The Last Judgment is a canonical fresco by the Italian Renaissance master Michelangelo executed on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, Rome, Italy. It is forty-eight feet by forty-four feet masterpiece. The work took four years to complete and was done between 1536 and 1541 (preparation of the altar wall began in 1535. ) Michelangelo began working on it some twenty years after having finished the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Michelangelo returned to the Sistine Chapel as a sixty year old man in 1535 when he was commissioned by Pope Paul III (pontificate 1534 – 1549) to paint the Altar Wall.
If his ceiling celebrates the creation of man, his Last Judgement, depicts the end of the world and the judgment that is said to follow. Michelangelo having been commissioned the wall looked for a long time at the big wall he was supposed to paint. He wanted to be sure to avoid some of the problems the ceiling frescoes had given him twenty-five years earlier. The wall had two windows. He had them blocked up so he would have a nice, empty surface. Next he worried about dampness seeping through from outside. That might spoil his painting.
He decided not to paint the actual chapel wall but to build a second one of dried bricks in front of it and to leave a space between the two walls for ventilation. And to keep the dust from collecting on it he gave the new wall a slant. It slopes inward as it rises and overhangs at the top about a foot. At first Michelangelo planned to paint with oil paints and he had his helper Sebastiano del Piombo give the whole wall a coat of mortar with resin to seal it. But later he changed his mind and ordered him to chip his primer away.
Michelangelo was an experienced fresco painter now and who knows what disagreeable surprises oils might give him. He would stick to fresco and would apply his own layer of sand and lime each day as he went. These preparations took a year. Meanwhile he worked on his characters . He began to paint in June 1536. It is said that Michelangelo fell off the scaffolding once when he was alone in the chapel. Though he was badly hurt he dragged himself home and crawled into bed in great pain. He refused to let anyone see him and wouldn’t open the door when they knocked.
Finally, one of his friends, a doctor made his way up by a secret way from room to room until he found Buonarroti, who was in a desperate condition. Then his friend refused to go away or leave his side until he was better. The wall was unveiled on Halloween, 1541. He was 66 years old. It was twenty-nine years since the unveiling of the ceiling frescoes. The great painting scared people. Pope Paul III, who commissioned it, is supposed to have exclaimed when he saw it the first time: “Lord, please don’t charge me with my sins when you come on Judgment Day! This depiction of the second coming of Christ and the final judgment of humanity is not only a fresco but a beautiful piece of poetry. This painting is a grim reminder to the parishioners as well as the clergy (including the pope) that ultimately they too would be judged at the end of time. This painting depicts Christ surrounded by the saints and angels, judging all the souls of the human race as they rise or descend to heaven and hell where they will stay for all eternity.
Most of the saints surrounding Jesus were martyrs and Michelangelo depicted them each holding the weapon or instrument of their martyrdom. The figures seem to swirl around Christ, this was a new way of depicting this scene because the other versions from earlier periods show it in neat horizontal layers. The central figure of Christ is literally judging and determining the fates of all of the human race with his hand raised gesturing to his decision. The emotion coming from the figure of Christ is so powerful that it almost seems like the figure of his mother, Mary, next o him is cower in fear of the whole scene. To the right you see the Archangel Michel reading form the book of souls assisting in the judgment process. Seen all over is figures of the saved rejoicing but you can also see the damned suffering or fearful of their fate like the figure below Christ on the right covering one eye terrified of his terrible fate. There are many elements to this artwork that tell the viewer that not only Christians will be judged and sent to heaven but people of other religious back grounds will as well, as long as they have lived a moral life.
The inclusion of Greek and Roman mythology is the biggest hint to this. Christ in the center surrounded by light shown as beardless and very muscular this is not just an expression of humanism but can be compared to the Greek god Apollo who was the god of the sun. What could be viewed as the reason for this is that Pope Clement VII studied Heliocentric Cosmology by Copernicus. This work stated that the sun was the center of the universe, so by placing Christ in the center of the fresco and mimicking the features of Apollo, Michelangelo places Jesus at the center of our spiritual universe.
The boatman Charon from Greek and Roman mythology is also featured in this work at the bottom ferrying the damned souls to hell. Also, Minos from Greek mythology who was son of Zeus and Europa and king of Crete became one of the three judges of the underworld. Minos is seen in the bottom left corner of the work with a serpent coiled around him and this would determine which circle of hell the damned souls would be sent. It is also said that a Cardinal had judged Michelangelo’s work so as a sort of revenge he painted the portrait of the Cardinal as Minos.
This could have been his way of poetically stating that only God and Christ can judge this world and if someone attempts to do what only God or Christ can do that there will be a special place in hell for that individual regardless of status within the church, as well as venting is frustration for the Cardinal. Michelangelo did not only provide portraits of individuals who upset him but other central figures of the church as was as himself. The figure on the right holding the a silver key and a gold key is St. Peter with the keys to heaven, this is actually a portrait of Pope Paul III. Also, the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew being held by him is a distorted self portrait of the artist. This continues to send the message that no one is exempt from the last judgment. By including Greek and Roman mythology as well as portraits of current people from the time of the frescos creation really drives the point home that no matter religious background or political status you will be judged fairly.
The Last Judgment was a very controversial piece at the time because, unlike other artists, Michelangelo portrayed those in his painting as naked thereby demonstrating the lack of importance that riches would have at the end of the world when humanity stands before judgment. Unlike his earlier work, including the rest of the Chapel which he painted, his depiction of the Last Judgment was much more monochrome as well as gruesome with the souls of the damned cowering in fear as they are dragged down by demons.
Pope Paul III, who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgment, demonstrated a great deal of faith in the artist's abilities and gave him vast amounts of artistic license. While others criticized Michelangelo's use of nude figures, the Pope offered up no complaint. In addition to the lack of clothes on his subjects, Michelangelo was critiqued for not only using the Bible as an inspiration for his fresco but also mythological creatures such as Charon who is seen ferrying the damned as well as Minos who is shown as one of the judges located in the underworld.
The Last Judgment was an object of a heavy dispute between critics within the Catholic Reformation and those who understood the genius of the artist and the mannerist style of the painting. Michelangelo was accused of being insensitive to proper decorum, and of flaunting personal style over appropriate depictions of content. The Council of Trent issued decrees that such representations in sacred art were not allowed, and all objectionable art was to be changed or destroyed.
In response to certain accusers, when the Pope's own Master of Ceremonies Biagio da Cesena said of the painting "it was mostly disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully," and that it was no work for a papal chapel but rather "for the public baths and taverns," The worst criticism came from the poet and blackmailer Pietro Aretino, who at first wrote flattering things to Michelangelo from Venice and made suggestions for the painting.
Michelangelo answered that though his suggestions were very interesting the fresco was too far along then to be changed. Eight years later Aretino published an open letter to Michelangelo in which he accused him of being irreverent. “Such things might be painted in a voluptuous bathroom,” he wrote, “but not in the choir of the highest chapel. Our souls are benefitted little by art, but by piety. ” Some thought the nudes were out of place. The papal Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, said the painting made the chapel look like a stufa d’ ignudi’ (a bathing house).
For that remark, which he heard Cesena say, Michelangelo supposedly put his face on Minos, the great judge of Hell, and gave him donkey ears while his nudity is covered by a coiled snake. It is said that when Cesena complained to the Pope, the pontiff joked that his jurisdiction did not extend to hell, so the portrait would have to remain. Although the references to mythology were allowed to remain, the genitalia in the fresco, referred to as 'objections,' were covered after Michelangelo died by a student of his, Daniele da Volterra.
As years followed fresco came very close to being destroyed. More and more clothes were added. In 1574 El Greco himself offered to chip it away and paint a new fresco that would “be decent and pious and no less well-painted than Michelangelo’s. ”Three more times artists were ordered to “do something about those nudes”. The critic Thode thought the fresco had been altered so much that it was no longer even possible to judge the artistic qualities of Michelangelo’s work.