The Last Judgment, Michelangelo
If you’ve been to the Sistine Chapel, you can’t fail to be impressed by the full length mural serving as the backdrop to the altar. It is perhaps, the most captivating of all of Michelangelo’s works, the Last Judgment. It is a work of his mature age, and took him four years to complete. The painting seems to radiate outwards from the figure of Christ, who forms the still center. It’s as if he’s frozen in a dance. Around Christ are the figures of the saints, seemingly held by the arc of his raised hand. The raised arm gives the whole painting a circular movement: the dead rise to eternal life on Christ’s right, while on his left are those being pulled down by devils, and carted off on boats to hell. The saints seem to be in a state of agitation. Their work of intercession has now reached its end – is their state to do with the verdict being spoken? Our Lady, next to Christ, is shown peaceful, but resigned, as her work too, in aiding the salvation of man has come to an end.
When it was first unveiled, Michelangelo’s interpretation of the judgment created huge controversies. For one, he had painted various mythological figures. Paintings then, usually displayed the heavens in perfect stillness, while there might be chaos below. Michelangelo however, had taken the turbulence into the heavens itself. Christ himself, people suspected, had been inspired by some mythic figure like Apollo, shown with a muscular body and without a beard. Further, there was particular objection to the amount of flesh displayed in the painting. The convention of the day was to show people with clothes that depicted their position in society. Here, even figures of the saints were in the nude and that, in a painting decorating a Papal chapel. The first to protest was Biagio da Cesena, Pope Leo III’s Master of Ceremonies, at a Papal preview of the painting. (Cesna later found himself depicted as Minos, the mythic judge of the underworld, with donkey ears to represent foolishness).
There is undoubtedly, a lot of flesh in the painting. But whatever be Michelangelo’s reasons for doing so, there are some deeply theological elements that emerge from his choices. The only thing that the saints have to show for themselves, with all stripped away, is their humanity. They stand without anything to hide, and without hiding behind anything, before the glory of Christ. The glory of divinity serves as the backdrop to the painting, but the central figure, is undoubtedly human. Though unusual, the Christ figure is not a mythic Apollo, but the artist’s interpretation of Adam – the second Adam. The raised arm and the side reveal the nail marks on his hand. It is as man that he judges.
‘Who is man?’ or ‘What does it mean to be human?’. That is the central question in this Sunday’s gospel, and it comes through surprisingly well in the painting. The king who is fully human because he is fully God. He doesn’t reign with his power, in oppression, as every one of man’s rules ultimately ends being. He reigns from the cross, where he has taken the lowest of all places. No one needs be excluded from his presence. He dies, on the margins, excluded by his own people. He dies a criminal, naked, thirsting, and a stranger, even as his disciples run away. Before him, all of humanity can stand without being ashamed. The poor, the weak, the outcasts, the failures – however low one might have reached in the world, before Christ, they still have a place, because Christ has gone lower than them. The only criterion for belonging is to be human – as opposed to inhuman – at least from Matthew’s gospel. Because only one who is fully human – as we see in Christ – can bear the glory of God.
To be human, though, is harder than most people would allow. Our gospel today, gives the answer – or rather the questions, which we will be asked on judgment day. Did you feed the hungry? Visit the sick? Clothe the naked? Visit the one in prison? – All, the corporal works of mercy.
In the scene of the judgment, both those on the right and the left seem unaware of when they managed to do – or not do – any of these things. Their questions are very similar, but I would like to suggest, that maybe, there’s a difference in emphasis in them. Those on the right don’t know, because when they were reaching out to those in need, they were simply doing what was natural to them, what was natural to being human – to have compassion towards another in need of help. They did not show mercy because they had to ‘do something for Christ’ or because they were Christian. Maybe they assumed, everyone in their shoes would do the same thing. And those on the left ask the same question. When did we see you? That’s the problem. They never saw them.
Why these works and why these people? Because they are the ones on the margins. However civil a society is, it is never perfect. Something of humanity is always being left out in its cultural standards. The West, formed on Christian values, still has a great social consciousness of those in such states. There is rightly, a lot of social action to improve our response towards the marginalised, like the homeless, refugees, minorities and so on. But we have lost sight of, others, like the unborn child, whose humanity is literally hidden, in the womb. Children with Down’s syndrome and even with minor defects who are routinely aborted. The aged and those suffering, who are considered better off euthanised. The ones on the margins, are those it is easy to see – or not see – and consider less than human, even if we do not consciously think it. But when we see them, minister to them, they can touch within us, what needs healing. Parts which we have suppressed because we were never sure we would be accepted if we let others see it. These people can’t hide their poverty, their lack; they have nothing with which to cover themselves, to make them look decent. They were crooked like everyone else, but got caught. They’ve been publicly shamed. We do a lot of covering. But when we are not afraid to be associated with them, we in turn, can be healed.
This is a very practical gospel. Mother Teresa, when asked, why she did what she did, used to famously hold out her hand and count on her fingers – ‘you did it to me’. That was the core of the gospel for her.
Arguably, it is difficult to know how to respond to this gospel in a practical way, with all the restrictions and rules we live under, in our society. Our present pandemic only makes things worse. But maybe we could start with our own circles. Who are the people hidden in your life? Have you spoken to your aged parents recently? Most people have been working from home, with the pandemic; that however, does not automatically constitute time spent with the family. Do you spend enough time with your children? Do you notice the person who is not favoured or successful at work? The one with no friends, in class, at university? There are vulnerable people at our own doorstep. It is easy for us to ignore them. Not because we are wicked or something, but because the urgent things take over. The urgent things, valued in society. It is where our value comes from – the money we make, the work we do, the things with which we clothe ourselves. These will be stripped away when we stand before the judgment seat. When we turn instead to what is important in life, we start recognising what makes us human. And in the light of His glory, we won’t need to be afraid. Or fall on the wayside as a goat.