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. It’s his depiction of “The Last Judgement”, a commonly commissioned subject seen over and over across many painted churches and chapels of the time. It’s also one of the craziest paintings ever, crammed with symbolism a metaphor, all at once stunningly beautiful and disturbing. It’s so loaded with images and meanings that books could easily be written about it. I’ll attempt here to give the basic keys to understanding this astounding painting.
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. It’s 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. It’s 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.
The lower right is Michelangelo’s 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. Michelangelo’s devils muscular and human in appearance, but grotesque with animal ears, horns and green, grey and blue skin. What’s 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.
Michelangelo’s 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. It’s 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 Michelangelo’s most vocal enemies was the Pope’s 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 donkey’s 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.
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 Christ’s 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.
Michelangelo’s “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 it’s 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, it’s a perfect fit for a theme of judgement. The cross holds victory over the pit of hell and destruction, yet another of Michelangelo’s genius details.
I have only begun to pick apart this amazing painting. I’ll 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-