In the central part of the Last Judgement fresco Michelangelo painted St. Bartholomew holding his skin. A very relevant allegory for our alchemical Mumia.
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 huge oeuvre, 17 meters high for 13 wide, teeming with hundreds of nude figures.
But call them generically figures doesn’t exactly represent what caught the first visitors sight, since these figures actually are hundreds of athletic muscle bound male characters, in which even old St. Peter seems a muscular athlete with a white beard and 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 an iconography nonsense, in fact the Judgement day is seen as the flesh resurrection day, which traditionally (and alchemically) should be instead a divine spiritual substance and not a pulpy raw matter.
We know that Michelangelo defined himself as a penitent devoured by the so-called tortures of the flesh, but that should not concern us here, rather we may be interested to understand how might happen that the prayer chapel of the pope was painted in this way. I was 11 years old when I saw the Cappella Sistina for the first time and I remember to have made a final discouraged decision on who was used to retreat in prayer inside that chapel. Nevertheless the Cappella Sistina has always been considered by vatican liturgists the place where the Holy Spirit acts. And they are not wrong.
In the central part of this deluge of painted flesh we are chiefly caught by a detail: St. Bartholomew holding his skin. This is a particular too important, both from the hermetic point of view and the point of view of Hermeticism hidden in paintings. In fact the only alchemical flesh that should interest us is unequivocally the skin of St. Bartholomew, to which Michelangelo put on his face. So here he is the only one who truly rises, since that is the only true alchemical body in the middle of all that raw matter/Materia Tertia. We have already encountered the Skin concept in Blaise de Vigenère. This is a subject extremely rare in Renaissance paintings, but there is nothing in the art of Michelangelo that can help us to define him a hermetic artist. Unlike painters such as Durer, Bosch, Giovanni Bellini, Parmigianino, Guercino, Perugino and Mantegna who were used to scatter hermetic bits over their works, with Michelangelo this comes with an extreme rarity. Apart from this detail of the skin of St. Bartholomew. Did Michelangelo know the meaning of this profound and esoteric symbolism? Did he knew the relevance of skin allegory and how the whole Alchemy was based on it? Besides being remorseful Michelangelo was also a great admirer of Dante, he knew by heart whole passages of the Divine Comedy. But it would be interesting to know if he also realized the esoteric and hermetic implications involved in Dante’s work.
There is another detail that makes us suppose that Michelangelo was aware of the hermetic significance of the St. Bartholomew skin. This detail is, incidentally, in the nearby picture of St. Lawrence on the gridiron. Actually defining grill what is rather a ladder is a stretch. In fact here St. Lawrence is holding his gridiron like the farmers who go to pick cherries take their ladders, slipped over their shoulder. But this is not a whichever ladder, because it has six steps, like any convenient esoteric stairs, standing either for Mercurius densities, or Scala Transmutationibus (stairs of transmutations). Or six as in the last cooking phase. Indeed the real cooking ladder/gridiron to grill, not a man/woman, but an alchemical skin. First matter then become matter first or Materia Prima (1).