It was hard to keep the attention of thirty-five teenagers on a study-abroad program in Italy. In the classroom, on the bus, in churches and in museums they talked, smacked gum, spaced out, rolled their eyes, ate snacks, popped soda tabs, read magazines—and goodness knows what else. St. Peter’s Basilica clearly impressed them, as well as the Sistine Chapel, but the locations didn’t change their behavior much. They were spooked by the catacombs and impressed with Bernini’s sculptures. But there was one place that left them in awed silence: a small chapel in a small town that was painted 500 years ago by some dude they’d never heard of: Luca Signorelli.
The San Brizio Chapel is a side chapel in the cathedral of Orvieto. Its six major frescoes are “The Deeds of the Antichrist,” “The End of the World,” “The Resurrection of the Dead,” “Hell,” “The Last Judgment,” and “The Coronation of the Chosen.” Not the first topics that come to mind when it comes to entertaining teens.
So what was it that so fascinated them? First, the art is vibrantly, even violently, incarnational. The blessed are shown in varying stages of being re-fleshed in their glorified bodies; the damned writhe in torment. The Antichrist looks like Jesus—until you look carefully and see that his eyes are wrong somehow. From a purely artistic point of view, it’s stunning, both in its scope and in its every detail.
But I think there was more to it. There it was: the meaning of life, according to Christianity. They could reject it or embrace it, but it was difficult to deny that it was a more beautiful vision, a more ambitious understanding, with higher highs and lower lows, than the self-esteem talk and feel-good religion most of them had been spoon-fed their whole lives. I think it was an epiphany for them to see the eternal consequences of human choices made so dreadfully apparent: Human freedom is real.
Death, judgment, heaven, and hell: The four Last Things aren’t preached about much these days, as Fr. Brian Harrison points out in his article on page 22. Most Catholics feel a bit squeamish talking about such things—even Catholics who know their faith well and take eternal destiny seriously. Isn’t it better to focus on God’s love rather than his wrath, especially in evangelization? Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical was on God’s love—not the smack-down that some hoped for and others feared.
The problem is that if you isolate it from reason and freedom and the meaning of life, love turns into luv. People want the real thing. They want their lives to be meaningful and to experience it fully. So maybe the four Last Things isn’t such a bad place to start in evangelization. The problem is that we don’t often do a good job of envisioning the whole of the Christian universe, as Signorelli did so brilliantly.
You may wonder why we didn’t use images of the San Brizio chapel for the article. Signorelli’s vision, as I mentioned, is very incarnational: a lot of flesh and no fig leaves. People’s sensitivity varies greatly. If you’re not scandalized by such things, the best images are at www.artres.com. Or better yet, see it in person.