The Last Judgment
- Date of Creation:
- Height (cm):
- Length (cm):
- Art Movement:
- Created by:
- Current Location:
- Vatican City, Holy See (Vatican City State)
- Displayed at:
- Vatican Museums
- Vatican Museums
Pope Clement VII
Pope Paul III
In 1534 Michelangelo entered into a discussion with Pope Clement VII about painting a fresco onto the wall behind the altar in the Sistine Chapel. The Pope was interested in showing the resurrection of Jesus after Easter Sunday. However, after the Pope passed away his replacement, Paul III, had a different plan for The Sistine Chapel.
The city of Rome was still recovering from the 1527 Sack of Rome and Pope Paul III wanted to send a message about justice to the guilty parties. He discussed with Michelangelo painting the scene of the final judgment behind the altar and wanted the piece to span the whole of the back wall, immediately grabbing the visitor's attention.
In usual images of The last Judgment the men are shown with the riches and garbs that they would have had during life. Yet, in Michelangelo's scene all men are shown to be of equal standing and many of the men are represented without any clothing. Thus, the position that men held during life is shown to be irrelevant in the afterlife.
The nudity of Michelangelo's figures met with some hostility and many of the cardinals in Rome, in particular Cardinal Carafe and the Pope's Master of the Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, agreed that it was sacrilege to have nude figures in the Sistine Chapel.
Consequently, they started a campaign to have all of the genitalia painted over. Although the campaign was eventually successful and the artist Daniele da Volterra painted over the genitalia the Pope was initially against the complaints.
Emperor Charles V at Muhlberg
Michelangelo and Pope Paul III were inspired by the 1527 Sack of Rome when they came up with ideas for The Last Judgment. In 1527 the city of Rome had been held hostage by the army of Charles V. The troops had lost their leader and had started to follow their own orders; meaning they entered Rome without any specific instructions. As a result the city was left defeated and bereft by the sack. Thus Pope Paul III wanted to send a message to the troops making it clear they would be punished for their actions.
The Last Judgment reveals a scene of justice and punishment to the perpetrators. The just are being rewarded with an invite from Jesus to spend eternity in Heaven, whereas those who acted badly during life are being sentenced to an eternity in hell.
The Pope was also inspired to ask Michelangelo to paint The Last judgment because of the work the painter had already carried out on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo had painted over 300 figures onto the ceiling and this convinced the Pope that he was the only painter capable of accurately capturing the scene from The Last Judgment.
Use of Space:
Jesus commands the viewer's attention in the centre of the painting. The large figure is placed in front of a large golden orb, with one hand welcoming souls into heaven and another banishing the bad to hell. There are many figures behind him looking awed by their current surroundings.
Below Jesus there are angels and demons fighting over souls. Whereas some people are being taken by the angels to heaven, others are being forced to descend into the underworld.
Among these people Minos, the messenger from hell, is stood on a boat ferrying souls into hell. He has a snake wrapped around his waist and is painted with the face of the Pope's Master of the Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena.
The large fresco has a bright blue sky and the figures that surround Jesus have pale pink skintones and wear brightly colored robes. Contrastingly the figures at the bottom of the painting have grey skin and appear almost sickly. There are a couple of demons who are escaping from the pit of hell. With a warm red skin tone they can barely be seen against the dark background.
Mood, tone and emotion:
Michelangelo was a highly religious man and his fresco The Last Judgment is a very pious piece. It sends a message to its viewers that they will be judged for their actions on earth.
Saint Peter's Basilica
Pope Paul III was delighted with Michelangelo's fresco The Last Judgment believing it accurately portrayed the message he wanted to send to those who had committed the sack of Rome. Furthermore the piece has a highly pious tone with many religious figures, and perfectly compliments the work that Michelangelo had already completed on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Nevertheless there were others who were less than thrilled with the work, namely Cardinal Carafa and Monsignor Sernini who appealed to the Pope to have Michelangelo's work covered. According to the two men the nudity of the figures in the Sistine Chapel was obscene and they argued that no place of religious worship should have bare figures.
The two men petitioned to have the nudity painted over with images of fig leaves to protect the Sistine Chapel from the un-Godly images. The Pope's master of the ceremonies Biagio da Cesena agreed with Carafa and Sernini and made a direct appeal to the Pope.
Cesena maintained that the images of the nude figures in the Sistine Chapel were appalling and that they belonged in 'bars and bath houses'. When Michelangelo responded to this complaint by painting Cesena's face onto Minos the pious man once again complained to the Pope. Rather amusingly, the Pope responded by saying that he did not have authority in hell and thus could not have Cesena's face removed from the artwork.
Michelangelo showed artistic talent from a young age, which was why he was chosen to work in the court of Lorenzo the Magnificent. It was here that he produced sculptures that captured the attention of the leaders of Florence and eventually catapulted Michelangelo to fame.
After working with various different Popes Michelangelo was convinced by Pope Paul III to produce The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. Although criticized by many religious men the work was defended by others including the Pope.
Michelangelo went on to create many major and iconic works before his death in 1564. Although he is commonly considered a Renaissance artist, he is often also credited with being the father of Mannerism.
Michelangelo created his fresco The Last Judgment midway through the Renaissance era, in 1534. It was a controversial piece due to the naked figures that Michelangelo focused on. Nevertheless it is now perceived to be one of the greatest examples of Renaissance art. The Renaissance came to an end around the seventeenth century and gave way to the Mannerist movement.
For further insight into Michelangelo and his works, please refer to the following recommended sources.
• Amendola, Aurelio & Paolucci, Antonio. Michelangelo's David. Royal Academy: London, 2006
• Falletti, Franca. Michelangelo's David: A Masterpiece Restored. Giunti Editore, 2004
• Graham-Dixon, Andrew. Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel. Skyhorse Publishing, 1999
• Hartt, Frederick & Wilkins, David. History of Italian Renaissance Art. Laurence King Publishing, 2007
• Mancinelli, Fabrizio. The Sistine Chapel. Edizioni Musei Vaticani, 1995
• Pittaluga, Mary. The Sistine Chapel. University of California, 1965
• Wallace, William. Michelangelo: Selected Scholarship in English. Washington University, 1995
• Hirst , Michael, et al. The Sistine Chapel: a glorious restoration. Abrams, 1999