Metaphorical painting: Michelangelo, Dante, and the 'Last Judgment.'

Author:Barnes, Bernadine
  1. It is represented in Giovanni's pulpit in the Duomo of Pisa. The legends are summarized in M. R. James, ed., The Apocryphal New Testament, Oxford, 1924, repr. 1975, 563.

  2. If this is correct, the hill might refer specifically to the Mount of Olives overlooking the valley of Josephat, where Mary prays in the legend, where Christ ascended into Heaven, and where he is to return on the Last Day. It was also on this hill that the Antichrist, according to legend, was enthroned and where he was slain; see Bousset (as in n. 60), 227-29.

  3. Bibl. Apost. Vat. Riserva S 6 (130). This is the second state of an engraving by Lorenzo Vaccari, dated 1578. The use of tapestries as altarpieces In the lower right corner of the Last Judgment, Michelangelo painted an unmistakable quotation from Dante's Inferno [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURES 1 AND 2 OMITTED]. The figures of Charon and Minos were easily recognized by sixteenth-century viewers, and to the present day no one has seriously questioned the reference, although occasionally additional meanings have been pointed out. It is not my purpose to overturn this rare bit of consensus, nor is it my purpose to contradict the many sources that tell us how well Michelangelo knew Dante's writings. Condivi, Vasari, Donato Giannotti, and Benedetto Varchi describe Michelangelo's deep knowledge of the poet's work. Condivi claims that Michelangelo had nearly memorized it, and Michelangelo is cast as a "gran dantista" in Giannotti's dialogue.(1) Such statements may be exaggerated, but there is too much converging evidence to deny them. Indeed, Michelangelo himself wrote poems in praise of Dante, and he knew about a new commentary on Dante soon after it was published.(2) The problem is that the references to Dante's poem are perhaps too clear and too certain. The Charon/Minos group points to Dante like a neon sign, instructing the viewer to use Dante's Divine Comedy in some way to give meaning to the Last Judgment. Art historians have responded by connecting many other figures in the Last Judgment to Dante's work, almost as if by showing two clear references to the Inferno, Michelangelo was supplying a key to the rest of his painting, just as in the Medici Chapel the attributes he gave to Night serve as a key to the meaning of the other three Times of Day.(3) It may very well be that we are meant to see other references to Dante in the fresco, but certain art historians have taken this to mean that every figure can be correlated with Dante's characters, leading to some very unlikely identifications.(4)

    There are, however, other things that these references can indicate. For example, Leo Steinberg has introduced a provocative explanation for the quotations: in order to show his disbelief in a material Hell, Michelangelo presented Hell within "poetic parentheses" - as a fiction rather than as a theological truth.(5) Although my own interpretation is a different one, I believe that Steinberg's proposal does something very important and substantially correct: it shifts our attention away from seeing Dante as a source book of images, and instead directs it toward the value, or meaning, given to poetry itself. The question then becomes: what meaning does it have? Steinberg implies that poetry is fiction and therefore not true; consequently, Michelangelo's use of it suggests that Hell is a fiction, not an established truth within the Catholic faith. This argument recalls the words of Giovanni Andrea Gilio, whose dialogue Degli errori de' pittori circa l'istorie was published in 1564. One of the interlocutors objects to the inclusion of the "story of Charon" because it introduces a poetic fiction into the theological history of the Last Judgment.(6) However, neither Gilio nor any other early critic suggests that Michelangelo does not believe in Hell; it is rather a matter of his drawing from a source that is not scriptural, therefore not "true." Gilio does not condemn Dante as propagating heretical beliefs, but rather as a poet who might mislead the unlearned. In doing so Gilio joins a long tradition of thought that opposed poetry to truth. There are many variations on the theme, beginning with Plato's banishment of poets from his ideal state. In the centuries closer to Michelangelo's own, poetry was condemned because it could undermine a correct understanding of dogma, in part because it directly appealed to the senses without control of reason, in part because the "poetic veil" could "make white appear black and black appear white."(7) The fact that poetry suggested more than a literal meaning made it open to questionable interpretations, and this was particularly dangerous when the subject was religious and when the audience had only a weak grasp of theology.

    Gilio was not alone in criticizing the Last Judgment as a work that might not be understood by the unlearned. Lodovico Dolce, writing in 1556 and inspired by the letters of Aretino, made much the same point. In Dolce's dialogue, the Florentine defender of Michelangelo claims that the Last Judgment contains "profoundly allegorical meanings understood by few." The fictive Aretino responds, "In this he would indeed deserve praise, since it would seem that he had imitated those great philosophers, who hid the greatest mysteries of human and divine philosophy under the veil of poetry, so that they would not be understood by the common people."(8)

    This defense is presented as a statement to be refuted in what is essentially a negative criticism of Michelangelo's art. At the same time, however, the statement shows an awareness of the counter argument that such poetic veiling was both appropriate and necessary in treating the highest religious subjects. The divine could not be approached directly; to do so would cheapen it, making it seem as though the mysteries of faith were not beyond the grasp of mere mortals, which would be the ultimate falsehood. Such ideas had their roots in antiquity, and they too were repeated in the Renaissance. Boccaccio, for example, described the poet's work as follows: "To Strengthen the authority of these songs, they enclosed the high mysteries of things divine in a covering of words, so that the majesty of such things should not become an object of too common knowledge."(9) In Neoplatonic thought, which Michelangelo was exposed to as a young man, the poet's divine inspiration gives words a theological validity that is more certain that the ratiocinations of theologians.(10) Only the poet could reveal the divine.

    In these arguments, the poet creates a "veil" of figurative language not in order to deny the truth, but rather so that the audience will need to work to arrive at the truth. This work not only engages the viewer more completely, but also makes the truth more precious and more memorable for being difficult to attain. However, because of this participation of the audience, meaning cannot be precisely determined. This is really the main problem that Gilio's dialogue confronts, since the art of his time had become so complex that "if ten people contemplated [these paintings], they would make ten comments and not one would correspond to the others." This particular remark is made in reference to the paintings in the Cancelleria, and it is interesting that the next speaker in the dialogue argues that such indeterminacy (to use our own terminology) is excusable because the subject is not a sacred story and because these paintings would be seen by a learned audience.(11) Poetry and painting that includes poetic images, Gilio maintains, should not be used for subjects that involve dogma, nor should such painting appear in settings where the unlearned might impose on it frivolous or heretical interpretations.

    In another part of his dialogue Gilio shows his awareness that Michelangelo works in what can be called a poetic manner, and that he does so in paintings of sacred history (Gilio's "pure istorie"). Indeed, one of the interlocutors credits Michelangelo with the invention of this manner:

    Michelangelo, like one who has a lively ingegno, is always intent on returning art to the proper images of the famous painters and sculptors of antiquity; so he has discovered a new manner, which being pleasing, has been accepted and put into use, both in pure istorie, and in poetic and mixed painting. Now painters turn to the poets for their inventions.... Now a painter can use metaphor and metonymy charmingly and many other figures as well, provided that he knows how to order them well.(12)

    To speak of metaphor and metonymy is to speak of associations and substitutions: ideas, images, or names juxtaposed in a way that plays against expectation to heighten meaning.(13) Common usage is avoided, but meaning is not. The result is a phrase (or an image) that catches our attention because it is unusual, and yet upon further reflection reveals some truth that perhaps could not be expressed otherwise. A metaphor is necessarily open-ended; it demands that the audience know the conventional meanings of its elements and yet recognize that a literal sense is not intended. It demands recognition of references and the ability to make the connections between juxtaposed concepts.

    Gilio offers no specific examples of how the Last judgment can be considered metaphorical. He does, however, give a fairly precise description of what he sees as Michelangelo's method in an explanation of some problematic elements of the Crucifixion of Saint Peter in the Pauline Chapel. There Michelangelo has omitted a number of details: the horse's bridle, and more important, the ropes and the nails which would show the atrocity of the martyrdom. An interlocutor answers:

    One could respond that this is not uninspired, it being known to all that Saint Peter was crucified, and since you cannot say that someone has been hung without it being understood that he suffered a cruel and violent death, so you cannot say that Saint Peter has been crucified without the...

To continue reading