Monday, December 10, 2007

The Splendor of Hope

~by Sandro Magister in Chiesa
Benedict XVI wrote the encyclical "Spe Salvi," which is entirely his own work, between last winter and spring. But he decided to publish it at the end of the liturgical year, on the brink of Advent, when the readings of the Mass are opening the perspective of the Last Judgment.

An important part of the encyclical is dedicated to the Last Judgment. The self-criticism that the pope asks of modern Christianity also concerns this essential chapter of the Christian faith, which he believes has "faded" in favor of an individualistic vision of man's destiny.

The idea of the Last Judgment survives more in art than it does in faith. But even the artists – the pope notes – have not always expressed the full and authentic meaning of the Judgment in their depictions. They have emphasized the "menace" more than the "splendor of hope."

The figure of Christ as judge that Michelangelo painted in the Sistine Chapel is the most famous image of the Last Judgment in the world. In this, in effect, "Christ's gesture of condemnation not only shakes his entire muscular body, it also constitutes the fresco's animating force. It makes the entire painting tremble, even in its farthest removed corners. His right arm, raised in the act of condemnation, is the same arm that in the next act will hurl all evildoers into the depths of hell."

This is how Heinrich W. Pfeiffer, 68, a German Jesuit and a professor of the history of Christian art at the Pontifical Gregorian University, describes the figure of Christ as judge in the Sistine Chapel in a splendid book published at the Vatican this autumn, entitled "La Sistina svelata [The Sistine Chapel: A New Vision]."

The volume, in large format and magnificently illustrated, makes it possible to see and understand – as never before – the theological meaning of the paintings in the famous papal chapel, which culminate in the Last Judgment frescoed by Michelangelo on the wall above the altar.

"Unveiling" the Judgment, Pfeiffer brings to light the meaning, not only of the menace – the first thing that strikes the observer – but also of Christian hope.

In the right part of the fresco, for example, there is a pile of bodies that seem to be the object of a dramatic struggle between the angels and the demons. But that's not the case. Those men and women are saved sinners, struck by the angels only so that they may be purified as they are ascending to the glory of heaven, and pointlessly held back by the demons. It is the part of the fresco that depicts purgatory.

Also in the encyclical "Spe Salvi," Benedict XVI asserts the truth of purgatory: another chapter that has become faded in today's Christianity, but has survived in Dante's immortal "Divine Comedy."

Where faith falters, art and poetry come to the rescue. This is the miracle of a civilization with Christian roots.

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