Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Anthony Blunt on the Counter-Reformation and Michelangelo

Michelangelo
The Last Judgement 
ca. 1790-1800
hand-colored engraving by James Cole, after the fresco in the Sistine Chapel
British Museum

"But from the more general point of view the essential characteristic of the earlier stage of the Counter-Reformation is that it is an attempt to return to the ecclesiastical domination which the Church had held during the Middle Ages.  In the intellectual field this meant that the movement was opposed to all the achievements of Renaissance Humanism.  The individual rationalism of Humanism had played a considerable part in the development of the Reformation, and Humanism was therefore anathema to the Counter-Reformers.  It was their aim to undo all that the Renaissance had achieved, and to get back to a feudal and medieval state of affairs.  The movement was just as much a Counter-Renaissance as a Counter-Reformation, and it set itself to destroy the human scale of values in which the Humanists believed and to replace it once again with a theological scale such as had been maintained during the Middle Ages.  . . . "

"The extraordinary attention which critics and theologians paid to details in religious paintings can best be seen in the censures of Gilio da Fabriano on Michelangelo's Last Judgement or in Borghini's  comments on Florentine Mannerist paintings, particularly on Pontormo's frescoes in S. Lorenzo.  Gilio's criticisms go farther toward the ludicrous than Borghini's, for he was a priest and a professional theologian and took purely doctrinal errors intensely to heart, but Borghini comes very close to him and proves that laymen and not only priests were profoundly influenced by the Tridentine reforms.  A few of Gilio's objections to the Last Judgement are perhaps worth quoting in detail to give the tone of his dialogue.  Michelangelo, he says, has represented the angels without wings.  Certain of the figures have draperies blown about by the wind, in spite of the fact that at the Day of Judgement wind and storm will have ceased.  The trumpeting angels are shown all standing together, whereas it is written that they shall be sent unto the four corners of the earth.  Among the dead rising from the earth some are still bare skeletons, while others are already clothed with flesh, though according to the Biblical version the general Resurrection will take place instantaneously."

Michelangelo-
The Last Judgement - Trumpeting Angels
1545
engraving by Niccolò della Casa, after the fresco in the Sistine Chapel
British Museum

Michelangelo
 The Last Judgement - Resurrecting figures rising from the Earth
ca. 1540-50
anonymous engraving, after the fresco in the Sistine Chapel
British Museum

" . . .  Gilio also protests against the fact that Christ is shown standing, instead of seated upon His throne of glory.  One of the speakers justifies this on the grounds that it is symbolical, but his defence is disallowed by the leader of the argument in a sentence which sums up the whole feeling of the dialogue: 'Your opinion may be right, that he intended to interpret the words of the Gospel mystically and allegorically; but first of all the literal meaning must be taken, whenever this can properly be done, and then the others, keeping to the letter as often as possible.'  This represents not only the attitude of Gilio to Michelangelo but that of his whole generation to the great figures of thirty years before."  

Michelangelo
The Last Judgement - Christ in Judgement
1803
stipple-engraving by Conrad Martin Metz
after the fresco in the Sistine Chapel
British Museum

Michelangelo
The Last Judgement - Christ in Judgement
ca. 1543-48
engraving by Niccolò della Casa, after the fresco in the Sistine Chapel
British Museum

"The reasons why the Counter-Reformers had to fear the worship of classical antiquity have already been explained, and it is not therefore surprising to find Gilio da Fabriano objecting to Michelangelo's introduction of Charon into the Last Judgement.  It is agreed in the dialogue that Michelangelo was here acting on the authority of Dante, but this defence is not allowed to stand, and it is typical of the change in spirit in the Church that what would not have been challenged in the time of Dante could not be risked in 1560." 


Michelangelo
The Last Judgement - Damned carried to Hell in Charon's boat
1803
stipple-engraving by Conrad Martin Metz, after the fresco in the Sistine Chapel
British Museum

"As in the disputes over heresy, so in those over decency, Michelangelo's Last Judgement came in for the most violent attacks.  Its position in the Sistine Chapel gave it an importance which made it a good test case, and in the question of nudity it provided ample material for discussion.  It was not only exposed to written attacks, but on several occasions was in danger of complete destruction and only escaped with serious mutilation.  Even before it was finished, the master of the ceremonies to Paul III, Biagio da Cesena, protested against it; but the Pope stood by the artist, who took an easy revenge by painting his opponent as Minos in Hell [the figure in the stipple-engraving directly above at bottom right corner, entwined by a serpent which bites his genitals].  Paul IV threatened to destroy the whole fresco and finally ordered Daniele da Volterra to paint draperies over some of the figures.  The violence which Michelangelo's work aroused is shown by a Florentine criticism, quoted by Symonds, in which the artist is described as 'that inventor of filthiness.'  Pius IV was still dissatisfied and had the draperies increased in number, while Clement VIII was only prevented from completely destroying the painting by the appeals of the Academy of St. Luke.  Paul V also had some figures repainted; and it was on this occasion that El Greco offered to replace the whole fresco with one 'modest and decent, and no less well painted than the other.'  Clement XIII had yet more draperies added in 1762, and rumours were current in 1936 that Pius XI intended to continue the work."  


Michelangelo
The Last Judgement - Demons crouching at the gates of Hell
1803
stipple-engraving by Conrad Martin Metz. after the fresco in the Sistine Chapel
British Museum

Michelangelo
The Last Judgement - Group of the Damned descending to Hell
ca. 1543-48
engraving by Niccolò della Casa, after the fresco in the Sistine Chapel
British Museum

Michelangelo
The Last Judgement - Figures of the Damned
ca. 1606-72
drawing by Isaac Fuller after etching by Jan de Bisschop
after drawing by Giorgio Vasari
 after the fresco in the Sistine Chapel
British Museum

Michelangelo
The Last Judgement - Damned Soul set upon by Demons
ca. 1830
lithograph by M. Eichholzer, after the fresco in the Sistine Chapel
British Museum

Michelangelo
The Last Judgement - Group of the Damned descending to Hell
1803
stipple-engraving by Conrad Martin Metz, after the fresco in the Sistine Chapel
British Museum


Michelangelo
The Last Judgement - Group of Saints adoring Christ
ca. 1543-48
engraving by Niccolò della Casa, after the fresco in the Sistine Chapel
British Museum

Michelangelo
The Last Judgement - Female Saints adoring Christ
ca. 1543-48
engraving by Niccolò della Casa, after the fresco in the Sistine Chapel
British Museum

Michelangelo
The Last Judgement - the Blessed ascending to Heaven
ca. 1543-48
engraving by Niccolò della Casa, after the fresco in the Sistine Chapel
British Museum

Michelangelo
The Last Judgement - the Blessed ascending to Heaven
1803
stipple-engraving by Conrad Martin Metz
after the fresco in the Sistine Chapel
British Museum

– quoted passages are from the chapter on The Council of Trent and Religious Art in Anthony Blunt's Artistic Theory in Italy, 1450-1600 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940)