The Last Judgment
The Last Judgment is a fresco by the Italian Renaissance painter Michelangelo covering the whole altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. It is a depiction of the Second Coming of Christ and the final and eternal judgment by God of all humanity. The souls of humans rise and descend to their fates, as judged by Christ who is surrounded by prominent saints. Altogether there are over 300 figures, with nearly all the males and angels originally shown as nudes; many were later partly covered up by painted draperies, of which some remain after recent cleaning and restoration.
The work took over four years to complete between 1536 and 1541 (preparation of the altar wall began in 1535). Michelangelo began working on it twenty-five years after having finished the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and was nearly 67 at its completion. Michelangelo originally accepted the commission from Pope Clement VII, but it was completed under Pope Paul III, whose stronger reforming views probably affected the final treatment.
In the lower part of the fresco, Michelangelo followed tradition in showing the saved ascending at the left and the damned descending at the right. In the upper part, the inhabitants of Heaven are joined by the newly saved. The fresco is more monochromatic than the ceiling frescoes and is dominated by the tones of flesh and sky. The cleaning and restoration of the fresco, however, revealed a greater chromatic range than previously apparent. Orange, green, yellow, and blue are scattered throughout, animating and unifying the complex scene.
The reception of the painting was mixed from the start, with much praise but also criticism on both religious and artistic grounds. Both the amount of nudity and the muscular style of the bodies has been one area of contention, and the overall composition another.
Where traditional compositions generally contrast an ordered, harmonious heavenly world above with the tumultuous events taking place in the earthly zone below, in Michelangelo's conception the arrangement and posing of the figures across the entire painting give an impression of agitation and excitement, and even in the upper parts there is "a profound disturbance, tension and commotion" in the figures. Sidney J. Freedberg interprets their "complex responses" as "those of giant powers here made powerless, bound by racking spiritual anxiety", as their role of intercessors with the deity had come to an end, and perhaps they regret some of the verdicts. There is an impression that all the groups of figures are circling the central figure of Christ in a huge rotary movement.
At the centre of the work is Christ, shown as the individual verdicts of the Last Judgement are pronounced; he looks down towards the damned. He is beardless, and "compounded from antique conceptions of Hercules, Apollo, and Jupiter Fulminator", probably, in particular, the Belvedere Apollo, brought to the Vatican by Pope Julius II. However, there are parallels for his pose in earlier Last Judgments, especially one in the Camposanto of Pisa, which Michelangelo would have known; here the raised hand is part of a gesture of ostentatio vulnerum where the resurrected Christ reveals the wounds of his Crucifixion, which can be seen on Michelangelo's figure.
To the left of Christ is his mother, Virgin Mary, who turns her head to look down towards the Saved, though her pose also suggests resignation. It appears that the moment has passed for her to exercise her traditional role of pleading on behalf of souls; with John the Baptist this Deesis is a regular motif in earlier compositions. Preparatory drawings show her standing and facing Christ with arms outstretched, in a more traditional intercessory posture.
Surrounding Christ are large numbers of figures, the saints and other saved souls. On a similar scale to Christ are John the Baptist on the left, and on the right Saint Peter, holding the keys of Heaven and perhaps offering them back to Christ, as they will no longer be needed. Several of the main saints appear to be showing Christ their attributes, the evidence of the martyrdom. This used to be interpreted as the saints calling for the damnation of those who had not served the cause of Christ, but other interpretations have become more common, including that the saints are themselves not certain of their own verdicts, and try at the last moment to remind Christ of their sufferings.
Other prominent saints include Saint Bartholomew below Peter, holding the attribute of his martyrdom, his own skin. The face on this is usually recognized as being a self-portrait of Michelangelo. Many others, even of the larger saints, are difficult to identify. Ascanio Condivi, Michelangelo's tame authorized biographer, says that all of the Twelve Apostles are shown around Christ, "but he does not attempt to name them and would probably have had a difficult time doing so".
The movements of the souls reflect the traditional pattern. They arise from their graves at bottom left, and some continue upwards, helped in several cases by angels in the air (mostly without wings) or others on clouds, pulling them up. Others, the damned, apparently pass over to the right, though none are quite shown doing so; there is a zone in the lower middle that is empty of souls. A boat rowed by an aggressive Charon, who ferried souls to the Underworld in classical mythology (and Dante), brings souls to land beside the entrance to Hell; his threatening them with his oar is a direct borrowing from Dante. Satan, the traditional Christian devil is not shown, but another classical figure, Minos, supervises the admission of the Damned into Hell; this was his role in Dante's Inferno. He is generally agreed to have been given the features of Biagio da Cesena, a critic of Michelangelo in the Papal court.
In the centre above Charon is a group of angels on clouds, seven blowing trumpets (as in the Book of Revelation), other holding books that record the names of the Saved and Damned. To their right is a larger figure of a soul who has just realized that he is damned, and appears paralyzed with horror. Two devils are pulling him downwards. To the right of this devils pull down other souls; some are being pushed down by angels above them.
The Last Judgment was a traditional subject for large church frescos, but it was unusual to place it at the east end, over the altar. The traditional position was on the west wall, over the main doors at the back of a church, so that the congregation took this reminder of their options away with them on leaving. It might be either painted on the interior, as for example by Giotto at the Arena Chapel, or in a sculpted tympanum on the exterior. However, a number of late medieval panel paintings, mostly altarpieces, were based on the subject with similar compositions, although adapted to a horizontal picture space. These include the Beaune Altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden, and ones by artists such as Fra Angelico, Hans Memling and Hieronymus Bosch. Many aspects of Michelangelo's composition reflect the well-established traditional Western depiction, but with a fresh and original approach.
Most traditional versions had a figure of Christ in Majesty in about the same position as Michelangelo's, and even larger than his, with a greater disproportion in scale to the other figures. As here, compositions contained large numbers of figures, divided between angels and saints around Christ at the top, and the souls being judged below. Typically there is a strong contrast between the ordered ranks of figures in the top part, and chaotic and frenzied activity below, especially on the right side that leads to Hell. The flow of souls usually began at the bottom (viewer's) left, as here, as resurrected souls rise from their graves and move towards judgement. Some pass judgement and continue upwards or to the left, to join the company in heaven, while others pass over to the right and then downwards towards Hell in the bottom right corner (compositions had difficulty incorporating Purgatory visually). The damned souls may be shown naked, as a mark of their humiliation as devils carry them off, and sometimes the newly-resurrected souls too, but angels and those in Heaven are fully dressed, their clothing a main clue to the identity of groups and individuals.
The project was a long time in gestation. It was probably first proposed in 1533, but was not then attractive to Michelangelo. A number of letters and other sources describe the original subject as a "Resurrection", but it seems most likely that this was always meant in the sense of the General Resurrection of the Dead, followed in Christian eschatology by the Last Judgment, rather than the Resurrection of Jesus. Other scholars believe there was indeed a substitution of the more sombre final subject, reflecting the emerging mood of the Counter-Reformation, and an increase in the area of the wall to be covered. A number of Michelangelo's drawings from the early 1530s develop a Resurrection of Jesus.
Vasari, alone among contemporary sources, says that originally Michelangelo was intended to paint the other end wall with a Fall of the Rebel Angels to match. By April 1535 the preparation of the wall was begun, but it was over a year before painting began. Michelangelo stipulated the filling-in of two narrow windows, the removal of three cornices, and building the surface increasingly forward as it rises, to give a single uninterrupted wall surface slightly leaning out, by about 11 inches over the height of the fresco.
The preparation of the wall led to the end of more than twenty years of friendship between Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombo, who tried to persuade the Pope and Michelangelo to do the painting in his preferred technique of oil on plaster, and managed to get the smooth plaster finish needed for this applied. It is possible that around this stage the idea was floated that Sebastiano would do the actual painting, to Michelangelo's designs, as they had collaborated nearly 20 years earlier. After, according to Vasari, some months of passivity, Michelangelo furiously insisted that it should be in fresco, and had the wall re-plastered in the rough arriccio needed as a base for fresco. It was on this occasion that he famously said that oil painting was "an art for women and for leisurely and idle people like Fra Sebastiano".
The new fresco required, unlike his Sistine Chapel ceiling, considerable destruction of existing art. There was an altarpiece of the Assumption of Mary by Pietro Perugino above the altar, for which a drawing survives in the Albertina, flanked by tapestries to designs by Raphael; these, of course, could just be used elsewhere. Above this zone, there were two paintings from the 15th-century cycles of Moses and Christ which still occupy the middle zone of the side walls. These were probably Perugino's Finding of Moses and the Adoration of the Kings, beginning both cycles. Above them were the first of the series of standing popes in niches, including Saint Peter himself, probably as well as a Saint Paul and a central figure of Christ. Finally, the project required the destruction of two lunettes with the first two Ancestors of Christ from Michelangelo's own ceiling scheme. However, some of these works may have already been damaged by an accident in April 1525, when the altar curtains went on fire; the damage done to the wall is unclear.
The structure of the chapel, built in a great hurry in the 1470s, had given trouble from the start, with frequent cracks appearing. At Christmas in 1525 a Swiss Guard was killed when entering the chapel with the pope when the stone lintel to the doorway split and fell on him. The site is on sandy soil, draining a large area, and the preceding "Great Chapel" had had similar problems.
The new scheme for the altar wall and other changes necessitated by structural problems led to a loss of symmetry and "continuity of window-rhythms and cornices", as well as some of the most important parts of the previous iconographical schemes. As shown by drawings, the initial conception for the Last Judgement was to leave the existing altarpiece and work round it, stopping the composition below the frescos of Moses and Christ.
The Sistine Chapel was dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin, which had been the subject of Perugino's altarpiece. Once it was decided to remove this, it appears that a tapestry of the Coronation of the Virgin, a subject often linked to the Assumption, was commissioned, which was hung above the altar for important liturgical occasions in the 18th century, and perhaps from the 1540s until then. The tapestry has a vertical format and is still in the Vatican Museums. A print of 1582 shows the chapel in use, with a large cloth of roughly this shape hanging behind the altar, and a canopy over it. The cloth is shown as plain, but the artist also omits the paintings below the ceiling, and may well not have been present himself, but working from prints and descriptions.
Early appreciations of the fresco had especially mentioned the colours, especially in small details, but over the centuries the build-up of dirt on the surface had largely hidden these. The built-out wall led to extra deposition of soot from candles on the altar. In 1953 Bernard Berenson put in his diary: "The ceiling looks dark, gloomy. The Last Judgment even more so... how difficult to make up our minds that these Sistine frescoes are nowadays scarcely enjoyable in the original and much more so in photographs".
The fresco was restored along with the Sistine vault between 1980 and 1994 under the supervision of Fabrizio Mancinelli, the curator of post-classical collections of the Vatican Museums and Gianluigi Colalucci, head restorer at the Vatican laboratory. During the course of the restoration, about half of the censorship of the "Fig-Leaf Campaign" was removed. Numerous pieces of buried details, caught under the smoke and grime of scores of years were revealed after the restoration. It was discovered that the fresco of Biagio de Cesena as Minos with donkey ears was being bitten in the genitalia by a coiled snake.
Most writers agree that Michelangelo depicted his own face in the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew . Edgar Wind saw this as "a prayer for redemption, that through the ugliness of the outward man might be thrown off, and the inward man resurrected pure", in a Neoplatonist mood, one that Aretino detected and objected to. One of Michelangelo's poems had used the metaphor of a snake shedding its old skin for his hope for a new life after his death.
The bearded figure of St. Bartholomew holding the skin was sometimes thought to have the features of Aretino, but open conflict between Michelangelo and Aretino did not occur until 1545, several years after the fresco's completion.