One of the incomparable perks of living in Rome for me was that I could visit the Vatican Museums at any time, especially during the winter months when there are fewer tourists around. I especially appreciated this privilege on reaching Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel which, more than many other works of art, requires time and sustained attention to disentangle its gigantic circular motion through the dense bundles of bodies. The restlessness, anguish, and excitement of this scene is in marked contrast to the harmony and peace emanating from God’s creation of Adam on the ceiling, which the same Michelangelo had painted 25 years earlier.
A cataclysm had happened in the intervening period with the beginning of the Protestant reformation. The upheaval generated by Luther’s movement is comparable to what we are experiencing with the pandemic today: the perception of history of an entire generation is changed forever. Until a year ago we could still entertain the illusion that, despite occasional blips, the world order was relatively stable, and our lives with it. The huge jolt of the pandemic has punctured this illusion. Everything can spiral out of control in no time, at any time. Even though, with the vaccines, we start seeing the end of the tunnel, we will be ushered into a different kind of ‘normality’ in which we will never shake off a lingering sense of threat hanging over our heads: another virus, the climate emergency, another world conflict, who knows. Yet, we will persuade ourselves that we have taken back the reins of our destiny and try again to live as if nothing had happened. In our denial, we are just as complacent as the Church men who, at their peril, commissioned Michelangelo’s painting and, what is more, assigned him the unforgiving topic of the last judgment.
In Scripture judging and reigning are synonyms. By claiming that the ‘last’ judgement belongs to Christ, the New Testament affirms that, in the history of the world and in the story of each one of us, the final word belongs to God alone. And historical upheavals remind us of this reality, whether we like it or not.
The Michelangelo who painted the Last Judgement had left behind the dream of perfection of his earlier years. He was looking for ways of alerting his contemporaries about their complacency, just as Matthew does in his stark parable of the last judgement.
Most art critics argue that in this fresco Christ’s arms are a visual transposition of the reprobation expressed in Matthew’s Gospel: “Depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt 25.43). This presupposes that the center of the anticlockwise movement of the fresco is Christ’s power to judge humanity by raising the dead at the bottom on the right, congregating them at his side, and removing those who deserved condemnation by plunging them towards the bottom of the fresco on his left side into hell.
I believe however that there is a deeper and more specific focal point in the fresco that adds a farcical sub-text to this plot.
Besides judgment, the theatrical position of Christ’s arms is performing another function: the right arm is raised to expose the rib cage to view and the left arm ends with Christ’s index pointing at the wound caused by the spear of the Roman soldier who pierced Jesus’s body to make sure that he was definitely dead.
This is the wound that persuaded Christ’s adversaries – and anyone whose life had been inconvenienced by this troublesome preacher - that everything was back to normal. And if he really was God as he claimed, well, then God was dead. In either case, all people wanted was to make sure they could go back to business as usual.
Whenever I go to the actual location of this fresco, the Sistine Chapel, I cannot avoid being intensely aware that this is a hall where so much of the course of world history is shaped: this is the place where cardinals congregate to choose the new pope. This election has become less overtly political in the past century, but it cannot be denied that for most of its secular history it was marked by scheming, corruption, simony, threats and sometimes physical brutality. The act meant to epitomize the Church’s commitment to let God’s kingdom come through the appointment of Christ’s highest representative on earth was conducted as if God was irrelevant, as if he was not acting in history, as if he was dead – and therefore as if there would never be any accountability for our human actions, especially by those who were supposed to be ministers of God. And if this was, and still is, the case of priests, bishops and popes, how much more it applies to most of us who are even more enmeshed in the secular running of the world - not only those who preside over the destiny of the nations, but each one of us, even in our relatively inconspicuous lives. We all are included in the character of the fool of the book of Psalms who says “There is no God” (Psalm 53.1) – or might say that there is a God but act as if there was none.
So in this same Sistine Chapel in which people kept acting blatantly as if “there was no God”, an older, mischievous and disenchanted Michelangelo depicts the whole movement of history as revolving on a center which is not Christ’s triumphant power, but his mortal wound, God’s death, that is the tragic possibility of ignoring God in our lives.
The provocative nature of this fresco is hard to miss and has generated endless controversies from the moment it was unveiled – to the point that during the following centuries, successive popes were tempted to erase it. And, of course, despite the hysteria of puritans of all times, the goading does not lie in the nakedness so profusely on display. That nakedness is a diversion. What decency can seriously be threatened by these oversized torsos with tiny heads, disjointed breasts, bulging love handles, tiny male organs (mostly covered just after Michelangelo’s death) – especially when compared to the perfect proportions of Adam’s body on the ceiling, right above everyone’s head? The main problem with people whose entire lives are enslaved to power and money grab is that they lose their sense of humour. Otherwise, how could they have missed the comicality of the fresco in -just to give few examples- the faces of the angels blowing the trumpets, St Bartholomew holding his skin which represents Michelangelo’s features, the well-known pathetic cowering damned man, Charon viciously hitting the damned – not to mention the staged bearing of the beardless Christ.
We think that we can take the last judgment seriously only if we depict and describe it in grave and stern tones. Sometimes, however, especially when dealing with violent paradoxes, a much more apt stylistic device is farce - with its ability to express the grotesque absurdity of a situation.
And indeed, what grander farce than this symbolic hall, which every so many years becomes the world’s center stage and in which not just cardinals, but all of us are placed under the huge Damocles’ sword of the supreme accountability depicted on its wall, and yet smugly manoeuvre as if it was a fiction, as if “There was no God”, as if the wound had indeed killed God and we were the masters of the world.
We underestimate God’s humour – this is why we end up completely missing the real focal point of the fresco, that is the real throbbing heart of history, the locus where God’s power really lies.
We represent him to ourselves as this scowling divinity when in reality he governs history from a wound, an empty cavity – that is from a need, from his hunger and his thirst, under the most improbable disguise: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. … Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”. (Mt 25.35-40)