Famed art historian Steinberg reconsiders Michelangelo’s work

Last Wednesday night, the Clark Art Institute auditorium was buzzing with anticipation, but few likely expected the kind of paradigm-shifting lecture that would follow. Renowned historian Leo Steinberg gave a lecture urging listeners to look deeper into interpretations of art, focusing on his revolutionary analysis of a monumental work of Renaissance art: Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment. Steinberg, who is professor emeritus of art history at the University of Pennsylvania, has been called “a legend inside and outside the art world for his audacious thinking,” by the New York Times. And after succeeding at his profession for nearly half a century, Steinberg is no stranger to awing his audiences.

Professor Steinberg’s life and career have never been about meeting expectations, but rather about exceeding them, and, more often than not, challenging the establishment’s essential assumptions. From the beginning of his career, he has been the steward of a new approach to art history, a rejection of pure formalism, incorporating socio-cultural contexts, emotional content, as well as a strong, direct engagement with the work of art itself.

Titled “Oh Say Can You See?” the lecture addressed the fact that, in the world of art criticism, the unspoken answer to this seemingly simple question seems to be, more often than not, “No, no, we can’t see.” Professor Steinberg’s theory is that misguided initial interpretations have come to inform modern readers’ understanding of works of art more than the objects themselves.

Steinberg focused his presentation on The Last Judgment, Michelangelo’s late monumental fresco on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, painted in 1541. This work has traditionally been considered a painting of violent end times, with Christ cast as the fear-inspiring adjudicator, banishing sinners to the depths of hell, since its first interpretation as such by Giorgio Vasari in the 1550s. However, Steinberg reversed this interpretation in his talk, instead describing the fresco as a deeply sympathetic depiction of a forgiving God, with enormous faith cast into the belief in the human capacity for redemption.

Steinberg began by addressing the glaring misinterpretations on which previous generations of scholars have based their work. For example, the eight trumpet-bearing angels in the lower middle of the fresco have often been identified as the seven heralds of the apocalypse, trumpeting the end of the world and the plagues that come with it. From this evident instance of art history taking precedence over basic arithmetic, he went on to more refined analysis.

One of his reinterpretations concerns the gestures of the figures, which Michelangelo is known to have been a master of. According to Steinberg, Christ’s raised arm cannot be a gesture of damnation as previously interpreted, since his hand is in a relaxed posture, with the two middle fingers touching each other. He called this hardly a pugnacious posture, but more of a call for attention, or even a gesture of blessing.

Michelangelo’s conception of the descent of the damned into hell is also key to understanding The Last Judgment. A sinner is seen trying to help one of the fellow damned, holding him back from throwing himself over the Styx – an action that would have been considered pure heresy in that age, yet according to Steinberg reveals the core of Michelangelo’s inalienable belief in humanity.

Steinberg infused the lecture with jokes and personal anecdotes, including a confession that he has a nickname for each of The Last Judgment’s hundreds of figures. He called the talk an attempt at reclaiming a beloved work from a history of misguided readings. For him, the escape from misinterpretation lies in considering the work free from assumptions: by simply looking.