An Essay on a clash of cultures- Spiritual and artisitic with the crass, profligate and materialistic- By Brian Keeler
This essay was penned early in the presidency of the DT, in 2016, when he was touring the Mediterranean, which included a stop at the Vatican to meet the Pope and view the Sistine. Now that we're at the end of the four years of hell, destruction, dysfunction and non-stop lies and con jobs, the "Last Judgement" theme of Michelangelo's altarpiece seems particularly relevant.
The recent photo circulating on line, taken inside the Sistine Chapel with the DT and wife shown from behind, captures the couple staring at one of the masterpieces of Western Art, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. This altarpiece on a large wall of the Sistine Chapel was painted near the end of Michelangelo’s long and productive career. The painting reflects the despair and angst of those living in the years following a sack of Rome in 1527 by runaway and profligate German and French soldiers. The large altar fresco was labor intensive requiring five years of painting between 1536 and 1542. The ceiling took the younger Michelangelo about the same amount of time between 1508 and 1512.
This image of the DT, standing in front of this masterwork was rather arresting to me, as it points at the incongruity and disconnect, if not irony between this fellow and his policies and this tour through some of the world’s most sacred places. We’ve listened to his hate-filled rhetoric for months now and listened to his ongoing lies and distortions for too long as well. We know he is a phony and represents the worst of materialistic impulses and greedy concerns of Wall Street. We can think of the artists and musicians who refused to be part of his inaugural events, as a matter of principle, as who in their right mind would want to be associated with this beast or his foul policies?
Unfortunately, Michelangelo had little choice in the matter as to who views his work and I suspect the Pope and the Vatican officials were gritting their teeth at having to meet with someone who is diametrically opposed to anything sacred. Perhaps, as with the Pope’s goal to steer America towards a course of reason and intelligence, a meeting was deemed aspirational, if not urgent. Still, we recall the Pope’s opinion on the DT’s border wall project and his memorable characterization of those who traffic in money for self-aggrandizement as dealing with the dung of the devil.
I’ve been to the Sistine Chapel and Vatican on several occasions and so my interest is piqued by anything dealing with Renaissance art. There was a second image circulating as well that showed the Pope with the DT standing in front of one of Perugino’s masterpieces with the Christ depicted in a mandorla-like opening. Perugino was Raphael’s teacher and both hailed from central Italy, Pergugia and Urbino, hilltowns that I’ve visited numerous times. Just to have this vile fellow so close to such sacred images seems like a close call with a defilement and debasement.
Both these photos are such grating and offensive illustrations of an immensely crass fellow in front of sublime examples of the high points of western art. The images contained in the ceiling and the wall are complex and nuanced in design and execution while still being clear from many feet below. One could easily spend a lifetime contemplating the significance and meaning of each, as well as marvel at the artistic beauty. So I am sure that an appreciation of this painting was lost on the DT during his casual fly-by stop. The Vatican Galleries, The Pinacoteca Vaticana are huge and contain many more works of incredible beauty that warrant time to allow even an inkling of their significance. Some of my favorites there are Caravaggio’s Entombment, Raphael’s fresco of The School of Athens and huge collections of ancient Roman Statuary.
Just to point out one of the images from the Sistine altar that was probably not noticed during the DT tour, I'll mention the depiction of Minos. There is a vignette in the lower right corner that is easily overlooked. It portrays a Vatican bishop that evoked the ire of Michelangelo and the artist got the last word in with the support of the Pope, Pope Julius. The bishop complained to the Pope of the Sistine Ceiling and the newly finished altar painting with the profusion of nudes, male and female on the wall. He regarded Michelangelo’s images as something more fit for a Roman bath than for a chapel. Michelangelo then painted the bishop in the hell section of the fresco with a viper coiled around his torso while chomping on the bishop’s genitals. The bishop again complained to Julius and demanded that it be removed, but the Pope wittily replied that, he had sway over the goings on in heaven but had no influence over hell. Ha! Well said!
This episode from art history also begs a comparison as we can wonder or hope if some similar retribution is in store for the DT for transgressing so many aspects of comportment and civility not to mention disastrous policies for earth, health, education, jurisprudence and so much more.
There was another image, of this recent tour, a video clip that many of us have found astounding. That being the candid vid of the DT gruffly shoving a NATO official aside, as he vies for a spot closer the camera, we presume. This one also begs comparison to a Renaissance work of literature, that being Dante’s Inferno. There’s an episode in Dante’s poem of a fellow named Farinata who has pulled himself out of the muck of hell (or the swamp in the DT’s case) to expound and argue with one of his hell-mates. The aspect that is often pointed out is that Farinata looks like he is posing for a statue of himself, as represented deftly by Dante. The comparison seemed obvious and glaring to me as the DT had this equally arrogant down-the-nose look of disdain after carrying out his rude gesture.
Well, so much for the DT’s foreign diplomacy and representing our country. Lets see how things pan out when he returns to the scandals and dysfunction here at home.
Vincet Cunningham, writitng for the New Yorker, summed this episode in would-be-diplomacy with this succinct observation;
“The Last Judgment” like a terrifying sky—I perceive, ever so slightly, a sense of awe. Some art demands it, no matter how dull or corrupt the critical apparatus of the viewer. I wonder, metaphysics aside, whether Trump, who never made a mess he felt ashamed to slink away from, saw the twisted, writhing bodies of the damned, near the bottom of Michelangelo’s arrangement, and was given, by some unnamed grace, a glimpse of their moral meaning—that someday, somehow, each of us pays for what he does. A revelation, you might call it, but I’m not holding my breath—the ever-mounting revelations of the Russia probe might prove a better teacher."
As the title for this essay contains a reference to a proverb of Jesus from the sermon on the mount, which advises us not to waste precious things on the undeserving or to those not ready for the lessons, the corollary to this event is then unmitakable. In this case, the "pearls" are treasures of this artistic tour-de-force that are "over" those in that photo- namely the DT and his wife.