Tag Archive: Last Judgement


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-

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The Medici were the greatest patrons of the arts and the godfathers of Florence. Their patronage had helped to bring about a great revival of culture in Italy, called the Renaissance. Perhaps there’s no greater sign of just how powerful the Medici were than the life of Giovanni da Medici. In the middle of great turmoil in Florence after the departure of Savonarola and the exile of the family, Giovanni, who was prepared from childhood to take a place in the Catholic church, was elected Pope. He changed his name to Pope Leo X, and made fateful decisions that had huge consequences for the church and the entire western world. The Medici had basically bribed other cardinals to vote Giovanni to the Papacy, and Leo swiftly placed family members in high places to benefit the family, including his brother who became a cardinal.


Pope Leo and his higher ups promptly partied as if there was no cost involved. He is often quoted for saying to his brother Guiliano,  “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.” He had elaborate feasts every night, and hosted large celebrations in Rome, including a parade where he rode on the back of a white elephant. Being a Medici, he was fascinated with the ideas of humanism so popular in Renaissance Florence, and he brought this perspective to the Vatican. He had few limits when it came to dishing out money, and soon enough, he had more or less bankrupted the church. To compensate, he authorized the sale of indulgences. An indulgence was a piece of paper, priced affordably to anyone who wanted one, that granted forgiveness of sins and entrance to Heaven. They could also be bought on behalf of dead family members, to assure their escape from punishment.

For Martin Luther, a German monk, that was the final straw.He was furious and posted his 95 theses, disagreements with the church, on the door of the Cathedral in Wittenberg. It was the start of the protestant reformation, and touched off a firestorm of controversy. Luther contended that grace came through God alone and not through the Pope. Similar reformers had been burned at the stake for questioning the church in the past, but Luther persisted, gaining momentum and starting a movement that swept over Europe. It’s an extremely complex history whose consequences are still felt and argued over today. Leo’s response was to fight back with all the threats he could as Pope, but the damage was done. He died rather suddenly in 1521 of illness. His successor Pope Adrian VI, did his best to respond to the protestant reformation, but also died, after less than 2 years as pope.

Leo’s cousin, Guilio de Medici, was destined to become another Medici pope. He chose the name Clement VII, and inherited a nearly impossible situation. His papacy was defined by monumental struggle that was tearing the church and Europe apart. Eventually, fanatical enemy troops, fueled by religious hatred of the church, arrived in Rome. Clement fled to the Castel St. Angelo, where he held out for 6 months. Eventually, he bribed his way out and fled. Called the sack of Rome, it was a truly terrible event. The enemy armies pillaged the city, killed and raped, and Rome would never be the same. The resistance spread to other cities too, including Florence, where Michelangelo had to go into hiding. After some time, Clement returned to Rome and the long process of rebuilding began. The sack of Rome marks the end of the Renaissance and the a turning point for the popes. Their place as supreme power and authority has never been the same. One of his last acts was to commission Michelangelo, then in his 50s, to return to the Sistine Chapel and paint a massive scene on the front wall of “The Last Judgement”. It’s one of the most amazing works of art in the world, and I’ll talk about it extensively in a few other posts.

It was the greed and corruption of the Medici popes that finally crossed the line and broke the church. Still, Leo X, Clement VII and many other corrupt popes throughout the ages are an indicator of just how strong and engrained the Christian religion is. That it would survive to its present state, in spite of so many disastrous detours and power hungry people with other motives, is truly a miracle. As for art and culture, a movement called the counter reformation or catholic revival came in the years after Clement, and altered the attitudes of the church and created what we have today.

I highly recommend that you watch the PBS series on the Medici. Part 1 and Part 2 are linked here. Part 3 is below, and does a great job at telling the crazy story of Leo X, the Medici Pope.

On our first full day in Rome, we’ll be leaving bright and early for the Vatican Museum to beat the crowds. It’s one of the greatest museums in the world with an infinite collection of high church art, as well as centuries of tapestries, many thousands of Roman sculptures and ancient historical artifacts, tapestries, manuscripts, weapons… even a modern art collection. It’s a beautifully strange and crazy place where you are completely overwhelmed with the shear amount of what there is to see. It’s really too much to absorb at one time. That’s they way it is though- with so many people you just keep moving and just when you’ve reached art overload you enter the Raphael rooms and the Sistine Chapel, the crown jewel of the Vatican (and then you exit the museum into St. Peter’s Basilica and get bombarded with amazement again! It never stops).

Soon after completing his “David” in Florence and his epic battle with Leonardo that never happened (more on this later), Michelangelo was summoned to the Vatican by Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He was not a painter, but a sculptor, and he refused. I guess you can’t say no to the Pope, because after much back and forth fighting, Michelangelo reluctantly agreed. The story goes that the great architect Bramante, who was working at St. Peters, recommended Michelangelo knowing he was not a painter in order to see him fail. We must remember that these great artists weren’t pals… they all wanted to be the best and have the acclaim. They all wanted the spotlight. Michelangelo responded by making the greatest painting ever, a feat that took him 4 years. 20 years after completing the ceiling, he returned to paint his epic “Last Judgement” on the front wall. His work in the room is so impressive, you don’t even notice the intricate marble floors or the multiple works by Botticelli and other masters around the perimeter.

The many figures in the chapel are sculptural in nature, huge figures with bulging muscles and dynamic poses. I can go on and on and on about all that’s contained within these monumental frescos, but it would be much too long to read and this video does a better job, even if it’s in Italian with occasional hilarious mis-translated subtitles and the recycled soundtrack from Jurassic Park.  I think it may be an official Vatican produced video- it has the same guy from the History of St. Peters video, which you need to watch for sure.

The video does a good job in part 2 explaining the restoration. In the 80s, a long restoration of the frescos set about a big debate in the art community and shocked scholars. Basically, 450 years of grime and candle soot had left the paintings really dark, almost black. When the grime was painstakingly removed, the colors were shockingly vibrant. Many art historians objected, saying that Michelangelo must have covered the entire surface with a coat of glue to intentionally darken and finish the work and never would have wanted things so bright. Scientific analysis revealed however, that Michelangelo was long dead when the varnish and glue were added, so what you see today is more or less accurate. Enjoy these videos-