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The Last Judgement

The Last Judgement

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). Palazzo Vaticano. The Sistine Chapel – Rome.

There are various references also to the Last Judgement in the Gospels and of course, John’s Apocalypse or Revelation is entirely dedicated to the coming of God to judge humans.

Matthew tells:
The coming of the Son of man will be like lightning striking in the east and flashing far into the west. Wherever the corpse is, that is where the vultures will gather. Immediately after the distress of those days the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, the stars will fall from the sky and the powers of heaven will be shaken. And then the sign of the Son of man will appear in heaven; then, too, all the peoples of the earth will beat their breasts; and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet to gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. G38

Matthew somewhat further talks again on the Last Judgement, in the same fearful words: When the Son of man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels, then he will take his seat on his throne of glory. All nations will be assembled before him and he will separate people one from another as the shepherd separates sheep from goats. He will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left. G38

Luke, though always the most rational of the Evangelists describes the coming of God in terrible words: There will be signs in the sun and moon and stars; on earth nations in agony, bewildered by the turmoil of the ocean and its waves, men fainting away with terror and fear at what menaces the world, for the powers of heaven will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand erect, hold your head high, because your liberation is near at hand. G38

Finally, John wrote in his Revelation on the Last Judgement: Then I saw a great white throne and the One who was sitting on it. In his presence, earth and sky vanished, leaving no trace. I saw the dead, great and small alike, standing in front of his throne while the books lay open. And another book was opened, which is the book of life, and the dead were judged from what was written in the books, as their deeds deserved. The sea gave up all the dead who were in it; Death and Hades were emptied of the dead that were in them; and every one was judged as his deeds deserved. The Death and Hades were hurled into the burning lake. This burning lake is the second death; and anybody whose name could not be found written in the book of life was hurled into the burning lake. G38

On October, 11 of 1534 the College of Cardinals elected Alessandro Farnese to be the new Pope of the Catholic Church. The Pope took the name of Paul III. Very soon, he asked the sculptor and painter Michelangelo Buonarroti to continue to paint the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. There was a whole wall to be filled behind the main altar, a surface of 226 square meter.

Michelangelo had a problem. He had to finish the never-ending tomb of the late Rovere Pope Julius II and the Herculean work took all his time. The Pope promised to arrange an agreement with the Duke of Urbino who had demanded of Michelangelo to finish the tomb as originally planned. The Roveres had succeeded the Montefeltros at the court of Urbino through adoption. They wanted to enforce their status. The Pope’s agents indeed negotiated a new contract so that Michelangelo had only to deliver the Moses and two other statues of Captives that he had already finished. He later added a sculpture of Leah, the daughter of Laban, representing active life and one of her sister Rachel, representing contemplative life, which he sculpted in less than a year. Michelangelo had himself to pay for the three other statues and for having the tomb erected, for which he all deposited money in the Strozzi bankG46. Tommaso Boscoli, Raffaello da Montelupo and Scherano da Settignano, made the other statues to Michelangelo’s designs.

The worries over the tomb finally terminated, Michelangelo could not but resolve to enter the service of Pope Paul. Michelangelo prepared the wall from 1535 on. Two windows were filed with bricks. Frescoes of Pietro Perugino were destroyed as well as two smaller frescoes Michelangelo himself had painted in his earlier work on the ceiling. The whole wall was covered with new bricks, slightly inclined downwards so that dust would not gather on them and then the wall was plastered. A first plaster laid by Sebastiano del Piombo was torn down because it was a plaster for oil painting and Michelangelo was a fresco painter.G28 His faithful servant Urbino put on a new, fresco plaster. Michelangelo worked on his cartons in the meantime and he adapted his grand designs. In the spring of 1536 he began to lay the first paint on the first patches of fresco intonaco. He worked alone.

Vasari told in his ‘Lives of the Artists’ that Pope Paul and Michelangelo appreciated each other. The Pope admired the artist’s work and he had much reverence and respect for Michelangelo. Michelangelo appreciated the dignity of the Pope who contrary to Julius II had no army of substance anymore. Paul III loved the arts as well as Julius the Rovere Pope. He lived a far more frugal life than Alexander the Borgia Pope and yet brought the Holy Roman Emperor of the German Nation, Charles V to accept him as the ecclesiastical authority. Furthermore Pope Paul had given Michelangelo the artist a lifetime stipend, half of which came out of the Papal treasury and the other half from the benefice of a ferry over the river Po at PiacenzaG28. Michelangelo worked at the ‘Last Judgement’ for about five years and 450 working days, until 1541. It was inaugurated and consecrated by Pope Paul on All Saints’ Eve of 1541 and opened to the public on Christmas of that same year.

Michelangelo painted the whole wall blue as the skies. This would create the eternal space that could make one forget there was a wall behind the altar. Against this sky each figure could be clearly delineated as if standing out of the cosmos itself. In the middle of the fresco stood the all-terrifying God-Christ. God holds one leg bent, his arms in two different gestures. One arm held high to reject the condemned souls on the right of the fresco - God’ left, as told in the scriptures of Matthew -, the other arm held levelled to draw to him in an act of appeasement and protection the righteous on his other side. God thus was shown in the act of judgement and in an awesome state of tension between good and right. Thus, Michelangelo had recalled Luke’s words that ‘they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory’. God is entirely nude, but for a wisp of loincloth. He is a formidable sculpture as Michelangelo had chiselled his David and could have made a Hercules, Zeus or any other terrible, revengeful God of antiquity such as Jupiter striking the humans with his lightning. Michelangelo must have imagined himself in that position conjuring the myriad of figures that surrounded God.

Huddled to God, almost at his feet, is the Virgin Mary. Mary was dressed but with only a blue thin veil over her legs that showed also her shapes. Mary was drawn in pity for the lost souls, full of sadness for all the mothers whose sons and daughters were thrown back into hell. She holds her hands in a prayer to God, asking for pity, but God’s right arm shows a definite refusal to listen to her.

Around God Michelangelo painted an inner circle of apostles and saints. They were painted, some with their respective symbols, standing respectfully around God. Saint Peter on the right holds the keys of the kingdom. Saint Andrew keeps to his saltire cross on the other side. Adam is there also, dressed in animal skins barely hiding his nudity. Adam and Peter face each other; one is the first man and the other the first Pope. These two were painted somewhat larger than the surrounding figures, indicating they were greater than humanity. Both were painted as strong muscular, mature men. Yet they are not here just gathered with God. They also seem afraid of the divine wrath.

Below God on a cloud and to the left sits Saint John Climacus holding a ladder. This abbot of Mount Sinai wrote a treatise called the ‘Ladder to Paradise’ on monastic spirituality. Michelangelo gave Climacus, which anyhow means ‘ladder’ his symbol, emphasising the concept of spiritual life as a ladder that people have to mount. It was a proper symbol for the left side of the wall, where the righteous humans were depicted. On the right side Michelangelo faced Climacus with the apostle Bartholomew. Bartholomew was flayed alive. Bartholomew thus holds a flaying knife in one hand and a long boneless skin in his other hand. In a mood of desperation and probably also of humility, Michelangelo once painted his own distorted portrait in this sad fleece.

Above the circle of apostles and saints Michelangelo painted two scenes of the passion of Christ. On the left side of the wall the cross is pushed upright and angels are bringing his crown. On the right side is the column of the Flagellation, equally being dressed. Angels bring the instruments of the passion. Cross and column form a direction that points upwards, further higher into the heavens, like the point of a pyramid.

The figure of God-Christ has split humanity in two. On God’s left are the condemned souls and the hell creatures, on his right are the saved people that are drawn out of death to stand at his right side, as the scriptures tell. John Climacus with his ladder to paradise was thus painted on the right side of Christ, whereas Bartholomew and the flayed skin that could point to the punishment that was awaiting the doomed are at Christ’s left side. Thus, God split the universe between good and bad. On one side the movement of the figures is upwards, out of Hades more closer to God. On the other side the movement is downwards towards the new and last hell.

Under the figure of God, under Climacus and Bartholomew, a cloud of seven angels sound the trumpets, as Michelangelo had read in the Apocalypse Revelation of Saint John. Other angels on that cloud open two books. As in the Revelation of Saint John was narrated, one book was the book of the dead and the other the book of the living. All men and women were inscribed in these books. The final countdown had begun. This was the moment of decision.

On the lower left part of the fresco, the righteous people are drawn out of the oceans of death, out of Hades and its dark caves, again as told in the Revelation of John. The figures are helped out of the oceans and ascend into the glory of God. They are pulled up or fly on their own, to stand crowded together at God’s right hand.

In the lower right part of the wall, Michelangelo painted the river Acheron and the rowboat of Charon as mentioned in Dante’s ‘Inferno’. The doomed souls are here thrown back off the boat into the Acheron and thus in hell. Charon wields his oar to whip the doomed away, from his bark. When the fresco was completed for about two-thirds, Michelangelo opened the painting. Pope Paul was delighted with the work. The Master of Ceremonies however, one Biagio da Cesena, who had accompanied the Pope had expressed his dislike at the painting. Biagio answered to a question of the Pope that it was inappropriate to have all these nudes in a chapel and that the scene belonged better in a public tavern. Michelangelo decided to have his revenge and made a caricature of Biagio as Milos in hell – as Vasari calls the figure – or as a devil judge of hell. One can see Biagio at the extreme lower right where everybody could well recognise him. Biagio was shown with ass-ears and a great serpent started from his genitals and curled around his body. Biagio was surrounded by a heap of devils. Biagio pleaded to the Pope and to Michelangelo to have this image removed, but neither the Pope nor Michelangelo accepted to paint over Milos. The Farnese Pope also had a good sense of humour. And Biagio da Cesena at least gained ‘fame’ whereas his name otherwise would have been forgotten since long.

Above the scene of hell, angels throw back the condemned people in Charon’s boat and into the river Acheron of hell. Here Michelangelo made a picture of a grieving woman, hiding her nakedness and weeping in despair. She looks with one eye at the terrible sight of hell, but straight at the viewer. This image has become a famous icon or symbol of grieving humanity. Devils curl around her legs and will pull her downwards also.

In the middle of the right scene, Michelangelo showed figures with various instruments of torture. There is the saw that cut the apostle Simon the Zealot in half. There is the torture wheel of Saint Catherine and the arrows of Saint Sebastian. Saint Blaise holds the wool combs that tore him to death and Saint Laurence, a deacon and Roman martyr, wears his cross. Torture and terrible pain await the souls that are falling on this side towards their damnation. Each soul would be measured. Once measured and found guilty, the people were judged and condemned. So that could be shown as was written in John’s Revelation that ‘every one was judged as his deeds deserved’. Still above that scene and level with God, are the people that are to be judged. People wait here, shake hands for the last times, even embrace before being measured, judged and maybe separated forever. Here are however also still the righteous, like on the far right the Good Thief still carrying on his back the huge cross on which he was nailed at Golgotha and to whom Jesus before his death promised paradise.

There are about three hundred figures in the Last Judgement. Michelangelo painted all in the same brownish and fleshy hues that stand out against the blue space. As in so many paintings of the great artist, there was no landscape but the eternal space. The painting was dedicated to the glory of the human body, to man saved and man doomed. All figures are studies of nudes, of human bodies in all possible and all different positions. Even God is a dynamic Christ in the midst of his terrible Apocalypse. Michelangelo’s life was dedicated to the glorification of man and the human body. The ‘Last Judgement’, though not the last fresco of Michelangelo, was and has remained the most formidable image of man.

With pictures like the ‘Last Judgement’ Michelangelo was one of the few artists who created a new style during the Renaissance. The style of paintings like the ‘Last Judgement’ was the beginning of what is now called Mannerism. Mannerism has various forms and major artists like Jacopo Pontormo and Domenikos Theotokópoulos called El Greco differ very much from Michelangelo’s line of Mannerism, to which vow also Rosso Fiorentino, Giulio Romano and partly Bronzino. Michelangelo’s mannerism was generated by the artist’s formidable personality and by his inner force. In the ‘Last Judgement’ we see very many intertwined naked bodies, struggling over the frame, filling the frame and wanting to push out of it. Michelangelo’s painting was an image of great tension because no figure was at ease, all figures were in stress and colours and lines contrasted and intersected everywhere.

Erwin Panofsky saw in mannerism a reflection of the strained duality of the Renaissance in which finally Christian and Classical images clashed. Tension also occupied the Christian church in the sixteenth century. Michelangelo’s painting dates from just before 1540. That was two decades already, almost, after Martin Luther’s declarations of protest at the ways of living of the Popes. And it was before the Council of Trent, which opened in 1545. The objective of the Council of Trent as asked by Emperor Charles V had been to reconcile the Popes’ and the Lutherans’ visions. But the Lutherans did not even participate at the Council. The Council of Trent did have an influence of dissolving doubts over religious matters. It re-affirmed clearly the dogma of Roman Catholicism. The split with Protestantism was now fulfilled and Roman Catholic dogmas confirmed. When the Council of Trent ended, in 1563, it took time for the tensions to ease. Mannerism then could evolve into Baroque, an art form that was in the show of full passion of scenes less filled with tension than Mannerism.

Any international society consisting of many independent countries with peoples of different origins, religions and interests knows tension. The century of the Baroque, the seventeenth century, also was a period of terrible wars like the Thirty-Year War that devastated large parts of Germany, or like the wars of Louis XIV. Maybe more rare is how a very great genius such as Michelangelo was able to bring the conflicts to the surface in art, for other artists to pursue.

The ‘Last Judgement’ has been called Michelangelo’s pessimistic view of a corrupt world that needed to be doomed. This pessimistic concept does not really hold up however to the situation. Michelangelo lived maybe the most rewarding moments of his life. Yes, he was sixty when he started the work and had complained to the Pope that he was tired. But he was surrounded by a large number of artists of great talent who venerated him and stood by him. He had the confidence and admiration of the Pope. He loved Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, the heir of a Roman patrician family and he loved Vittoria Colonna, the Marchesa de Pescara and one of the bests scholars of Italy. Michelangelo’s worries over the tomb of Julius were over. For Rome and Florence it was a period of peace, even though Florence did not appreciate the dictatorship of yet another Medici. Michelangelo grew old, but he could be satisfied and the work in the Sistine was artistically gratifying. Soon, he would paint further frescoes in the Pauline Chapel of the Vatican, another commission of Pope Paul, and he would be appointed the master architect of Saint Peter Cathedral. More than a rejection of a corrupt world, Michelangelo must have wanted to paint God’s glory in full power.

The ‘Last Judgement’ is the end of the spiritual seeking of humanity. The uncertainty, the hopes and fears of the ultimate judgement end here. Michelangelo probably saw indeed this fresco as the final painting to be made, the one that would give all answers. It adorns the wall of the private chapel of the Popes, the Sistine Chapel. Here the Popes stood and still stand regularly in front of Michelangelo’s pictures. The highest authority of the Catholic Church, the symbolic head of the church installed by Jesus and endowed with his power in the person of Peter, dressed in his majestic cope of a Prince of the Church, thus faces the last scene of glory and of despair in which all humanity is intertwined. Spirituality was shown in the depiction of naked humans and Pope Paul appreciated this. Spirituality ended in man as it was engendered by and in man. The evolution of spirituality was completed here and in this picture.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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