Like nearly everyone who loves Italian Renaissance art, I’ve often wondered why hell seems so much more interesting than heaven in the Last Judgment paintings. My own answer has usually been that, because we are sinful, we understand sin and its consequences far better than we do virtue. As a result, sin and punishment spur our imagination (we all have a bit of Dante in us), while heaven often looks more like a celestial game of ring-around-the-rosy (as in Fra Angelico’s lovely depiction at the San Marco monastery in Florence) than the true transformation the creation is groaning toward.
But after encountering Giotto’s Stefaneschi Polyptych in the Vatican Picture Gallery several days ago, I don’t expect to ask the question much any more. I now think it’s possible to show what heaven will look like, at least in a small way, and that Giotto, the thirteenth century Italian artist who transformed Western art, did it.
The Stefaneschi Polyptych consists of three wood panels, each of them wide at the bottom and narrowing to a point at the top. The large center panel shows a resplendent, cobalt blue-robed Christ in all his redemptive, post-resurrection power, while the small side panels depict the gruesome deaths of Peter and Paul. On the left, Peter is crucified upside down, and on the right Paul’s head lies a few feet away from his decapitated body, while colorful crowds of onlookers survey the scenes. In each of the panels, angels flutter like birds above the dying saints, their squinting eyes and sculpted expression so characteristic of Giotto. Your eyes drift back and forth from the tormented bodies to the angels treading the air in melancholy silence. And then you notice the rest of the story, the small figures at the top of each panel: Peter appears on the left, and Paul on the right. They have the same faces as below, the same clothing even, but they have been made whole. In Paul’s case quite literally, his head reattached to his body. And they are resplendent like Christ.
What makes Giotto’s portrayal seem so real, at least for me, is seeing both points in time in the same painting, not just one. The same body that is wracked by the torments that come in a fallen world is made new by the one who came to make all things new. That’s how heaven will be, I think, for anyone who trusts in Christ’s promises. Heaven isn’t some distant location where disembodied souls gather. It’s our bodies and our world transformed. And it all belongs in the same picture.