Michelangelo's Last Judgment.
Masterpieces of Western Painting. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xiv + 194 pp. index. illus. bibl. $65 (cl), $23.99 (pbk). ISBN: 0-521-78002-0 (cl), 0-521-78368-2 (pbk).
Cambridge University Press has published nine entries so far in a series of short edited volumes that are intended to reassess masterpieces of Western painting. Each book is also designed to include an introduction to the work of art and a series of essays utilizing different methodologies. Marcia Hall's recent addition on Michelangelo's Last Judgment fulfills the first of these three goals particularly well, since much of the volume deals with the changing reception of the painting in the course of the sixteenth century and our growing understanding of its coexisting reputations. There is less emphasis on providing a basic introduction to the painting to students--who are the expressed audience for the series, although the level of students targeted is not indicated--perhaps because general introductions are easily available elsewhere. Instead, Hall's introduction moves rather quickly from a general description of the work into relatively recent and quite sophisticated interpretations of it related to Copernicus, Augustine, and 1 Corinthians. She also compares the way the work was received by artists and by others--primarily the Church--which serves as an important reminder of the variability of the meaning of a work of art at any moment in time. All of this provides an excellent review of recent scholarship for advanced students.
The five essays that follow Hall's introduction throw light on varying aspects of the fresco and its context, although they do not represent obviously diverse methodologies. William Wallace's lucid analysis of Michelangelo's correspondence before and during the period of The Last Judgment is a refreshing glimpse of the humanness of the artist, revealing his often hands-on care of his deceased brother's children, his concern for other family members, and his personal stress. Wallace's final section proposes a logical connection between The Last Judgment and pilgrims' experiences in Rome. Each part of the essay stands strongly on its own, although the connection between them could be explained more clearly. Thomas F. Mayer's brief description of the historical and religious context provides a useful, non-art-historian's description of the shifting culture of the time. More explicit links between the events and ideas described and The Last Judgment itself would have integrated his chapter more closely with the purpose of the book. Marcia Hall's own contribution, which, along with her introduction, revises previous publications, reiterates her theory that the theologian Cajetan was a major figure in the formulation of the painting's iconography of the Resurrection of the Body. As she also points out in the introduction, the painting has a strong connection to Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. Her interpretation answers many questions about the fresco, but it does make the modern reader a little uneasy to learn that the connection to 1 Corinthians suffered from a "curious lack of recognition" (20) by Michelangelo's contemporaries. Melinda Schlitt's essay examines the cultural changes taking place at the time of painting and the conflicts that arose in its reception, by comparing Vasari's praise to the Counter-Reformation theologian Gilio's criticism of the work. Here context and painting are expertly and informatively intertwined. Finally, Margaret A. Kuntz discusses Michelangelo's last paintings, the Cappella Paolina frescoes, in their thematic and visual relationship to the Sistine Chapel. Her important point--that the works should be viewed as originally intended, from the entrance to the chapel, or from below, rather than head-on as in most photographs--changes our understanding of Michelangelo's late style.
The most serious problem with the volume is the very poor quality of the photographs. There is no readable photograph of The Last Judgment as a whole, so that details described in the text are sometimes not visible. Sometimes images are discussed but not illustrated, including items not easily accessible, such as Perino del Vaga's design for a tapestry to hang on the wall below the fresco (41). The most frustrating example of this omission is in Kuntz's chapter on the Cappella Paolina, where the interpretation hangs on views of the frescoes from angles that are not illustrated. It is unfortunate that such restrictions, undoubtedly financial, are imposed on a volume that is otherwise so useful in elucidating Michelangelo's masterpiece.
Canisius College, Buffalo
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2006|
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