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Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Last Judgment



Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (6 March 1475 – 18 February 1564),
The Last Judgment
1537 - 1541
Fresco
1370 x 1200 cm
The Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

On the altar or West wall of the Sistine Chapel, three hundred and ninety one figures make up the fresco known as the Last Judgment, a complex and over powering work. Incapable of being taken in one viewing, the first effect of the work is awe and incomprehension. One is overwhelmed by the scale of the work and the sheer number of charaters and happenings depicted in it.

Michelangelo commented 'How many people will go crazy over my masterpiece!` How right he was.

The work is a challenge to everyone who gazes or engages with it.

It was meant to be and is an epic work: the artistic equivalent of The Divine Comedy

The actual execution of the work took four years. However its gestation and its conceptualisation took much longer. There were many designs for the work prior to the final one decided upon by the great master.

There are a number of themes and many motifs.

As it is now Lent when we are to prepare for Easter, it is appropriate to concentrate on the one main theme of the work: The Resurrection of Christ and the Resurrection of the Body. According to St Paul in First Corinthians, the two are inextricably linked.

The Vatican Museums briefly summarises Michelangelo`s work

"[The work] is centred around the dominant figure of Christ, captured in the moment preceding that when the verdict of the Last Judgement is uttered (Matthew 25:31-46). ... Next to Christ is the Virgin, who turns her head in a gesture of resignation: in fact she can no longer intervene in the decision, but only await the result of the Judgement. The Saints and the Elect, arranged around Christ and the Virgin, also anxiously await the verdict."

Amongst the saints are the martyrs holding the instruments of their martyrdom. At their feet are the patron saints of Rome:: Saint Bartholomew holding the flayed skin of a Michelangelo and Saint Lawrence with his grill. One cannot fail to notice Saint Peter with his keys. To the right of Christ are Adam and Eve , Esau and Jacob reconciled and other martyrs. On the left of Christ are St John the Baptist and the Apostles.

It is the moment immediately prior to the delivering of Judgment. This moment had a special significance in the teaching of St Paul. The final work of Christ is about to be accomplished. Death is to be finally and totally destroyed. God will be "all in all". In First Corinthians (vv 22 - 28) St Paul wrote:

"22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all. "

The circular positioning of the figures around Christ and the Virgin and the way the figure of Christ is depicted show that this is a dynamic scene, full of action and movement. The figure of Christ is central. He is not portrayed as a static figure with a beard. There is a new depiction of Christ. It is the figure of a body transformed, transfigured and resurrected. The figure is quite regal and imperial. Christ seems to be seated on some sort of throne surrounded by his Court. He is motivated by anger and determination. He does not seem to be a particularly gentle or merciful figure.

The bodies of all those raised have resurrected bodies. In First Corinthians, St Paul explains (verses 35 - 44):

"35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” 36 How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38 But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. 39 Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. 40 There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. 41 The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.

42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body."

But the fresco depicts the moment before the final change. There is yet more change to occur:

Again St Paul in First Corinthians writes:

"50 I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

Most scholars now accept that one of the key works of Scripture underlying the central piece of The Last Judgment is Chapter 15 of St Paul`s First Epistle to the Corinthians ("the Resurrection Chapter")

The chapter deals with the resurrection of Jesus Christ 15:1-11; the certainty of resurrection 15:12-34; the resurrection body 15:35-49; and the assurance of victory over death 15:50-58

This chapter has been called 'the earliest Christian doctrinal essay,' and it is the only part of the letter which deals directly with doctrine

St Paul wished to address a problem that had arisen in the Church of Corinth: some in the church had adopted a belief concerning the resurrection that was contrary to apostolic teaching. They believed that there is no resurrection of the dead although most of them did believe in the actual physical resurrection o Jesus.

It is worth quoting the chapter in full:

"1 Corinthians 15

The Resurrection of Christ

1 Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.

11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.

The Resurrection of the Dead

12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.

29 Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them? 30 And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour? 31 I face death every day—yes, just as surely as I boast about you in Christ Jesus our Lord. 32 If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised,

“Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

33 Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.”34 Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning; for there are some who are ignorant of God—I say this to your shame.

The Resurrection Body

35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” 36 How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38 But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. 39 Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. 40 There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. 41 The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.

42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.

If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 46 The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47 The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. 48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.

50 I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

55 “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain."

The first eleven verses of the Chapter are the earliest account of the Resurrection appearances of Jesus in the New Testament. (about Easter, AD 57).

Verses 3 to 7 comprise an ancient Creed:

"3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles"

Some scholars have dated this creed to the decade after the death of Christ and used in the Jerusalem Church.

It should not be forgotten that Michelangelo`s work is the main work above the altar in the Sistine Chapel, the Pope`s private chapel in the Vatican. It is probably one of the most important altars in the Roman Catholic world where the successor of Peter would celebrate Mass and offer up the Eucharist and where the successors of the Apostles, the Cardinals would gather in consistory and also to elect successors of Peter.

The Resurrection of Christ and the Resurrection of the Dead are the basis of Christian faith, the confirmation of all Christ`s actings and teachings, the confirmation of all Christ`s teaching, the confirmation and revelation of Christ as Divine, the Incarnation, the Son of God made Man, the centre of faith and the faith of the Church and the teaching and preaching of the Church.


Pope John Paul II in a series of audiences lectured on The Resurrection of Christ at length. Many of his talks concentrate on Pauline teaching especially on Chapter 15 of First Corinthians. Here is one of his talks entitled The Resurrection is the High Point of Revelation (8th March 1989):

"In St. Paul's Letter to the Corinthians, several times quoted during the course of these reflections on Christ's resurrection, we read: "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain" (1 Cor 15:14).

Evidently St. Paul saw the resurrection as the basis of the Christian faith. He saw it as the keystone of the entire edifice of doctrine and life built up on revelation, inasmuch as it is the definitive confirmation of the whole ensemble of truth taught by Christ.

Hence all the Church's preaching, from apostolic times down the centuries and spanning the generations even to the present day, makes its appeal to the resurrection. It draws from it its driving and persuasive force and its vigor. It is easy to understand why.

The resurrection was first of all the confirmation of all that Christ had "done and taught."

It was the divine seal stamped on his words and life. He himself had indicated to his disciples and adversaries this definitive sign of his truth. On the first Easter the angel told the women at the empty tomb: "He has risen as he said" (Mt 28:6). If this word and promise of his are revealed as true, then all his other words and promises possess the power of truth that does not pass away, as he himself had proclaimed: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away" (Mt 24:35; cf. Mk 13:31; Lk 21:33). No stronger, more decisive and more authoritative proof than the resurrection from the dead could have been imagined or asked for. All the truths, including those most impenetrable to the human mind, find their justification, even from the rational point of view, in the fact that the risen Christ gave the definitive proof, promised beforehand, of his divine authority.

Thus the truth of Christ's divinity itself is confirmed by the resurrection.

Jesus had said: "When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I Am" (Jn 8:28). Those who heard these words wanted to stone Jesus, because for the Jews the words "I Am" were the equivalent of the unspeakable name of God. In fact, when asking Pilate to condemn Jesus to death, they presented as the principal charge that he had "made himself the Son of God" (Jn 19:7). For this reason the Sanhedrin had condemned him as guilty of blasphemy. In reply to the high priest's question, Jesus had declared that he was the Christ, the Son of God (cf. Mt 26:63-65; Mk 14:62; Lk 22:70), that is to say, not merely the earthly Messiah as understood and awaited by Jewish tradition, but the Messiah-Lord announced by Psalm 110 (cf. Mt 22:41 ff.), the mysterious personage perceived by Daniel (cf. 7:13-14). This was the great blasphemy and the charge for the death sentence: that he had proclaimed himself the Son of God! Jesus' resurrection confirms the truth of his divine identity, and justifies the self-attribution of the "name" of God which he made before the Pasch: "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I Am" (Jn 8:58). For the Jews this was a claim punishable by stoning (cf. Lev 24:16). "They took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple" (Jn 8:59). If they had not then been able to stone him, they later succeeded in "lifting him up" on the cross. The resurrection of the crucified proved that he was really I Am, the Son of God.

In actual fact, Jesus, while calling himself Son of Man, had not only asserted that he was truly the Son of God. But in the upper room, before the passion, he had also prayed the Father to reveal that the Christ-Son of Man was his eternal Son: "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you" (Jn 17:1). "Glorify me in your own presence with the glory which I had with you before the world was made" (Jn 17:5). The paschal mystery was the answer to this prayer, the confirmation of Christ's divine sonship, and indeed his glorification with that glory which he "had with the Father before the world was made": the glory of the Son of God.

According to John's Gospel Jesus, in the prepashcal period, had on several occasions alluded to this future glory which would be manifested in his death and resurrection. Only after the event did the disciples understand the meaning of those words of his.

Thus we read that during his first Pasch at Jerusalem, after having driven the merchants and money-changers out of the temple, Jesus replied to the Jews who had asked him for a sign of his authority for doing as he had done: "'Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up....' But he spoke of the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken" (Jn 2:19-22).

Moreover, Jesus' reply to those sent by the sisters of Lazarus who besought him to come to visit their brother who was ill, referred to the paschal events: "This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it" (Jn 11:4).

It was not merely the glory which he could acquire from the miracle, all the more so since it would have been a contributory cause of his death (cf. Jn 11:46-54). His real glorification would have come precisely from his being raised up on the cross (cf. Jn 12:32). The disciples had a clear understanding of all this after the resurrection.

Particularly interesting is St. Paul's teaching on the value of the resurrection as the determinant element of his Christological concept, linked also to his personal experience of the risen one.

Thus at the beginning of his Letter to the Romans he writes: "Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the Gospel of God which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, the Gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh, and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord" (1:1-4).

This means that from the very first moment of his human conception and birth (descended from David), Jesus was the eternal Son of God become Son of Man. In the resurrection this divine sonship was manifested in all its fullness through the power of God. God restored Jesus to life by the work of the Holy Spirit (cf. Rom 8:11) and constituted him in the glorious state of kyrios (cf. Phil 2:9-11; Rom 14:9; Acts 2:36). Jesus merited under a new, messianic title the recognition, worship and glory of the eternal name of Son of God (cf. Acts 13:33; Heb 1:1-5; 5:5).

Paul had expounded this same doctrine in the synagogue of Antioch in Pisidia on the sabbath day. At the invitation of the leaders of the synagogue, he spoke to announce that as the high point of the economy of salvation, effected between the lights and shadows of the history of Israel, God had raised up Jesus from the dead. For many days Jesus had appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem and these were now his witnesses to the people. "And we," the Apostle concluded, "bring you the good news that what God promised to our fathers, he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus; as also it is written in the second psalm: 'You are my Son, today I have begotten you'"(Acts 13:32-34: cf. Ps 2:7).

For Paul there is an assimilation of ideas between the glory of Christ's resurrection and Christ's eternal divine sonship, which is fully revealed in that victorious conclusion of his messianic mission.

Paul's personal experience of the Lord

This glory of kyrios manifests that power of the risen one (Man-God) whom Paul had known by personal experience at the moment of his conversion on the road to Damascus. Then he too heard himself called to be an apostle (though not one of the Twelve), inasmuch as he was an eye-witness of the living Christ.

Paul received from him the power to face all the toil and bear all the suffering of his mission. Paul's spirit was so marked by that experience that in his teaching and witness he gave precedence to the idea of the power of the risen one over that of sharing in Christ's sufferings, which was also dear to him.

That which he had verified in his personal experience he proposed to the faithful as a rule of thought and a norm of life:

"Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord...in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him...so that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead" (Phil 3:8-11).

At this point his thought turned to his experience on the road to Damascus: "...because Christ Jesus has made me his own" (Phil 3:12).

As appears from the texts quoted, Christ's resurrection is closely connected with the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God. It is its fulfillment, according to God's eternal plan.

Rather, it is the supreme crowning of all that Jesus had revealed and wrought throughout his whole life, from his birth to his passion and death, by his deeds, miracles, teaching, example of perfect holiness and above all by his transfiguration. He had never revealed directly the glory which he had with the Father "before the world was made" (Jn 17:5), but he concealed this glory in his humanity until the definitive emptying of himself (cf. Phil 2:7-8) through his death on the cross.

The resurrection reveals the fact that "in Christ the whole fullness of the deity dwells bodily" (Col 1:19).

Thus the resurrection completes the manifestation of the content of the Incarnation. It can therefore be said that it is also the fullness of revelation. It stands therefore, as we have said, at the center of the Christian faith and of the Church's preaching."

See also

Pope John Paul II General Audience: The Resurrection is a Historical Event that Transcends History (1st March 1989)

Pope John Paul II General Audience: The Saving Power of the Resurrection (15th March 1989)

Pope John Paul II General Audience The Resurrection of the Body (8th August 1990)

Pope Benedict XVI Urbi et Orbi Message (Easter 2009)

Pope Benedict XVI General Audience Wednesday 15th April 2009