Michelangelo and the Feminists

October 07, 1994|By GARRY WILLS

ROME — Rome. -- After years of being covered for restoration, Michelangelo's ''Last Judgment'' in the Sistine Chapel has at last been revealed. The chapel's ceiling caused controversy when restoration showed that Michelangelo had used ice-cream colors for his vision of the world's creation.

The colors of his ''Last Judgment'' are not likely to stir people's ire. He had become a more conventional colorist by the time he completed this late work. But a clearer view of what he was painting may upset some people. Now that the murky lower area near the entry to hell is more decipherable, we can see that there are no identifiable women being tumbled into that grisly place.

Should feminists rejoice that Michelangelo populated his hell entirely with men? That may seem an advance over earlier Last Judgments (Giotto's, for instance), where women are tortured for the lusts they inspire in men. Giotto even hung one woman up by a hook through her genitals. That kind of misogyny is totally absent from Michelangelo's wall. There are many women among his saved people (including, of course, the Virgin Mary), but none being dragged by snakes into the final pit.

On the other hand, Michelangelo's is the harshest Last Judgment of its time. The judging Jesus is rising from his seat to damn the sinners on his left. The trumpeting angels show the saved a book containing their names. It is a small book. The book of the damned, by contrast, is huge.

The cleaned fresco shows, far more clearly than before, the shock and recoil, even of the saints, at this comprehensive wrath. The Virgin Mary, normally shown as an intercessor for mankind in these Last Judgments, has turned away and veiled her face at the undeterrable gesture of God damning men.

This is the first Last Judgment put on the altar wall of a church. The normal place was on the entry wall, either sculpted on the outside or painted on the inside. The prospect of judgment was meant to encourage penitence as one entered a sanctuary whose culminating pictures were of salvation. But Pope Paul III, who instructed Michelangelo to paint this subject in this place, was a harsh champion of the Counter-Reformation, a thunderer of edicts against Protestantism.

Michelangelo does not identify classes of sinners, as all his predecessors had. The sinners here are male, in proud bodies, with intellectual consciousness of what is happening to them. This picture, placed right above the pope's altar, damns mainly heretics -- and women were not considered intellectual enough to sin in that way. So perhaps the feminists had better hold any applause for Michelangelo. He saved them for the wrong reason.

We admire his work for what he (and the pope) may have considered the wrong reasons, too. But we cannot help admiring him -- or despising the people who put loincloths on his tremendous writhing nudes.

6* Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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