Giotto’s Last Judgement is a large fresco located in the Arena
chapel in Padua, Italy. The patron of the chapel, Enrico Scrovegni, wanted to
dedicate this chapel to Saint Mary of Charity, as a way of showing his
charitable acts, although convicted of Usury. Completed in 1305, the fresco is
presented throughout the whole of the west wall and is dominated by Christ in
all his glory and divinity. Keeping in line with tradition, the action of the
fresco happens all around Christ, neatly ordered within a hierarchy, the
blessed are positioned to Christ’s right and to those condemned to hell are in
the lower left section.

However Michelangelo was more conventional in his later
version of the Last Judgement completed in 1541. Commissioned by Pope Paul III
in the Sistine chapel, Rome, Michelangelo is seen to have rather incorporated
techniques that would grasp the attention of his viewers. He wanted the spectator
to question why certain features were different in the chaotic fresco and the
difference in representation of certain figures. Michelangelo’s Last Judgement
not only expressed his ideas and beliefs, but also communicates a message to
viewers.

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Whilst there are some visual similarities between these two
scenes, it is clearly visible that there are differences, not only the
intention of the artist but the message they wanted the scene to convey.

This essay shall provide a detailed and comparative analysis
between the two scenes. It will start by analysing the figure of Christ in the
Arena Chapel and then go on to describe and evaluate the difference in
Michelangelo’s depiction of Christ. The second part of the essay will firstly
illustrate the distinctive depiction of Mary in the Sistine Chapel in contrast
to Giotto’s rendering of Mary in the Arena Chapel.

 

In Giotto’s traditional depiction of Christ, Christ is
depicted as a large and prominent figure seated in a presumable throne within a
rainbow mandorla. (Frugoni, 2005) He is surrounded by a golden halo with
the addition of three mirrors, bearing reference to the Holy Trinity, when
struck with light.

Derbes and Sandona (2008) mention the positioning
and gestures of Christ were obligatory attributes of Christ in a Last
Judgement. His extended arms are symbolic of his Judgements, that of the right
hand lifted up towards the blessed and the left hand lowered and facing
downwards, addressing the damned. Giotto’s depiction of the Judging Christ has
a visual parallel between Christ and the Virtue of Justice, as depicted in the
chapel. Previous scholars have analysed the posture of the virtue of Justice,
claiming that the right hand performs a virtuous act, whilst the left hand is
ready to reject. Justice is also seated in a throne, symbolic of her power and authority,
she embodies a prominent stature with her size equating to that of her
importance. The emphasis placed on the virtue of Justice brings to light the
evident parallels between her and the figure of Christ in the Last Judgment, as
the association between heavenly and earthly judgements.

However, an unusual feature of Christ is that of the tunic
he attires, that opens up to emphasize Christ’s wound from the cross that has
been regarded by theologians as symbolic of Christ’s charity, as Bonaventure regarded
is as ‘exemplum caritatis’ (ibid., p.77). Frugoni also states that Christ’s
wounds are a prominent feature within this Judgement, symbolic of his
crucifixion, particularly highlighted by his ribs, which asserts that he has
indeed risen (2005).

Thus suggesting that both the garment and the wounds
together are symbolic of the virtue of charity, a predominant theme throughout the
entirety of this fresco. The placement of Christ’s right foot on the mandorla
and his right hand extended provoke a symbolic gesture of acceptance and
welcome as it faces upwards (Shorr, 1956). Furthermore his
body language proves to be more welcoming as his glance is directed towards those
who are blessed, those who are to be saved. Contrastingly his left hand is
turned down, a gesture that symbolizes his rejection and disapproval, with
anger also arguably portrayed in his eyebrow, this shows his acknowledgement of
those who are damned and to be sentenced to hell.

 

Barnes explores the depiction of Christ in Michelangelo’s
Last Judgement as one of ‘extraordinary complex content’ (1998, p. 8).
Michelangelo portrays a series of developments in his fresco that move away
from tradition. Nevertheless Michelangelo incorporates the gesture of Christ in
the same way as Giotto, as it is a fundamental feature within the Last
Judgement as a form of identifying the scene itself. The positioning of
Christ’s hands infers to the binal significance of the scene, of inviting the
blessed to heaven and rejecting the damned to hell. Moreover, Barnes
acknowledges how Michelangelo too encouraged one’s eye to focus on Christ’s
hand near the positioning of his wound in his side, as symbolic of the positive
message the wound conveys.

 Michelangelo’s diverse
unclothed interpretation of Christ was perhaps accomplished to allow
Michelangelo to emphasize his interest and studies in the human body and accentuate
his muscular physique, in particular that of his torso and the positioning of
his legs. The ‘exposed torso’ and nudity of Christ was symbolic in showing his
wounds, referencing his passion and crucifixion, that symbolizes his offering
of salvation to humanity (1998, p.22). Hall (2005) criticises Christ’s
more youthful appearance, that lacking a beard decreases his divine status and
instead makes him look too human like. However Barnes (1998) argues that the
beardless Christ is instead a portrayal of the perfect beauty of youth, one who
does not age. 

Furthermore, Michelangelo depicts Christ to employ a rather
more dynamic and ambiguous pose. Barnes (1998) argues that Christ is foremostly
indicated to be seated, this being in succession with tradition. However,
Christ’s left leg is almost straight and with his raised arm, these features
allude one to believe that a sense of movement is about to take place and thus
Christ exploits a more dynamic space than the previous static Christ. Hall adds
that Christ’s twisted torso in a formation of contrapposto, allows him to ascend
from his seat, reference to Christ’s ‘bursting from the tomb’ (2005, p.11). Barnes
argues that Christ acts as the prime move, with dynamic counter positioning of
his arms and legs, he energizes the upper half of the composition. This
ambiguous and thus more complex formation of Christ allows the spectator,
within the realms of their own imagination, to complete the movement of Christ
from seated to standing. Thus permits Christ to ostensibly move from beyond the
framework and engage more powerfully so, then any other figure, with the
spectator.

 

Barnes argues that not only the size of Christ, but the
golden light behind Christ grants his presence to be more ‘forceful’ (1998,
p.36). Hall argues that the inclusion of these bright yellow pigments within
the fresco give it a sun like appearance within the scene to ‘move in an ineluctable
and unperceived rotation’ (2005, p.12). Although in Giotto’s Last Judgement
Christ also has a strong yellow backdrop, Greenstein further analyses this
symbolism of the sun, as written In the Gospel of Matthew, that Christ’s ‘face
shone as the sun’ (1989, p. 49). This has lead
Christian theologians to believe that the inclusion of this yellow pigment,
embodying the sun, encompasses and indicates a change in glory and thus alludes
to Christ’s second coming. Modern scholars however have picked up on
Michelangelo’s all’antica style, with his reference to classical antiquity
being that of influence of Apollo Belvedere, the God of the Sun. Although their
physical bodies are different, Greenstein argues that Michelangelo depicted
Christ’s head in conjunction with Apollo in order to render the Son of God,
with the metaphorical language by St Matthew to provide a visual embodiment,
that describes the transfigured Christ.

 

 

The two depictions of Mary display the development from
traditional depictions. Hall remarks that the posture of Michelangelo’s Mary has
changed, by displaying a more passive disposition with her arms folded unlike
the active depiction of Mary in Giotto’s Judgement (2005). This clear
difference perhaps suggests that her role as an intercessor has ended. The physical
closeness between Christ and Mary can be an indication that Justice has already
been tempered with mercy, thus showing the two as unified, not separate. The
‘extraordinary’ depiction of Mary, perhaps incorporated to grasp the attention
of the spectator, closely connects her to Christ, as she is placed within his
shadow (2005, p.62). However her unusual pose shows her angled body facing away
from Christ, with her legs entangled together and her face serene, implying
cowardly behaviour (2005, p. 62). Mary normally is represented in a prayer like
position, or takes a more active role in the Judgement as the intercessor for
humanity. In Michelangelo’s sketches it was apparent that he aimed to give her
a more passionate and active role, however the apparent change in her pose
means that she no longer acts as the intercessor for humanity. She is uncrowned
and dressed in more ordinary garments, giving her a more humble than divine
depiction and subsequently makes her harder to identify with. The gaze of Mary
does not engage with the spectator, rather she focuses on the space below, a
feature that is more commonly included in paintings of the Assumption.
Michelangelo is showing a different representation of the ‘character’ of Mary (2005,
p.66). Barnes (1998) notes that Mary was a popular role model for women, a
symbol of humility and sinless behaviour. Mary portrays purity, as the mother
of Christ she is the symbol of everlasting life. The Virgin is beautiful and
elegant and presented with graceful posture.

 

In Giotto’s scene of the Last Judgement, Derbes and Sandona
clarify the Virgin as symbolic of the virtue of charity, embodying a far more
active role in the scene (2008). Not only is she depicted twice within the same
scene, but she embodies the role of intercessor and the remiser of sin. She is
observed in elaborate participation just below the mandorla, at the head of the
procession of the saved (Barnes, 1998). This clearly shows her role as the
intercessor for mankind before the judge, of whom is Christ (Shorr, 1956). By
being second in size to Christ this also elevates her importance. Her physical
situation is unusual in western representations during the Medieval time.
Giotto rather wanted to position the emphasis of the Virgin Mary on the
relationship between the Virgin and those who look for salvation. Portrayed as
a regal and dominant figure, she is isolated from the blessed by the mandorla
in which she stands. The obedience of Mary conveys salvation, for herself and humanity,
portraying ‘the Virgin’s power to intercede with her son for the salvation of
mankind when all other means have failed’ (Shorr, 1956, p.178).

In her second appearance she is seen receiving the Arena
chapel presented to her by Enrico Scrovegni (Stubblebine, 1995). However here she is
represented as the Annunciate Virgin and Saint Mary of Charity, portraying a
gesture of acceptance and forgiveness as though in return for Scrovegni good
acts giving this chapel to her. The Virgin exhibits a downward gaze, symbolic of
her compassionate role, towards the kneeling Enrico Scrovegni, highlighting her
close relationship to humankind and her role of salvation (Shorr, 1956). The
position of her extended right arm mirrors the exact replica of Christ’s, which
subsequently supports her role as ‘coredemptrix’, as is also suggested with her
red dalmatic garment, like Christ, a colour that is associated with charity (Derbes
and Sandona, 2008, p.77). The dark ultramarine background also reinforces the Virgin’s
gesture and the tilt of her head towards Enrico, highlighting the closeness of
their relationship, with acceptance being predominantly significant (Shorr,
1956).

Mary is identified as the Queen of heaven and the crowned Virgin.
Here she represents the compassionate role of Santa Maria della Carita, to
which the term for charity is derived from.

Thus Barnes (1998) evaluates that the dual appearance of the
Virgin emphasizes her important role in the judgment and reinforces her duty.
This was an iconographic change to which religious ideology was thought to be
made clearer the more emphatic the art was and thus stories of the Virgin Mary
became more elaborate and depicted Mary more clearly as the intercessor.

 

In conclusion, there are notable and evident differences
between these two depictions of the Last Judgement. Whilst they both include
Christ at the centre of the scene, actively imploring the duties of Judgement
by the gestures of his hands, it is clear that the different periods of completion
of these scenes account for the artists’ different intentions and priorities
conveyed. Giotto’s Last Judgement predominantly focuses on the important
symbolism of charity, whilst keeping with tradition in the figure of a judging
Christ. Yet, he elevated the active role of Mary in the scene with her dual
depiction emphasising the importance of her role as intercessor. However Michelangelo
evidently focused on the break with tradition, by presenting Mary with a more
passive role, the main focus was on the active and dynamic depiction of Christ,
as well as the addition of his innovative youthful and muscular figure.  

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