Michelangelo - The Last Judgment

he Last Judgment is the altarpiece in the Sistine Chapel commissioned by Pope Clement VII. The painting proceeds from the viewer's lower left in a circular pattern, with the resurrected presenting themselves before the Christ and the saintly witnesses and then descending to damnation at the lower right. The religious themes and influences in the painting are only partly Christian and include Biblical events synthesized with religious concepts from Michelangelo's contemporaries. These ideas include the Norse ideas of "Hel", neoplatonic and Greek interpretations, as well as the Apocalyptic ideas of the monk Savonarola.

Michelangelo Buonarroti , who lived from 1475 - 1564, was an Italian sculptor, painter, poet. He was a towering figure of renaissance, mannerist, and baroque art. From 1490 to 1492 he lived in Lorenzo de' Medici's house, where he was influenced by neoplatonic thought. This neoplatonism heavily influenced his painting of the Last Judgment. His early drawings show the influence of Giotto and Masaccio, whereas the marble reliefs of the Madonna of the Stairs and Battle of the Centaurs (both: Casa Buonarroti, Florence) show the influence of Donatello and Roman sarcophagi.

In 1494 he executed statuettes for San Petronio (Bologna), and here the monk Savonarola impressed him with his apocalyptic vision, which would later fuse with the artist's own tragic sense of human destiny. This influence can also be found in the "Last Judgment" and its depictions of the Damned. Between 1496 and 1501, Michelangelo worked in Rome, doing the marble Bacchus (Bargello, Florence) and the exquisitely balanced Pieta (St. Peter's, Rome). He returned to Florence in 1501, where he was commissioned to do the magnificent David (Academy, Florence). From these years date the Bruges Madonna (Notre Dame, Bruges) and the painted tondo of the Holy Family (Uffizi).

In 1505 he was ordered back to Rome by Pope Julius II to do his sepulchral monument. This was the most frustrating project of his life. Michelangelo spent a year on the gigantic bronze, which was melted for cannon shortly after its completion. Shortly after awarding the contract for the tomb, Julius commissioned the decoration of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which Michelangelo worked on from 1508 to 1512.

The ceiling is divided into three zones, the highest showing scenes from Genesis. Below are prophets and sibyls. In the lunettes and spandrels are figures identified as ancestors of Jesus or the Virgin, which seem to suggest a vision of primordial humanity. After the death of Julius II, his heirs again contracted for the execution of his monument and 30 years of litigation followed. Michelangelo had to abandon his plan for a vast mausoleum for Julius II in St. Peter's. His colossal Moses (San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome) and the statues known as Slaves (Academy, Florence; Louvre) were to have been included.

From 1520 to 1534 he worked on the Medici Chapel (San Lorenzo, Florence) and designed the elegant, mannerist Laurentian Library of this church. A forceful contrast between contemplation and action is seen in his statues of Giuliano and Lorenzo de' Medici, and his allegorical figures of Dawn, Evening, Night, and Day. In 1529 he assisted as engineer in the defense of Florence.

From 1534 to 1541, Michelangelo painted the altarpiece called the Last Judgement. Originally this piece was to be a Resurrection. Clement VII, then Pope, resolved that the subject was to be the Day of the Last Judgment. In Roman Catholic orthodoxy, this is the second of the two judgments and comes after the Apocalypse. Thus Michelangelo's early association with Savonarola, heavily influenced his interpretation.

After working on The Last Judgment of the Sistine Chapel and the Conversion of Paul and Martyrdom of Peter in the Pauline Chapel (Vatican), he devoted himself to architecture as chief architect of St. Peter's Church. In his last years Michelangelo's work shows a more spiritualized and abstract form, e.g., two unfinished Pieta groups and the Rondanini Pieta (Castello Sforzesco, Milan).

He thought of himself primarily as a sculptor, and a feeling for the expressive potentialities of sculptural form manifests itself in all his work. Many of his designs have survived only through his drawings, which used vigorous cross-hatching. Great collections of his drawings are in the Louvre and Uffizi.

The relgious influences and meanings of the Last Judgment are clearly expressed throughout the painting. Examination of two sections alone will illustrate the nature of these influences. Note that the Christ is not on a Judgment Throne, as would be typical in orthodox Catholicism, but is standing and rendering an active Judgment in more accord with the then personal interactive beliefs of the reform movements then sweeping the Western church.

In the section immediately to the viewer's right and center even with and below the Christ figure are the Saints. No one knows what most individual saints looked like. There are no photographs before the nineteenth century and usually no drawings. For this reason, the artist used a symbol associated with the particular saint to identify him or her. The man in the foreground is St. Peter. We can see this because he is carrying two large keys. This is the common symbol associated with Peter. Michelangelo thus holds that the injunction to Peter to bind and loose is valid. This was one of the centerpieces of the Papal authority from scripture. Matt. 16:18-19 "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." NRSV.

The power to bind and loose in heaven is remarkable. It is the power given to a human to admit someone to heaven or exclude them; it is the power to forgive sins. This authority is shared with the other apostles and their successors. (Priests too share in the authority to forgive sins, if they act in unity with their bishop.)(The Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 981-983; and 1444-45. However, the pope as Peter's successor also has authority to make doctrinal judgments, govern the church, and make disciplinary decisions in the Church. Ibid., sections 551-53.

Michelangelo also saw worldly suffering a pleasing to God and a source of eternal blessing. The fact that pleasing God can cost is also clear from the painting. Look at the detail of St. Bartholomew and his flayed skin. For the church in Michelangelo's day, sin must be paid for by suffering. Worldly suffering granted heavenly rewards.

The face on the "skin" of the saint is reported to be that of Michelangelo. He placed himself as the flayed skin to symbolize that the church, through the popes, had used him up in their service. This return to and over painting of work done in the Sistine Chapel was just on of a series of heavy services that resulted in physical suffering for him. For this, according the the then current religious beliefs, he could expect an eternal reward. He is saying that he has undergone some sort of transformation by his suffering, as did the saint.

When you look at the sections that depict the saints, what do they all have in common? Their attention is all directed toward Christ. This is how they were supposed to have lived on earth and is why they live in heaven instead of hell. Christ,

God, is the center of their attention, work, and entire lives. This religious idea was common in Michelangelo's day. A religious life excluded the world. To be religious meant withdrawing to a convent or monastery away from the world and focusing only on Christ.

To the viewer's extreme right and below Christ's feet, many other Saints are shown St. Catherine of Alexandria is depicted holding a portion of a wheel. She was martyred using a spiked wheel. That is what she is holding and it is the symbol used to indicate her identity. (She may also have a crown to signal royal birth. Her existence is now considered unlikely, although her "cult" was widespread throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. (E. Hallam, Saints, Simon and Schuster (1994) p. 131.) Note that she has her gaze firmly on Jesus. Her followers again emphasized the religious notion that extreme suffering cleanses from sin and grants eternal life.

In contrast look at Sebastian. Little is known for sure about this man, Sebastian, except that he was a soldier and was martyred. His legend indicates that for his execution archers were made to use his body for target practice. In this image, he is holding arrows that are his identifying symbol. Notice how he holds the arrows out boldly, with out stretched arm. His expression seems stern, and he is not looking at Christ. So where is he looking? He is looking toward the damned. It is as if he is holding up the arrows to show them why he is in God's kingdom and they are not.

Obviously, there are many more saints that surround Christ. Revelation says that there would be 144,000 of the elect. ( Rev. 7:3-4; 14:1) This is not meant to be the final number, but a "mystical" number that indicates a vast amount. (It is mystical because it is a multiple of 12. Twelve a Babylonian perfect number and is the number of the months, zodiacal signs, the tribes of Israel and the original apostles.) The 144,000 is symbolized by other saints depicted. These are St. Andrew, St. Lawrence, and St. Biagio. Each is symbolized by his characteristic icon of martyrdom and suffering. For Michelangelo, this suffering, not some work done in the world, was what granted holiness and eternal life.

Below the Saints are the Damned. The artist's goal in their depiction is frank and forthright. He wants to frighten. Because this is in the Pope's own chapel, the artist is preaching Savonarola's sermon the hierarchical repentance to the church's leaders during the start of the reformation? Supposedly, he placed Pope Julius in the circle of the damned. It is also a call to anyone to think carefully about their actions, attitudes and beliefs. Luther's 95 theses are posted in 1517. King Henry VIII left the Catholic Church in 1533. Michelangelo's work on the last judgment begins in 1535, under Pope Paul III. This pope marks Rome's transition from the Renaissance to the Counter-Reformation. He orders the work of the Council of Trent to begin. (H.Hibbard, Michelangelo, Harper and Row (1974) p. 240. This is one of history's great councils that caused much needed reform in the Catholic Church while responding to Protestant theology.

In the section of the painting in which the Angels battle with the damned. The people on Christ's left, beneath the saints, seem to be in a chaotic jumble. 1Cor. 14:33 "God is a God not of disorder but of peace." The angels are locked in a furious battle with those who are lost, forcing them down to justice. Col. 3:25 "For the wrongdoer will be paid back for whatever wrong has been done, and there is no partiality." The hands and arms of the woman above could indicate grief; she seems to be praying, but it is too late. Matt. 7:21 "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven." NRSV.

The man below Christ's feet on the corner diagonal to the viewer's right is in abject despair with a demon hauling him downward. This man has just realized his fate. Could it be that he had fooled himself for years about how he was living? Notice the dread and despair. Notice too the demon that has him. The simple color coding may imply that the demon is really evil (dark, almost an olive color, like dead flesh). The man on the other hand is lighter than the demon and some of the other damned. For Michelangelo, he was not the worst sinner, just not good enough.

The man below has lost his battle and is falling into the mouth of hell. How did the artist decide how to visually represent the condition of the damned? He is drawing from Greek Mythology concerning Hades and not primarily the New Testament. Thus we are seeing "neoplatonic influences" on the artist.

Mark 9:47-48 "And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched." Rev. 20:13-15. "And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. Then

Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire." However, the fire is probably best understood as a symbol for the separation from God by being "thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." Matt. 8:12 (NRSV).

The lower image of Charon's boat on the river Styx is meant to inspire fear and horror as the damned are driven off the boat into hell. Again not a Biblical symbol, Charon is a mythical figure from antiquity who would ferry the dead in his boat across the river Styx to the land of the dead, Hades. In Michelangelo's hands he becomes a very frightening figure, a demon. Other paintings of him do not have the same feeling at all. Look at Dali's interpretation, or Joachim Patinir's Charon Crossing the Styx. Michelanglo's Charon is the Norse "Hel" melded with the Greek symbol and all overlaid on a nominally Christian base.

The dead tumble out of the boat at the feet of Minos(another Greek symbol), to receive their sentence, and "to be dragged by demons to the bottomless pit, where are marvelous contortions, grievous and desperate as the place demands." Ibid., p. 245, quoting Condivi. Notice that he has something coiled around him. It looks like the snake from the Garden of Eden. This notion of Original Sin in the Garden leading to final damnation was a common thread in orthodox Catholicism. Again, the only cure was an earthly dose of proper penance.

The effect of the fresco was overwhelming from the first: Paul III, upon its unveiling, reportedly fell to his knees, crying 'Lord, charge me not with my sins when thou shalt come on the Day of Judgement.' In this context, Michelangelo's preaching of Savonarola's sermon was effective. For Catholic teaching on Hades and Hell see sections 633 and 1033-1037 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Thus, sixteenth century religion stood at a crux and that creative period is effectively depicted in the Last Judgment. The themes of earthly suffering and their effect on the chances for eternal life are central to the painting and to the debate which was then raging and would continue to rage in Western Christendom. The place of the Church as symbolized by Peter, was and would play and important part in those debates and wars. The extent to which Greek and native European religious symbols and beliefs were to be incorporated into Christianity, as Michelangelo does here, were and still are a subject of religious debate. This painting was and is a powerful depiction of the nature of religiosity in Christendom.


New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyrighted 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.

Hibbard, Howard Michelangelo New York: Harper and Row, 1974

Brandes, George Michelangelo His Life His Times His Era London: Heinz Norden, 1963

Murray, Linda Michelangelo New York: Oxford University Press, 1980

Morgan, Charles H. The Life of Michelangelo. New York: Reynal, 1960.

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