Hunt for the Last Judgment

My wife and I had watched, over the years, the emergence of Michelangelo’s gelato colors from the murk of the Sistine ceiling; but we could not do the same thing for the Last Judgment at the altar end of the chapel. The ceiling was restored in stages, but the Judgment was entirely closed in for the years of its repristination.

Last spring, we had to leave Italy just before the Judgment was revealed again to the public (in May), so we got back to Italy as soon as we could, in order to see it. Since we had to begin our next Italian stay in Venice, we traveled down the peninsula looking at the major Last Judgments that had preceded Michelangelo’s—all those wall-filling visions of The End, whether they were done in mosaic or in fresco. At one point this took us to four different walls in four cities on four successive days. We were baffled in only one place—Orvieto, where Luca Signorelli’s Last Judgment is still behind restorers’ scaffolds. Michelangelo’s work was all the more impressive for this buildup, though it is theologically grimmer than anything we saw in the weeks before we arrived at the Vatican.

Torcello, seven miles out into Venice’s lagoon, is largely abandoned now, but its eleventh-century cathedral is still well cared for. (People go out for lunch at Cipriani’s restaurant on the island, then tour the church before the boat goes back.) The cathedral’s high entry wall is filled with a mosaic divided into seven horizontal layers—a complex vision of the apocalyptic End of History. This iconography for the Last Judgment was elaborated in the East and brought to Venice by Byzantine mosaicists. Torcello’s is the most humane and optimistic Judgment we would encounter.

Alone at the narrowing top of the wall is the crucified Jesus, streaming life-giving blood over his mother and the disciple John. The second layer down contains the most interesting of the sequences depicted. The figures here are much larger than on any other level. Michelangelo, too, made the figures high up on his Judgment wall larger than those below, in part to make up for the shrinking effect of distance upon the viewer. But the angels and other persons on the second layer of the Torcello mosaic are vastly out of scale with the other segments. This, the most important part of the design, presents what used to be called, in English, “the harrowing of Hell.”

Modern Christians make little of that clause in the old creed that says Jesus “descended into Hell” after being buried on the day of his execution; but it was an important part of the early Christian scheme of salvation. The clause addressed a major concern. If salvation comes only with Jesus, what happened to all those who lived before him? The answer is that Jesus, going down to those who preceded him in death, broke open “the gates of Hell” that …

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