The Last Judgement is, in many a critic’s opinion, Michelangelo’s finest painting. Located on the wall above the altar in the Sistine Chapel, this fresco is the most spell-bounding part of the massive church. It portrays, in painstaking detail, the final day of earth when Jesus comes to judge mankind. The wall is a collage of magnificent scenes and prominent figures, inspired in part by Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy

History and the Painting of the Fresco

In 1530, Pope Clement VII Medici conquered the Florence Republic. Michelangelo, a devoted defender of the Republic, was temporarily captured and then released to work on the Medici tombs. However, the appointment of Duke Alessandro de’ Medici, a cruel and despotic ruler, over his city forced Michelangelo to move to Rome. Although he would likely have been persecuted for fleeing, he was saved when Clement VII died during his voyage.

Clement VII was replaced by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, later called Paul III. Paul III was a refined man who loved his art. He collected ancient Greek, Egyptian, Italian, and Spanish paintings and statues in addition to being a patron of literature. Instead of punishing Michelangelo, Paul III asked him to continue the decoration of the Sistine Chapel. The ceiling had already been finished, including the famous Creation of Man fresco. Poor and without much of a choice, Michelangelo began to work on the Sistine Chapel again in 1536, twenty-four years after he thought that he had finished it.

Paul III wanted Michelangelo to complete his decoration with a massive fresco above the altar. The art that had already been placed there, including works by famous 15th century painters, most notably Perugino, and Michelangelo himself, was first destroyed. Since no records of the previous paintings were left, this destruction may have demolished works of art that would have otherwise been famous. The works of Michelangelo were added to the very large list of his art that was destroyed.

Michelangelo began to paint from the upper left lunette and proceeded down the wall. He began each section by drawing a preparatory sketch showing each of the major characters. At first, he transferred the sketches by pouncing: the commonly accepted technique used in refined frescos. Halfway through the painting, Michelangelo began to transfer them by indirect incision, which resulted in a much less elaborate effect. He was aided by Urbino, a student of his. It is speculated the Urbino assisted in the painting of the risen dead, where the quality of the art is unmistakably lower than the rest of the fresco.

In 1563, the Council of Trent declared that the nudity in The Last Judgement was unnecessary and scandalous. The process of clothing the figures began in January 1564, a month before Michelangelo died. The task was appointed to Daniele da Volterra, a pupil and friend of Michelangelo. Because of his involvementin censoring the painting, Volterra erned the nickname “Braghettone,” with braghe meaning pants. Many of the changes have been kept today during restorations, keeping with the philosophy that everything of historical value must be saved.

From 1990 to 1994, The Last Judgement underwent a major restoration. Until then, the fresco had appeared very dark, adding an ominous mood to scene. As it turned out, the surface had been incredibly dirty for years. The restoration brought back the luminous colors with which it was originally created, making it appear as it did when it was first unveiled 1541. This created a great controversy, since most people were used to The Last Judgement as a “shadowy masterpiece.” Ironically, the dark version of the painting, caused by large amounts of dirt, had inspired a whole generation of Romantic painters, including Delacroix and Blake.

Composition and Appearance

The composition of The Last Judgement consists of three rough bands, topped by the two lunettes filled with angels. The crowning band focuses on a striking figure of Jesus as the Judge. The Virgin Mary lays at his right hand, and a host of saints surround them, including Saint Andrew, Saint Bartholomew, Saint John the Evangelist, Saint John the Baptist, and others. The center band focuses on a throng of angels playing the trumpets of the Last Judgement. Heaven-bound people rise on the left, while the Damned fall into the fire on the right. At the bottom, Charon ferries condemned souls to Hell, where Minos will judge them. On the left side, the dead are shown being resurrected. Archangels Gabriel and Michael, Simon of Cyrene, and numerous others also appear in various places throughout the painting.

Although there are rough bands that compose The Last Judgement, many of the lines between the levels are indistinguishable. This technique is what makes the painting so innovative; it clashes harshly with traditional Italian illustrations of the subject. The blending of the different levels gives the fresco a feeling of urgency and even chaos. It is often described as a whirlpool, created by the raised arm of the Christ. One gets the point, very quickly, that it is Judgement Day through the sense of movement and action occurring.

Michelangelo managed to work some personalities of his time into The Last Judgement. Saint Peter is most likely modeled after Paul III and Minos bears the face of Biagio da Cesena, who harshly criticized the fresco. Michelangelo got his revenge on Clement VII by placing him in Hell at the bottom left. The most interesting is Saint Bartholomew, who is thought to represent the writer Pietro Aretino. On the skin of his martyrdom, Michelangelo painted a small self-portrait.

An image of the painting is available at
Artist's Life: Michelangelo by Enrica Crispino

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