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Virtue ethics in Michelangelo's The Last Judgment: Christ as severity and Mary as clemency.

MICHELANGELO'S THE LAST JUDGMENT has commonly been seen as a representation of justice in the figure of Christ and mercy in the figure of the Virgin Mary. Here I wish to raise the question of what exactly was meant by these two virtues in a sixteenth-century context. Justice and mercy provide a broad but inaccurate interpretation of the two figures of Christ and Mary, and I shall propose a new, more specific and precise reading. However, it is important to realize that in referring to the "representation" of justice and mercy, I am using a transitional notion bridging medieval allegory and the Renaissance notion of mimesis or imitation. That is, in medieval allegory the virtues and vices are represented in a static manner with their traditional symbolic attributes, whereas in the Renaissance aesthetic the virtues, vices, and passions are dynamically enacted, embodied or expressed by way of gesture, facial expression, and posture. (1) Christ does not merely represent justice but he enacts and expresses the virtue, and Mary does the same with respect to the virtue of what is usually called "mercy." (2) In order to capture precisely what these figures represent and what they express, then, it is necessary to explore the tradition of virtue ethics, a subject now enjoying a resurgence of interest since the publication of Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue (1981). (3) Of equal importance is the tradition of rhetoric, which during the Renaissance functioned in tandem with the tradition of virtue ethics. (4) Both traditions provide us with what, I believe, is a more coherent and sharply focused interpretation of Michelangelo's great painting.

Imitation and Its Objects

First, then, some consideration must be given to the humanist milieu of Renaissance Rome. Charles Stinger has maintained that Renaissance Rome had three key theological developments in the period up to 1527: a patristic revival, a rhetorical approach to the Bible due to the humanists' concern with preaching, and a renewed interest in Thomistic theology. (5) The latter two developments suggest the approach that I shall pursue. More specifically, what must be taken into account is the humanist concentration on two central topics in rhetoric. (6) First of all, there is the notion of mimesis or imitation, which can mean imitating previous works of art or "imitating nature." The object of imitation can be various. For example, in The Last Judgment, the figure of Christ has been taken as an imitation of the Apollo Belvedere. Furthermore, imitating nature can mean representing human actions and the passions, virtues and vices, the moral constituents of human nature. Thus in the same painting, the figure of Christ imitates, or expresses, the virtue of justice in action. As for the second topic, for the humanists the culminating effect upon viewers is to move them to virtue and away from vice. Thus the spectator might experience various emotions such as fear, or anxiety, or delight, or wonder. With the nature of imitation, its object and its effect, then, one must determine what the painter imitates, that is, what he takes as the objects of representation, the images that move the audience to virtue. More precisely, one must consider the historically relevant conception of the virtues and vices, and the specific passions that are represented. (7) These can be found in numerous medieval and Re naissance works, (8) but most conveniently and comprehensively in the Secunda Pars of Aquinas's Summa theologiae, an expansion of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics that fully incorporates the views of classical authorities such as Cicero and Seneca. Thus, this dual combination of rhetoric and moral psychology provides an historically specific approach to understanding Michelangelo's famous painting.

Several Italian Renaissance commentators testify to the relevance of this approach, beginning with Alberti's influential pioneer treatise De Pictura (1435). In discussing the classical rhetorical concerns with teaching, delighting, and moving, Alberti puts great stress on moving viewers of paintings: "A 'historia' will move [movebit] spectators when the men painted in the picture outwardly demonstrate their own feelings [animi motum] as clearly as possible.... [We] mourn with the mourners, laugh with those who laugh, and grieve with the grief-stricken." (9) In the same manner, Michelangelo himself is said to have observed of the moral impact of paintings that badly painted images could distract people's attention and cause them to lose devotion. But on the contrary, he adds: "those that are divinely fashioned excite even those who have little devotion or sensibility to contemplation and tears and, by their austere beauty inspire them with great reverence and fear." (10) Here the final, culminating effect of images is obviously to move the viewer to devotion, contemplation, tears, reverence, and fear.

With respect to the immediate object of imitation, what the images are about, Michelangelo's contemporary Paolo Pino (ca. 1548), in agreement with Alberti, provides a relevant comment on the passions represented in paintings: "Painting distinguishes the effects of love; it exposes the falseness of false admiration, the fire of hatred, the palpability of strength, the weariness of effort, the fearsomeness of fear." (11) Likewise Vasari's extended commentary on The Last Judgment refers to the three relevant notions of the imitation of nature, the expression of passions (as well as "expressions," "attitudes," and "thoughts"), and the "terrible force of art" in its marvelous effect on the viewer:
   And in truth, the multitude of figures, the terrribilita, and the
   grandeur of the work are such that it cannot be described, being
   full of every possible human emotion [affetti], each having been
   marvelously expressed. For the proud, the envious, the avaricious,
   the lustful, and all the other suchlike actions can be easily
   recognized by any man of good spirit, for having observed all
   decorum in figuring them, in the appearance, in the attitudes, and
   in every other natural circumstance.... Such that one who is
   judicious and understands painting sees there the terrribilita of
   art, and in those figures perceives the thoughts and emotions,
   which were never painted by any other but Michelangelo. (12)

It would seem clear, then, that three components of a rhetorical program are in evidence here: the imitation of nature, the object of imitation or representation as the virtues, vices and passions, and the final end or purpose of moving the audience to a virtuous state. To which must be added the attention to anatomy, posture, gesture, perspective, variety, and chiarascuro, and even the inclusion of traditional symbols taken from allegorical and classical sources, not to mention allusions to Dante and Scripture. (13) Michelangelo thus stands in the authentic Catholic tradition of the incorporation of classical sources in the manner of Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, and others.

Various Interpretations

If we turn now to interpretations of The Last Judgment, these are obviously too numerous to consider at length, so that a few significant ones will have to suffice. It was obvious to Condivi and Vasari, as it is to modern commentators, that the painting represents Christ in the act of judgment and hence embodies the virtue of justice in action. So also with Charles De Tolnay, Leo Steinberg, Marcia B. Hall, and others. But there is some question and ambiguity about the emotion Christ expresses. Is it anger and wrath, or is it calm composure, or even impassivity? Thus, Hall observes that
   Vasari and Condivi describe Christ's gesture as angry, but his
   impassive face contradicts this interpretation. His raised arm
   should rather be understood as one of command, setting into action
   the events we see unfolding before us: the angels sound the
   trumpets, the dead are raised and proceed to their appointed
   places, either rising to be with Christ in Heaven or falling into
   the abyss of Hell. He displays the wounds on his hands and feet and
   his side, reminding us of his suffering and at what cost eternal
   life was won for us. (14)

So too with respect to Mary, who is usually interpreted as representing the virtue of mercy. Hall again comments:
   The Virgin's pose has been changed from her pleading posture in the
   drawings to a passive one, arms folded, as if to say that the time
   for her merciful intercession has passed. Any semblance of judgment
   and intercession that was to be seen in the drawings has been
   removed. An attractive interpretation sees the closeness of Christ
   and Mary as indicating that justice has already been tempered with
   Mercy, so the two have become one.

What I would suggest here is that while for the modern viewer justice and mercy are loosely accurate as the virtues expressed in the painting, they can be given a tighter historical focus that would resolve the difficulties and ambiguities involved in the emotions depicted. For this we need to turn to the relevant treatises on the virtues and vices, of which there were a huge number in the Middle Ages. (15) Consequently, here I turn to Aquinas's Summa theologiae, the second part of which deals with the virtues, vices, and passions, and incorporates various classical and patristic authorities, such as Aristotle, Seneca, Cicero, and Augustine so as to provide a kind of compendium on the subject. Michelangelo did not necessarily use the Summa as his source, and so I employ it here as a convenient source synthesizing classical and medieval authorities, well aware that other derivative sources were available. (16) Even sixteenth-century Protestant theologians, such as Richard Hooker, William Perkins, and John Donne used the Summa, since their focus was on Counter-Reformation theological issues more than medieval virtue ethics. (17)

Christ and theVirtue of Severity

First, it is necessary to place the act of judgment and its allied emotions in their proper context, in relation to what T. S. Eliot called their "objective correlatives." These are simply the objects and circumstances that call forth specific emotions. Aquinas defines the virtue of justice as "a habit whereby a man renders to each one his due" (II-II, q. 58, a. 1). (18) But justice requires a right judgment about what is just (q. 61, a. 1). And one of the virtues annexed to justice is vengeance, defined as "the infliction of a penal evil on one who has sinned" (q. 108, a. 1). Thus there is a distinction between determining what is right and executing what is fitting punishment. What Michelangelo represents, however, is not Christ in the act of judgment--deciding what is right with respect to a particular case or consideration--but the consequent act of condemnation and punishment, of a sentencing following on a just decision.

The question then becomes one of severity or clemency with respect to sentencing. Surprisingly we must turn, not to the virtue of justice, but to the virtue of temperance and the passion of anger, because with the Last Judgment we are dealing with punishment, not merely with Hall's "command" or even a decision about what is right, the first act of the virtue of justice. Thus, the Secunda Pars of Aquinas's Summa deals with the matter of punishment in the section on temperance (II-II, q. 157-59). Anger is the passion whose aim is revenge or vengeance (vindicta) in punishment of a perceived injury, and it needs to be moderated in general by avoiding the extremes of cruelty and lack of anger. When anger is considered more specifically in relation to punishment, two virtues come into play: clemency and severity. Aquinas says that severity has to do with the infliction of punishment according to right reason and the law, whereas clemency mitigates that punishment, taking into account some particular consideration that justifies pardon (II-II, q. 157, a. 2.2):

According to the Philosopher (Ethic. iv, 5), "the habit that observes the mean in anger is unnamed; so that the virtue is denominated from the diminution of anger, and is designated by the name of meekness." For the virtue is more akin to diminution than to excess, because it is more natural to man to desire vengeance for injuries done to him, than to be lacking in that desire, since "scarcely anyone belittles an injury done to himself," as Sallust observes. As to clemency, it mitigates punishment, not in respect of that which is according to right reason, but as regards that which is according to common law, which is the object of legal justice: yet on account of some particular consideration, it mitigates the punishment, deciding, as it were, that a man is not to be punished any further. Hence Seneca says (De Clementia ii, 1): "Clemency grants this, in the first place, that those whom she sets free are declared immune from all further punishment; and remission of punishment due amounts to a pardon." Wherefore it is clear that clemency is related to severity as equity [the Greek 'epieikeia'] to legal justice whereof severity is a part, as regards the infliction of punishment in accordance with the law. Yet clemency differs from equity, as we shall state further on (3, ad 1 [quoted and clarified below]).

The figures below Christ on the lower ri ght are being severely condemned to the eternal punishment of hell, while the figures on the left are being shown mercy, or more precisely clemency, to use the proper Thomistic term. As Hall points out, "the time for merciful intercession has passed." However, that is not quite true for the centerleft figures. The setting of the altar below the painting has a place in the overall dynamic that indicates that intercession can still be made through the action of the Mass. Through the offering of the Mass the faithful can still make intercession, obtain mercy, and free souls from purgatory, which is the point of placing purgatory exactly where the priest during the canon of the Mass would elevate the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrificial act of atonement for sins. (19) Thus while "the time for intercession has passed" for the condemned, it has not for those in purgatory.

Continuing this line of interpretation, I would add that the figures situated on the right side of the painting fall into two groups: those condemned to hell, and those approving their judgement by brandishing before Christ the various objects with which they were injured. Except for St. Peter with his keys, the particular figures of St. Sebastian with the arrows with which he was pierced, St. Lawrence with his grate, St. Andrew with his cross, St. Blaise with his wool combs, St. Simon with his saw, and St. Catherine with her wheel present us with a quasi-medieval representation of the saints with their traditional attributes, but in a more dynamic mode of enactment and expression. But what emotions do they express? De Tolnay went too far in suggesting these saints are imploring Christ to arrest the damnation of their persecutors: (20)

The main figures around Christ, the Apostles and Saints, seem, by directing their imploring gestures to him, to try to stop the catastrophe; yet their movements are frozen by fear. St. John the Baptist is holding his hair shirt with paralyzed hands, staring in terror at the judge; St. Peter holds the enormous gold and silver keys of Heaven toward him in the hope of arresting the damnation; and behind him, St. Paul raises both his trembling hands in instinctive recoil. The attributes of the Saints serve as instruments to arrest Christ's damnation (the keys of St. Peter and the knife of St. Bartholomew) or as instruments which the Saints attempt to hide in order to conceal their sufferings (St. Andrew, close to the Virgin, who is seen retreating and is viewed from the back, may be motivated by misericordia in hiding his cross).

But this interpretation is confused. Why would the saints try to arrest Christ's condemnation and express fear, terror, and mercy? Hall presents a more attractive, if perhaps too ambiguous, reading: (21)
   Peter, the Prince of Apostles, brandishes his attribute, the gold
   and silver keys, but they are more than an attribute, for he is
   returning the Keys to the Kingdom to Christ.... Yet what is the
   meaning of Peter's gesture? Is it a demand for justice, or is it a
   timorous proffering of the proof of his stewardship, tinged with
   doubt that he has adequately fulfilled his charge? Heinrich
   Wolfflin, recognizing the insistence of their gestures, saw these
   martyrs as seeking vengeance on those who had caused their
   suffering, an interpretation that may strike us as strangely off
   the mark.

To the contrary, according to the interpretation I am advancing, Wolfflin was right. The martyrs present their injuries as the objects of Christ's severity, calling for punishment and eliciting his moderated and temperate but just anger. Thus, even though his own wounds are displayed, his face expresses no trace of wrath--the excess of anger--but is composed and calm, the sign of a temperate but severe act of judgment. What some have perceived as Christ's impassivity is rather severity moderated in the act of punishing in accordance with the virtue of temperance, the judgment of reason and the requirements of the law. (22)

That Michelangelo was aware of Christ's just severity in judgment is apparent from sonnet 290, an appeal for clemency in the light of his past sins:
   Let not Thy holy eyes with justice see
   My past, and Thy chastened ears hea
   Nor extend to that Thy severe arm.

   [Non mirin con iustizia i tuo' santi ochi
   Il mio passato, e 'l castigato orechio
   Non tenda a quello il tuo braccio severo.] (23)

"Thy severe arm" captures the painting's gesture of Christ in the act of just severity, condemning guilty souls to hell. Taken by itself, of course, the precise nature of the gesture cannot be definitively determined, but if it is taken in conjunction with the other figures, we can provide a more coherent reading of the painting. Vittoria Colonna was certainly aware of the distinction between just severity and temperate clemency, apparent in one of her sonnets where God's just anger or wrath, "la giusta ira Sua," is often tempered by Mary "la serena / tua luce il calor Suo tempra sovente." (24)

The Virgin Mary and the Virtue of Clemency

That leads me to the figure of the Virgin Mary. She is usually interpreted as representing, if not quite enacting, the virtue of mercy. But mercy is too imprecise a term. What she embodies more exactly in historical terms is the virtue of clemency, that is, the moderation and sweetness of soul that is reluctant to punish, and so is given to pardon and mercy. Following the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, Aquinas elaborates (II-II, q. 157, a. 3.1):
   Two points must be considered in the mitigation of punishment. One
   is that punishment should be mitigated in accordance with the
   lawgiver's intention, although not according to the letter of the
   law; and in this respect it pertains to equity. The other point is
   a certain moderation of a man's inward disposition, so that he does
   not exercise his power of inflicting punishment. This belongs
   properly to clemency, wherefore Seneca says (De Clementia ii, 3)
   that "it is temperance of the soul in exercising the power of
   taking revenge." This moderation of soul comes from a certain
   sweetness of disposition, whereby a man recoils from anything that
   may be painful to another. [Et haec quidem moderatio animi provenit
   ex quadam dulcedine affectus, qua quis abhorret omne illud quod
   potest alium tristare.] Wherefore Seneca says (De Clementia ii, 3)
   that "clemency is a certain smoothness of the soul"; for, on the
   other hand, there would seem to be a certain roughness of soul in
   one who fears not to pain others.

What is striking here is the notion that clemency "recoils from anything that may be painful to another." The Latin word abhorret coincides with what Vasari saw in the figure of the Virgin Mary. Vasari described her as "in great fear shrinking into her mantle, as she hears and sees so much ruin," (25) and Condivi, to the contrary, as "wearing a timorous aspect as if not unafraid of the inmost anger of God, and so drawing herself as close as she can beneath her Son." (26) Several commentators have followed Vasari's line of interpretation of the Virgin as "shrinking into her mantle." The emotion of fear on her part makes little sense, since what she is shrinking from and abhorring, what she "hears and sees" is the punishment of the damned, that is, the just action of her son from whom she has nothing to fear.

Furthermore, what is remarkable is the ingenious dual nature of the posture devised by Michelangelo. Mary's crossed arms suggest that she is shielding or defending herself, or recoiling and turning away from the horror of eternal damnation. At once, she is looking away from the horror of damnation, and in looking down on the souls on the left, she is regarding with compassion and clemency, "with a certain sweetness of disposition," those being saved, some by means of the rosary. She turns away from one group to look toward another.

In short, while justice and mercy provide a broad, but imprecise, interpretation of the painting, a more complex, coherent, and historically accurate interpretation can be perceived by reference to the medieval literature of moral psychology, of the passions, and virtues and vices most conveniently and comprehensively described in the Secunda Pars. (27) Accordingly, The Last Judgment obviously enacts a scene of Christ delivering a just punishment, the clear consequence of the act of judgment itself. Punishment is being applied to the souls on the right side, who are being sent into hell, and pardon is being given through Mary to those on the left side being raised into heaven. In terms of medieval moral psychology, the painting provides a representation of a tempered anger, of severity on the one hand in the figure of Christ, and of clemency on the other in Mary. Ludwig Pastor's suggestion that the painting would be better entitled "The Condemnation of the Lost" seems just and accurate. (28)

The Objects of Severity and Vengeance

If condemnation and punishment is the objective of the virtue of severity, it remains to consider the injuries that draw it forth. Although ambiguity is certainly attributable to figures like St. Peter, as Hall points out above, nevertheless Heinrich Wolfflin's claim that the various martyrs are "seeking vengeance on those who had caused their suffering" folds nicely into a more coherent explanation of the painting. The "objective correlatives" for the virtues of severity and clemency are present in the punishment of the damned and the pardon of the saved. Thus, the line of Christ's sight is directed toward the injuries of the martyrs Lawrence, Sebastian, Andrew, Blaise, Simon, and Catherine. His arm is raised against the damned who in reaction turn away from his just severity. Some saints seem to appeal to Christ, and others brandish the instruments of their torture to the damned. Again, Christ's hand seems to point to the wound in his side. And perhaps the Virgin Mary is turning away, not only from the pain inflicted on the damned, but from the martyrs' injuries as well. A certain ambiguity in this respect would serve to stimulate a twofold line of contemplative devotion in viewers of the painting.

Modern commentators, as the above quotation from De Tolnay suggests, sometimes assume that anger and vengeance are morally repugnant and categorically wrong. De Tolnay sees the apostles and saints as imploring Christ "to try to stop the catastrophe; yet their movements are frozen by fear." Somewhat similarly, Leo Steinberg sees heresy in the painting, "the heresy of doubting the eternal torment of sinners and the vindictive, retributive nature of the Last Judgment." Even further, he contends that "If the World Judge is moved by wrath, then he punishes not for the good of the sinner but in revenge," but if however "his expression is neutral" then the eternal punishment of the damned is "yet undetermined." 29 Michelangelo then becomes at heretical odds with Church doctrine. But such is not the case if we clarify the partial confusion of the modern moral sensibility, which as Alasdair MacIntyre has indicated possesses "the fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts which now lack those contexts from which their significance derived." (30) Thus Vasari and Condivi more accurately describe Christ as angry, and this is consistent with Aquinas, who maintains that wrath or excessive anger is extreme and immoderate, but that a temperate anger is proper if it intends the correction of the sinner or protects the common good, as in the case of criminals. Revenge or vengeance, rindicatio in the Latin, in such a case is a virtue and not a vice (II-II, q. 108, a. 1). Further, he adds that "Man resists harm by defending himself against wrongs, lest they be inflicted on him, or he avenges those which have already been inflicted on him, with the intention, not of harming, but of removing the harm done." Christ then is an image of temperate anger, of severity according to reason and the law, of vengeance not only in punishing the damned but also in removing them from the presence of the blessed.

The Ascent of the Resurrected

The Thomistic framework does not appear to extend to other parts of the fresco. Instead, various earlier and later traditions are incorporated. I use the word "framework" because a totalizing interpretation would confine the influences on Michelangelo to one source, however integrative it might be. (31) As with Dante and Aquinas, medieval and Renaissance Catholicism incorporated classical authorities, and did not exclude them as was the tendency in Protestantism, with some notable exceptions like Edmund Spenser and John Milton. The restriction of authority to the principle of sola scriptura was probably responsible for this exclusionary tendency. In any case, the Church Fathers and numerous other influences may well have been known to Michelangelo. By what avenue it is impossible to say.

The rosary is a case in point. To my knowledge, Aquinas nowhere mentions it. Legend has it that it was devised by St. Dominic, the founder of the Dominicans, but most attribute to it a later more gradual development. In any event, it is a symbol of intercessory prayer, a virtue that Aquinas discusses under justice (II-II, q. 83). Thus the time of intercession is not past, as some have claimed, because the saints and angels are pulling souls out of purgatory up into heaven by means of the rosary, and souls are being released from purgatory by virtue of the Mass celebrated on the altar below (on the living making satisfaction for souls in purgatory, see ST Suppl 71.6).

Moving the Spectator

The final impact on the viewer is the last component in the humanist program of the imitation of nature and the depiction of virtues, vices, and emotions with the aim of moving the viewer. The painting has elicited various "critical" reactions. On the one hand, chief among them were objections to the nudity of various figures, and there were other objections to the "violation of decorum, the flaunting of artistic skill and invention at the expense of sacred truth, and the representation of poetic embellishments inappropriate to the genre," not to mention inaccessibility to the uneducated masses. (32) On the other hand, there were positive reactions as well. Vasari says he was struck dumb by its beauty and "the amazing diversity of the figures ... [which] stir the emotions even of people who know nothing about painting, let alone those who understand." (33)

No doubt the negative criticisms are understandable, since Michelangelo's interest in anatomy and his artistic ingenuity can be distracting, especially to learned critics. The issues they raise are secondary at best. After all, Christ in the act of condemnation, the principal image in The Last Judgment, dominates the fresco. This act of condemnation can hardly be seen as being "at the expense of sacred truth." And the nudity, although perhaps excessive in its interest in virtually every possible gesture and posture, is appropriate and decorous with regard to the resurrection of the body, as the Inquisition pointed out to Veronese in 1573. To object to artistic skill strikes one as rather odd, and the embellishments are again secondary to the main design. The claim of inaccessibility to the uneducated masses is belied by the enormous popularity of the painting down through the centuries. Furthermore, the immediate audience Michelangelo had in mind would have been composed of a theologically educated class including the pope, cardinals, bishops, generals of various orders, and various curial officials, so his artistic choices seem appropriate. (34) Moreover, the central doctrines of final judgment, condemnation to hell, the existence of purgatory, and the resurrection can hardly be considered inaccessible without implying that the Creed itself is inaccessible. Thus, in interpreting the painting, Michelangelo's critics were myopic, to say the least, in their failure to maintain focus on the central image of the work.

The critics were concerned then with the aesthetic qualities of the fresco. What about the moral-psychological impact on less critically attuned viewers? Condivi reports that the upper part of the wall was meant "to reproach the wicked with the loving kindnesses of God, repaid by them with great apathy and ingratitude, and to comfort and inspire faith in the good." (35) It is said that the fear of condemnation moved Pope Paul III to fall to his knees and exclaim "Lord charge me not with my sins when Thou shalt come on the Day of Judgment." No doubt fear of judgment moved many, and comfort and faith inspired the devout. But the intended effect of the fresco was probably even more various. We can imagine the lower left side inspiring repentance, hope in the resurrection, devotion to the Virgin Mary, and faith in the intercessory power of the Mass, particularly as the body and blood of Christ was elevated virtually into the mouth of purgatory. The lower right side was no doubt intended to inspire fear of punishment and damnation, as Paul's reaction indicates. This concern with the emotional effect suggests that a more pastoral approach concentrating on the Church's inspirational and motivational aims would be more productive than an ideological-intellectual one centered on the Church's alleged concern with control and message, which tends to ignore the spiritual and religious dimension.

Finally, an obvious question to be considered is whether and how Michelangelo could have known the work of Aquinas. (36) Two circles of influence have been recognized by scholars. From Condivi on, some attention has been given to the influence of Plato and Ficino, mediated through the Medici household in which Michelangelo was briefly educated. Again the influence of Benedetto Ochino and the artist's friendship with Vittoria Colonna suggests a theological influence. But a third circle is also possible, and perhaps even more probable. A number of Dominicans familiar with the works of Aquinas immediately come to mind. (37) Michelangelo was familiar with the preaching of Savonarola. Even closer to home in time and place was the pope's official theologian. Always chosen from the ranks of the Dominicans, this official chose the preachers for the papal liturgies and supervised the contents of the sermons given on these occasions. (38) Hence Cardinals Cajetan, Carafa, and other Dominicans might well have influenced the design of The Last Judgment. One intriguing possibility is that Cajetan (1469-1534), as a close advisor to Pope Clement VII, influenced the moral design, the subject matter and theological meaning of the work, either personally or through some mediator. (39) His commentary on the Summa was composed between 1502 and 1522, but it was not published until 1540. Carafa (1476-1559), the future Pope Paul IV, was called to Rome by Paul III (1534-1549) to sit on a committee of reform of the papal court, and he was an ardent Thomist. In any case, the matter remains unclear, and this is only conjecture. Any number of possibilities remain, since Michelangelo, according to Condivi, valued the "virtuous and learned conversation" of Cardinals and other "esteemed gentlemen." (40)

In conclusion, let me repeat that the conventional interpretation can be made much more precise and coherent by recourse to historical context and the dynamic of the painting's objective correlatives. The visual orientation of Renaissance Italians disposed them to be moved by the moral content of images, particularly in light of Aristotelian poetics and Thomistic moral theology. Such a pastoral project would have appealed to Church authorities more than a fictive and improbable concern with "propaganda" or "control" of a doctrinal "message." Belief was already there, the doctrine of the Last Judgment was established convention, and so what was needed was lively impact and impression on the spectator. What severity and clemency capture more amply, then, is the emotional inflection, the accent and pitch, as it were, expressed in the gestures, postures and attitudes of Christ and Mary.


(1.) Robert Williams makes the same point about "the kinds of invisible abstractions pictures suggest, the revelation of inward qualities--not just the affectti or emotions of figures, but deeper qualities of character, the 'virtues' they are felt to possess. The capacity of painted figures to suggest abstract qualities such as 'strength,' 'humility,' or 'purity,' can be regarded as the supreme achievement of art. It elevates painting to the realm of moral philosophy." Art, Theory and Culture in Sixteenth Century Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 18.

(2.) A complete clarification of terminology is not possible here. I use the terms "passion" and "emotion" as synonyms, without distinguishing them from inclination, disposition, desire, and affect. The virtues regulate the passions and emotions, and the vices take them to an extreme or deficiency. Thus temperance regulates and moderates anger as a complex emotion of feeling slighted, of desiring vengeance, and of being inclined and disposed to retaliation. The word "mercy," according to the OED, derives from medieval Latin and Anglo-French "from the sixth century on, often used in the sense of misericordia and in that of thanks." It appears in the thirteenth century in English, merging the classical "clementia," a virtue subordinate to justice (in Seneca and Aquinas) and "misericordia," a virtue subordinate to charity, a heartfelt compassion for suffering (in Augustine and Aquinas). The modern notion sees mercy primarily in relation to justice.

(3.) Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981). For an extremely valuable survey of Aristotelian, Platonic, Stoic, and Epicurean ethics in the Renaissance, see Paul O. Kristeller's "The MoralThought of Renaissance Humanism" in Renaissance Thought II (New York: Harper, 1964; repr. in Renaissance Thought and the Arts [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990]) and also Jill Kraye's superbly thorough description of the moral doctrine of the various schools in "Moral Philosophy" in The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy, ed. Charles B. Schmitt et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 303-86. Also indicative of the extensive importance of the virtues and vices is Morton W. Bloomfield et al., Incipits of LatinWorks on theVirtues andVices, 1100-1500 A. D. (Cambridge, MA: Medieval Academy of America, 1979).

(4.) On rhetoric, see Brian Vickers's introduction to his English Renaissance Literary Criticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 1-5, and also his In Defence of Rhetoric (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989) on the rhetorical concern of Renaissance painters with moving the emotions, 276-92 and 340-60, esp. 345-46.

(5.) Charles Stinger, The Renaissance in Rome (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 140-47. For Thomism in the Italian Renaissance, see Paul O. Kristeller, "Thomism and the ItalianThought of the Renaissance" in Medieval Aspects of Renaissance Learning, ed. Edward P. Mahoney (Durham, NC: Duke University Press 1974), 29-91. On the connection between preaching and painting, see Peter Howard, "Painters and the Visual Art of Preaching: The 'Exemplum' of the Fifteenth-Century Frescoes in the Sistine Chapel," ITatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance, Vol. 13 (2010): 33-77, esp. 60-77.

(6.) On Italian Renaissance criticism, see the monumental work of Bernard Weinberg, A History of Literary Criticism in the Italian Renaissance, 2 vols. (Chicago: University Chicago Press, 1961).

(7.) On imitation of emotions, see the classic study by Rensselaer W Lee, Ut Pictura Poesis: The Humanistic Theory of Painting (NewYork: Norton, 1967), 7-8, 25-26.

(8.) Bloomfield's Incipits of Latin Works on the Virtues and Vices, 1100- 1500 A.D. runs to some 700 pages.

(9.) Quoted in Vickers, In Defence of Rhetoric, 345-46.

(10.) Quoted in Marcia B. Hall, Michelangelo's 'LastJudgment' (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 34.

(11.) Quoted in Robert Williams, Art, Theory, and Culture in Sixteenth- Century Italy, 18-19.

(12.) My translation. For the Italian see Paola Barocchi, GiorgioVasari-- La vita di Michelangelo nelle redazioni del 1550 e del 1568, 5 vols. (Milan: Ricciardi, 1962) vol. 1, 78-80.

(13.) On Michelangelo's allusions to Dante, see Bernadine Barnes, "Metaphorical painting: Michelangelo, Dante, and the 'Last Judgment,'" Art Bulletin 77, no. 1 (1995): 65-81.

(14.) Marcia Hall, Michelangelo's 'LastJudgment', 12. See also p. 20 where Vasari and Condivi's view of Christ's gesture as angry is "a willful misreading of Michelangelo's impassive Christ." Anger can be reconciled with impassivity, however, if we interpret the anger as a tempered severity, placing it under the virtue of temperance.

(15.) Again see Bloomfield, Incipits of Latin Works on the Virtues and Vices.

(16.) For the historical complexities, see Simo Knuuttila, Emotions in Ancient and Medieval Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004).

(17.) This point has been argued by H. R. McAdoo, The Structure of Caroline Moral Theology (London: Longmans, 1949), 30-31.

(18.) All quotations of Aquinas are from St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the Dominican Province, 3 vols. (NewYork: Benziger, 1947).

(19.) This point is made by Marcia Hall, Michelangelo's 'LastJudgment,' 15.

(20.) Charles De Tolnay, The Final Period, vol. V of Michelangelo (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1943-60), 39.

(21.) Hall, Michelangelo's 'LastJudgment,' 24.

(22.) As above in note 13, Hall finds Christ not angry, but "his face impassive." A temperate anger or severity would unite anger and impassivity as the temperate and dispassionate vengeance of just severity.

(23.) My translation. For the Italian text, see James M. Saslow, The Poetry of Michelangelo: An Annotated Translation (New Haven:Yale University Press, 1993), no. 290, 484.

(24.) Cited from the Ashburnham Manuscript by Abigail Brundin, "Vittoria Colonna and the Virgin Mary," The Modern Language Review 96, no. 1 (January 2001): 61.

(25.) Vasari's Italian is as follows:"Evvi Cristo il qual, sedendo con faccia orribile e fiera, ai dannati si volge maladicendoli, non senza gran timore della Nostra Donna che, restrettasi nel manto, ode e vede tanta ruina."Edizione HTML a cura Ultimo Aggiornamento: 13/07/2005 22.32.

(26.) Ascanio Condivi, "Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti" in Michelangelo: Life, Letters, and Poetry, ed. and co-trans. George Bull (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 56. The Italian is as follows: "Intorno al figluol de Iddio nelle nube del cielo, nella parte di mezzo, fanno cerchio o corna i beati gia resuscitati, ma separata e prossima al figliulo la madre sua, timarosetta in sembiante, et quasi non bene assicurata del ira et secreto de Iddio, trarsi quanto piu puo sotto il figliuolo." Ascanio Condivi: Vita di Michelagnolo Buonarroti raccolta per Ascanio Condivi da la Ripa Transone (Roma:. 1553).

(27.) This is the judgment of Simo Knuuttila, Emotions in Ancient and Medieval Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004).

(28.) Ludwig Pastor, The History of the Popes from the Close of the Middle Ages, 3rd ed. (St. Louis: 1950), vol. XII, 628.

(29.) Steinberg, "Michelangelo's 'Last Judgment' as Merciful Heresy," Art in America (November /December 1975): 50.

(30.) MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2.

(31.) On the complexity of various visual references, mainly to Dante and Virgil, see Bernadine Barnes, "Metaphorical Painting," 65-81.

(32.) For various reactions, see especially Melinda Schlitt, "Painting, Criticism, and Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Age of the Counter-Reformation," in Hall, ed., Michelangelo's 'Last Judgment,' 113-49.

(33.) Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists, vol. 1, trans. George Bull (New York: Penguin, 1987), 382.

(34.) See John Shearman, "The Chapel of Sixtus IV" in The Sistine Chapel: The Art, the History, and the Restoration (New York: Crown-Harmony, 1986), 22; and Bernadine Barnes, Michelangelo's Last Judgment: The Renaissance Response (Berkeley: University California Press, 1998), chap. 2.

(35.) Condivi, "Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti," 57.

(36.) For the widespread knowledge of Aquinas in the Italian Renaissance, see Kristeller, "Thomism and the Italian Thought of the Renaissance," 29-91.

(37.) For specific Italian Dominicans in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, see Kristeller, Ibid., 48-51.

(38.) Stinger, The Renaissance in Rome, 142.

(39.) On the theological advisors to the Pope, see also Peter Howard, "Painters and the Visual Art of Preaching," esp. 60-77. Marcia Hall sees Cajetan as a major figure in the forming of the painting's iconography of the Resurrection of the Body (Michelangelo's Last Judgment, 96-103). On Michelangelo and Clement VII, see William E. Wallace, "Clement VII and Michelangelo: An Anatomy of Patronage" in The Pontificate of Clement-VII: History, Politics, Culture, ed. Kenneth Gouwens and Sheryl E. Reiss (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005), 189-98. Cajetan dealt with the question of Henry VIH's divorce, and like Clement VII he was buried in the Dominican church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.

(40.) Condivi, "Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti," 66-67.
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Author:Beauregard, David
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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