Michelangelo Faces Death

The Last Judgment

Destination: Rome, Italy

Book: The Last Judgment: Michelangelo and the Death of the Renaissance by James A. Connor (NEW Paperback Edition August, 2010 from Palgrave MacMillan)

Like Michelangelo and The Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King, this book concentrates on one major work of the maestro. Unlike King’s book, The Last Judgment by James A. (Jim) Connor delves more deeply into the religious philosophy of Michelangelo and his time than into the personal life of the painter.

A former Jesuit priest who is now a professor of religion, Connor has written previous books about Kepler and about Galileo that emphasize the theology of the day and its impact on these famous men.

For the book on Michelangelo, he was inspired by the fresco of The Last Judgment on the wall above the altar in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel in Rome. Painted after the famous ceiling of the chapel, the Last Judgment, in Connor’s view, reflects Michelangelo’s growing awareness of his own mortality and concerns about his own sins. He portrays Michelangelo as a deeply religious man, influenced by the conservative reformer Savonarola, by the ungodliness of many of the Popes who commissioned work by Michelangelo, and by the Catholic Reformation that was gaining traction in the mid 15th century.

While the discussion of theology sometimes went over my head, Connor does present the ideas of the day through real people, making it more interesting than a pure theological discussion. I  enjoyed being introduced to many of the painter’s close friends–and enemies–through references to biographies written shortly after he died, letters and transcripts of conversations.

Sistine Chapel  - the oher side
Sistine Chapel

As for the subtitle of the book, it really deals more with the Catholic Reformation than with the “death of the Renaissance” in my understanding of that term. Connor does present some arguments based in the stylistic changes apparent  between the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and the Last Judgment.

Connor makes much of the fact that Christ is centered in the picture with major Christian characters revolving around him, rather than the way that the Renaissance tended to picture the hierarchy of God- Christ and Mary-the Apostles and Saints-good people-bad people. The author believes that this arrangement in the Last Judgment reflects Michelangelo’s knowledge of Copernicus and an early portrayal of the earth revolving around the sun.

Apparently that choice was not noticed, or at least did not raise the controversy that erupted over all of the figures, including Christ, being naked. Later Popes had drapes of clothing applied, totally missing Michelangelo’s point that on judgment day, clothing was no longer needed and the nudity presented a way to differentiate between the substantive body of a living being and the soul of the dead.

The book has a tendency to skip around in time, so I found myself flipping back to get oriented. The muddy black and white pictures in the book do not allow the reader to grasp the differences in overall color choices and the chaos of this painting as compared to the Ceiling.  I guess you just have to buy a ticket to Rome. But wait! The Internet to the rescue. See many very good images at Italian Renaissance Art.

I have complained here before about missing the Sistine Chapel on our trip to Rome. Now when I DO get there, I certainly will be more inclined to pay attention to the Last Judgment fresco, as well as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  I like to read about the history of a piece of art. Do you?  Are books about art part of your travel library?

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

5 thoughts on “Michelangelo Faces Death

  1. I do hope you get a chance to see the extraordinary Sistine Chapel – even if it is packed with gossiping tourists. It feels like a real privelege to simply stand in the room and stare in wonder. I enjoy the history of major art though this book sounds a bit heavy for my liking. It must have been a special time with the three greatest artists (Leonardo and Raphael too) all living at the same period of time and all spending time in Florence.

  2. I’ve heard that idea of Michelangelo’s changing religious thoughts being a reason for differences between the Sistine Chapel ceilng and the Last Judgement. A whole book about it? That’s an interesting perspective.

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