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Michelangelo and My Nihilism

In the face of the temptation to nihilism, the sense that she is but an empty shell, Irene follows the master artist's path.

For quite a while now, we have been provoked by Father Carrón to reflect on the temptation to fall into nihilism. Every time I read about this temptation that cripples my person, an image comes in front of my eyes, from an artist I very much love: Michelangelo. It’s a detail of the Last Judgment, the majestic fresco in the back wall of the Sistine Chapel. In the center of it, the massive figure of Christ raises His powerful hand in judgment and generates a cosmic movement that drags the damned on the left down to the Infernal place and raises the saved ones on the right to their final destiny in Heaven.

Among the saints, very close to Jesus, there is the Apostle Bartholomew, who according to the tradition was flayed. He is holding his own skin, and that empty sack, which once was full of the flesh of his body, has the face of Michelangelo. It always makes me wonder: why did Michelangelo--this fully alive man, energetic, creative--give us this self-portrait, this fleshless empty image of himself? 

Michelangelo is obsessed with bodies: his figures have perfectly defined anatomy, their muscles are full and tense, always in movement. His statues are massive and release a deep energy: they are ready to spring into action. There was so much “flesh” in his frescoes that people felt it was too much. Michelangelo was completely captivated by the desire to represent the truth, and since the Truth has become flesh, he has to represent the flesh to show the Truth. And the Last Judgment is the exaltation of the flesh: it is that moment when our souls will be reunited with our glorified bodies. So why does Michelangelo give full bodies to everyone, except himself?

The times when Michelangelo painted this fresco, between 1536 and 1541, were very difficult, and in some ways not totally dissimilar to our own time. After 1517, when Luther separated himself from the Church, the Protestant Reformation was spreading throughout Europe, bringing division, violence, and tensions. In 1527, the Protestant German Landsknechts had entered the city of Rome and sacked it with brutality and incredible violence, destroying everything, including every artistic work they could find. It felt very much like the end of the world. Michelangelo was in his sixties, his (few) friends had died. He probably was feeling he himself was going toward the end, toward the Judgment.

That particular detail of the Last Judgment has stayed before my eyes in these months because it is the expression of how I often have been feeling. The particular way I perceive the temptation of nihilism is not as a theoretical negation of the Truth, of the meaning of my existence as a whole; rather, I often just feel empty, a vacant shell, with no desire left except the hope to make it to the night possibly without new problems.

And it’s Michelangelo's image that not only represents my drama, but also exactly describes the method by which I feel rescued from this form of nihilism. In fact, Michelangelo is carried to Christ by a saint, by someone who has experienced the salvation of Christ, who has left himself to be taken by Him. Someone who has his gaze fixed on Him. There is a very powerful line in a sonnet by Michelangelo (yes, he was also a great poet!) which I have written on the wall above my computer: Ma che poss’io, Signor, s’a me non vieni coll’usata ineffabile cortesia? “But what can I do, O Lord, if You don’t come to me with that unspeakable sweetness with which you came to me before?” This is Michelangelo’s awareness: Only You can fill my emptiness, rekindle my desire, give energy to my being, and You come now to me as you have always come. He comes to me in the flesh, in the Church, in the Sacraments. He comes in the flesh through the people that He has put close to me. He comes to reawaken me with my daily work of School of Community. He sends friends who carry me with them, who redirect my gaze. This is how he rescues me from nothingness. This is my own awareness.

Irene, North Bethesda, Maryland


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