Michelangelo Sistine Last Judgment

Hidden Images in Western Art

part of: Art History

by Victor Koshkin-Youritzin

Publisher's Note
The history of art in the West is the history of a very particular visual language. Each culture has such a language. For example, we see very different visual languages in African, Mesoamerican, Asian, ancient Egyptian, and Native American art. Any culture we can examine produces its own visual language. In 2002, the University of Oklahoma's Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art mounted an internationally acclaimed, 29-piece retrospective of the celebrated Russian-American expressionist painter and ballet scene designer Pavel Tchelitchew (1898-1957). Twenty-one of the borrowed works came from New York's Museum of Modern Art, including Hide-and-Seek, one of their most popular and famous paintings. The show was curated by the University's David Ross Boyd Professor of Art History, Victor Koshkin-Youritzin (a distant relative of the artist), who also wrote the exhibit's 72-page, fully illustrated catalogue. This catalogue received The Outstanding Publication Award from the Oklahoma Museum Association in 2003. Both the exhibition and catalogue were officially prepared with the assistance of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.

In his exhibition catalogue, Koshkin-Youritzin discusses Tchelitchew’s visual language and its possible relationship to the work of pivotal Renaissance genius, Michelangelo Buonarotti. He first presents a fascinating, in-depth analysis of Tchelitchew’s metamorphic, “tree-of-life” Hide-and-Seek (1940–42; 78 1/2” x 84 3/4”) canvas. This justifiably famous image depicts a hand and foot which simultaneously depict a tree wherein hidden images of children represent, among other things, the passage of the seasons. Koshkin-Youritzin then explains Michelangelo’s possible influence on Tchelitchew. He goes on to propose that Michelangelo’s Last Judgment may contain a major, heretofore overlooked hidden image. The editorial staff of Tree3 believes that though Koshkin-Youritzin’s discussion of one of western art history’s most famous images may seem extremely provocative, this discovery is persuasively argued, deserves dispassionate consideration, and is deeply important for our understanding of both the conscious and unconscious ways artists create. We, therefore, republish the following extensive excerpt from his catalogue with the thought that his comments may be of interest to many in our global readership.

Editor’s Notes: Dear Readers, End Note numbers are reproduced exactly as in the original catalogue. Also, some of the images are quite large. We wanted to be sure you could see them in great detail, so we included them in their large format. We ask for your patience if they load slowly.

Tchelitchew catalogue excerpt:

Finally, as Tchelitchew maintained, “Any place where light is present, life is present too.”162 There is probably no more compelling an element in Hide-and-Seek than its extraordinary luminosity, which seems uncannily to have its source deep within the painting. Reproductions of this work simply do not approach capturing its remarkable depth, three-dimensionality, and magical inner glow. Despite the painting’s frightening aspects, Tchelitchew clearly produced it with love and the most tenacious spiritual faith. The tenderness and delicacy with which even the most minute passages are painted are astonishing and, through the artist’s touch, communicate his commitment to life and to the eternal triumph of the human spirit at a time of unspeakable horror across the globe, World War II. This radiant work’s treatment of the most elemental forces—including procreation, man’s quest for his identity, life’s ambiguities, contradictions, sufferings, the life cycle of the seasons and of the human being—can speak in the deepest ways to all time. To the degree that we can confront this painting and its myriad levels—from formal to sexual/psychological/spiritual—to that extent, perhaps, we are able, as individuals, to confront reality and ourselves. The painting can represent the most profound kind of spiritual journey—for the artist, and, if we so choose, for us.
Phaeton Michelangelo Buonarroti, Italian, 1475-1564, Fall of Phaeton, c. 1533,Chalk, British Museum, London.

In many ways a religious painting, Hide-and-Seek also may relate—in heretofore insufficiently explored respects—to the work of another religious artist, Michelangelo, to whom Tchelitchew often referred in the most reverent terms, speaking of the former’s “universal” quality, which was also what Tchelitchew sought in his own art. As wide-ranging as are the sources for Hide-and-Seek, one intriguing possible precedent is Michelangelo’s Fall of Phaeton, with its metamorphic treatment of trees and the human figure.163 More important are the heretofore—to the best of my knowledge—unexplored possible connections between Phenomena, Hide-and-Seek and Michelangelo’s Last Judgment.

PhenomenaDetail Pavel Tchelitchew, Detail of Phenomena, 1936-38, Oil on canvas, 79 x 106 1/2", State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Just as Michelangelo’s Last Judgment may have many levels of autobiographical content and contains his well-known self-portrait (only discovered in 1925) in the flayed skin which Saint Bartholomew holds, so, too, Phenomena possesses an already noted self-portrait in the left corner. Intriguingly, the oppositely gazing faces of Tchelitchew and (just to his right) his “Princess Colonna,” Edith Sitwell, closely resemble, in reverse, the relationship between—in the Last Judgment’s upper center—the heads of the major figure Christ and Virgin Mary (slightly left of, and below, Christ). In fact, immediately under Mary’s blue drapery is a partially covered, gold-clad head of a woman who has been identified as Vittoria Colonna.164 Furthermore, just as, at the left bottom, the Last Judgment features cracks in the earth from which figures emerge, Phenomena’s landscape has holes in the ground containing human beings (see those especially at the painting’s left side). While the picture seems, in many respects, far closer to Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, Phenomena also shares with the Last Judgment tormented, contorted figures, bizarre elements, blatant nudity, exposed genitals, and, of course, the theme of Hell.

Hell Hieronymous Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights -- Hell Panel , c. 1504; Triptych, plus shutters; Oil on panel, Central panel, 220 x 195 cm; Wings, 220 x 97 cm; Museo del Prado, Madrid.

As for possible parallels between the Last Judgment and Hide-and-Seek, they are provocative and raise questions to whether Tchelitchew was directly influenced by Michelangelo’s great work…the two paintings not only share a peek-a-boo treatment of heads and general feeling of anguish, but have a clockwise, rotational composition with both their main, central figures being ambiguous in nature. As Robert S. Liebert, M. D. has written, Michelangelo “introduced calculated ambiguity in his representation of the principal figures in the painting. He thereby successfully masked his own private drama [as did Tchelitchew], which is being enacted in the work. The private level of meaning of the Last Judgment is communicated largely through some of the central images.

“As Steinberg . . . has noted, the character of the entire event depicted hinges on the intention that is imputed to the pivotal figure of Christ . . . . Michelangelo’s Christ is suffused with ambiguity. Is He standing, or rising from an invisible throne, or moving forward? Are His arms and hands engaged in one coordinated significant gesture or two independent ones?”165 Regarding Christ’s facial expression, there has for centuries been “marked disagreement,” interpretations varying from “His ‘imperious’ character” to His face being “utterly impassive.”166 What, moreover, is Michelangelo’s interpretation here of the relationship between the Virgin Mary and Christ?

Ambiguities and multiple levels of meaning abound in the Last Judgment and Hide-and-Seek. Just as the tree of Hide-and-Seek contains a large, central “hidden” frontal face, the Last Judgment—in the voids of the whole image—resembles an immense frontal skull, with the lunettes being eye sockets (similar to the left and right open spaces at the top of Hide-and-Seek). Besides the obvious parallels between the two works–with their nudity, considerable sexual imagery, and tormented characters in a limbo-like space—there may be even a source for Hide-and-Seek at the Last Judgment’s center base, where, entering Hell’s Mouth, is a back view of a striding figure with arms outstretched and a hand with splayed fingers anticipating the right hand of Hide-and-Seek’s central protagonist. As much as Tchelitchew had an expressed reverence for Michelangelo, it is odd that the literature on Tchelitchew does not appear to include a discussion of the Last Judgment’s possible relation to Hide-and-Seek.

Potential parallels with and influences upon Hide-and-Seek aside, the Last Judgment contains what I believe is a major hidden image that has to date gone unmentioned. Namely, it is my view that Hell’s Mouth is actually a vagina of a headless woman who—synonymous with the receding landscape in the painting’s center—reclines in space with her two breasts silhouetted against the white sky; at the same time, her legs extend forward on both sides of Hell’s Mouth towards the fresco’s base, just above the papal altar. Of all the writers on Michelangelo whom I know, Charles de Tolnay (in 1960) comes closest to my interpretation without actually stating it. About Hell’s Mouth, he says: “…Limbo (in the lower center) is like a grotto inhabited by troglodytes who resemble gorillas.

“Again it should be stressed that the whole is no longer an abstract, geometric arrangement but a nature-metaphor: a cross-section of the space of the Universe in which, above a narrow segment of the Earth’s crust, plastic and soft like the body of a woman (Terra Mater), the figures ascend like smoke… [above are] huge storm-clouds through which the ‘sun,’ that is Christ, emerges suddenly; and the clouds at the top, in the lunettes, are torn by hurricane winds.”167 If what has traditionally been interpreted as mere landscape is indeed simultaneously a nude woman, the question—untreatable at least in this essay—arises as to whether Michelangelo created this image intentionally or unconsciously. In the lower right corner of the painting stands Minos/Satan with a serpent’s head around his penis; indeed, the Last Judgment was widely condemned as indecent in its time, and Daniele da Volterra was later chosen to paint drapery over many of the offending nude figures.

MichelangeloHell Michelangelo Buonarroti, Italian, 1475-1564, The Last Judgment, 1534-41, detail: Mouth of Hell, Fresco, The Sistine Chapel, Vatican Palace, Vatican State, copyright Scala / Art Resource, NY.

If Michelangelo’s landscape as a naked woman was—for various reasons—intentional, he would most probably have needed to invent an image sufficiently hidden or ambiguous that he could protect himself from accusations of consummate indecency or heresy. The fact that the image rests directly below Christ and the Virgin Mary creates further levels of possible significance. In no Last Judgment copies of which I am aware is the landscape area in question treated in such a metamorphic manner that it can be read as also a nude with two breasts and a gaping vagina. For just one of numerous possible comparisons, we offer Giulio Bonasone’s c. 1546–50 engraving of the Last Judgment (see also copies of the Last Judgment by Marcello Venusti [1549]—illustrated below, Giorgio Ghisi [c. 1564–69], Giovanni Baptista de’ Cavalieri [1567], and Martinus Rota [1569]). 168

If, in fact, we view the heretofore otherwise somewhat inert landscape as also now a nude woman, the Last Judgment seems to gain an even greater organic sense, tension, and artistic/spiritual potency, as we are visually pulled more powerfully back into space than before (particularly if we assume there is an unseen head connected to the body); likewise, the fresco’s depth of meaning is enormously increased, as we can contemplate how such an additional image might relate to Michelangelo’s “abandonment by his mother,” “rage towards ‘women,’” “homosexual impulses,” “conflicts surrounding orgasm,”169 and relations with the papacy.

As a final thought about Michelangelo’s human image-landscape, it seems also possible that—just as Tchelitchew’s central figure is hermaphroditic—the gender of Michelangelo’s landscape-figure might also be male, with its muscular arms reaching forward and protruding buttocks (a favorite motif of both Michelangelo and Tchelitchew) set against the horizon, instead of the two mounds being breasts. The cavity, in this case, would become a virtual x-ray view into the mind of a tortured soul, in this way anticipating—or perhaps even inspiring—Tchelitchew’s Hide-and-Seek heads and some of his later “interior landscapes,” with their frequent ambiguities of solidity versus transparency.

Venusti Marcello Venusti, Last Judgment, 1549, 190x145 cm, Museo e Galleria Nazionali di Capodimonte.

Service Michelangelo Buonarroti, Italian, 1475-1564, Last Judgment, 1534-41, Fresco, The Sistine Chapel, Vatican Palace, Vatican State copyright Scala / Art Resource, NY.


162 Kirstein, 1994, p. 111.

163 This drawing was reproduced in Erwin Panofsky’s 1939 Studies in Iconology three years before Hide-and-Seek’s completion; Fall of Phaeton was acquired by The British Museum in 1895, and Tchelitchew, during his visits to London, might well have had—especially with the Sitwells’ influence—easy access to the original drawing. For another image—whose degree of relevance to Hide-and-Seek is intriguing—of human features hidden in trees, see Gustave Doré’s Harpies in the Forest of the Suicides, an engraved illustration of Dante’s The Divine Comedy (Purgatory, Canto 13), illustrated in Tyler’s Divine Comedy of Pavel Tchelitchew between pages 186 and 187.

164 Robert S. Liebert, M. D., Michelangelo: A Psychoanalytic Study of His Life and Images, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1983, p. 330.

165 Ibid., p. 341.

166 Ibid.

167 Charles de Tolnay, Michelangelo, vol. 5, The Final Period, Princeton, 1960, p. 44.

168 The Venusti, Bonasone, and Ghisi copies of the Last Judgment are reproduced as figures 32, 33, and 34 on pages 176 and 177 of Loren Partridge et al., Michelangelo, The Last Judgment: a Glorious Restoration, Abradale (Abrams), New York, 1997. The de’ Cavalieri and Rota engraved copies are reproduced in de Tolnay, Michelangelo, vol. 5, as figs. 258 and 259, and listed on p. 262.

169 Liebert, pages 353, 325, 359, and 302.

The preceding text is an excerpt from the catalogue Pavel Tchelitchew (ISBN 0–9717187-0–9) published in conjunction with the January 18-March 10, 2002 exhibition “Tchelitchew” which was organized by the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, at The University of Oklahoma, with the assistance of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Catalogue author: Victor Koshkin-Youritzin, copyright © 2002 Victor Koshkin-Youritzin and the Board of Regents of The University of Oklahoma. All rights reserved. Reprinted with the consent of the author. The catalogue was published by the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, The University of Oklahoma, 410 W. Boyd Street, Norman, OK 73019–3002.


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