Michelangelo’s Last Judgement

Michelangelo’s other, huge masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel

This isn’t even the most famous work by Michelangelo in the room. That accolade belongs to the Sistine Ceiling, probably the second-most recognisable painting in Western art, after Leonardo’s Lisa. But The Last Judgement, on the Sistine altar wall, has plenty of appeal – perhaps it depends on your mood at the time as to which of Michelangelo’s two sprawling masterpieces in this chapel you feel drawn toward: one can either look up to contemplate the creation of the universe, or consider the wall, and its salvation and divine punishment.

In painting both the Ceiling and The Last Judgement Michelangelo was reluctant. Painting, he protested, was not his profession: he saw himself as a sculptor, and his utter mastery of this medium means it is hard to disagree with him. On top of this, he already had quite enough to be getting on with, including a tomb for Pope Julius II that was three decades overdue. But the recently elected pope, Paul III, was not be denied the great man’s genius. When Michelangelo explained his contractual obligation to finish Julius’s tomb, the pope revealed how long he had waited for the artist’s services: ‘I have had this desire for thirty years, and now that I am Pope, am I not to satisfy it? I will tear up this contract’. Michelangelo was so pained at the speed with which he had been brought under the command of another pope that he considered fleeing Rome. But he knew that falling out with the pope (as he had done in the past) was unwise and so, with great reluctance, he accepted his fate. Julius’s heirs would – again – have to wait.[1]

Paul III has been described as the last of the Renaissance popes, those great patrons of the arts. Later popes had to contend with what was already evident during Paul’s and his predecessors’ reigns: the threat from Protestantism in Northern Europe which continued to undermine the stability of the Catholic Church. In Rome, reform of the Church was discussed in certain intellectual circles, among whose members Michelangelo had close friends. For such people, the blatant corruption and nepotism of the Church meant that reform was desperately needed; equally, though, the Church had to be kept intact. This was the period in which the Church sought to assuage the worries of those who saw a division widening in Christendom, with the Council of Trent first meeting in 1545. The divisions eventually proved unbridgeable, but the attempts to halt the split had such widespread repercussions that they changed the way we would later see The Last Judgement.

But that was to happen shortly before Michelangelo’s death two decades later. The original commission for the wall was from Clement VII, a dedicated patron of Michelangelo and other artists including Raphael. When Clement died Paul III reiterated Clement’s original commission. At this stage in his life, Michelangelo had a formidable body of work behind him: the Pietà, David, Sistine Ceiling, Slaves and the allegorical figures for the Medici Chapel in Florence. Now, he was 60 years old and had been working flat out since he was a young man. The Sistine Chapel was the private chapel of the pope, the place where cardinals gathered to select the next representative of Christ on earth. It was a venerable spot and the patron was probably the one person from whom you could not decline a commission. Vasari, Michelangelo’s biographer, tells us that the original plan included another fresco on the opposite wall of the altar depicting Lucifer’s expulsion from Heaven. This was never realised – probably to Michelangelo’s relief.    

Christ and the Virgin, with St Lawrence and his grill [Image: Wikimedia Commons, The Yorck Project]

Initial work began on 16 April 1535. Extant works on the wall had to be destroyed to create Michelangelo’s canvas. These included pieces by the artist himself, two lunettes called Ancestors of Christ, of which only engravings remain. Also erased were three frescos by Perugino and portraits of early popes. Two windows were then filled into create the vast blank space. But still the wall was not ready. It was noted that the wall was not vertical but in fact lent backwards, with the bottom slightly further forward than the top. This was reversed by Michelangelo so that the top of the wall stuck out a little further than the bottom. The wall was now ready – however, a dispute over the materials Michelangelo would use to decorate the wall would delay further the beginning of the work.  

Michelangelo’s collaborator Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547) had encouraged the pope to insist Michelangelo paint the wall in oils, typically a material that did not show up well on walls. Sebastiano, however, had managed to master the technique of applying oils to walls, and was widely respected for doing so. Naturally he was eager that Michelangelo apply his method of using oils on a mural on the Sistine altar wall. At first Michelangelo went along, perhaps passively, with Sebastiano’s insistence and the wall was applied with Sebastiano’s formula. Michelangelo though, never someone who easily succumbed to outside pressure, changed his mind and was adamant that the wall would be done in true fresco. Oils meant that the chiaroscuro effect, stark contrasts between light and dark, could be developed to its full extent. Unlike Leonardo and Raphael, though, chiaroscuro was not something that Michelangelo sought to emphasise in his work. Thus fresco was the form Michelangelo was settled on, falling out permanently with Sebastiano in the process.

At the beginning of 1536 Sebastiano’s plaster for oils was removed, and in the summer, when Michelangelo’s plaster for fresco had been applied, the actual decoration of the wall could begin. Scaffolding was erected seven stories high, and the 43×46 feet canvas was ready to be worked on, three years after Michelangelo had originally received his commission.   

St. Lawrence looks at Christ in the same way as you would look at a parent who was admonishing their child and going too far – it is the most brilliant, subtle expression.

The painting was executed in a secrecy typical of the artist, who did not like others seeing his works in progress. Outside of his art, Michelangelo was a private man, apart from with a small circle of close friends and supporters. He had what we would call a depressive personality, a mind predisposed to melancholy; he was not without friends or companions, and even established long-lasting, and deeply felt, friendships and loving relationships with those who stimulated his mind – including with Vittoria Colonna – but he was famous for his reluctance to attend social events. Michelangelo lacked the affability of his rival Raphael, and the urbane sophistication of Leonardo. He was irascible and quick to spot a perceived insult, no matter the rank of the insulter. When Julius II kept Michelangelo waiting at the Vatican, having been turned away every day for a week for an audience, the artist withdrew his savings, packed his bags and gave orders for the sale of the possessions in his house; he left the city the next day for Florence. ‘I must therefore inform You that from now onwards, if You want me,’ he wrote to Julius, ‘You must seek me elsewhere than in Rome’. This was extraordinary conduct for a mere artist: ‘to anyone in the medieval or Renaissance world, an artist, no matter how gifted, was just a servant. Michelangelo’s defiance of Julius II was highly unwise, but revolutionary’.[2]

Michelangelo at 72 by Giulio Bonasone [Image: Wikimedia Commons, Andreas Praefcke]

Regretting his behavior but refusing to return to Rome, Michelangelo eventually capitulated after pressure from the head of the Florentine Republic and was reconciled with Julius. This demand for equal recognition is Michelangelo’s contribution to the historical elevation of artists as powerful and influential movers in their own right, and worthy of the respect usually reserved for kings, princes, cardinals and popes. Born into a family that was barely clinging on to its respectable status, we can understand why Michelangelo was always sensitive about his social rank and quick to snap at those who he felt had not treated him with the appropriate decorum.

Michelangelo constantly emphasised his family’s position within society’s upper echelons, which in itself tells us that he was forever fearful of his family name slipping into obscurity. Disputes with his family, which were frequent, were usually about money, and his parsimony can be traced back to this same paranoia. However, his genius, combined with his prickliness, helped cosign the snobbery held against artists that had dogged them since antiquity.

The theme of The Last Judgement was a common one in the early Renaissance. The counter-façade was the typical location, a reminder to the faithful to remain pious as they left a service. In this case, it was on the altar wall, and Michelangelo, though emulating in some respects earlier versions of The Last Judgement was, in his depiction of the bodies included, excelling at something wholly new. Just off-centre, two thirds of the way up the mural, we have a youthful Christ, arms aloft, revealing the wounds of his Crucifixion. Next to Him, the Virgin looks away from the dreadful scene below; both are hemmed in by a circle of airborne bodies. To the right of Christ are Saints Peter and Paul, the latter with arms raised in awe of Christ’s power. At the foot of Christ are the martyrs St. Lawrence, with his grill, and St. Bartholomew, holding his sagging flayed skin (the face of which is thought to be a self-portrait of Michelangelo). St. Lawrence looks at Christ in the same way as you would look at a parent who was admonishing their child and going too far – it is the most brilliant, subtle expression.

Michelangelo portrayed in the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew, hanging perilously close to damnation [Image: Wikimedia Commons, Saliko]

In the upper right and left of the mural the instruments of the passion are carried by angels; in the bottom left, the dead arise and are lifted up to salvation. One figure, upside down, is subject to a tussle between a demon and an angel, his hair being pulled with all the demon’s weight, whilst the angel lifts his bent legs, as another figure clings on to him to be saved. In the bottom right, the condemned cower as they are pulled or coerced into the entrance to hell. Charon and Minos, two figures from classical mythology – and from Dante’s Divina Commedia – are in charge here, the former holding his oar up behind his head like a baseball bat. Terror and remorse on the faces of the damned are contrasted with the leering grotesques who drag the figures down to hell.   

Michelangelo manages to portray a torrent of activity and movement, bodies rising and bodies being dragged to the depths, all whilst maintaining the sense of ‘wholeness’; there is a lot going on, but no one piece of activity feels separate from the one unitary theme. But the incredible thing about this mural is the depiction of the human body, an area in which Michelangelo was unsurpassed in his variety; it is this that stands out more than anything else when you consider the painting. The different contortions and poses that Michelangelo’s bodies display is was what most impressed his contemporaries. It is in The Last Judgement that Michelangelo ‘finally revealed the way to achieve facility in the principle aim in the art of painting—that is, the depiction of the human figure’.[3]

But what are we looking at when we consider Michelangelo’s figures? They do not resemble the kind of people we meet in daily life, with their bellies, baldness and double chins. Michelangelo’s figures are heroic, larger than life – correctly, maybe, for a scene depicting the Saviour. But in any case it is shock to see the abandonment of any kind of grace; what we are being violently exposed to here is not beauty but the overwhelming sheer force of the sublime. The Herculean breadth of Christ’s torso in The Last Judgement is not intended to demonstrate beauty but power. Michelangelo, who had represented the male body all his life in his art, pumps his figures full of uncontainable energy. There is little doubt he could have given us a realistic rendering of how people are supposed to look, but showing us the everyday human body was simply not something with which Michelangelo was concerned.  

The painting was unveiled on 31 October 1541 ‘to the wonder and amazement of all of Rome, or rather, of the entire world’.[4] Despite the acclaim, there was criticism of the naked figures. The nudity was a thorny point before he’d even completed the mural. With the work almost done, the pope visited the chapel for an early viewing of the supreme artist’s work. One of the pope’s attendants, Biagio da Cesena, was asked what he felt about Michelangelo’s mural. He replied that it was outrageous that such nakedness was brazenly on display in such a holy place, and that it was better suited to a public bath. One can almost feel Michelangelo’s temperature rising as Cesena proffered his opinion. In revenge, Vasari tells us, Michelangelo depicted Cesena ‘in Hell in the person of Minos with a large serpent wrapped around his legs in a heap of devils’.[5] Looking at the mural today, Minos does indeed seem like a portrait taken from a real person. Whether Michelangelo would have dared include Cesena (who was the Papal Master of Ceremonies) in this fashion is debated. If you’re looking for him today, he’s the one with the donkey ears and the snake biting his penis.      

Minos – or Biagio da Cesena [Image: Wikimedia Commons, Saliko]

We can understand the criticism of the nudity in Michelangelo’s Judgement better by looking at the turbulence caused by the dispute with the break-away sect of Protestantism that was obsessing Europe at the time. Devout Catholics in Southern Europe who, though loyal to the Church, understood and perhaps had certain intellectual sympathies with some of the arguments put forward by the Protestants, came under scrutiny. Michelangelo, in his correspondence with Vittoria Colonna – the aristocrat, intellectual, poet and close friend of the artist – discusses such issues, albeit in terms that would protect him from any accusation of Protestant leanings.

With the Church trying to underline its legitimacy, it was of no help to have the Apostles and Saints looming completely naked in a painting in a chapel in the Church’s home on earth. One religious order which immediately attacked the mural was the Theatines, one of whose members, Giovanni Pietro Carafa, ascended to the throne of St. Peter as Pope Paul IV in 1555. Carafa had pushed for and led a Roman Inquisition that aimed to crush any nascent signs of Protestantism, real or imagined. He was strongly suspicious of some of Michelangelo’s closest confidantes, including the deceased Vittoria Colonna. It appears that it was during Carafa’s reign as pope that Michelangelo destroyed the letters he had received from Colonna. He was right to do so: one of Vittoria’s associates was interrogated over 100 times by the Roman Inquisition in 1557 and Colonna’s poetry was placed on an index of banned books.    

A drawing of Colonna by Michelangelo [Image: Wikimedia Commons, Square87]

One of Carafa’s first acts as pope, nearly 15 years after the wall had been completed, was to nullify Michelangelo’s annual pension from the papacy (as well as confining Rome’s Jews to a ghetto), which had been granted by Paul III. It was said that he also wanted to tear down the The Last Judgement because of the indecency of the nude figures. He never did so, dying in 1559 (to the delight of the Romans), however the Council of Trent’s final convening in 1563 established decrees concerning religious art, and two years later Daniele da Volterra – known to posterity as Il Braghettone (‘the breeches-maker’) – began painting loincloths over the genitalia of Michelangelo’s figures.

During the painting of the mural Michelangelo had fallen from the scaffolding. In sixteenth-century terms, he was an old man. However he wasn’t done yet – he would go on to work on St. Peter’s and the Campidoglio in Rome, before dying in the city in 1564 at the age of 88, having survived 13 popes, and outlived his rivals Leonardo and Raphael. Millions traipse through the Sistine Chapel every year to see his work. The crowds and the fastidious attendants mean that it is often impossible to find the peace and space to fully absorb the magnificence he created within this chapel. Go out and get a book instead and you will be able to see close-up the mastery that Michelangelo, that most human of great artists, attained in showing us the variety of the human body, and the human face.  


[1] It was eventually completed in 1545, greatly modified and reduced in scale from Michelangelo’s original conception. It can be found in San Pietro in Vincoli near the Colosseum, and contains one of Michelangelo’s greatest sculptures, Moses.

[2] Gayford 2013: 218

[3] Vasari, The Lives of the Artists, p. 461

[4] Vasari, The Lives of the Artists, p. 465

[5] Vasari, The Lives of the Artists, p. 462


Gayford, M. 2013. Michelangelo: His Epic Life. London.

Vasari, G. (trans. Conway Bondanella, J and Bondanella, P.) 1991. The Lives of the Artists. New York.

Jake Plenderleith

Writer and editor, passionate about Rome.

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