In the central part of the Last Judgement fresco, Michelangelo painted St. Bartholomew holding his skin. This a very relevant allegory for our alchemical Mumia.
In the central part of that deluge of flesh and muscle, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, we are chiefly caught by a detail: St. Bartholomew holding his skin. The iconography of the skin is not widely used in painting and in alchemical and philosophical symbolism. Perhaps because, as a gruesome detail, it has often been relegated to the things of the martyrs. We know that Michelangelo defined himself as a penitent devoured by the so-called tortures of the flesh, and the Sistine Chapel, at least in theory, has always been considered by Vatican liturgists the place where the Holy Spirit acts. And they are not that wrong. This bizarre artistic antique is too important, both from the alchemic point of view and the point of view of Philosophy hidden in paintings. The only alchemical flesh that should interest us is the skin of St. Bartholomew unequivocally, which the painter put on his face.
Michelangelo Buonarroti started to paint the Last Judgement in the area behind the altar of the Cappella Sistina in 1536. He was 60 years old and would have completed his work only six years later. When the fresco was open for the public to see, on 25 December 1541, what they perceived was a colossal oeuvre, 17 meters high for 13 wide, teeming with hundreds of nude figures.
But calling them generically figures doesn’t exactly represent what caught the first visitors’ sight since these figures are hundreds of athletic muscle-bound male characters, in which even old St. Peter seems a muscular athlete with a white beard. The rare women are beefy young men with out-of-place added breasts. Of course, we can not be amazed and surprised by all this. That’s what Michelangelo had always been about since the beginning of his career. But all that flesh was not iconography nonsense. The Judgement day is seen as the flesh resurrection day, which traditionally (and alchemically) should be instead a divine spiritual substance, not a pulpy raw matter.
The artists of the Renaissance period, and above all, the great ones like Michelangelo, demanded an actual contract between them and those who commissioned the work, even if it was the Pope. These sheets mentioned the minor details and limits of freedom of creative expression. So, for example, they wrote that the painter X undertook to paint a certain number of figures, between large and small, and a certain number of background landscapes with X number of trees, rivers, and palaces. The art of painting at that time was judged by the technical ability of the artisan and by the difficulty, always technical, of the work commissioned. Of course, the artist/artisan knew those figures had to convey and evoke the faith of the prevailing religion. But we must not think that the Pope’s court was any different in tastes from other Italian Renaissance courts: the Popes at the time were of exclusive aristocratic birth, and they were educated from childhood to play and entertain themselves with erudition. Pope Clement VII’s biography also respected these rules, as he was the son of Giuliano de ‘Medici, even if only a natural son.
In 1533 Michelangelo was already working in Florence on various projects for Pope Clement VII in San Lorenzo. In September of that year, the artist went to San Miniato al Tedesco to meet the Pope on his way to France. It seems that on that occasion, the pontiff expressed the desire to have him fresco the wall behind the altar of the Sistine Chapel with a monumental Last Judgment. This theme would have worthily concluded the Chapel’s biblical, evangelical, and apostle stories. Pope Clement’s desire was, in all probability, due to link his name to the enterprise of the Sistine Chapel, as his significant predecessors had done.
But who chose St. Bartholomew as the central figure to unravel the story? In all likelihood, it was Michelangelo himself. Or at least, an essential part of him, to the extent that he came to identify with this figure so that he painted his face on those poor human remains.
Bartholomew’s name first appears in the list of the twelve sent by Christ to preach and, again, in the Acts of the Apostles, where he is listed together with the other apostles after the resurrection of Christ. From this moment, only legends tell us of his missionary life in various regions of the Middle East, including Mesopotamia. According to some, perhaps he went as far as India. According to some sources, even his death is entrusted to the tradition that wants him killed and skinned by the king of the Medes in Syria. On the left is a statue in Duomo di Milano portraying a skinned St. Bartholomew. Marco D’Agrate, the artist who sculpted it in 1562 – only two decades after Michelangelo’s – neglected the most crucial part: the skin.
The Last Judgment is the context in which Michelangelo inserted the symbol of the skin. Although in Italian it is known as Giudizio Universale or universal judgment – the name was given perhaps to justify the very essence of Catholicism, whose meaning in Latin is precisely “universal” – traditionally has been handed down as an actual trial where good and evil will be separated. It is a sieve in which God will know his own.
One of the oldest iconographic examples of Giudizio Universale in Italy can be found in the Byzantine-Venetian mosaic behind the altar of the basilica of Santa Maria Assunta on the island of Torcello, in the Venetian lagoon.
At the beginning of the fourteenth century on the mainland, in Padua, the banker Enrico Scrovegni had Giotto paint a Giudizio Universale to decorate the family chapel, indeed the Scrovegni Chapel. We do not notice St. Bartholomew offering his skin in both art pieces. So we are sure he was not a typical iconography of the main subject. Even better, this motif is extremely rare in Renaissance paintings. It is paradoxical to find this elusive symbol in the work of Michelangelo Buonarroti, whose art is so slight that it can help us define him as a hermetic artist.
The religious horizon of Ancient Greece would have assimilated the final judgment to a sacred trial, and the leading actor would have been Themis, the cosmic and divine Justice. A well-known example is found in a scene from the Homeric Odyssey: describing the shield of Achilles, created by the divine blacksmith Hefestos – a celestial map centered on the north pole, the polar constellations and a series of fixed stars on which, as in Hesiod, the most ancient Hellenic calendrical system was oriented – Homer outlines the scene of a wedding, with the typical torch-lit procession while all around dancing young men accompany the bride and groom singing sacred hymns. Then, suddenly, the play turns into a trial scene.
The judges sit in a sacred circular enclosure while in the center are δύο χρυσοῖο τάλαντα, generally rendered as “two golden talents”. Now, τάλαντα is formed on the same radical from which we obtain the verb ταλαντέυω, “to weigh”, “to balance”, “to measure”, “to swing”, so that in reality, the term used by Homer indicates not only “the two golden talents ”, but also “the two pans of a balance”, the instrument forged by the blacksmiths in imitation of the typical symbol of Themis, who in this scene is entirely the cosmic Order that stands on the polar axis and “orients” the rotation of the two “golden plates” of the celestial balance, the Big and the Little Dipper.
To be able to judge the challengers of this trial, which is conducted as a sacred ordeal, the Homeric judge “weighs” the faults on a scale and rewards the innocent with two “golden talents”. We shouldn’t be surprised by this, which may seem like a strange practice to us, it was an ancient tradition to “weigh” the right of the winner on a scale. Even the Celtic king Brennus, the victor over the Romans, does it when he throws his sword on the scales to get gold in return.
But returning to the Homeric sacred trial, we now understand why it was assimilated to an ordeal, where destiny was revealed through the “reading” of the meaning of the different positions assumed by the donated objects. As for the mysterious presence of the north star, it was common knowledge in Homeric times to equate it to the journey of souls: the world of the dead was to the north. And the world of initiates was always positioned there. Of course, all this is not confined only to the weighing of guilt, as we have reduced the sacred ordeal, but included links to the world of coinage, gaming, and astronomy. Worlds we modern have kept separate from each other, thus making them inexplicable. The indispensable trait union for global understanding was, in fact, the symbol of the skin.