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Michelangelo, Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel

Michelangelo, whose completion of the chapel’s ceiling in 1512 cemented his status as the greatest master of the human figure — especially the male nude — was the best artist in sixteenth-century Italy for the job. When Pope Paul III commissioned Michelangelo to repaint the chapel’s altar wall with the Last Judgment, he was fully aware of this. This was the ideal topic for Michelangelo since it focused on the resurrection of the body.

When Paul III was elected Pope in 1534, he commissioned The Last Judgment as one of the earliest works of art. The church he inherited was in disarray, with the Sack of Rome (1527) still fresh in his mind. Paul wanted to address not just the various excesses that had spurred the Protestant Reformation, but also to confirm the Catholic Church’s legitimacy and beliefs’ orthodoxy (including the institution of the papacy). Beginning with the message he sent to his inner circle by commissioning the Last Judgment, the visual arts would play an important role in his agenda.

The Sistine Chapel’s ornamental program embraces salvation history. It begins with God’s creation of the universe and his covenant with the people of Israel (represented on the ceiling and south wall by Old Testament figures), and ends with Christ’s earthly existence (on the north wall). The tale was finished with the insertion of the Last Judgment. The papal court, as representatives of the earthly church, took part in this story, which bridged the gap between Christ’s life and the Second Coming.

The Mix of Elements

The Last Judgment by Michelangelo is one of the most dramatic depictions of this time in Christian art history. The wall is filled to the brim with over 300 muscular figures in an unlimited variety of dynamic stances. The Last Judgment, unlike the images on the walls and ceiling, is not surrounded by a painted border. It is all-encompassing and extends beyond the range of vision of the spectator. Unlike other religious myths that depict historical events, this one involves the audience. It hasn’t happened yet, but when it does, the spectator will be one of the people whose fate is decided.

Despite the dense number of figures, the composition is neatly divided into tiers and quadrants, with subgroups and meaningful pairings that aid in the readability of the fresco. It rises on the left and falls on the right as a whole, evoking the scales used to measure souls in various portrayals of the Last Judgment.

Christ, Mary, and Saints (detail), Michelangelo, Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel, altar wall, fresco, 1534–1541 (Vatican City, Rome)

The fulcrum of this complicated composition is Christ. He moves forward, a big, muscular figure, in a twisting action that begins the ultimate sifting of souls (the damned on his left, and the blessed on his right). The Virgin Mary is nestled behind his uplifted arm. Michelangelo modified her attitude from open-armed begging on humanity’s behalf in a preliminary sketch to one of acceptance of Christ’s judgment. Intercession is no longer necessary. The verdict has been handed out.

A number of wingless angels (left), their cheeks flushed with exertion, play the trumpets that summon the dead, while two others hold open the books documenting the resurrected’s actions, directly underneath Christ. The angel holding the Bible.

The dead rise from their graves and float to heaven, some assisted by angels. In the upper right, a couple is pulled to heaven on rosary beads, and just below that a risen body is caught in violent tug of war (detail), Michelangelo, Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel, altar wall, fresco, 1534–1541 (Vatican City,)

The Electorate (Those Going to Heaven)

The dead rise from their tombs, shedding their funeral shrouds, in the composition’s bottom left (Christ’s right). Others are helped by herculean angels, one of whom raises a pair of souls clinging to a strand of rosary beads, while others rise up effortlessly, drawn by an invisible force. This detail reinforces a Protestant-disputed doctrine: that prayer and good acts, not merely faith and divine favor, have a part in determining one’s ultimate fate. A rising corpse is entangled in a furious tug of battle below, with two angels on one end and a horned demon on the other, who has fled through a crack in the central mound.

Demons drag the damned to hell, while angels beat down those who struggle to escape their fate (detail), Michelangelo, Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel, altar wall, fresco, 1534–1541 (Vatican City, Rome)

The Cursed (Those Going to Hell)

Demons drag the doomed to hell on the right side of the composition (Christ’s left), while angels beat down those who try to flee their fate (image above). One soul is carried by a demon and pounded by an angel, head first, with a money bag and two keys dangling from his chest. His is the avarice sin. Another soul, exemplifying hubris, tries to fight back, arrogantly disputing divine judgment, while a third (far right) is dragged by his scrotum (his sin was lust). In sermons presented to the papal court, these sins were especially mentioned.

Charon drives the damned onto hell’s shores and in the lower right corner stands the ass-eared Minos (detail), Michelangelo, Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel, altar wall, fresco, 1534–1541 (Vatican City, Rome)

Charon, the ferryman from Greek mythology who takes souls to the underworld, strokes his oar as he drives the doomed onto hell’s shores in the lower right corner (image above). Minos stands on the outskirts of hell, evaluating newcomers to decide their eternal fate.

Left: St. John the Baptist; right: St. Peter (detail), Michelangelo, Last Judgment, altar wall, Sistine Chapel, fresco, 1534–1541 (Vatican City, Rome)

Being In Christ’s Company

While such features were intended to frighten viewers, Michelangelo’s work is ultimately about Christ’s triumph. The heavenly realm reigns supreme. The chosen encircle Christ; they loom huge in the front and stretch deep into the painting’s depths, obliterating the image plane’s border. Some have the implements of their martyrdom in their hands: Andrew has an X-shaped cross, Lawrence has a gridiron, and St. Sebastian has a bundle of arrows, to mention a few.

St. John Baptist and St. Peter, who flank Christ on the left and right and share his huge dimensions, are particularly conspicuous (above). The camel skin that covers his crotch and dangles behind his legs identifies John, the final prophet, and the keys that Peter delivers to Christ identifies Peter, the first pope. His function as the keeper of the keys to heaven’s kingdom has come to an end. This act served as a stark reminder to the pope that his role as Christ’s ambassador was only transitory, and that he, too, would have to account to Christ in the end.

Angels show the instruments of Christ’s Passion in the lunettes (semi-circular spaces) at the top right and left, thereby tying this victorious moment to Christ’s sacrificial death. This section of the wall projects one foot forward, allowing the priest at the altar below to see it as he recalls Christ’s sacrifice during the Eucharistic liturgy.

Lunette with angels carrying the instruments of the Passion of Christ, (detail), Michelangelo, Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel, fresco, 1534–1541 (Vatican City, Rome)

Is it a masterpiece or a scandal, according to the critics?

“The work is of such beauty that your excellency might conceive that there is no shortage of people who detest it,” Cardinal Gonzaga of Mantua’s Roman agent reported shortly after its introduction in 1541.

“To my mind, it’s a piece unlike any other I’ve ever seen.” The work was hailed as a masterpiece by many. Michelangelo’s peculiar figural style, with its intricate postures, acute foreshortening, and robust (some may argue excessive) musculature, was seen as appropriate for both the subject matter and the setting. The Catholic idea of bodily resurrection was supported by the sheer physicality of these muscular nudes (that on the day of judgment, the dead would rise in their bodies, not as incorporeal souls).

Others were scandalized, particularly by the nudity, despite its theological truth, for the resurrected would enter paradise naked, as God intended. The contorted poses (some of which resulted in the indecent presentation of buttocks), the breaks with pictorial tradition (the beardless Christ, the wingless angels), and the appearance of mythology (the figures of Charon and Minos) in a scene depicting sacred history were also criticized by critics. These ornaments were seen as a distraction from the fresco’s spiritual meaning by critics. Michelangelo was accused of being more concerned with demonstrating his artistic ability than with conveying spiritual truth with clarity and propriety. As the “book of the uneducated,” religious art should be simple to comprehend.

Left: Apollo Belvedere (Roman copy of a Greek(?) original), original late 4th century B.C.E. marble, 2.3 m high (Vatican Museums, Rome; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0); right: Christ (detail), Michelangelo, Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel, fresco, 1534–1541 (Vatican City, Rome)

Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, on the other hand, was not created for a lay audience. It was, on the contrary, created for a very specialized, affluent, and educated audience. His figural style and iconographic inventions would be understood and appreciated by this audience. They’d see, for example, that his use of Charon and Minos was influenced by Dante’s Inferno, a work Michelangelo liked. They would see a connection to the Apollo Belvedere, an antique Greek Hellenistic sculpture in the papal collection praised for its ideal beauty, in Christ’s young face. As a result, Michelangelo glosses Christ’s identification as the “Sun of Righteousness” (Malachi 4:2).

Michelangelo’s inclusion of himself in the fresco is much more touching. His is the visage on St. Bartholomew’s flayed flesh, an empty shell dangling perilously between heaven and damnation. To his erudite audience, the flayed skin would conjure up images of not just the saint’s martyrdom but also Apollo’s flaying of Marsyas. Marsyas, in his conceited hubris, challenged Apollo to a musical duel, assuming that his talent might rival that of the god of music himself. He was flayed alive as a punishment for his arrogance. It’s hardly strange that Michelangelo would identify with Marsyas. For his capacity to match God himself in giving form to the perfect physique, his contemporaries nicknamed him the “divine” Michelangelo.

An Epic Work of Art

Michelangelo, like Dante in his famous epic work The Divine Comedy, aspired to produce an epic picture worthy of the moment’s grandeur. He embellished his subject using metaphor and allusion. His visual and intellectual connections would excite his sophisticated audience.

Originally intended for a small audience, the fresco’s reproduction prints swiftly spread it far and wide, igniting heated arguments about the benefits and abuses of sacred art. While some praised it as the pinnacle of creative achievement, others saw it as the embodiment of all that might go wrong with religious art and demanded that it be destroyed. After all was said and done, a compromise was found. Daniele Da Volterra was recruited shortly after the artist’s death in 1564 to cover exposed buttocks and groins with shreds of drapery and repaint some of the figures.

Thousands of visitors visit the Last Judgment every day, in contrast to its limited audience in the sixteenth century. During papal conclaves, however, it serves as a potent reminder to the College of Cardinals of their role in the redemption tale, as they convene to pick Christ’s earthly vicar (the next Pope) — the person who will be in charge of shepherding the faithful into the elect community.


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