Today we introduce Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment,” the vast fresco he painted on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel.

Show Notes

Our subject for the day is Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment,” a fresco he painted on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. Its size and position make it rather like the front wall in a movie theater, and it’s almost as big as a typical IMAX screen. Up until the Second Vatican Council of a mere half-century ago, the priests who celebrated mass looked forward, so for most of its history, the “Last Judgment” was the natural target of the gazes of everyone in the chapel. Nor would it have been easy for worshippers to disengage from the dramatic, eye-catching subjects it represents. Let’s begin with a description.

Like the Sistine Ceiling, the altar fresco is crowded with over 300 human figures. But whereas the figures on the ceiling are carefully divided into about 100 separate compartments, and while much of the ceiling’s surface is filled by the heavy painted architecture that divides them, the “Last Judgment” has no frames to separate its various subjects. Michelangelo also provided painted labels to identify many of his characters on the ceiling, but none of those in the “Last Judgment” are labeled. More importantly, the activities of the characters on the altar wall are quite different from those on the ceiling.

Michelangelo, Last Judgment, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Such organizing as there is in the “Last Judgment” is achieved by patches or strips of blue sky and greyish-white clouds, which separate the subjects into different groups. In contrast to the rectilinear and classical architecture on the ceiling, the strips of sky and clouds flow like rivers through the crowds of bodies and divide them roughly into four horizontal bands and perhaps a dozen groups altogether. A close look at each group suggests further subdivisions. Almost all figures are in motion, either within their group or crossing the sky-blue borders that divide one group from another. The two central figures catch our attention and give some order to this dynamic scene, but the first impression is of dramatic and confused events, as in a large free-for-all among mostly naked wrestlers. Nor, since they lack labels and clothes, are there many clues to help us determine who these wrestlers are.

Apollo Belvedere by Leochares, CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

Reinforcing the effect of its prominent architecture, the Sistine Ceiling also has the twenty ignudi to help give it as much a classical as a biblical character. There is hardly any such classical infusion on the altar wall. The main exception is the figure of Christ himself, for he seems to be modeled especially on the classic statue of the Apollo Belvedere, also contained in the Vatican Museums. But even Christ is moving dramatically, not calmly contemplating a scene, as were the Apollo and Michelangelo’s own sculpture of David.

The subject of the painting is the Last Judgment, but its biblical bases are a bit scattered. The stories on the Sistine Ceiling come from short and distinct passages focused on the Creation, the Fall, Noah, Esther, Judith, Moses, David, the Prophets, and Christ’s ancestors. The case of the Last Judgment is more complicated. A Google search took me to one site that listed 17 biblical passages relevant for the Last Judgment, another listed 40, and still another listed 60. No one text tells the whole story or even most of it. I list my candidates for the most important of these passages on my website, where, as always, I also post pictures pertinent to today’s discussion.[1] Of course, for the Roman Catholic Church, the teachings of its doctors are also crucial, and St. Augustine devoted much of Book 20 of his City of God to the subject of the Last Judgment. It is no surprise that many representations of it had been painted and sculpted prior to Michelangelo’s, and he would have seen a good selection of some of the best. Among these are Giotto’s in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, the mosaics in the Baptistry of the Duomo in Florence, Signorelli’s in the Duomo of Orvieto, the reliefs carved by Lorenzo Maitani and others on the façade of this same duomo,[2] and a version on a medal designed by Michelangelo’s teacher, Bertoldo di Giovanni.

The Last Judgment completes the chapel’s account of human history by calling attention to its future history. This account began with the Creation stories on the ceiling and included the lives and laws of Moses and Christ on the side walls. According to the Church’s interpretation of the Bible, each of us is judged at the time of death, and his soul is sent to heaven, hell, or purgatory, where atoning for sins purifies us and helps us become worthy of later admission into heaven. In addition to these judgments made as our deaths occur, the Church teaches that there is also a second and universal moment of judgment. On this occasion, which was once imminently expected, the world ends, dead bodies rise from their tombs and are rejoined with the souls that had inhabited them, and Christ appears and judges all the many dead and the few still living. He rewards some with eternal life and others with never-ending punishment: the chance to reform in Purgatory is no longer possible. This is the moment Michelangelo represents. Christ is at the center of the fresco and is in the act of judging. Angels fly about and help carry out his judgment. Bodies ascend from graves on the lower left and rise to join those blessed with eternal life, as others are driven down to hell on the lower right, which gives the painting a sense of clockwise motion. As mentioned in a passage from Revelation, separate books record the judgments of those saved and those damned, and Michelangelo puts these books front and center. The general point is simple: good and evil exist; the Son of God judges us on their basis, and the stakes could not be higher. Since Michelangelo makes the book of the damned about four times as large as the book of the blessed, we have reason to worry. That’s the general point, but with over 300 swirling figures in the fresco, the details are complicated.

The German scholar Johann Winkelmann would later describe the ideal of ancient art, which he saw as epitomized in the statue of the Apollo Belvedere, as being “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur,” and this was also an ideal of the High Renaissance, which was reflected in Michelangelo’s “David” and the ignudi of his Sistine Ceiling. But there are no traces of such composure in Michelangelo’s swirling painting on the altar wall. This helps art historians use the “Last Judgment” to mark a big step away from the features of Renaissance art and move into the period they call Mannerism.

Christ and Mary in the “Last Judgment,” Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The organizing central figures are Christ and his mother, the Virgin Mary. Mary’s blue dress is even more radiant than the blue of the background, and the two of them are accented by a sun-like nimbus. Although the Book of Revelation speaks of the judge as seated on “a great white throne,” Michelangelo has his young and athletic Christ standing up and poised to deliver a vigorous downward thrust of damnation with his raised right arm. His energetic posture is more reminiscent of Bernini’s baroque “David” in the Galleria Borghese than of Michelangelo’s more pensive “David” in Florence.

The largest subdivisions of the fresco are the four horizontal bands of characters. The lowest group is in contact with the ground, with entrances to Hell on the right and a burial place on the left. Then, separated by a sky of blue and white, is a band in which sinners are cast or pulled down on the right and the blessed are helped to rise from earth to heaven on the left. In the middle of this band are the angelic trumpeters who summon the dead to judgment and the books of the living and the dead.

The third band from the bottom represents those already in heaven. They sit or stand on clouds, as Christ does, and they are broken into perhaps four subgroups by roughly vertical swaths of blue sky. This band includes more identifiable figures than the others do.

The very top of the wall ends not with a straight horizontal line but with two arcs. They give the wall the shape of the tablets of the Ten Commandments or, if you prefer, of two tombstones side-by-side.  These arcs at the top used to house windows, like the ones we still see on the side walls, and the lunettes around them had in fact been frescoed by Michelangelo when he painted the ceiling a quarter of a century earlier. He destroyed these frescoes and bricked in the windows in order to include the two scenes that we see today. The one on the left shows one group of angels wrestling with a cross and another group with Christ’s crown of thorns. On the right is the column on which Jesus was tied when he was whipped, the Column of Flagellation,[3] and here too angels seem to be wrestling with it. One of them flies in holding the sponge soaked in vinegar that was given to Christ on the Cross. Here as everywhere, Michelangelo’s angels lack wings, and generally look like attractive human beings. As with his avoidance of traditional halos, his avoidance of wings is evidence of his emphasis on nature and how things naturally look and are, though I admit there’s nothing natural about his main subjects, the resurrection of the body and the Last Judgment, and his devils often have pointy ears and horns.

Wingless Angels with crown of thorns in the left lunette Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Thus the frescoes in the uppermost band represent items associated with Christ’s crucifixion: the cross, the crown of thorns, the sponge, and the Column of Flagellation. These and related items were called the Arma Christi, the weapons of Christ, a phrase I think helps to remind us of what an unusual warrior he was. These weapons have nothing to do with military power: they remind us rather of the events surrounding Christ’s crucifixion, which was intended to mark a humiliating defeat. But then this defeat took a miraculous turn and produced a victory like no other, one to which these strange weapons call attention. Bernini’s famous sculpted angels on the bridge that leads across the Tiber to Castel Sant’Angelo hold a more complete collection of the Arma Christi.

So that’s the big picture, four bands of figures, with movement between them and Christ and Mary at the center of a clockwise rotation. Now let’s add to this overview by returning to each part of the whole. I’ll follow Dante, and start with Hell, which is at the bottom of the fresco, and would have been right in the face of any priest celebrating mass in the chapel.

Unlike Dante, Michelangelo devotes little space to Hell, though this does not diminish the influence it casts over the fresco. We see the yellow light of its fires on the lower right, and there is a fiery cave with a couple of nasty characters peering out in lower center, but the artist pays much more attention to the fearful struggling of sinners being beaten and pulled down toward Hell by a variety of devilish characters. Angels also help by defending the upper regions against any attempt by the unworthy to enter them. These events occupy the entire lower right quadrant of the painting, and it here that we see the Charon of Dante and classical mythology as he uses his oar to force his passengers to disembark in this fearful place. And as every guide mentions with increased enthusiasm, we here see Biagio da Cesena, a member of the papal court who was so foolish as to criticize Michelangelo before he had finished the fresco, thus allowing the master to represent him with his genitals under attack by a large serpent. Biagio also represents a second figure drawn from Dante and mythology, Minos, a judge in the underworld.

Biagio da Cesena represented as Minos by Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The downward motion on the lower right is balanced by an upward motion from the lower left, where instead of entrances to Hell, we have a burial ground. Here we see shrouded or naked bodies, some which are only fleshless bones, rising or being pulled from their graves and being helped up toward heaven. No one of these has a known identity, but we can see a priest on the very lower left, perhaps hearing one or two more confessions by penitents before they all must leave, and two figures being pulled up by what are probably rosary beads. These last and others are dark skinned, which follows the statement in Matthew [25:31-46], that “all the nations will be gathered [before the Judge].”

In the center, between the group being helped to rise on the left and the group being pulled and beaten down on the right, are eleven angels on three clouds. Eight have trumpets and awaken the dead as mentioned in First Corinthians and elsewhere, and three look at the books of the Life and Death as referred to in Revelation. Like Christ and the Virgin above them, this group forms a hub around which the rising and falling groups rotate. Only one trumpeter is actively blowing in the direction of the damned, who in any event are wide awake and on the move, while five are blowing to the right, where the dead must be awakened.

One way to organize a discussion of the fresco is to ask, “Who is that?” and a German scholar named Heinrich Pfeiffer is like a good detective in the details he uncovers while trying to decide who is who. Among other clues, he pays careful attention to colors, especially the colors of such rare clothing as Michelangelo adds. Relying on comments by a medieval abbot, Joachim of Fiore,[4] whose main work was read seriously in Michelangelo’s day, Pfeiffer writes that violet represents penitence, the attractive green represents hope, red – love, blue – contemplation, white – faith or purity, and crocus yellow – spiritual discernment. It makes sense that the trumpeter blowing toward the damned wears violet, the color of penitence, while two blowing toward those rising toward heaven wear green, the color of hope. Of course, he is careful not to consider the colors of the loincloths that were added later to bring the fresco into closer conformity with the ideas of modesty advanced by the Council of Trent and the Counterreformation.

But while Pfeiffer is committed to trying to identify as many individuals as possible, he admits that Michelangelo often does not give us enough evidence to decide. Perhaps the great artist did not want us to be busy wondering about who makes it to heaven and who does not. I’ll limit myself to identifying only the figures that do not invite doubt.

St. Bartholomew with knife and flayed skin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Apart from Charon and Minos, the only non-controversial identifications are in the band that includes Christ and Mary. Here Michelangelo allows a few props that help us assign a name to a usually naked body. One of these obvious iconographical clues are two keys, just to the right of Christ, so the man holding them must be St. Peter. Below him is St. Bartholomew, a martyr for the faith who was flayed alive. He holds his drooping skin, which was taken from him, and as I suspect you have already heard, Michelangelo made the lifeless face on this skin resemble his own. Just to the left of St. Bartholomew is St. Lawrence, a Roman martyr famously killed by being roasted on a grill, which he is here shown holding. Three clouds to the right we find St. Catherine of Alexandria with the spiked wheel on which she suffered, and just a little further to the right is a nude holding arrows, so this must be Saint Sebastian. Leaning over Saint Catherine is Saint Blaise, for he holds the spiked tools for carding wool that were used against him. Other identifications are possible, but they become increasingly contestable. For example, the man immediately to the left of Mary is holding two wooden beams, so many are confident that these form the diagonal cross of Saint Andrew. Pfeiffer is no less confident that the wood indicates Joseph the Carpenter, who was to be the husband of Mary. I’m not sure why the question of identifications is so important, but the dedicated effort to answer it does help Pfeiffer make some wonderful observations.

It does strike me as important to wonder whether the vision represented on the altar wall is true, whether it is faithful to the tradition, and how it is useful or harmful for forming a good society. As mentioned in an earlier episode, I don’t think the modern world, shaped by modern science as it is, has such a view, and this might be problematic as well as wonderfully liberating.

Critics roughly contemporary with Michelangelo complained not only about the fresco’s in-your-face nudity but also about its view of the Last Judgment. Some noted the way Michelangelo’s Christ is turned in the direction of the sinners and terrifies them by his threatening gesture. Shouldn’t a proper understanding of the doctrine also include a good measure of hope as well, they asked, for the Last Judgement promises that, once and for all, Justice will be done; and, what, for a world wearied by suffering and injustice, could be more hopeful and consoling than the teaching that Christ, armed with the greatest rewards and punishments, will come and correct the faulty decisions that human judges render? If the gaze of Christ properly terrifies some, should it not hearten others? But in Michelangelo’s painting, many of those even to Christ’s right are either not aware of his presence or not reassured by it. They are in heaven, but they still seem troubled by the woes of the world.

Contemporary comments on the darkness of the world of the fresco do not criticize it from the point of view of a more hopeful view of Christ as a judge, for it is hard for modern westerners to take the doctrine seriously in the first place. Hence the fresco’s pessimism is frequently explained away by saying it was provoked by the Protestant Reformation or the Sack of Rome, which frees us to return to our focus on the painting’s aesthetic qualities, without such serious regard for its teaching about the kind of world we inhabit. I understand this, and yet, if we reject the dark world of the “Last Judgment,” I wish I were better able to seize the occasion to provoke scrutiny of the world that has replaced it, our world. What are our sources of hope? Is technology still among them? Do we fear for our moral character or only our prosperity?

Tom Sawyer doubted that life in heaven was all it was cracked up to be, since he figured the place would be dominated by the Aunt Polly’s of the world, but to the medieval world, the belief in heaven was a much-needed doctrine of hope. Referring to the Last Judgment, Saint Paul wrote, “Death is swallowed up in victory,” he presented the defeat of death as very good news [1 Corinthians 15:52-54].  Still, in Michelangelo’s presentation, his figures show less hope than fear, and the terrors of hell are more vividly represented than the joys of heaven. Even if we cannot accept the traditional teachings of heaven and hell, I think the “Last Judgment” should stimulate us to think about what human qualities are good and bad, how they fare in the world, and what reasons for hope and fear confront us.

[1] My candidates for the three most important passages are Matthew 25:31-46, Revelation 20:11-15, and 1 Peter 4:5-7.

[2] See Penelope Chicago Thayer on the Orvieto Marbles: “the 14 century discovers Rome.”

[3] The alleged original of this column is in the Chapel of San Zeno in Santa Prassede, near S. Maria Maggiore.

[4] Joachim of Fiore, Concordia Novi ac Veteris Testamentia

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