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Michelangelo / Sistine Chapel: THE LAST JUDGEMENT


Filed under: Italian History and Art 3 Comments
April 4, 2011

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When most visitors visit the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel, they immediately gaze upon the
world-famous ceiling painted by Michelangelo. When the ceiling was painted, Michelangelo
became something of a god among artists, divine in his talents for sculpture (as seen in his
David and Pieta) as well as painting. It could be argued however, that the front wall of the
chapel, which he painted 30 years later, is his greatest masterpiece among many masterpieces. Its
his depiction of The Last Judgement, a commonly commissioned subject seen over and over
across many painted churches and chapels of the time. Its also one of the craziest paintings ever,
crammed with symbolism a metaphor, all at once stunningly beautiful and disturbing. Its so
loaded with images and meanings that books could easily be written about it. Ill attempt here to
give the basic keys to understanding this astounding painting.

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Michelangelo / Sistine Chapel: THE LAST JUDGEMENT | maItaly

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The scene depicts Christ at his second coming,


bringing judgement upon the world. He is in the
center, seated on a cloud with Mary to his right. You
notice right away that this is not a normal looking
Christ figure. He is not brown-haired, bearded or
dressed in flowing robes. Instead, he is clean-shaven
with defined facial features and bulging muscles. He
is very much a roman Apollo, certainly a surprise for
the Popes chapel.
This was a complex time for the church, and much
had happened since last Michelangelo was working
at the Vatican. Pope Clement VII was the one who
commissioned the painting, and he was the second of
the Medici popes. Michelangelo, being from Florence,
had a long history with the Medici, the ruling family of Florence. They were the greatest patrons of
the arts, but they also abused power and eventually bought the papacy, leading to the great
uprising we call the Reformation. 1537 was a tough time with much uncertainty. Protestant armies,
fueled by religious hatred of the Catholic church, sacked Rome ten years before, killing, burning
and looting. It was a huge turning point, and the church faced crisis. Michelangelo was certainly
conflicted, and it shows in the painting. Its pretty clear though, that Pope Clement VII had
humanistic sensibilites and gave Michelangelo creative control. Christ himself is an Apollo figure,
while the many other figures are larger-than-life nudes. Its a complete mash-up of mythological
visual language with Biblical subjects, a continuation of what Michelangelo began with on the
ceiling as a young man pushed to the extreme.
Christ raises and lowers his arms, giving the entire painting a
clockwise swirl motion, and you can read the painting that way.
On level with Christ and larger in the image, are saints and
martyrs of the Christian faith, seen holding the tools of their
martyrdom as in medieval paintings. A shroud of people await
judgement, and are either sent to Hell (on the bottom right), or
Heaven at the peak. The dead are also raised out of the ground
and redeemed in the bottom left.
Lets start with the saints and martyrs. There are many across the
center of the painting strangely holding the objects of their
martyrdom. St. Catherine is seen with a large spiked wheel on
the center right, and St. Lawrence is below Christ on the left
holding the grate on which he was roasted alive. The strangest is
St. Bartholomew, seen here, who according to tradition was
skinned alive. Bartholomew sits perched on a cloud, holding in
one hand a knife and in the other, a rubbery, flayed human skin. Stranger still, Michelangelo has
apparently painted a self portrait on the skin, perhaps revealing in some way his own creative
torment and anguish.

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Michelangelo / Sistine Chapel: THE LAST JUDGEMENT | maItaly

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The lower right is Michelangelos depiction of Hell, and is one of the


strangest, darkest and most fascinating works in art. In the space between
Hell at the bottom and the saints above, poor souls sent to Hell are being
pulled down by demons. Michelangelos devils muscular and human in
appearance, but grotesque with animal ears, horns and green, grey and blue
skin. Whats worse is that they very much seem to enjoy the pain and
torment they are inflicting. One of the most striking is this scene called the
damned soul, which shows a condemned man at the moment of full
knowledge and grief of his upcoming punishment. He cowers in in shame,
even as 2 demons drag him downward and a third reptilian creature bites
into his thigh. Perhaps one of the few mistakes by the artist is the demons
hand around the other thigh, which is not colored gray as the rest of the
creature is.
Michelangelos depiction of Hell also deviates
from a strict Biblical view. He borrows the
visual language of Dante from the Divine Comedy. We see
Charon, the mythological ferryman of the underworld in his large
boat. He ferries the newly condemned souls across the river styx to
the land of the dead. The souls are terrified as they scramble out of
the boat, and Charon raises his paddle like a baseball bat to make
them get out a little faster. Demons await the poor souls, dragging
them out out and pulling them down. Two demons violently grab a
man around the neck with a gaff. In behind the demons are many
different small details and demonic faces.
The other figure from Dante is
Minos, the mythological king of
Hell, seen as the most prominent
figure in the bottom right. Its well
documented that Michelangelo faced opposition surrounding his
artistic interpretation of the scene and the many nudes, which
were all completely nude at the time with the loincloths painted
years later (the fresco was restored in 1993, with some of the
loincloths removed and others left- just look back at St.
Bartholomew to see the convenient piece of cloth). One of
Michelangelos most vocal enemies was the Popes master of
ceremonies Biagio da Cesena, who was constantly on
Michelangelo about the nudes. Michelangelo responded by
painting his likeness as that of Minos, with large donkeys ears
and a snake wrapped around and biting him in a precarious spot.
Better yet, it is right above the side door, the most visible spot from
ground level. Cesena complained directly to the Pope, who supposedly joked that he had no
power over Hell so it would have to remain.

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Michelangelo / Sistine Chapel: THE LAST JUDGEMENT | maItaly

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Hell is contrasted on the left of the huge wall with the


Resurrection of the Dead. A patch of earth opens up
as many dead souls return to their earthly bodies
and await Christs judgement. The deceased figures sit,
some shrouded in burial cloths or as ghostly skeletons,
between the forces of heaven and hell. In the center of
the painting is a large open pit which looks directly
into the center of hell. Fire is visible behind the outline
of human figures. From underground beside the pit,
demons dig their way up to drag the souls down. Two
of the figures towards the center, are caught between
angels and demons in a tug of war. Those raised to
righteousness are pulled upwards by the angels
towards the center of the painting and the saints.
Michelangelos Last Judgement is a work that always
reveals something new. The figures are so dynamic and so complex in their movements, the entire
painting appears to be pulsating with action and energy. Michelangelo was an old man when he
made the painting, aware of his own shortcomings and mindful of his own judgement. One of the
details I was struck with in seeing the painting with my own eyes was the hellish pit in the bottom
center. It is dark and unassuming, but based on its placement within the painting the high alter
fits directly in front. On top of the alter at the exact center of the front wall and the floor of Sistine
chapel was a simple golden cross, which appeared super-imposed over the pit of hell. As a
theological parallel, its a perfect fit for a theme of judgement. The cross holds victory over the pit
of hell and destruction, yet another of Michelangelos genius details.
I have only begun to pick apart this amazing painting. Ill include a great video from Smarthistory
here. The video uses a virtual recreation in second life to look at the painting, which I find really
dumb. However, the analysis of the painting is really great and the detail images they show are
really helpful. Enjoy-

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Michelangelo / Sistine Chapel: THE LAST JUDGEMENT | maItaly

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Tags: Clement VII, Last Judgement, Medici, Michelangelo, Renaissance, Sistine Chapel, Vatican
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2 Comments:
Colm O'Regan
July 23, 2012 at 2:26 pm
Hello,
May I use this image Michaelangelo-LastJudgementB for a book?
Regards,
Colm
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Michelangelo / Sistine Chapel: THE LAST JUDGEMENT | maItaly

11/9/14, 3:43 PM

Reply
sherswank
December 3, 2012 at 10:04 pm
Whats also interesting about the damned soul is that when they restored the fresco, they
removed the painted on loin cloth look closer at the figure where the cloth was removed. I
just learned about this and was looking for a good picture to prove it. Very interesting I think
Reply

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