Click on photos to enlarge.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Art and Jesus--the Second Coming

The Last Judgment, 1534-41, Michelangelo
As dramatic as Christ's resurrection or his ascension into heaven might appear to be in the hands of some of the most talented artists to ever wield a brush, there is one more event in the story of Jesus Christ which easily overpowers all the others. I'm talking about the last judgment, Christ's glorious second coming, bright lights, clouds of angels in chorus, trumpets trumpeting, and God himself in the presence of his Son returning to judge sinners and claim his followers. As we think about the last judgment, we're tempted to think first and foremost of what's often considered simply the Last Judgment, (above) Michelangelo's massive, monumental fresco behind the altar of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Now restored to its original brilliant colors, it is a fitting encore to his story of Genesis on the ceiling. But impressive as it may be, it was neither the first or the last attempt by artists to depict what may, in fact, be so enormously powerful, and of such epic proportions, as to be "undepictable."
Universal Judgment, 1303, Giotto
But that didn't keep Giotto from trying with only meager success in 1303, though he titled it Universal Judgment. As so often happens in art, certainly then and sometimes even  now, the requisite skills of even the best artists were not sufficiently developed to allow for an adequately organized composition or depiction of an event encompassing such massive scale.

Last Judgment, 1431, Fra Angelico
Fra Angelico also tried in 1431 with only slightly more success. Unlike Giotto's, his composition is certainly well-organized to the point of appearing stilted and staged. The artist seems to have been quite unsure just what to do with the central opening in his composition., leaving its strangely empty. As a result, the figure of Christ just above is nearly lost in the "multitude of heavenly hosts."

The Last Judgment, 1446-62, Rogier van der Weyden
The a detail figure of Christ as
seen by Rogier van der Weyden
 in his Last Supper (above)
In the North of Europe, around 1446-62, Rogier van der Weyden had only nine wooden panels upon which to inadequately make his attempt to depict a last judgment. His figure of Christ, however, is suitably dominant, if somewhat enigmatic. Northern Renaissance figures tended to be modeled based upon observations of  actual human proportions, little influenced by antique Greek and Roman sculpture coming to light almost daily in the South. Thus, Van der Weyden's figure of Christ seems rather frail and effete as He sits precariously balanced on a rainbow. His returning Christ appears serene, thoughtful, somewhat symbolic as compared to Michelangelo's powerful, judgmental, perhaps  even vengeful returning Christ (below, left).
The Last Judgment, Duomo, Florence, 1572, Giorgio Vasari
Christ from Michelangelo's Last Supper (detail)
The Italian Renaissance artist and biographer, Giorgio Vasari, was the first to begin to get a handle on the subject of the last judgment, but of course, he had an entire dome to fresco, that of the cathedral in Florence, Italy (above). When Michelangelo tackled the subject between 1534 an 1541 (top), he, of course, had only one wall. And though it was a BIG wall, he was forced into the horrifying decision to destroy part of his famous ceiling to make more room for his concept. In contrast with van der Weyden's rather delicate image of Christ (above, right), Michelangelo's Jesus (left), while certainly powerful looking, always struck me as being somewhat overweight. At very least, the head seems out of proportion to the body. However, given Michelangelo's innate sense of human proportions, it's doubtful the ponderous mass was unintentional.
The Last Judgment, 1560, Jean Cousin
Michelangelo's Last Judgment was, in fact, SO powerful and intimidating it was more than twenty years before any other major artist attempted to paint the subject. The French artist Jean Cousin (above), in 1560 attempted to "out-Michelangelo" Michelangelo with his gigantic rendering which, in its dark, confusing multiplicity of images is simply too much of a good thing. And finally, our old friend, Tintoretto, seems to be trying to depict the entire population of the world brought to heel in his last judgment which he chose to title, Paradise (below), perhaps hoping to avoid comparison to the great Michelangelo. This image below is only a small portion of his massive painting.

Paradise, 1588, Tintoretto. Juxtaposing his painting next to that of Michelangelo's
Last Judgment presents us with an interesting opportunity to compare
Renaissance classicism with the Mannerist pretensions that followed.
This is the final posting in the Art and Jesus series. I hope I've not offended anyone in writing from a Christian perspective. Given the topic, art and religion are virtually inseparable. The entire series (in slightly abbreviated form) can be seen below, available on YouTube.


No comments:

Post a Comment