Visual comparison of the depiction-of Christ in-the Last Judgment in Torcello and the Sistine Chapel
Samuel Pennynck presents his work from the VIU course "Mosaics in the adriatic shore: History in Transition", taught by Prof. Pinkus in 2021.
In this paper I aim to compare two depictions of the Last Judgment: Torcello’s Last Judgment in the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta -made around the transition of the 11th and 12th century, and Michelangelo’s version in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City between 1536 and 1541.
By comparing these two, at the same time very different and very similar, works of art depicting the Last Judgment visually, several interesting ideas, meanings and facts about both art pieces raise to the surface. As most important conclusion of this paper I suggest that Michelangelo united three depictions of Christs in his Last Judgment. Each of these we can see in the mosaic of the Last Judgment in Torcello. Michelangelo compressed the story and makes one very meaningful, almost ‘almighty’ figure of Christ.
The main focus of this paper is thus the comparison and confrontation of the depiction of Christ in two important Last Judgments in Italy. The first one of which is the mosaic in Torcello’s Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, located in the Venetian Lagoon. The latter one is Michelangelo’s Last Judgment fresco inside the Sistine Chapel, in Vatican City, made between 1536 and 1541 –in the Renaissance. Both are of high value for (art-)historical research and modern-day tourism. I try to give an understanding in what changed between the 12th and 16th century depiction of the Last Judgment. Noteworthy is that the mosaic in Torcello has been altered, restored, and renovated throughout history. As such, we can hardly argue that this is a completely original mosaic. Although the style might differ in the slightest, the iconography and motif still remain faithful to the 12th century program. It is only through research and speculating that we will proceed to broaden our knowledge. It will always bring up interesting findings, arguments and steps towards further understanding of art, the world and our past history.
Scholars argue that the mosaic of the Last Judgement in Torcello’s Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta was executed during the eleventh century by Byzantine craftsmen and renovated in the twelfth century. The mosaic, that is located on the counter-façade of the basilica, has, finished new restorations in February 2019.
Standing close to the mosaic in Torcello and looking right in front of you, you will see marble with above it, on the right side, an explicit, frightening depiction of Hell. The twelfth century in Torcello was marked by death and calamity. Many people died of Malaria and other diseases when the island was flooded and thus became a swamp. Some scholars therefore read the striking depiction of Hell at the bottom of Torcello’s Last Judgement as a reflection of these traumatic events. I agree with this and want to argue that it may also have functioned as a warning for the future, as well as a way to process the traumas.
The depiction contains mainly the colour blue, the colour of Hell, Satan and the night. Bones, skulls with snakes through the eye sockets and people burned alive are brought to the viewer in a naturalistic way. They show the Condemned in Hell. The figures are close to the viewer but you can only almost touch them, not completely. I read it as a warning for the people. A warning for hell, which is the destination of the sinner, who partakes in the cardinal vices. On Satan himself is seated what appears to be a sort of Anti-Christ.
In Michelangelo’s fresco we don’t see Hell in the same explicit way as in Torcello. Demons are taking people with them, but we do not see e.g., skulls with snakes through the eye sockets. We see people in battle with the demons, fighting in order to not go to Hell with them. A rather unclear, imaginary image of Hell is shown. While in Torcello, we see people already being present in Hell, they are tortured for their sins and it is openly depicted as such. Why is it, that Michelangelo chose to not show the inner side of Hell but -the workshop in- Torcello did?
On the other side, heaven is depicted as unreachable, far above everything in both Last Judgments. To the viewer this says not only that heaven is up and above (in) the sky, it shows them the momentary position they have: the earth’s surface (now even on the level of Hell). And so, the message tells you that you have to work hard, be a good Christian and follow all the commandments in order to be able to enter Heaven.
In Torcello the contrast between the horror vacui style of the Last Judgment and the minimalistic, serene style of the east-end where the Virgin with Child surrounded by the Apostles is shown is striking and meaningful. However, the comparison between the Last Judgment and the Virgin will not be the focus of this paper. It is the almost chaotic so called ‘horror vacui’ itself that is interesting. The original Latin term horror vacui can be used in many occasions. In the context of art and artworks it generally means the filling up of empty spaces in the art. This action can derive from various reasons – because of a fear for empty space as a way to tell as much as possible or just because of an aesthetical viewpoint. In both the Last Judgment of Torcello’s Basilica and Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel we see a wall almost completely covered with figures and symbols, few space is left for nothing, in this even gold or sky which has its own meaning which I will scrutinize later. I think that the difference is that Torcello encodes the fear of the hell in codes and symbols, such as the skulls with snakes or the fire – thus distancing it from real experience and pushing it into a kind of abstraction. Michelangelo’s Hell on the other hand, shows the human struggle, namely: everything is sensually and emotionally communicated, and not encoded in symbolism; it is therefore more terrifying and even more effective because there is no distance between life experience and art.
To continue, the material of which both artworks were made differs completely. The older one at Torcello is a mosaic masterpiece. The younger one, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, is a fresco – a painting on fresh, wet chalk. The difference in material and the difference in general colours are the first two dissimilarities we find when we take a first glance at our study objects.
Then there is the general composition. The composition in Torcello is built around Christ. His body is it, towards which the viewer’s eyes are led to. The same is true for Michelangelo’s composition. But while Michelangelo’s Christ is the brightest figure of them all, depicted almost naked with only a white cloth around his muscly legs and shoulders -truly like a Greek philosopher-, while Torcello’s Christ is dark and fully covered. Also contrary to the Christ of Michelangelo is that not the judging Christ but the Anastasis Christ is found on the same position as the Sistine Christ. There is only one Christ in Michelangelo’s fresco, this will be important later. The Anastasis Christ of Torcello wears clothes of the richest colour. He wears clothes with the most striking colour that the mosaics colour panel contains: purple. In fact, it is not only Christ that is darker or brighter in both Last Judgments. The complete level on which they are placed is following their brightness or darkness. The top level of Torcello’s piece is dark, the bottom is brighter. In Michelangelo’s work, the top level is bright and the downside is dark! It is flipped over. Why is this? The meaning and usage of colour may have been changing in the passing of time.
It is remarkable that Michelangelo’s judging Christ has the same clothing as the crucified Christ in Torcello which we find atop of the Judging Christ (the highest figure of the mosaic, looking down on everyone from above, even on himself). We see almost all of Christ’s body in Michelangelo’s painting, as if he was hanging on the cross. No crucified Christ is found on Michelangelo’s mural. But the way the Saviour is depicted, his skin that is showed, could hint to the fact that he was once crucified, and resurrected. Next to that is the fact that Michelangelo’s Christ is, like Torcello’s Anastasis Christ, is pointing to the sky with one hand and to earth with the other hand. One hand to life, one hand to death. One to Heaven and one to Hell. The mosaic Christ appears to have control over the situation, Michelangelo’s Christ, however, does not. He looks startled, surprised. His body language shows us no control at all, but then his hands and face are most refined and painted as if they did control the situation. The body tells a different story, brings a different message through than the hands and faces are showing. Michelangelo’s painting is full of contrasts, and by doing so, he succeeded to establish many possible interpretations. As if he wished to bring a message of indeed heresy, think about Christ’s almost naked body. But at the same time, he protects himself for any possible attacks of the Church on him, e.g., with the controlling hands and face.
Now, I want to propose the idea that Michelangelo combined the various elements we find in Torcello’s three different Christs in his one Christ in a very sophisticated manner. He united the three different depictions, and thus also the three scenes of Christ into one centralized figure.
In previous part I thoroughly described his Christ so now I will keep my argument short. The contorted, almost naked body and the loose white cloth stand for the crucified Christ. The controlling hands and face expressions, together with the composition of the hands derive from the Anastasis Christ. And finally, we find the Judging Christ depicted in front of a bright egg-shaped white background. It is almost as if he was sitting on his throne – Michelangelo however created a Christ in movement, as if he just stood up from his throne.
The drapery on Christ’s lap feels so light that a little blow of wind would make his genitals visible! A message that Christ is still just a man? Maybe even a man to laugh at? Christ was not the only almost naked figure Michelangelo painted. His work was provocative as such, that in 1564, the Congregation of the Council of Trent took the decision to cover up some of the obscenest figures. This gives us the understanding that Michelangelo really used his prestige and his acquired latitude, freedom of artistic expression to push the limits as well as putting forward his personal feelings towards religion and the church within his art. Some argue that Michelangelo’s Last Judgment shows his disbelief in material Hell as well as a form of heresy. His is a personal document, Torcello’s mosaic is not. However, Torcello is a very interesting document of its time, as we see here the importance of the sea, the lagoon and the swamp for Torcello at that time.
As we know the -name of the- artist was of no importance in the middle ages, it was essential that the artist was known by name in the Renaissance. It was a form of prestige to have the best known painter painting your commission. Michelangelo made an artwork and gave it his personal touch, consequently provocative the (religious) world around him, thus creating a big controversy leading all the attention towards him, his personae and his art. Michelangelo did the same thing contemporary artists endeavour to do - and achieve. While doing all this, he, consciously or not, immortalized himself. A more perfect example and paragon for what contemporary artists aim for does not exist.
Land, hills, rivers, clouds and blue sky are filling the space in the Sistine Chapel. People recognize their own environment and thus must feel as if the Last Judgment is real, or at least as if it was close to their world, nearby. Hence, Torcello’s mosaic became an ‘abstract place’ very nice definition for which people presumably have had less feeling and connection than for Michelangelo’s painting, which places the event in earthly space rather than heavenly space. It is easier to be emphatic and have an interactive relationship with a depiction that is close to your living world, it requires less imaginative effort. But at the same time, they could have been able to escape reality through the mosaic, it may have lifted up the people, figuratively.
Where in the Last Judgment of the Sistine Chapel the characters stand in interaction with each other and everyone seems to acknowledge the presence of the others, the figures in Torcello’s mural have no contact in between them. Horizontal lines divide the mosaic in different parts. The scenes are split in separated places and times. In Torcello we see gold filling up the ‘empty’ space, instead of real, blue sky or clouds. And the scenes and figures are not only separated visually, they only exist in their own ‘boxes’ and cannot see what happens under or above them. Michelangelo, however, decided to let everything flow more into one melting pot. His figures are more dynamic than ever before, almost chaotic, explosive. So, his Last Judgment became emotional. His mural plays on and with the mind of the viewer, still.
With the interaction between the figures, the overall fluency and the dynamism of the mural, Michelangelo may have wanted to make clear that Hell nor Heaven or life -nothing- is binary or dualistic. Everything stands in connection with each other. Everything is fluent he seems to say.
In Michelangelo’s time, the Renaissance, the idea of the purgatory was already popular. Right in the middle between the making of the two Last Judgments, ca. 200 years after Torcello’s mosaic and ca. 200 years before the painting of the Sistine chapel, Dante Alighieri described afterlife in his magnum opus La Divina Commedia, he divided it three big parts: Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, which were again each divided in separate parts. Dante lived in a period where religion and philosophy came together. In the 13th century the scholastics, philosopher and theologian Thomas of Aquino wrote ‘the divine right based on grace does not take away the human right which proceeds from reason.’ Here of Aquino splits divine and human right into two separate entities, which was an important step in the evolution towards the new Christian experience. Church fathers as of Aquino also tried to conciliate Christianity with ancient philosophy. An important evolution in religious experience was given its first steps. This period in time (ca. second half of the 13th century) was a big turning point for religious mentality.
Dante can be seen as a precursor for the Renaissance -among other reasons- because he put forward the importance of the individual. This new idea and reflection on the importance of the individual, would become one of the main topics of the Renaissance, i.e., Michelangelo’s time. In his Last Judgment we see many figures, over 300. Among them are a self-portrait and several ‘portraits’ of known individuals. Again, an argument for his Last Judgment as a personal artwork and document. While other hand, in Torcello’s Last Judgment, we do not recognize individual portraits, or individuals at all. The faces contain no individual characteristics and are more often the same faces than they are distinct from one another. Yet another big discrepancy between the two Last Judgments.
Michelangelo unites three depictions of Christs, which we can see in the mosaic of the Last Judgment in Torcello, in one body of Christ. He compresses the story and makes one very meaningful, almost ‘almighty’ figure of Christ. He represents God the Almighty, the Father and The Son, the human and the God. His is a personal document. Michelangelo painted in his individual expressive way, peculiar, but also moving on from, to the Renaissances Zeitgeist. The mosaic in Torcello is less personal, we don’t know who exactly made it and we do not see an individual hand at work. And with that, we don’t see individualistic portraitures in the figures whereas Michelangelo did do this.
In the era of Torcello’s mosaic, mosaics were made by workshops. This workshop made a clear, rational structure contrary to Michelangelo who put a lot of effort in the emotional part of his mural. His mural is fluent, dynamic, explosive and emotional. Also, Michelangelo placed his Last Judgment in earthly space, a place that people could recognize. He painted lively, bright and natural(istic) colours. The mosaic was, on the other hand, put in Heavenly space. Here, space was created with gold. Gold fills up the space, rather than the blue sky or landscape that Michelangelo created.
I want to conclude that Torcello’s mosaic is rational but nonetheless Mistic. Michelangelo’s fresco is irrational, emotional. The mosaic is divided in many pieces and makes a clear point in every scene. Michelangelo decided to not do this, he brought us a compressed, almost chaotic vision of the Last Judgment. Both mosaics reflect the Zeitgeist of their time, or were precursors for where the art was about to evolve into.
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