward him. In this view, Christ in judgment is the dynamic center of the painting and sets the entire scene in motion.
This interpretation is reinforced if we consider that Michelangelo’s original intention may have been to illustrate not the final judgment but rather the resurrection of the flesh.2 If this is the case, what the painter intends to focus on is precisely the body of the Redeemer, together with the bodies of all the risen. The center of the picture would then be the powerful strength that radiates from Christ and causes all the figures in the painting to move around him.
In this regard, it is important to note that the body of the risen Christ is not the type we find in Greek sculpture.3 Michelangelo does not portray the self-contained body depicted in ancient art, a body that expresses the nobility and harmony of the soul. To the contrary, this Christian body is full of energy, it is a body that exerts a magnetic attraction over the other bodies on the Sistine wall, a body endowed with a force that springs out into the rest of the picture.
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1. Cf. Timothy Verdon, Michelangelo teologo: fede e creativitá tra Rinascimento e Controriforma (Milan: Ancora, 2005), 130.
2. Cf. Marcia B. Hall, “Michelangelo’s ‘Last Judgment’: Resurrection of the Body and Predestination,” The Art Bulletin 58 (1976): 85–92: “It is not anger but Michelangelo’s characteristic energy that he [Christ] embodies. Christ’s gesture does not consign the damned to Hell, but rather puts into motion the process we see taking place before us” (89).
3. Cf. John W. Dixon, The Christ of Michelangelo: An Essay on Carnal Spirituality (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994); cf. Verdon, Michelangelo teologo, 125.