Michelangelo was one of the greatest artists of all time. He excelled in architecture, sculpture, painting, poetry, and engineering. He was a true Renaissance man who lived a long emotional life. In painting “The Last Judgment,” Michelangelo was able to incorporate all that he had learned about the human body. He was able to show the way the body moved, as well as it’s displays of unrestrained passion, overwhelming grief, or endless torment. This is what makes “The Last Judgment” such a unique and exceptional work of art.
In the spring of 1534, Michelangelo received a commission from Clement VII to paint “The Last Judgment” on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. He was also commissioned at this time to paint a “Fall of the Angels” on the entrance wall, but this second work was never executed. He had painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel some twenty eight years prior, but the style of his “The Last Judgment” would greatly differ from that of the ceiling.
Before Michelangelo could begin, there were many preparations to be made. A scaffold had to be built and the wall had to be prepared. Five paintings by Perugino and Michelangelo had to be removed. Two windows had to be walled up and Michelangelo “ordered it to be inclined forward by about half an ell toward the top, hoping in this fashion to protect his work against the accumulation of dust.” (Brandes 388)
Sebastiano del Piombo had persuaded the pope that the painting would look best in oil, and the wall was therefore prepared to receive oil pigments. This delayed the beginning of the work, since Michelangelo declared oil-painting to be an “effeminate art” and insisted on painting “al fresco,” as he had done with the ceiling. The wall had to be done over and Michelangelo never spoke to Sebastiano, who had once been a student of Michelangelo. (Brandes 389)
There were many previous depictions of the Last Judgment which influenced Michelangelo’s plan for the painting. Such other works include Giotto’s painting on the wall of the Camposanto in Pisa, Giovanni Pisano’s sculpture on the pulpit of the San Andrea in Pistoia, and Fra Angelica’s and Signorelli’s frescoes in Orvieto. Finally, there is the reverse side of a medallion his old teacher Bertoldo had made for Archbishop Filipo de’ Medici. (Brandes 385)
Michelangelo began the giant painting sometime during April and May of 1536. He worked rigorously on the project until he fell from the scaffolding a few months prior to the completion of the painting and seriously hurt his leg. Following his recovery, Michelangelo returned to work on “The Last Judgment.” It was completed in October of 1541 and unveiled on Christmas Day two months later. (Symonds 328)
Many were appalled to see the great amount of nudity which filled the painting. They did not feel that it was appropriate for such holy people to be depicted without clothes on. Michelangelo felt that it was the body which ascends to Heaven, not the clothes.
Unfortunately, Michelangelo’s masterpiece only remained intact for fourteen years, at which point artists were commissioned to paint clothes on the “most beautiful nudes.” (Brandes 392-394)
The central figure of “The Last Judgment” is of course, Christ. However, the Christ which appears in Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgment,” is not the typical loving, and sympathetic Christ depicted throughout the Renaissance. The fresco is dominated by Christ “as the medieval judge of the world–a giant whose might right arm is lifted in a gesture of damnation so broad and universal as to suggest he will destroy all creation, Heaven and earth alike.” (Croix, Tansey, and Kirkpatrick 665) Michelangelo followed the tradition of others in having Christ at the top, with his hand raised, brighter than the rest of the angels and demons. Christ seems to have a harsh and cold expression which furthers Michelangelo’s depiction of Christ as the Judge.
Standing closest to Jesus on the right is St. John. He is the young man who forms the counterpart to the Madonna, but he is completely in awe of Christ, while the Madonna seems to droop in some sort of dismay. She does not look toward Christ, nor toward anyone else.
The large man to the right, holding the key to heaven is St. Peter. He seems to be asking Jesus for whom he is to open the gate to Heaven. St. Peter’s counterpart on the left is Adam who gaze is fixed intently on his Master. Close to him is Abel and on Adam’s other side, closest to Christ, is the Good Thief. Below Christ there are two great figures to the right and left. St. Lawrence to the left holds his gridiron, while St. Bartholomew holds in his left hand the skin which had been flayed from his body. It is in this skin that one can see a self-portrait of Michelangelo. Behind Bartholomew we see the head and shoulders of a kneeling youth. This is the Apostle Thomas. The row of saints is continued to the right with St. Catherine, bending over the wheel on which she was martyred, and St. Sebastian kneeling and holding in his left hand the arrows that had pierced him. (Brandes 389-391)
In the space toward the bottom, directly below Christ, one can see mighty angels blowing their horns. There are seven angels, which Michelangelo found in Revelation 8, 2. They also have the two books, the Book of Life and the Book of Judgment. These books are often mentioned in the Old Testament as holding all the records of our actions and decide who will be allowed into heaven.
To the right are the condemned souls. They are plunging downward to the base of the wall. They are tormented by demons with burning eyes and are filled with despair. The great wrath of the Lord is upon them. Charon’s boat (which is in Greek mythology) is filling with passengers and to the far right stands Minos, encircled by serpents, ready to judge those who have been sent to him. It is said that Michelangelo modeled Minos after the papal master of ceremonies, Biagio, who had complained about the nudity in “The Last Judgment.” (Brandes 391)
On the left, the saved souls rise from their graves and assume the flesh. They then begin their ascent toward Heaven. One may expect there to be as much joy on the left as there is torment on the right, but these souls are not filled with exceedingly great happiness. Michelangelo has filled them with a similar amount of horror as those who are on the right. The chosen ones are not even greeted with a smile from Christ who seems “far less inclined to acquit than to condemn.” (Brandes 385) These souls seem to be rushing toward Heaven without any sort of elegance or style, simply trying to beat one another there.
“The Last Judgment” is far different from the fresco paintings that Michelangelo had done on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The entire mood has changed. On the ceiling, the ideas of hope and exaltation seem to rule, but on the altar wall, there is the depiction of Christ as the unforgiving Judge. “The Last Judgment” has a “drastically plain and direct style, with squarish rather than supple figures,” (Creighton 30) whereas the ceiling has a more complicated style. Also, the figures of the altar wall do not possess the same amount of beauty as the figures of the ceiling.
In comparison with “The Last Judgment” by Cavallini, one sees that Michelangelo’s interpretation of the Last Judgment is far different than the interpretation that Cavallini had in 1291. Cavallini’s “The Last Judgment,” a fresco in the church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome. Cavallini, who was perhaps influenced by some Roman paintings that we do not have today, abandoned the Byzantine style of linearism for a softer style. Although this painting may have seemed somewhat revolutionary, it is in no way as free flowing or emotional as Michelangelo’s. Pietro Cavallini’s fresco simply depicts three apostles sitting with Christ. They are all clothed and have halos above their heads. There are not any souls being judged as there are in Michelangelo’s. Christ is not in the center of the picture, and He does not have the same amount of power that He has in Michelangelo’s. The torment that is so overwhelming in Michelangelo’s Renaissance version of “The Last Judgment” is not depicted at all in Cavallini’s Proto-Renaissance painting. The Apostles, as well as Christ, are also seated in chairs in Cavillini’s fresco, whereas they are standing in the clouds in the latter of the two paintings.
Michelangelo’s painting is also much more life-like than Cavallini’s. All of the differences are quite understandable, considering that these two frescos were painted at completely separate times. (Croix, Tansey, and Kirkpatrick 567)
Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgment” is a splendid masterpiece of the High Renaissance. It stresses the importance of the human body and the ways in which the body can move. The emotional content is also very characteristic of this time. The torment and horror is also quite indicative of the hardships which Michelangelo felt during this time in his life. He had grown rather bitter toward all men, which can quite easily be inferred from the lack of joy in “The Last Judgment.” (Brandes 394)
“The Last Judgment” is a beautiful painting by the master artist, Michelangelo. His painting gives a greater understanding of the Renaissance era as well as an insight into his own feelings. The fresco painting is skillfully planned out and uses the space extremely well. Michelangelo borrowed some of the ideas from his predecessors, but he also put his own twist on the painting, making it a masterpiece.
Brandes, Georg. MichelangeloHis Life, His Times, His Era. New York: Frederick Unger Publishing Co., 1963.