Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Isenheim Altarpiece - The Crucifixion
The crucifixion scene is one of the most popular religious scenes to be portrayed in art, so there are many different ways of showing it. After being introduced to Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece in my art history class, I decided to take a closer look into this work, specifically with Grunewald’s The Crucifixion, located on the central panel.
When I first looked at the image, there were many things that I immediately noticed. Jesus is, quite clearly, the center and most important figure in the painting. He immediately sticks out and looks like he is in extreme pain, which is not always portrayed in crucifixion paintings. I also noticed that the other two crosses weren’t present in the background of this picture. As far as the other people in the picture go, I figured that the woman in white was Jesus’ mother Mary, but wasn’t completely sure who she was holding on to or who the woman on the ground and the man on the right were. I saw that there was text next to the man on the right and didn’t know what it said. My attention was also drawn to the lamb on the ground that was holding a cup and I wondered why the artist decided to include it in the piece.
There is some confusion surrounding the actual identity of the artist who created this work. It has been discovered that the last name Grunewald is not correct – it was accidently assigned to him by a German painter and historian in a book written in 1675. Scholars today believe that his real name is either Matthias Gothardt or Matthias Gothardt Neithardt, but his false name is continues to be used. Grunewald was born around 1480 in the German-Bavarian town of Wurzburg. He was a painter, an engineer, a manufacturer of paints and soap, and the designer of the reconstruction of the Aschaffenburg Palace in Bavaria. It can be assumed that he was a respected artist considering he was commission to paint for the Antonite order in Isenheim, which was wealthy and sought only renowned artists to decorate its chapel. Today, barely a dozen of his works are still around, and those that are can be found mostly in German churches and museums.
This image is actually part of a larger work done by Grunewald called the Isenheim Altarpiece. The Altarpiece was created from 1512-1516 for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, which is currently a part of the eastern region of France, Alsace. The monastery specialized in hospital work and the Antoinite order operated the hospital in Isenheim specifically for victims of Saint Anthony’s Fire, a disease characterized by painful skin eruptions that blackened and became infected, often requiring amputations. The eruptions were accompanied by nervous spasms and convulsions, causing many deaths. The placement of the Altarpiece of Isenheim within the chapel’s hospital was used as a sort of morale booster for the patients suffering from Saint Anthony’s Fire, as a way to show that Jesus went through even more pain and suffering. The Altarpiece consists of nine images on twelve wooden panels containing scenes of the Annunciation, Mary bathing Christ, Crucifixion, Entombment of Christ, Resurrection, Temptation of St. Anthony and saints. There are two sets of wings that make up the altarpiece, which open up to reveal the different scenes. Today the altarpiece can be found in the Musee d’Unterlinden in Colmar, Alsace, France.
There are many interesting details that make The Crucifixion different from many other crucifixion scenes. In the center of the piece is Jesus on the cross. You can see that his skin has sort of a green, sickly tinge to it, which may represent Saint Anthony’s Fire. Jesus’ body also looks a lot more stressed and he looks like he is in a great deal of pain. It’s also easy to notice the blood coming out of Jesus’ side, where he was struck with the spear and the contrast of the red color of his blood with the green color of his body. The fact that the wound from the spear is shown allows us to assume that this particular crucifixion scene is being portrayed from the Gospel of John. Something to notice also is that all of the characters in the piece are different sizes, something not common of a Renaissance era piece; this difference in size is more characteristic of medieval works. In art, commonly the size of the person is linked to the artist’s view of their importance. To the left of Jesus, there are three people. Mary, the mother of Jesus is dressed in all white and is fainting into the arms of St. John the Evangelist, the author of the Gospel of John, who is dressed in all red. On the ground, is the much smaller Mary Magdalene, who is sitting next to her vessel of ointments and is wringing her hands in sorrow. To the right of Jesus is John the Baptist, who chronologically would have been long dead by the time of the crucifixion. John is seen with his finger up in the air pointing to Jesus with the words he spoke in John 3:30 next to him, “He must increase, and I must decrease” – clearly something that the author wanted those who viewed the altarpiece to think about. On the ground below John the Baptist there is the figure of the sacrificial lamb who is pouring out its blood into the cup of communion it is holding, signifying our sins that Jesus was dying for.
This work could be seen as controversial to some because of the way that Jesus is being portrayed. Jesus is made to look very human in this piece, which has caused controversy over time. Some controversy over the piece may also lie in the fact that the chronology doesn’t make sense, due to the fact that John the Baptist was not alive at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.
In some way, I think that this depiction of the crucifixion is more realistic than some of the others that I have seen. The portrayal of Jesus seems more like what it would’ve been like realistically – he would appear sickly and like he was in a great deal of pain. Other elements of the painting, however, do not make it historically accurate, but do bring forth interesting questions surrounding the artist and his purpose.
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Have you ever read through each of the gospels in the bible, only to find that when recalling a particular story from one of the gospels, a compiled scene comes to mind? This phenomenon is something that most people experience when trying to remember details of a story. The artist Konrad von Soest must have realized this early long ago. His painting of Jesus’s crucifixion, entitled The Crucifixion, includes details form various gospels. Originally as the centerpiece of a polyptych, The Crucifixion is the only signed piece of art by Konrad von Soest. The polyptych as a whole includes panels on both sides of the center artwork, which are divided into quadrants. These quadrants contain depictions of other biblical texts like, Jesus’s nativity.
As an artist, Soest was well known. He was born around 1370 in Dortmund, and he died soon after 1422. He was the most significant Westphalia artist and painted in the so-called soft style of International Gothic. He played a leading role in the introduction of this style to Northern Germany around 1390 and influenced German and Northern European painting into the late 15th century. In The Crucifixion, we can see this soft-style being used. In the foreground three holy women (the three Maries) surround the figure of the Virgin, who has collapsed. They are not crushed by great despair, but rather seized with gentle, languid sorrow. Indeed, the whole representation is characterized by a soft mood rather than by dramatic qualities. The only exception of this is St John, who is standing behind the Maries, raising his hands passionately towards Jesus.
This painting seems to be a portrayal of all of the gospels in the bible. As mentioned before, The Virgin Mary is in attendance of Christ’s crucifixion, which is only detailed in The Gospel of John. Also there is an old man stabbing Jesus’s side with a spear. This detail is again only mentioned in John. The officials break the thieves’ legs but, they do not do this to Jesus. Instead he is poked with a spear. This is due to the fact that a sacrifice was not allowed to have any broken bones.
The gospel of Luke is also depicted in this painting. This is seen when looking closely at the crucified thieves. Above the heads of the two thieves are an angel and a demon. Only in Luke, is there mention of dialogue from the two thieves. One of the thieves taunts Jesus while on the cross asking him to free himself since he is so powerful. The other thief, however, declares that while they are guilty of stealing, Jesus has done nothing wrong. He then asks Jesus to remember him when he enters his kingdom. This is the only story that details this conversation, which supports the reasoning behind the angel and demon placed overhead the two thieves seen in the painting.
There are a couple of characters seen that are mentioned in every gospel. Pilate is seen wearing a crown and holds a long staff, while pointing upwards with his forefinger, in an attempt to convince the knight in a red cloak, next to him, about the divinity of Christ. Also, holding an inscribed scroll in his lifted right hand, the centurion with the red helmet is similarly attempting to convince the nobleman beside him. The inscription translates to, “He was the son of God, indeed.” These words are what the centurion is credited with saying in each of the gospels.
It is interesting to think about why Soest chose to portray The Crucifixion with such soft mannerisms, while bringing together information from various gospels of the bible. Even more interesting is that the bible was not translated to German until the 1500s. Since this artist lived in a region of Germany and painted this piece almost one hundred years prior, one must wonder what his source was. If he was unable to read the bible in a different language maybe he had a close friend who knew the details of the story quite vividly. Which ever it may be one thing remains certain. Soest believed in a collaboration of events during Jesus’s crucifixion and thought the event contained a rather soft sacred feel in opposition to a loud dramatic one.
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Art by Duccio
Presentation by Grace Kerr and Kate Kelley
At first glance of this piece entitled “Jesus Taken Prisoner” by Duccio di Buoninsegna, I was pleased with the connection it appeared to have with the recent conversations we’ve been having in class about the betrayal, as well as our plan to read the gospel of Judas for our next class. Upon closer look, my first main question was about Jesus’ portrayal of apparel – it is not normal for Jesus to appear in a black robe. Even a dark colored robe (besides purple, referencing royalty) would be controversial in the time this piece was created.
Duccio di Buoninsegna created this image in 1308 A.D. in Siena, Italy. Duccio, however often commissioned to paint in multiple cathedrals across Italy, was fined and punished many times throughout his life for varied reasons. His violations included illegal political actions, refusing military service, and even one having to do with sorcery. Although unexplained, I think that Duccio’s possible involvement in sorcery may explain the black robe clothing Jesus in this piece. Placing the son of God in a color most often associated with death and evil would appear to many viewers as sacrilegious.
Duccio, from Siena himself, probably created this work on commission from the Roman Catholic Church, as most of his works were. In fact, Duccio is accredited for painting the High Altar of the Cathedral in Siena, and most of his works are collected there still, although the building is now called the Cathedral Museum. Duccio’s Italian heritage is reflected in the piece as all of the characters painted seem to be Caucasian, even though if portrayed accurately, they would be dark and of Jewish heritage.
This piece contains three main scenes. In the center, Judas is seen giving Jesus the kiss of betrayal. One might notice the three trees in the background; it is said that these three are supposed to be pointing directly towards the main scene. To the left, Peter is seen cutting off the ear of the priest’s servant. To the right of the piece, the rest of the disciples are seen fleeing the area.
The scene of Jesus being taken as prisoner is described with most detail in Matthew chapter 26. Visually, “Christ Taken Prisoner” is quite representative of the bible passage. Nothing from the story seems to be misrepresented or distorted any way. The only thing that differs slightly is the assumed intentions of the disciples that are on the right side of the piece. The rest of the twelve seem to be fleeing from the situation, although this idea was never directly presented within the gospels.
There are a few unanswered (and unanswerable, most likely) questions that presented themselves while I was examining “Christ Taken Prisoner.” I am intrigued by the use of halos within this piece. As in tradition, Jesus has a halo, as do many of the disciples. There are, however, a few disciples, including Peter on the right, who do not have halos. Why? Are they being presented as less holy? If so, why would Judas have one? Or is he not even painted in this piece at all? The use of the color orange also struck my interest, as did the clothes that Jesus was painted in. These questions may have plausible answers, or the explanations may have been lost in history.
Sunday, March 21, 2010
Ecce Ancilla Domini by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born in London in 1828, but his parents were from Italy, which influenced some of his work. Rossetti trained briefly at two different academies, including the Royal Academy, but soon trained with other painters. He began the piece Ecce Ancilla Domini in 1849 with the intention of entering it in the Royal Academy exhibition, but did not. He completed the piece in 1853, which he renamed The Annunciation. The painting accompanies his earlier work called The Girlhood of Mary Virgin.
Ecce Ancilla Domini depicts a scene only found in Luke (Luke 1:26-35). The angel Gabriel comes to Mary and tells her that the Lord is with her. Verse 29 says, "But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be." The angel goes on to tell her not to be afraid, but that she will bear a son, even though she is a virgin. There has been many paintings or renderings of this scene, but Rossetti's is not typical of other depictions. Though his perspective is technically incorrect, which he has been criticized for, it combines with other elements to create a more accurate depiction of what is written in Luke.
Rossetti's piece was so radical because it shows Mary as a frightened, pale young girl. Her eyes are sunken in and she cannot face the angel, but looks down. This Mary is not eager to accept her fate. Her body shrinks back with discomfort and fear. The cloth on the stand before her bed is an embroidery of lilies that Rossetti depicted Mary making in his earlier piece, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin. This further illustrates her youth, if her petite body and young face are not enough. Traditional renderings of the Annunciation often depict a mature Mary complacently accepting her fate, but this piece shows what it must have actually been like. A divine figure suddenly appearing would have been frightening to anyone, but his news for the young virgin would cause further excitement. She seems pained by the choice to give up the simplicity of childhood in return for such great responsibility.
The angel in the painting contrasts Mary. He stands strong and upright, while she looks weak and sits scrunched. His depiction seems accurate as well. He has no wings or boyish face. He is an angel of the Lord, and is strong from doing God's work. Earlier, Daniel says of Gabriel that he looked like a man. (Daniel 8:15)
The distorted perspective in this piece actually helps depict the scene accurately--it enables viewers to see how young Mary must have felt at this point. The bed seems to be longer than the wall, and the floor and back wall fade into each other. The room is small, and Mary tries to scrunch as far away from the angel as she can, yet the distorted angles makes it seem as if her efforts will fail and she will fall toward the frightening being. It's hard to get your bearings of the cramped, disproportionate room, and the window offers some hope of stabilizing the room with concrete objects depicted outside. However, we just see part of a tree, which furthers the dizzying elements of the room. Viewers cannot actually feel the burden that Mary was faced with, but Rossetti helps us get an idea.
Rossetti's use of white in this piece is also notable. In other works portraying Mary, blue is seen as the color worn by the virgin, but Rossetti dresses her in white. He does include the blue curtain behind her though, and the blue from the sky outside the window outlines the angel's head, which represents heaven. The angel, walls, floor, and bed are all white though. Many call this as an excessive use of white, but again, it helps Rossetti depict the reality of the scene. Many may fail to recognize how young Mary actually was, and the white represents the innocence and purity of her youth. It also further distorts the spatial perspective because everything is white.
The embroidered lilies and the live ones in Gabriel's hand further depict Mary's purity and youth. The lilies in his hand look as if they are pointing to Mary's womb, though it's hard to tell with the distorted angles. He seems to be presenting to her the great responsibility that lies ahead with the lilies.
Finally, there is a dove coming from the window, from the blue of heaven, representing the Holy Spirit. In Luke, the angel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will come upon her. The dove also gives reason for Mary to react as she does. She is young, and perhaps fearful of giving birth in a seemingly impossible way, but she will not give birth to just anyone. She will give birth to the Son of God. Perhaps she had doubts about her adequacy to give birth to the holy Son.
Rossetti's painting gives more of an accurate depiction of the annunciation than many other painters have. Mary reacts genuinely as a young virgin would to this drastic news and reality.
The perspective is not accurate, but its unsettling effect accurately depicts how Mary must have felt. One inaccuracy, would be her skin color. Mary would probably not have been this white, but the white further depicts her youth and innocence. The painting is accurate in the ideas and feelings it portrays--Mary's youth and surprise by the news.
By: Nicole Braunsdorf
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
The New Testament in Art
Lamentation for Christ
Lamentation for Christ was created by artist Albrecht Dürer between 1500 and 1503. He created Lamentation for Christ for Albrecht Glimm who dedicated the painting to his first wife, Margareth Holzhausen, who was deceased. Dürer was raised in Nuremberg and had completed his first painting by age 13. He used mixtures of dark and somber colors within his paintings—which suggests depth and produces a deep atmosphere. Dürer uses many techniques found in the Renaissance period but also adds his own unique style to each of his paintings. Many of his paintings have Italian features to them because of his early inspiration with Italian art.
The Renaissance Period a cultural movement that affected European literature, philosophy, art, religion, science and politics. Renaissance scholars incorporated the humanist method into study and would often search for realism and human emotion in paintings, poetry, and other forms of art. Renaissance art focuses on lighting and shades along with the human anatomy in great detail.
Lamentation for Christ has two main themes to look at within this painting. The first has to do with the back ground or scenery. What caught my eye first in this painting was the contrast between the mountains and the skyline. The contrast of color really pops and helps bring out the evil that Dürer was trying to symbolize with the crucifixion of Jesus (Luke 23: 44-45). The light on the mountains and city represents the hope that Saint Peter references when mentioning the sun shining again.
The city in the painting is suppose to represent the city of Jerusalem, where Jesus was tried and crucified. However, the Dürer draws a modern Nordic village which does not accurately represent Jerusalem at the time of Jesus being nailed to the cross. I believe he wanted to portray Jerusalem in a modern, for the time, light to not only help the viewer relate to the scene but also to give it character from the Renaissance time period.
Below the city, you can see the open tomb that represents the place where Jesus was laid before he had risen. It is also noted that you can see an uncovered sarcophagus. There is no explanation for why Dürer thought it necessary to add the tomb with such detail, but I believe this was just what he envisioned he would see if he was present at the time of the crucifixion.
The second theme of Lamentation for Christ is the people present in the painting. First, I noticed the individuals are dressed in clothing from Dürer’s time period, not in clothing from when Jesus was present on Earth. I understand that he wished to portray the individuals as modern civilians that one might find walking on the street during the Renaissance era, making it easier for a viewer to relate to the picture’s meaning. This painting is traditional Dutch interpretation of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ which could also explain the dress of the individuals.
Standing below the cross are Nicodemus, Mary Magdalene, and St. John. The color of their clothing is very distinct and snags the attention of the viewer’s eye. They are also the brightest characters in the painting, implying they see hope in the near future. Mary, holding Jesus’ hand, is weeping tears and joined by the other two Mary’s in the painting. Madonna is in the center of the picture wearing very dark clothing and is next to a weeping woman. Joseph of Arimathea is supporting Jesus’ body, which is pale and lifeless showing the true suffering he encountered when being crucified on the cross.
The characters in the painting are quite large and have a lot of detail compared to other New Testament paintings. The features of the people add more meaning to what emotions they are feeling during Jesus’ death. Their bold appearance tugs at the heart of the individual studying the painting more than just depicting a scene from the New Testament would. Dürer was trying to draw attention to how passionate and moving the actual day of Christ’s death was for the present individuals.
At the bottom corners of the picture, Albrecht Glimm, his sons, daughter, and his wife represent the medieval tradition of drawing the donor into artist’s creation. However, these characters show no purpose other than to classify what time period the painting was from. Dürer loved to incorporate Renaissance style into each one of his paintings to make them unique, in which he does quite well in Lamentation for Christ.
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
THE MIRACULOUS DRAUGHT OF FISHES
The works of Raphael number in the hundreds, of them he was commissioned by the church for a number of paintings and The Miraculous Draught of Fishes was one of them works. He was commissioned by Pope Leo X to paint a set of ten cartoons to be hung in the Sistine Chapel. The cartoons were to represent the lives of the saints Peter and Paul. The set of ten were made on tapestries and were designed to complement the well-known paintings of Michelangelo displayed in the same room. The Paintings were also designed to take advantage of the natural lighting inside the Chapel, he did this by highlight the source of light in the paintings to work with the light coming in from the windows.
The tapestries had to be created in mirror image of what Raphael imagined the final product to look like. This was because when the image was printed it would portray the image in reverse from what was shown. Raphael designed this piece of art to allow the natural movements of people’s eyes, which is from left to right. Raphael planned this painting so that the eye would be naturally drawn to Jesus on the left by using distinct lines.
In the image we see the scene from Matthew 12:24 where Jesus tells Peter after a long fruitless day of fishing to cast his net into the water and they draw in a great number of fish, so much so that they struggle to pull it in. We can see also in this image that Raphael uses groups of three, with three people on the left and right and also three herons in the foreground. The Pattern of objects specifically around Jesus and the fisherman is in a circle, this is to let the eye go around and to focus on Jesus.
The Boat on the right laden with fish is carrying Jesus along with Peter and Andrew and in the other boat are partners of Peter with whom he fishes. We see that they are presented in the style of the renaissance period in that they are very muscular. In the one boat we also notice that they are more worried about the fish then they are of Jesus but the boat with Jesus they are in disbelief and praying because of this miracle. The Boats are placed so as to give the appearance that they are just slowly drifting by.
In the background are attention is drawn to the lake that meets the sky and gives us the effect that the difference between Earth and sky are faded away. Also in the background on the right hand side are two groups of people the people closer to the catch are launching a boat to try to get any of the left over catch while the people further back are the people with whom Jesus talked to before the miracle.
Raphael’s ten cartoons are still to this day displayed on special occasions in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, but much easier to find are the later printings of the works. The Steady hands of Raphael will ever be immortalized in this great work of art commissioned for the Catholic Church.
Sunday, March 7, 2010
Baptism of Christ
By: PIERO Della FRANCESCA
The painting named “Baptism of Christ” is one of the most famous paintings by Piero Della Francesca and hangs in the National Gallery in London. It was inspired from the gospel of John 1:29‐34. Piero Francesca was an Italian artist of the early renaissance period. He was also a good mathematician and many of his paintings use geometric forms. The following geometric forms exist in the painting and were posted on http://www.dartmouth.edu/~matc/math5.geometry/unit13/unit13.html:
* A microtheme , baptism bowl near center of picture.
* Severely foreshortened dove at center of circle and top of square. Lends a mystical
* Frozen, static quality found in square pictures, or in round pictures.
* The tree trunk is at 1/3 the width; the dove is at 1/3 the height.
* Piero's hometown of Sansopolcro can be seen in the distance, between Christ and
* John's arm and Christ's loincloth continue the line of the circle.
* Square and circle overlap, like the circles in a vesica, with Christ in area common
to both. If the circle is equated with heaven, and the square with earth, here Christ is
shown as mediator between the two. Here Piero has combined squaring the circle
and the Vesica in one painting
* The recurring motif of the three graces.
* Figures are simplified, cubist, geometric. Piero has been called "the first cubist."
Even though I do not know what all of these geometric forms mean, the number of geometric forms in this one painting shows the attention to detail and planning that Piero Francesca must have needed to create this masterpiece. This piece of art does not strike me as controversial, however the work could be viewed as extremely controversial when you look at the color of their skin and especially the color of the angels skin.
On the left side of the painting is a depiction of three angels at the baptism of Jesus. While this is not specifically stated in the gospel of John they are still placed in this painting. This could be a way to show the spirit of God being present at this event and how God was the one who put these events into place. The controversial part is the pale white skin color of the angels and their blonde hair. This representation of angels is very geared to white superiority and may be consistent with the renaissance period.
The other thing that I think is very cool about this piece of art is the geometric form. I stated earlier the forms that scholars say have been used but I did not touch on why the artist would want to use geometric forms. I believe that the geometric forms bring not only a sense of perfection to a picture but also a sense of spiritual clarity in its precision.
According to www.moodbook.com Piero Della Francesca, “Wrote books on solid geometry and on perspective, and his works reflect these interests. Francesca's solid, rounded figures are derived from Masaccio, while from Domenico he absorbed a predilection for delicate colors and scenes bathed in cool, clear daylight. To these influences he added an innate sense of order and clarity. He conceived of the human figure as a volume in space, and the outlines of his subjects have the grace, abstraction, and precision of geometric drawings. Almost all of Piero's works are religious in nature ‐ primarily altarpieces and church frescoes in which he presents scenes of astonishing beauty, with silent, stately figures fixed in clear, crystalline space. There are always large areas of white or near‐white in his works, the skies are big, light and sunny. The monumental quality of his figures, the perspectival construction of the pictorial space and the spiritual calm of his compositions led, throughout Italy, to the final surmounting of the Gothic style and prepared the way for the artistic achievements of High Renaissance in Italy.”
In the painting the dove above Jesus is said to represent the Holy Spirit and that in the original placement of the painting there was an object located above it that was supposed to represent the third part of the trinity (Father/God). Jesus himself is dressed very plain and appears to be very normal. The positioning of his hands appears to represent him praying to the Father. Overall, this painting began when I first saw it as a simple painting with no real interest and after my research I discovered just how much work went into this masterpiece and the many meanings behind inside of it.
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
When I graduated from high school in 2008, my parents gave me a gift that I will never forget and is hard to top. I was able to pick anywhere in the world to travel to, so because of my historical interests, I chose to travel to Italy. While touring the Vatican City, my family and I were able to go into the Sistine Chapel, and while we were in there, I got to view a piece of artwork that absolutely blew me away. I’m not even talking about the Sistine Chapel ceiling; I’m talking about the artwork on the wall behind the alter: The Last Judgement. This gigantic painting, which measures about 45 feet by 40 feet, is one of Michelangelo Buonarroti’s most famous works and draws thousands and thousands of viewers each year.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another…” ---- Matthew 25:31-32
One of the most captivating stories from the Bible that has kept people fascinated for centuries is the story describing the end of the world. More commonly known as “Armageddon” or the “Apocalypse,” the Biblical Book of Revelation depicts an extremely detailed account of how the world is going to end. Back in 1534, the Catholic Church commissioned an artist named Michelangelo to not only paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but also the wall directly behind the alter. During this time, Michelangelo was at the peak of his artistic career, already having produced famous works including “La Pieta” and the statue of “David.” An interesting aspect to highlight about Michelangelo was that he was a homosexual, and viewers can easily see his obsession with the male body in that every figure is overly muscular/masculine. To put Michelangelo’s skill into perspective, his sole major competition/rival was Leonardo da Vinci, and both of these men lived in Italy. “In scale, technique, and drama, The Last Judgement is an absolute highlight of Renaissance painting (1).” The pope residing at the time of the commission was Pope Clement VII, but he died in 1534 (the same year as the commission), so Pope Paul III (the next elected pope) decided to continue as previously planned and have Michelangelo paint a scene from the final judgement.
When examining this piece of artwork, one must immediately realize that there are a lot of different things going on inside this one scene. One of the most obviously aspects of the painting that sticks out is Jesus. Jesus is the young white person in the upper center of the painting with the glow of light around him. What strikes me as interesting is the fact that Jesus is not only white, but also doesn’t look like a stereotypical Jesus (well groomed hair, a beard, clothed, etc). On Jesus’ left side, the Virgin Mary, his mother, is cowering and observing the pandemonium occurring underneath them on earth. Some other very noticeable figures around Jesus (going from left to right) are St John the Baptist (big, strong, nearly naked man looking at Jesus), St Lawrence (holding the ladder), St Bartholomew (holding his earthly flesh), St Peter (holding the keys to Heaven), St Blaise (holding the iron blade), St Catherine (holding the wooden wheel with spikes), and finally St Sebastian (holding several arrows) (2). Most scholars have come to a consensus and decided that the skin St Bartholomew is holding is actually Michelangelo’s self-portrait. After painting so many prominent Biblical figures in the nude drove Michelangelo to feel like a sinner undeserving of Jesus’ righteous judgement. All of the other figures in the clouds are martyrs/saints/angels, and are either allowing people into Heaven if they’re righteous or denying them if they are not.
Furthermore, Michelangelo did something incredibly remarkable in his interpretation of Hell (located in the bottom right corner): he incorporated Roman and Greek mythology into Christianity (2). Why he decided to do this is not known with certainty, but the demon holding the oar is named Charon and the man with the snake wrapped around him is named Minos. Charon is the boatman who ferries dead souls to the Underworld, and is also featured in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Minos was the king of Crete, son of Zeus, and one of the three judges of the Underworld. As Michelangelo was painting this masterpiece, the papal master of ceremonies, Baigio da Cesena, continually criticized the work because all of the figures (except Mary and Jesus) were completely naked. This, in turn, provoked and made Michelangelo angry, so he painted Cesena into the painting as the demonic Minos. Eventually, “…it was decided that works of art in sacred places had to be modest [not naked, so] a pupil of Michelangelo, Daniele da Volterra, was commissioned to cover the figures nakedness with loincloths and veils (2);” therefore, Cesena got the last laugh after all. Finally, following a long seven years, Michelangelo completed the fresco on October 31, 1541 (3).
This painting is extremely significant because it depicts the end of the world, and according to some civilizations, the world is ending in about two years (2012). This Biblical interpretation of the Apocalypse might have been intended to scare people and influence them to live good lives; otherwise, they would be justly judged and damned to hell by Jesus. There is a great amount of fear portrayed in the painting, and clearly there are more people going to hell than Heaven, so Michelangelo might be attempting to scare some decency into the viewers. Additionally, the painting clearly shows that Jesus is the Son of God and the ultimate judge over the living and the dead. This transparently shows that it is meant to have a strong impact on the Christian population, and that it’s important to worship Jesus. Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement is one of his finest works and is still one of the major reasons why people habitually visit the Sistine Chapel.
1. Author N/A. Art and the Bible. (2010). Retrieved from http://www.artbible.info/art/large/54.html.
2. Author N/A. The Last Judgement: Images of a Masterpiece. (2009). Retrieved from http://www.italian-renaissance-art.com/Last-Judgement.html.
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