Pietro Cavallini, The Last Judgment

Pietro Cavallini, The Last Judgment, c.1293, fresco, Santa Cecilia, Rome

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:02] We’re in Santa Cecilia in Rome looking at the ruins of an extraordinary fresco by Cavallini from the late 13th century.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:15] We’re above the entrance to the church. We’re looking directly at a fresco that in the late 13th century people would have looked up at. It’s a scene of the Last Judgment.

Dr. Zucker: [0:26] Right, so this would have been on the wall opposite the altar. This would have been the last thing you saw as you were leaving the church. It’s a monumental fresco and you see Christ in the center, and a mandorla, that is a kind of divine emanation or halo, that surrounds his entire body. He sits here as judge over the souls that have lived.

Dr. Harris: [0:47] He exhibits for us very clearly the wounds of the crucifixion. We can see holes from the nails on his feet and his hands, and the wound in his side that’s bleeding, a reminder of Christ’s suffering and his return now as judge of mankind.

Dr. Zucker: [1:01] He’s framed by angels on either side, and beyond that we can see the apostles, six on each side. Between the apostles and Christ though were two other figures. You have Mary on Christ’s right and you have John the Baptist on Christ’s left.

Dr. Harris: [1:17] We’re so clearly at just before the time of Giotto in the way these prefigure what Giotto will do in the very early years of the 14th century.

Dr. Zucker: [1:26] Right, this is known as Roman realism. He’s clearly borrowing from the Byzantine, but there is a kind of unprecedented interest in creating a sense of naturalism as figures of our world.

Dr. Harris: [1:39] That can be seen in how heavily the figures are all modeled, that there’s not thin elongated forms created by line, but really monumental forms created by the use of light and dark.

Dr. Zucker: [1:53] You can see that use of light and dark very consistently in the furniture as well, and the light makes it very believable, and the line is drawn so that there is a precocious attempt at a kind of perspective, not true linear perspective of course, but something that is very much trying to explain how these angles function in space as one looks up from below.

Dr. Harris: [2:14] That’s right, especially how it ends up in the seats that the apostles sit in if they angle inward toward the center, and so it’s as though they really are thinking about us as the viewer in the center looking up at Christ.

Dr. Zucker: [2:27] There’s a kind of sensitivity in terms of rhythm and especially color in this painting that is so beautiful. Look at the apostles. You have alternations of violet blues, red blues, gray blues, green against a warmer kind of gray moving across. There is never a repeat of the color, just beautiful.

Dr. Harris: [2:48] We get a sense of a three-dimensional body underneath that drapery. If you look at the apostles, we can see the drapery pulling around their bellies, around their shoulders, in the folds around their arms, giving us a sense of monumental figures that really haven’t been seen since ancient Rome.

Dr. Zucker: [3:06] It’s interesting to think about this move from the spiritual rendering that is a kind of symbolized body to one that is dimensional, one that takes up space. This idea that there is a proximity between the way in which these figures are rendered and the bodies that we inhabit.

Dr. Harris: [3:24] The kind of human emotions that we feel. If you look at the figure of Saint John the Baptist with his hands clasped in prayer, the way that he moves his eyebrows together. There are wrinkles in his forehead. He looks toward Christ. There is a real sense of individuality to these figures and a sense of human emotion as they look toward Christ.

Dr. Zucker: [3:45] These are still clearly coming out of the Byzantine tradition. If you look at the face of Christ, we might be looking at a mosaic from Ravenna, from Constantinople.

Dr. Harris: [3:52] That’s right. This moment at the end of the 1200s, the beginnings of the 1300s when we have this imminent naturalism.

Dr. Zucker: [3:59] Of course, Cavallini does not know that that’s coming. That’s our hindsight. Nevertheless, we can see this kind of painting along with the sculptures of Pisano or perhaps the work of Cimabue as beginning to move into what will eventually become the Renaissance.

[4:15] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Pietro Cavallini, The Last Judgment," in Smarthistory, December 10, 2015, accessed June 11, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/pietro-cavallini-the-last-judgment/.