Around 1616, Andrea Commodi secured a commission for the end wall fresco of the Cappella Paolina in the papal Quirinal Palace. Enraptured by the works of Michelangelo (and acquainted with the Buonarroti family), Commodi prepared a design that would rival the master’s Last Judgement. Although the fresco was ultimately abandoned, a number of studies remain, including two pen and ink drawings now in the British Museum, and this elaborate preparatory painting.
The subject Commodi chose represents both a significant connection to and also a departure from Michelangelo’s work, which itself was unorthodox. The Last Judgement incorporates both the damned and the saved (in adherence to iconographic tradition), but, importantly, the bodies of members of both groups are heroically muscular (as opposed to the emaciated forms of the damned one often finds in medieval tympana).
The fate of the angels who joined Satan’s rebellion is mentioned several times in the New Testament (see Revelation 12:7–9; Matthew 25:41; 1 Corinthians 6:3; Jude 1:6). They are only mentioned in passing here in 2 Peter 2:4. But the allusion is unusual in its lack of reference to Satan himself, as the agency of the rebel angels is generally conflated with that of their master. Although this painting represents only a fraction of the intended final work, the isolation of the angels from any narrative surrounding may perhaps be significant, seeming to have much in common with 2 Peter 2. The fallen angels maintain their heroic, idealized nude forms, much like the sinful people being dragged into the hellmouth at the lower right of Michelangelo’s fresco. The musculature of the angels’ bodies is made all the more palpable through their representation in grisaille, a painting technique that employs a monochromatic palette and enhances the sculptural qualities of the objects depicted. And, notably, Satan is not represented in this visual scheme—nor is there any divine figure doling out judgement. We are witness only to the writhing, contorted, despairing forms of those who followed the deceiver.
This underscores the consequences of succumbing to earthly desires, particularly those who, according to Peter, ‘indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority’ (2 Peter 2:10).
2 But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. 2And many will follow their licentiousness, and because of them the way of truth will be reviled. 3And in their greed they will exploit you with false words; from of old their condemnation has not been idle, and their destruction has not been asleep.
4 For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of nether gloom to be kept until the judgment; 5if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven other persons, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; 6if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorʹrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction and made them an example to those who were to be ungodly; 7and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the licentiousness of the wicked 8(for by what that righteous man saw and heard as he lived among them, he was vexed in his righteous soul day after day with their lawless deeds), 9then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, 10and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority.
Bold and wilful, they are not afraid to revile the glorious ones, 11whereas angels, though greater in might and power, do not pronounce a reviling judgment upon them before the Lord. 12But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and killed, reviling in matters of which they are ignorant, will be destroyed in the same destruction with them, 13suffering wrong for their wrongdoing. They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their dissipation, carousing with you. 14They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! 15Forsaking the right way they have gone astray; they have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beʹor, who loved gain from wrongdoing, 16but was rebuked for his own transgression; a dumb ass spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.
17 These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm; for them the nether gloom of darkness has been reserved. 18For, uttering loud boasts of folly, they entice with licentious passions of the flesh men who have barely escaped from those who live in error. 19They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption; for whatever overcomes a man, to that he is enslaved. 20For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first. 21For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. 22It has happened to them according to the true proverb, The dog turns back to his own vomit, and the sow is washed only to wallow in the mire.