Michelangelo, the painter. The Last Judgment.

Last Judgment, fresco, by Michelangelo, 1536-1541, 13.70 x 12.20 m (Cappella Sistina, Vatican City). This is the largest single fresco of the 16th century. The first impression the viewers have when facing the Last Judgment is that of a truly universal event, at the center of which stands the powerful figure of Christ. For the composition of this fresco, Michelangelo didn’t choose a single focal point from which the work should be viewed, thus the eye travels without interruption throughout all the expanse of the fresco. This painting represented a turning point in the history of art.

Twenty-five years later, in 1536, Michelangelo entered again in the Sistine Chapel to paint, by the express order of another Pope, Paul III Farnese, the large altar wall 17 meters high by 15 meters wide. To ensure Michelangelo’s compliance, the pontiff issued a document dated September 1, 1535, in which he named the artist chief of architecture, sculpture and painting of the apostolic palace. Michelangelo’s task was to replace the frescoes previously painted by Perugino with scenes from the life of Moses. Those compositions, deemed too small, looked like miniatures compared to the gigantic swarm painted on the vault. If on the ceiling Michelangelo figured the origins of humanity, on the back wall he believed that it should represent the last act of the human tragedy: the Last Judgment. It is interesting that in the decoration of the Sistine Chapel there is not the slightest allusion to Calvary. It seems as if Michelangelo did not want to remember Redemption, which could also benefit the bad guys of his time. He worked on the Last Judgment during five years, relentlessly, even after falling from the scaffolding and seriously injuring his leg. The Last Judgment was inaugurated on Christmas Day 1541. This monumental achievement was made by Michelangelo when he was between 61 and 66. However, this extraordinary feat proved that his vitality and talent were not yet undermined. The composition is truly magnificent in conception; high up, in the center, the Savior, like an ancient Jupiter, raises his hand full of force to judge the wicked, who are seen falling in long Dantean clusters; they are all colossal figures begging for grace, terrified by that single gesture of divine majesty. Down in his boat, filled with condemned souls, Charon prepares to cross the lagoon. Beside Christ is the Virgin in a supplicating attitude; the sinful humanity looks to her, she is the only one who can serve as an intercessor with the Lord of Heaven and Earth. At the top, groups of angels carry the attributes of the Passion, a reason for the anger expressed by the Savior, because, even with his own sacrifice, he hasn’t been able to redeem humanity.


Last Judgment (detail: Angels carrying the instruments of the Passion), fresco, by Michelangelo, 1536-1541 (Cappella Sistina, Vatican City). In the left and right lunettes, Michelangelo depicted swirling angels carrying the instruments of the Passion. In the left-hand lunette we see them lifting up the cross and carrying the crown of thorns.
Last Judgment (detail: Angels carrying the instruments of the Passion), fresco, by Michelangelo, 1536-1541 (Cappella Sistina, Vatican City). In the right-hand lunette we see angels lifting up the column of flagellation, which tilts towards the center of the wall, as if to balance the cross in the left-hand lunette (see picture above), we also see an angel carrying the spear.
Last Judgment (detail: Mary, Christ, the Apostles and saints), fresco, by Michelangelo, 1536-1541 (Cappella Sistina, Vatican City). At the center of the fresco stands the powerful figure of Christ and his mother Mary seated on his right and looking down towards the saved. Surrounding them are the blessed saints, martyrs and Apostles. To the left we see the massive figure of St. John the Baptist, who is countered to the right with the figure of St. Peter handling the keys to Christ. Below Christ and Mary are the figure of St. Laurence (holding his gridiron, the instrument of his martyrdom), and St. Bartholomew, holding the skin that was stripped from him when he was martyred and the knife used to do so in his right hand. As typical of the Renaissance, Michelangelo included many portraits of his contemporaries in this fresco. The artist’s self-portrait appears twice: in the flayed skin which Saint Bartholomew is carrying in his left-hand (to the right), and in the figure in the lower left hand corner of the fresco, next to the resurrected people (see pictures below).


Even right after its inauguration, the Last Judgment was already causing controversy. The Italian author Pietro Aretino criticized it from Venice in almost insulting letters to Michelangelo. “I,” he said, “write, it is true, the most lascivious and lecherous things, but with veiled and decent words, while you treat such a high religious matter without any clothing, angels and saints like naked mortals …” Even the Pope Chamberlain, Biagio da Cesena, publicly stated “that it was an extremely dishonest act in such a respectable place, to have painted so many nude figures immodestly revealing their shameful parts, that this was not a work for a papal chapel but for a bathhouse or for a house of bad reputation”. Michelangelo, without thinking twice, took revenge on Biagio by including his portrait within the group of the condemned under the guise of Minos, who looks impassive and depraved, and even added a snake that coiled around his legs and attacks his “shameful parts” as he himself called them. It is very likely that other claims of this type coming from other high posts in the Vatican and from intellectuals of the time, finally were heard. At the end, the Pope successor of Paul III, Paul IV Carafa, ordered the painter Daniele da Volterra in 1559-1560 to cover up with clothing some of the bodies that were considered most offensive within the great composition. For this reason Volterra earned the nickname of Braghettone (“the breeches maker”).


Last Judgment (detail: Mary and Christ), fresco, by Michelangelo, 1536-1541 (Cappella Sistina, Vatican City). In traditional representations of the Last Judgment, Christ the Judge was shown as it was described by St. Matthew: “seated on his throne in glory”, with the apostles beside him sitting “on the thrones of the 12 tribes of Israel”. The depiction of Christ in Michelangelo’s interpretation of the Last Judgement scandalized contemporary viewers because He is neither seated, nor has he a beard. Michelangelo’s young, imponent and muscular Christ doesn’t show the slightest resemblance to his traditional representations. His raised right hand compels the figures to his left side, who are trying to ascend, to be plunged down towards Charon and Minos, the Judge of the Underworld; while his left hand is drawing up the chosen people on his right in an irresistible current of strength towards heaven and Salvation.
Last Judgment (detail: the blessed, the women saints, virgins and martyrs, the sibyls and heroines of the Old Testament), fresco, by Michelangelo, 1536-1541 (Cappella Sistina, Vatican City). The gigantic figure wearing a green robe, who seems to be protecting a young girl who kneels beside her, is usually identified as Eve.
Last Judgment (detail: the elect standing to the left of Christ), fresco, by Michelangelo, 1536-1541 (Cappella Sistina, Vatican City). The gigantic figure holding the cross has been identified either as the Cyrenean (who helped Christ carrying the cross in the way to Calvary) or as Dismas, the good thief. Below him St. Sebastian (holding the arrows, the instruments of his martyrdom) is a beautiful example of a classical male nude. To his right St. Catherine of Alexandria bents while holding the wheel in which he was martyred. She turns her gaze towards St. Blasius, behind her holding iron combs. Originally, Michelangelo painted both naked, with St. Blasius face turned towards the front. St. Catherine’s gesture then, looking towards the man’s genitalia, scandalized contemporaries. Danielle da Volterra added the garments and repainted the figure of St. Blasius, this time looking towards Christ.


The composition of this new gigantomachy is not as sympathetic and optimistic as that of the vault, which is full of elevated and kinder sentiments; the ceiling paintings also include more variety. In the Last Judgment there is only one note, only one form: that of the enlarged, stretched, muscular human body. It seems as if Michelangelo, now old, feels his impetuous desire of sculpting, even when painting, and showing that he was interested in men as a beautiful organism, a perfect machine of muscles, bones and tendons. As in the Pergamon frieze, the Michelangelesque giants of the Last Judgment are abstract beings who could not live our real lives.


Last Judgment (detail: angels blowing trumpets), fresco, by Michelangelo, 1536-1541 (Cappella Sistina, Vatican City). The Archangel St. Michael is shown to the left (wearing a green robe) with the open Book of Elects to the left towards the group of the saved.
Last Judgment (detail: resurrection of the death and ascension of the elect), fresco, by Michelangelo, 1536-1541 (Cappella Sistina, Vatican City). At the left corner of the fresco, Michelangelo depicted the ascension of the elect helped by angels and blessed. We see the resurrected rising from their graves: naked skeletons are covered with new flesh, men dead and now awaken help each other to rise from the earth. The artist’s self-portrait appears in this portion of the fresco too: in the figure here in the left, next to the resurrected people, and looking encouragingly at those rising from their graves.
Last Judgment (detail: the damned being dragged to hell), fresco, by Michelangelo, 1536-1541 (Cappella Sistina, Vatican City). The souls of the condemned are being sucked down by demons and pushed down by angels. The anguished figure on the left seems to be suffering an inner torment while being pulled down by three demons.


The Last Judgment represents a turning point in the history of art. After it, nothing would ever be the same in Western art. Its inauguration attracted visitors from all over Italy and Europe. All kinds of artists eagerly came to the Sistine Chapel to copy the fresco detail by detail, and its grandiose, dynamic and crowded composition would profoundly influence, as we will see, not only Italian, but Flemish, French and German schools of painting.


Last Judgment (detail: Charon in his boat taking the souls of the damned to hell), fresco, by Michelangelo, 1536-1541 (Cappella Sistina, Vatican City). For the figuration of the place of eternal damnation, Michelangelo was clearly inspired by the lines of the Divine Comedy:
“Charon the demon, with eyes of glowing coal/Beckoning them, collects them all,/Smites with his oar whoever lingers”.
Last Judgment (detail: the Hell and Minos), fresco, by Michelangelo, 1536-1541 (Cappella Sistina, Vatican City). According to Vasari, Michelangelo gave Minos, the Judge of the Souls (standing at the right ), the semblance of the Pope’s Chamberlain, Biagio da Cesena, who repeatedly complained to the Pope about the nudity of the painted figures. Minos is surrounded by hideous demons while in the background we see the openings of Hell.

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