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The Last Judgment

June 13, 2014




Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, painted behind the main altar of the Sistine Chapel between 1534 and 1541, is one of the most heralded masterpieces in Western Art. Since its completion, artists and critics have been astonished by Michelangelo’s total mastery of composition and human anatomy, but that doesn’t mean we have to take every stroke of it seriously, even though it does depict the second coming of Christ, the judging of souls and the damned being banished to hell. Parts of this gigantic work (539.3 inches x 472.4 inches) are curious while others are actually laughable.




Michelangelo didn’t want to paint this fresco any more than he’d wanted to paint the Sistine ceiling twenty years earlier. He considered painting inferior to sculpture and he had more sculpture commissions than he could handle. But when the Pope asks you to do something it’s hard to say no, even if you happen to be Michelangelo. To delay the project, Michelangelo went so far as to have the wall prepared for oil paint even though he only painted large-scale pictures in wet plaster—fresco. It took months to repair and properly prime the site.


From the start, the fresco was an object of controversy, especially since Michelangelo broke with the Medieval tradition of depicting “saved” souls in expensive finery and the damned in rags, leveling the playing field by showing everyone, even Jesus, naked. The artist was accused of immorality and intolerable obscenity, having exposed the genitalia of naked figures and showing two naked young men kissing.


Decades earlier, Michelangelo had filled the vaulted ceiling with beautiful people glowing with the dew of Eden, but times had changed and the artist was in a more pensive, less optimistic mood. Even though Jesus is depicted nude and beardless in reference to Apollo, Michelangelo’s figures no longer reflect Greek perfection; the High Renaissance here moves away from perfect shapes and slips into a more interpretive use of the human figure—Mannerism.


Michelangelo began painting near the ceiling, working his way down. The criticisms hurled his way must have gotten to him by the time he depicted the figure of St. Bartholomew a little more than halfway down. Skinned alive, the saint brandishes the knife used to torture and kill him. In his free hand he holds his flayed skin, on which Michelangelo has painted a grizzly self-portrait.





Even geniuses make mistakes. Notice the green demon pulling a lost soul down to hell; the artist, working in quick-drying plaster, failed to paint one of the demon’s hands green.



Another figure, trying to halt his descent into fire and brimstone, reaches up for something to grab onto, finding only the testicles of another doomed figure.



But my favorite piece of whimsy in this monumental work is the figure of Minos. Few individuals were as critical of this fresco as the Pope’s own Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, who said at the time, “Disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should be depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully…not work for a papal chapel but rather for public baths and taverns.”


In response, Michelangelo worked a donkey-eared likeness of de Cesena into the scene as Minos, judge of the underworld. It is said that when de Cesena complained to the Pope, the pontiff responded that his jurisdiction did not extend to hell, so the portrait would have to remain.


With the Council of Trent, artistic censorship gained a foothold. Michelangelo was ordered to cover up much of the nudity but he refused. After his death, loincloths were added to many of the figures. Most of these concessions to modesty were recently removed and today we can see what really ticked off de Cesena—a serpent biting his modest-sized genitals.   



There are wonderful art books showing exquisite details of this masterpiece and I’ve only touched upon a few of the more interesting ones. In the future I’ll pinpoint something interesting about Rembrandt’s famous Night Watch, which isn’t a watch and doesn’t take place night. If you examine the canvas carefully and know where to look, you can see someone in the process of having their brains blown out.


Like Michelangelo, Rembrandt had a nasty sense of humor.


Artists: not the happiest sort. Sweet revenge though against the haters to work them into the painting. I've done that from time to time in stories, using a bastardized version of someone's name to make them a bad guy or something. I just hope though that when the final judgement comes, no one's grabbing my testes to try using them for a life preserver.
By: PT Dilloway on June 13, 2014
Interesting ... I didn't know Michelangelo was so passive-aggressive. But then, like you say, when the Pope asks you to do something itâs hard to say no.
By: Tom Sightings on June 13, 2014
good lord! rather gruesome!
By: TexWisGirl on June 13, 2014
You've reminded me of some of what i saw when i visited Rome, and taught me a few things, too. While i'm sorry he was pulled away from his beloved sculptures, i can't imagine not having this masterwork, especially with all the commentary he poured into it. His pictures are worth millions of words.
By: mimi on June 13, 2014
I would definitely signed up for a Chubby Chatterbox art course. If you write a book on art appreciation I will be first in line to buy it!
By: Cranky Old Man on June 13, 2014
Wow is all I've got, I've never given his work much attention to detail I guess.
By: Hey Monkey Butt on June 13, 2014
This is great stuff. I feel like I'm auditing a course in art history from a master! Looking forward to more of these.
By: Scott Park on June 13, 2014
I always learn so much from you. Thank you. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on June 13, 2014
Please put me on the waiting list of your European Art Tour 2015...I want to walk through famous spaces and listen to your knowledge and quick wit! Cheers! This was stupendous!
By: Kathe W. on June 13, 2014
I know Hell is not supposed to be a pleasant kind of place to spend eternity...but now I'm going to have nightmares after seeing all that flayed-skin flaunting, testicle-grabbing, and genital-biting. Surely you have stories about those poker-playing canines on velvet, and the big-eyed Keane children. Or perhaps Peter Max and his LOVE painting. I think I had a book cover of that one, back in my misspent valedictorian days.
By: Val on June 13, 2014
Every time you write something like this, it makes me realize how little I know about art and how much I appreciate your sharing your knowledge with us!
By: Pixel Peeper on June 13, 2014
Holy Moly! I saw this when I was 21 and touring Europe but OMG I sure didn't get a close look at this stuff---I don't think I even KNEW about it. Wow!!!
By: marcia @ Menopausal Mother on June 13, 2014
Great post!
By: Izdiher on June 14, 2014
I'm thinking that he was PO'd at having to do it and decided to make something un-appealing so he'd fulfill the letter of the request, but never be asked to paint something for the church again. And I think the "person" grabbing the testicles is a devil - he has horns. What better way to drag an evil soul to hell than by his testicles?
By: Lexa Cain on June 14, 2014
Overwhelming is all I have to say.
By: Daniel LaFrance on June 14, 2014
I love your commentary. Not sure I ever looked closely at this work before. Thank you!
By: Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma on June 14, 2014
Hey, you could teach an art appreciation class. In fact, you just did!
By: Jerry E. Beuterbaugh on June 14, 2014
My daughter and 15 year old granddaughter just returned from 3 weeks in Italy and have shared some photos of their trip. For me, the artwork would be the highlight of the trip. It is a pleasure to learn the behind stories you share in your blog.
By: CiCi on June 15, 2014
Thanks so much for this! My art history prof never told me about any of THIS and I never read it on my own. Wonderful and fascinating! And funny.
By: Mitchell is Moving on June 15, 2014
Educational and fascinating, as usual.
By: Bryan Jones on June 15, 2014
Actually, I've never like his paintings. I think he was wise to stick to sculpture as much as possible. Your stories are interesting, they never told us any of this when I went to art school. Thanks.
By: Madeleine McLaughlin on June 15, 2014

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