Thursday, April 16, 2015


Last Judgment
Clement VII Medici (1523/34) called Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475/1564) in 1534 to complete the decoration of the Sistine Chapel with the Last Judgment

After Clement VII's death his successor, Paul III Farnese (1534/49), decided to confirm Michelangelo for the job which he began only in April 1536, twenty-four years after the ceiling

Michelangelo painted 391 figures on a surface of about 200 m² (2,152 square feet)

He covered the wall with another brick wall slightly tilted upward toward the chapel (26 cm - 10 inches), so that the dust would deposit less easily on the surface and so that the distortions of perspective could be visually correct
Perhaps he also wanted to give a greater effect of looming presence. This decision was the reason of his quarrel with his friend Sebastiano Luciani aka Sebastiano Del Piombo

Originally there was the “Coronation of the Immaculate in an Assumption scene” by Pietro Vannucci aka Pietro Perugino (about 1450/1523) who had also painted, maybe with Domenico Ghirlandaio, the panels below with “Birth of Jesus” and “Finding of Moses”
There were also two lunettes with “Ancestors of Christ” by Michelangelo himself

The official opening was on Christmas Day of 1541 after five years of work

The central point is Christ's gesture in the act of judging
Some scholars speculate that maybe the face of Jesus is the portrait of his beloved pupil Tommaso Cavalieri who may have been rather portrayed in the face behind St. Bartholomew

“This head of Christ is reminiscent of the one of the Apollo Belvedere: the conception of divine which it embodies is thus modeled on a pagan matrix. His face does not reproduce the traditional model that we know from the icons of the Eastern Church, recognizable in every fresco apse of the churches of Rome, in Raphael's Dispute as in the Transfiguration. (...) For the first time an artist commissioned by the Pope has dared to paint an 'unpublished' face of Christ rather than his recognizable portrait. (...) As this could have happened just a hundred meters away from the chapel in which the true image of Christ imprinted on Veronica's veil was worshiped, we are not able to explain in all clarity. (...) Art is not oriented anymore toward relics but toward archaeological finds of antiquity, taken as examples for all forms of artistic expression. Painting a youthful and beardless Christ is easily justified considering the Christian art of late antiquity” (Heinrich W. Pfeiffer)

A rotary movement affects all figures except those in the two upper lunettes with flying angels bearing some of the symbols of the Passion:

Interestingly, the angels have no wings, perhaps to give the idea that angels are not so different from men after all
On the left the chosen ones who try to go to heaven. Below there are bodies resurrecting from death, including the face of Girolamo Savonarola, coming out of the ground

On the right the damned wrapped in a spiral, below them the boat with Charon

At the corner on the right there is the infernal judge Minos, to whom the artist, according to Vasari, gave the appearance of Biagio da Cesena, the papal master of ceremonies who was critical of Michelangelo
According to a sonnet by Pasquino Minos has the appearance of Cardinal Pierluigi Farnese, Pope Paul III's son and sodomite who raped the young Bishop of Fano, who then killed himself in shame
At the bottom on the left characters that represent the resurrection from death, two of them (one white and one black) helped with the Rosary. In the center a group of angels blowing their triumph with books of acts pure and impure

Close to Christ there is the Virgin Mary with her face down to avoid seeing his son in the act of judging: her power of intercession is now finished
Maybe Michelangelo represented the Virgin Mary with the face of his best friend Vittoria Colonna who may be have been represented in the face near St. Lawrence instead

Around Christ and the Virgin Mary there are saints:

St. Andrew with the Cross
St. Lawrence with the gridiron
St. Bartholomew, maybe with the face of Pietro Aretino, holding the skin, which depicts the face of Michelangelo

“Probably the artist wanted to express the idea that only losing the shell represented by the body, man could be saved from earthly torments. More recent research shows a parallelism between the flayed skin in the hands of St. Bartholomew, and a passage of Dante's Divine Comedy - Par, I, 19-24 - in which the flaying of Marsyas is interpreted as a sign of divine inspiration of the artist” (Frank Zöllner)

St. Peter, maybe with the face of Paul III, giving back to Christ the keys of the church that has no more reason to exist

St. Sebastian with bow and arrows

St. Blaise with iron combs, repainted by Daniele da Volterra

Humanity is represented nude because we will no longer be able to hide anything in the tragic condition of human existence before the Judgment

Michelangelo was such a living legend that no pope dared to censor the nudities in the painting while he was alive

Eventually in 1565, right after Michelangelo's death, his pupil Daniele da Volterra (1509/66) was asked to cover the genitals and he was then called for this “braghettone”, the “panty painter”
There were other interventions in the following twenty years and many more in the following centuries

The fresco was finally restored in the years 1990/94 but the repainting of censorship of the sixteenth century were left being considered historical

“With the elimination of all architectural and spacial frameworks, and free representation of the masses of nude figures in a structure not broken down in scenes, nor responding to proportional representation and perspective of Renaissance painting, Michelangelo canceled the consistency of the immense wall of the Sistine Chapel, translating into an indefinite sky, without any suggestion of depth, but animated by an unstoppable chain of dynamic impulses. The Judgment expresses a tragic view of the condition and destiny of humanity, which does not conceal the anxiety about extreme divine judgment. It interprets the spiritual tension of those years” (Carlo Bertelli, Giuliano Briganti, Antonio Giuliano)

“In this the specificity of the talent of the great Florentine painter and sculptor is expressed: in the fact that he applied to frescos with multiple figures an idea that essentially comes from the sculpture of one isolated figure. Herein lies the genius of the Last Judgment, and its difficulties for those who have tried to imitate it” (Hermann Voss)

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