The resurrection of Jesus: the origin of time

When the fresco of the Last Judgment was first unveiled in the Sistine Chapel, Paul III fell to his knees in an act of humble reverence, fearful before the majestic figure of

Christ the Judge.1 This impression of a terrifying Christ that condemns the reprobate to burning for eternity has lived on in the imagination of many of the faithful. However, this is not the only way of understanding Jesus’ gesture in Michelangelo’s celebrated work. In fact, His raised hand can indicate both a rejection of evildoers and a signal for the saints to ascend and come to him. This view provides a better explanation of an undeniable fact in the whole of the painting: Christ is presented as a dynamic center which sets the whole scene in motion. Is this the explanation of the posture and gesture of Jesus in the fresco?

This interpretation gains credence if we consider that Michelangelo’s original intention seems to have been —as some preparatory sketches indicate— not so much to portray the Last Judgment as to paint the resurrection of Jesus from among the dead.2 If this is so, then the artist wished to focus precisely on the body of the Redeemer and on that of the others who had resurrected. The focal point of the work would then be the vivifying force that springs from Christ’s flesh and which makes everything revolve around Him.

This is why this body is not wholly in accordance with Greek aesthetic canons.3 Even though the head given to Jesus is that of Apollo, the torso does not match the perfect forms of the ancient god. Christ does not exhibit the untouchable distance that characterizes the appearance of Zeus’ son. The artist’s intention was to portray the Christian body, shaped so with views to communion and intended to disseminate and convey life, light, and spirit. Only thus is it possible to explain the magnetic attraction Jesus’ resurrected body exerts over the other bodies in the Sistine Chapel. Only thus can we visualize the force emanating from him toward the four corners of the picture. 

The dynamism that His resurrected body instills in the scene illustrates the Christian view of history. The Resurrection is not only the point of destination of the centuries, like a checkmate after a long string of chess moves; rather, it is the driving force that has guided everything since the beginning. For this reason, Easter is set neither as just another time among times nor as a new one beyond and detached from time. On the contrary, it brings along a new way of understanding time whose light will illuminate all other moments in history. Paschal time thus is the time of the glorious resurrected flesh, from which the dynamism of the centuries springs, from their dawn to their consummation.

As the resurrected body of Christ is called “spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:44), we could also speak of a “spiritual time,” that is, one that is fully animated by the Spirit. And since the Spirit is the efficient cause of history since its origins, this spiritual time could explain the formula of all time, its ultimate reality, purified from all chaff.

The first confessions of faith in the resurrection of Jesus were forged in the liturgical assembly. They are a testament of the happiness derived from the surprising event of Easter and the vital transformation it represented for believers: the same Jesus of Nazareth who had preached in Galilee and who had been executed under Pontius Pilate had been raised by the Father and was sitting to His right. A human story had reached an unmatched summit and dragging other stories in its wake. The times walked toward Him, awaiting His glorious second coming.

The resurrection must convey meaning to the whole of time, from its beginning to its end. If it is a resurrection of the flesh, it must also be a resurrection of time, because the flesh is shaped on time and feeds on time: it is a memory of the origin, the seal of God’s faithful promise, a spring of future fruitfulness. The keys that the risen Jesus Christ holds in his hands, the keys to death and to the abyss according to the Apocalypse (Ap 1:18), must not only reveal the meaning of each event in the history of the world (showing what was hidden in it). It must also transform history, purifying it from evil and allowing it to reach its plenitude, so that it can be admitted into the eternal. 

1 Cf,. T. Verdon, Michelangelo teologo: fede e creativitá tra Rinascimento e
Controriforma, Milano 2005, 130.
2 Cf. M. B. Hall, “Michelangelo’s ‘Last Judgment’; Resurrection of the Body
and Predestination”, The Art Bulletin 58 (1976) 85-92: “It is not anger but
Michelangelo’s characteristic energy that he [Christ] embodies. Christ’s
gesture does not consign the damned to Hell, but rather puts into motion the
process we see taking place before us” (p. 89).
3 Cf. J. W. Dixon, The Christ of Michelangelo: An Essay on Carnal Spirituality,
Atlanta GA 1994; cf. T. Verdon, Michelangelo teologo, 125.