Sun-symbolism and cosmology in Michelangelo's Last Judgment

Shrimplin-Evangelidis, Valerie
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Although the perception of the design of Michelangelo's Last Judgment as dependent upon a basically circular composition around the figure of Christ has generally been observed in the literature, no sailsfactory explanation of this has been presented. In the following hypothesis, a cosmological interpretation of Michelangelo's Last Judgment proposes new sources for the circular design of the fresco around a central Apollonian Sun-Christ. After. an outline of the basic nature of the problem, an examination of earlier examples of the Last Judgment demonstrates the cosmological associations of the traditional iconography of the subject, primarily related to the hierarchical implications! of the 'flat-earth theory,' which places Heaven above and Hell beneath the earth's surface. Close formal analysis of Michelangelo's own version of the Last Judgment, which emphasizes the innovative aspects of its organisation, is then followed by an assessment of various existing interpretations of the work. In then examining the type of Sources which appear likely to have contributed to the final programme of the work, different areas of religious, literary and philosophical material are brought under consideration. In order to resolve the meaning of the fresco's iconography and composition, the influences upon Michelangelo of the Catholic religion and Reform thought, of the writings of Dante, and of Florentine Neoplatonism have been examined in an entirely new way, from a cosmologicalpoint of view, which brings to light their common emphasis on the Sun as a eymbol of the Deity. A new area of potential source material, that of contemporary scientific cosmology, has also been considered. Prevailing knowledge of Copernicus' theory of the Sun-centred universe, hitherto dismissed as a possible direct influence by renowned writers like Charles de Tolnay, on the grounds of chronology, is specifically discussed and found to be securely documented in Vatican circles at the time of the commission. Thus the sources finally proposed for the overall theme of Sun-symbolism and Cosmologyin the fresco are found to 'be dependent upon the common. ground shared between the Catholic Reformation revival of the traditional Christian analogy between the Deity and the Sun, the Neoplatonic cult of Sun-symholism, literary sources in Dante and the scientific theory of heliocentricity, as developed by Copernicus. Against this background of the History of Ideas in the Renaissance period, consideration of art historical methods leads to the suggestion of a newly proposed Biblical source for the fresco and, finally)l discussion of the deductive method of art historical intterpretation suggests the broader implications of the hypothesls, Ii both for the life and work at Michelangelo himself as well as for the/! sixteenth-century 'context of the fresco's creation.
A Dissertation submitted to the Faculty of Arts University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, 1991
Shrimplin-Evangelidis, Valerie (1991) Sun-symbolism and cosmology in Michelangelo's Last Judgment, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, <>