Michelangelo’s Last Judgment

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The last judgment, the second coming of Christ and the moment when the dead are resurrected and elected to join Christ in heaven or be damned into the inferno of hell for eternity. The hardship of rendering the end of worldly delight have fallen on artists throughout the centuries, some have used art to educate the illiterate while others used it as a tool to demonstrate power and authority. In the sixteenth century such task fell on the shoulders of a talented artist from Florence, who mastered the form of the male nude, Michelangelo. even though the painting did not retain its original form and was subjected to several adjustments and additions during and after its creation, the function of the fresco did not change. In this essay I will discuss the controversy behind the commission of the last judgment, its main audience and intended iconography, as well as, the use of nudity in the church.

To better understand the statement of the fresco, it is necessary to point out the historic origin of the commission itself and the reason for Pope Clement VII to reach out to one of his two favorite artists to create it for him. When the king of France, Francis I, conquered Milan in 1524, pope Clement VII saw his chance to abandon his Spanish and Holy Roman Empire allies, and ally himself instead with other Italian princes, and France, via an official treaty. By doing so, Clement VII strengthened his military and political power, however, he left himself open to an attack from the turbulent Roman barons who were enraged by the new treaty. Clement VII sought the mediation of the emperor Charles V with the barons (Charles V: ruler of both the Holy Roman Empire and the Spanish Empire), but in as little as a month king Francis I was defeated in battle and taken prisoner. As a result, Clement VII went back to his previous engagements with Charles V by signing a new alliance. But he soon picked France’s side again once king Francis I was free in 1526 and issued an invective against Charles V. His wavering policies left Clement VII alone and isolated in Italy, and when the duke of Ferrara supplied artillery to the Holy Roman Empire troops, it allowed the League Army of the Duke of Bourbon and Georg von Frundsberg to reach Rome without resistance and sieged it.

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The duke of Bourbon died during the short siege. His starving and unpaid troops were left without a commander, so when Rome fell into their hands, the soldiers felt free to ravage the city on May 6, 1527. The soldiers committed many autocracies, murder, rape, and vandalism that changed Rome forever, all the while Clement VII had taken refuge in Castel Sant’Angelo and shown no resolution in his military or political conduct.

Author Anne leader explains; the sack of Rome justifies the choice of depicting the horrifying scenes as a result of the turmoil and dread caused by the attack, most scholars trace the origin of the commission to pope Clement VII (1523-34) “the first secure date for the commission comes from Sebastiano del Piombo’s 1533 letter in which he told Michelangelo of the pope’s decision “to give you [Michelangelo] a contract to something beyond your dreams”.

Some scholars argue that, upon the election of pope Paul III in 1534. In order to affirm the legitimacy of the catholic church, Paul III began by directing his own message of the papal power to the inner circle of the church to affirm the power of the papacy, and thus, he commissioned Michelangelo to reflect a political and psychological need, in the form of the last judgment.

Michelangelo fresco is not the first to use its imagery to express the papal authority. The last judgment commissioned by pope Innocent IV in San Silvestro Chapel reflects similar political agenda, even though separation of the blessed and the damned is not present.

In the painting, Christ, the judge, sits in the upper heavenly painted lunettes, allowing the real space of the chapel to become the resurrected zone; this sends a clear statement that Christ the judge is constantly watching. Michelangelo’s last judgment untraditional location serve similar function to San Silvestro painting; the largest mural in the sistine chapel, the place where the papal court gather to celebrate feast day liturgies, and the place where the cardinals meet to elect the next pope, this was Paul III propaganda.

Another use of art as an expression of papal power can be seen in the medal of paul II (1464- 71) who chose the iconography of the last judgment to commemorate his achievement and the dismissal of the king of Bohemia when he attempted to overrule papal authority by declaring his own religious council.

Much like Innocent IV and Paul II, Pope Paul III redecorated the chapel to show his indisputable power, this can perhaps be seen in the iconography of the fresco, featured in the dominant present of saint Peter, who holds the key to the kingdom of heaven, a reminder that the viewer must go through the church which is led by the pope to gain access to Christ.

To support the argument that pope Paul III commissioned the fresco, one must examine aspects of the painting that are untraditional to the subject matter, for example, the common depiction of the last judgment generally occupies the west wall, over the main door, to function as a reminder to the second coming as believers exit into the world, and it often includes a peaceful heavenly world in the upper section with disturbance vision in the lower half such as Francesco Traini’s last judgment. Yet, Michelangelo’s fresco occupies the opposite wall strategically above the chapel’s altar. Furthermore, the figures appear tense throughout the composition, here even the Virgin cowers to the side of Christ in anxiety as her role of intercessor comes to an end. Christs gesture is that of the judge looking down at the damned with his right hand positioned in a threatening manner revealing his wound, rather than the traditional gesture of him elevating the saved souls, while seated on the thrown of heaven. Saints carrying attribute of their martyrdom and the saved souls surround Christ, except for these saints, the artist had made it difficult to recognize the remaining figures.

Michelangelo did not break from tradition completely as the rest of composition followed the general pattern of last judgment, the blessed are resurrected on the left side and are helped by angels pulling them upwards, while the damned remain on the right side violently pushed into the gates of hell by Charon. In addition, the composition of this piece is defined into four sections, the first section and the highest of the lunettes illustrates wingless angels with their instruments of passion, directly below them is the main and largest section of the fresco, here the blessed masses and the saved gather around Christ and the virgin in the upper middle area. The following section includes the seven trumpets blowing and separating the damned from the saved, one angel reads from the book of life which appears to be much smaller than that of the book of the dead, the left side include visions of the resurrected rising towards heaven, while the damned are descending in terror.

Throughout this chaotic scene of terror, Michelangelo creates a strong diagonal line across the composition to include his own self-portrait, depicting his own believes and fear. He begins with the left lunette, a wingless angel hold a crown of thorns; a symbolism often found in the depiction of last judgment as it acts as a reminder that Christ is the last judge of men in accordance to his sacrifice, directing it towards the damned in the lower right, it crosses through Christ the judge and into saint Bartholomen as he looks back at Christ, loosely holds his flayed skin; that depicts the artists self-portrait, his flayed skin dangerously dangles its arms over the terrified damned masses.

While it was the artist vision that rendered the biblical text, and Christian interpretation of the second coming, the artists design had to be accepted by his patron. Michelangelo prides himself in having mastered and perfected the nude male figures, it became the essence of his art. The pride in his technique was well adored by his patrons, both Clements VII who initiated the project, and Paul III who saw the mural completion.

Even though Michelangelo uses discretion in his nudity; like having a mantle cover Christ, while the virgin is fully dressed as nun with only her face, hands and feet showing. The unorthodox painting was not well received by the catholic counter-reformation who considered Michelangelo’s naked saint Catharine among other figures to be offensive and ordered Mannerist painter Daniele da Volterra to adjust the painting by giving her a dress.

In addition to breaking away from the scriptural description of the subject, which included objections to the pagan mythological figures, the unseated classicized beardless Christ, and the wingless angels who are clustered in the middle when the book of revelation clearly states that they are sent to the four corners of the earth.

Michelangelo piece carries its viewer in a whirl of psychological torment. Both the blessed souls who assembled around and behind Christ, and those who are ascending to heaven with the help of angels show no sign of happiness, even the saints look horrified, and the damned show an even more stretched and display fear and terror as the demons drag them down into the abyss or violently drive them onto the shore from Sharon’s bark.

Perhaps the most dominated of the figures on the right side is the figure known as the damned man dragged downward by two demons, with a serpent biting into his side, his facial expression can only institute fear and wonder to its viewer as to what could have this soul seen to wear a terrifying expression with his one uncovered eye. Michelangelo’s render of last judgment pays special detail to Danty’s Divine Poem “against the backdrop of a red sky in flames, and of Charon, leading the damned into hell where they are greeted by Minos, whose body is wrapped in the coils of the serpent. This part clearly references the Hell of Dante’s Divine Comedy”. Dante as the inferno ignite the horizon and the cave located within the lower bottom of this masterpiece, strategically positioned behind the chapel’s altar.

In conclusion, art have been used to throughout history as both a tool to educate the illustrate through illustrations, and as a tool that sets a statement of power and authority. The intended true meaning behind last judgment, and Michelangelo’s self-portrait may remain a mystery open for speculation for many years to come, but without a doubt the rendition of the event to this day, strikes fear in the heart of both the believers and even those who are not religious.


1. Freedberg, Sydney Joseph. Painting in Italy, 1500 to 1600. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

2. Gouwens, Kenneth. “Discourses of Vulnerability: Pietro Alcionio’s Orations on the Sack of Rome.” Renaissance Quarterly 50, no. 1 (1997): 38-77. doi:10.2307/3039328.

3. Hub, Berthold. “…e Fa Dolce La Morte: Love, Death, and Salvation in Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment”.” Artibus Et Historiae 26, no. 51 (2005): 103-30. doi:10.2307/1483778.

4. Leader, Anne. “MICHELANGELO’S “LAST JUDGMENT”: THE CULMINATION OF PAPAL PROPAGANDA IN THE SISTINE CHAPEL.” Studies in Iconography 27 (2006): 103-56. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23923695.

5. Polzer, Joseph. “Michelangelo’s Sistine “Last Judgment” and Buffalmacco’s Murals in the Campo Santo of Pisa.” Artibus Et Historiae 35, no. 69 (2014): 53-77. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24595732.

6. “Sistine”: Pietrangeli, Carlo, et al., The Sistine Chapel: The Art, the History, and the Restoration, 1986, Harmony Books/Nippon Television, ISBN 0-517-56274-X

7. “The Last Judgement by Michelangelo in Rome.” Florence Inferno. December 14, 2017. Accessed November 29, 2018.

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