January 13, 2011
Twenty nine years after painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo painted his famous
Last Judgment on the chapel’s western wall. The spirit of the latter work differs significantly from that of the former. Gone was the optimism. Gone the humanist’s vision of a world where people responded to each other and to God. Michelangelo’s world had changed and his work mirrors that change.
Rome had been sacked. The Spanish and German troops of the Holy Roman emperor Charles V had taken the city in a day and then remained for months to plunder and rape the city. The humanist’s vision of a papacy about to usher in a golden age quickly vanished. The Church herself was torn apart. The Reformation had split Christendom. Pessimism filled the air. And, the
Last Judgment scene with its emotional turmoil and sinners being cast into hell reflects this.
In response to this new situation, the Counter-Reformation began a crusade to reform the Church from within and to revitalize Catholicism. A spirit of militancy undergirded the efforts to purify the Church of sin. In the
Last Judgment, saints crowd close to Christ as if pleading for a swift judgment on sin. Sin had caused the political and religious chaos and sin needed to be expunged immediately.
At the bottom of the
Last Judgment scene, Michelangelo places Charon, the mythical boatman of Greco-Roman mythology. As in Virgil's
Aeneid and Dante's
Divine Comedy, Charon ferries the many that are damned into hell. Jesus, standing at the center of the painting and dominating the whole scene, pronounces their fate. This is not the compassionate, the approachable Christ so typical of the Renaissance. No. This is Christ the Judge of all time and history. He raises his powerful right arm in a broad gesture of damnation and the damned fall into hell.
Unlike other painters who indicated the state of the blessed and the damned by the clothes that they wore, Michelangelo depicts his subjects naked. Their nudity exposes them equally to the judgment of Christ. On the left, the blessed are raised to heaven. On the right, the damned, heavy with worldly attachments, are flung into hell.
Michelangelo’s contemporaries saw in his
Last Judgment a clear expression of their faith. There was a heaven. There was a hell. And, individuals chose between the two by their lives. Christ is no arbitrary judge. He executes the choice that we ourselves make by the way we live.
But that was in the past. Today, except in cursing, the very mention of hell has all but disappeared. Hell is almost never a theme heard mentioned from the pulpit. It is no longer depicted in religious art.
To the modern person, hell has become merely a metaphor for the evil consequences of our bad actions that we experience in this world. How can it be possible for an all-good God, full of mercy and compassion, the God whose face is revealed in the Crucified Christ, ever to confine a single, weak, mortal individual to hell for all eternity?
Or can He?
To be continued…..
(This is the first of three articles about hell.)