Michelangelo, The Last Judgment (1541) Sistine Chapel, the Vatican
This remarkable work fills the entire wall behind the altar of the Sistine Chapel. It was painted twenty-five years after Michelangelo completed the chapel’s ceiling. There is a lot going on in this expansive scene. The focus is Christ on His throne judging all of humanity, bidding the righteous to spend eternity with Him and sending those who have rejected Him to eternal damnation.
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Annunciation (1898) Philadelphia Museum of Art
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Visitation (1910) Kalamazoo Institute of Arts
Tanner was one of the first widely noted and celebrated black painters in the United States, as well as abroad. He studied art both in Philadelphia and internationally, and was noted for his beautiful treatments of biblical scenes. The Annunciation depicts the young Mary being visited by the angel Gabriel. Her young face aglow in his glorious light as he announces the coming of her son, Jesus the Messiah. Tanner captures Mary’s youth, innocence and prayerful submission in a very tangible way. The Visitation portrays Elizabeth’s joyful surprise as her sister comes to visit her and they share in the joy of their unique pregnancies. In another wonderful “real life” moment, Tanner has placed Elizabeth at a table—perhaps having a snack—as Mary arrives to share the good news. Her delight and surprise are evident in her face and body language.
Peter Paul Rubens, The Entombment (1612) Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA
In stark contrast to the Pieta, Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of Mary mourning the crucified Christ in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Rubens’ painting is dramatically human. It grabs the heart, not for its beauty (which is certainly there), but for the realism of our Savior’s lifeless, wounded body and the agony of a mother holding her murdered boy. It shows us that Christ’s life and death happened in the dramatic context of an actual human family—one visited by all the joys and pains that humans endure. Rubens has us look upon Mary not so much as an iconic biblical heroine, but as a pitiful mourning mother. Her eyes are deep red, worn out with agony and grief. The figure supporting Christ’s body is perhaps the Apostle John, who was charged by Jesus on the cross to take care of Mary. Also note the stone block underneath Christ’s body. This is symbolic of “the stone the builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone” (Acts 4:11)—Jesus Himself. The wheat straw symbolizes the life and sustenance that His death brings us, as well as the manger’s hay that supported Him at His birth.