The Last Judgement is a huge fresco painted by the High Renaissance master Michelangelo on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, the piece was commissioned before the death of Pope Clement VII who was the head of the Catholic Church from 1523 to his death in 1534 and was confirmed by his successor in the Papacy, Pope Paul III Alessandro Farnese in 1535. The Last Judgement fresco is the largest mural painting to be undertaken in the 16th century and it took Michelangelo four years to complete it. Michelangelo completed this piece three decades after completing his first cycle of Biblical art which was the Genesis fresco (see blog post for more details on the fresco) on the Sistine ceiling. As indicated by the title of the piece, the Last Judgement depicts the second coming of Christ on Judgement Day as written in the last book of the Bible:Revelations. This fresco painted by Michelangelo is considered to be one of the greatest masterpieces of religious art from the 16th century and the fresco is either a late representation of the late High Renaissance painting or is one of the first paintings to be considered in the style of Mannerism.
Michelangelo decided to overhaul the traditional image of the Last Judgement to keep in the lines of the late Renaissance art of the Mannerist movement. Up until the commissioning of Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgement, the view of it had been relatively static as it had been viewed to be rigidly organized to convey God’s central place in the ordered cosmos and his control of Man’s final destiny whereas Michelangelo upsets what was expected by dividing the composition into two tiers. In the celestial zone, Christ the Judge was flanked by the choirs of Apostles, angels, saints, martyrs and Patriarchs. In the terrestrial zone below, the Resurrection of the Dead was laid out on the left, while the Damned’s descent into Hell appeared on the right with the ranks being fixed and closed with the Damned being in agony in contrast to the Elect being joyful at their resurrection Michelangelo conceived his Last Judgement to be a swirl of bodies meaning that there are male nudes and female nudes intermingled with each other within fresco which was very much in line with Michelangelo’s humanist philosophy, all of which were centered around the central figure of Christ either with every figure being in motion or being tense with emotion. This was different as Michelangelo had swept the predictability of a painting of this nature and replaced it by anxious uncertainty whereas the traditional iconography was static and hierarchical, Michelangelo’s vision is of a dynamic explosive event. Flowing robes have been put aside, for in Michelangelo’s view we will all meet the Lord stripped of all rank and emblems of our earthly status.
Moving onto the actual features of the fresco itself, we see, The Lunettes, The Trumpeting Angels, Christ & the Virgin, the Elect, the Ascending, the Damned, Charon, the Cave and Hell all of which will be explained below. The Lunettes are set at the top of the fresco with the lunettes all bearing the symbols of Christ’s Passion before he was crucified and include , the Cross, the Pillar against which he was scourged, the Ladder, the Sponge, and the Crown of Thorns – all carried by wingless angels and are given unusual prominence in a painting of this nature which conveys the meaning shown by the Final resurrection shown lower in the scene is that it was only through Christ’s sacrificial death and His resurrection. The Trumpeting Angels are set in the middle of the fresco and in the lower half below Christ responding to his call and command which is a reference to a passage from the Bible from the Gospel of Matthew chapter 24, verses 30-31; “they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of Heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his Elect from the four winds.” Christ and Virgin is the main focus of the fresco with the commanding figure of Christ dominates The Last Judgment fresco. He is set against a golden aureole, which also includes his mother who cleaves to his side. In earlier sketches Michelangelo had drawn Christ seated in the traditional manner, but in the painting he seems to be striding forward, perhaps rising to his feet wheras His stance reminds us of images of Christ at his Resurrection, bursting from the tomb whereas the figure of his mother, the Virgin Mary turns her head aside and folds her arms, as if to say that the time for her merciful intercession has passed. The golden light behind Christ, which Michelangelo went to the trouble of painting in brilliant yellow pigments that he used nowhere else in the fresco, becomes the sun around which the whole event moves in an inevitable rotation which leads to statements about Christ’s resemblance to Apollo, the God of the Sun, around which all the planets revolve much like Christianity revolves around Christ’s teachings.The Elect are the surrounding crowd around Christ and the Virgin which includes saints, martyrs and others who have risen to paradise. There are recognizable saints within the crowds of unidentifiable people such as St Lawrence with his grate and St Bartholomew with his knife and flayed skin, St Peter holding the keys of the Kingdom, St Andrew with his cross, St Sebastian holding up the arrows with which he was shot, St Blaise with his wool combs and St Catherine with her wheel and also there are two figures from the road to Calvary and the Crucifixion of Christ within the fresco as well, with the two figures being the Good Thief, Dismas, and Simon of Cyrene, who carried Christ’s cross for him are there to remind us the significance of Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection as the necessary precursor to the Last Judgement and the Final resurrection. The Ascending are depicted as the graves opening up and giving up their dead with the bodies rising towards the elect, some are taking flight, some carried in the arms of angels while one pair are lifted by a muscular angel holding a rosary therefore representing Faith whereas the other Cardinal virtues are represented in other figures. The Damned are represented those opposite to those on the left ascending to the elect and are descending into Hell with some being battered down by angels thwarting their frantic attempts to ascend; some are cast down headlong while others are dragged by demons. According to one art historian the figures are dragged down by the part of their body which caused them to sin with examples within the piece being seen with the proud by their hair, the lascivious by their pudenda. Charon in classical mythology is the boatman who ferries the Damned across the River Styx to the underworld and like Minos who is also featured in this piece , is likened as a demon who torments the damned with their hopeless plight and bullies the reluctant with blows from his oar. The Cave is the representation of purgatory and is painted at the bottom of painting and is a black cavern filled with demons and it is only through Purgatory that souls can escape being sent to Hell as testified by the priest at the altar knowing his Mass was helping the souls escape from Purgatory. In painting the Hell portion of his Last Judgement fresco, Michelangelo had to switch to deeper palette of color and portrayed the Damned grappling with demons at the gates of Hell. The darkness of the palette really allows one to imagine what it is like to be in Hell and one can almost feel a demon’s talon curling around your shoulder and leading you to your eternal damnation.
The Last Judgement was important at the time of its creation because it helped the Church to recognize that he was not truly following the path Christianity before and they needed to get back on the path otherwise they would end up like the Damned in Hell.
The patron of this artwork was Pope Clement VII as he wanted to take the warning portrayed in the fresco to other high leaders within the Catholic Church and forewarn them to be careful of the path they were treading on as they needed to get back on the path otherwise they would end up like the Damned in Hell. The importance of Pope Clement VII being the patron of this artwork is that he came from the Medici family who influenced much of the Renaissance art movement.
The Last Judgement is important today as it’s meaning rings true and clear to this day as I have seen so many of my friends lose their true path in life thanks to stupid decisions they have made in their past and also because this fresco is Michelangelo’s genius at it’s greatest height.This art piece is important today as it makes you realize that you are not part of just a single culture but also multicultural mosaic that stretches the globe.
Footnotes for the article:
Bernadine Barnes, “Metaphorical Painting: Michelangelo, Dante, and the Last Judgment,” The Art Bulletin 77, no. 1 (1995): , doi:10.2307/3046080.
Marcia B. Hall, “Michelangelo’s Last Judgment: Resurrection of the Body and Predestination,” The Art Bulletin 58, no. 1 (1976): , doi:10.2307/3049465.
Marian B. Davis, “Michelangelo: Sculptor, Painter, Architect. Charles de Tolnay,” Renaissance Quarterly 29, no. 3 (1976): , doi:10.2307/2860280.