The Last Judgement
In 1532, twenty years after Michelangelo finished the ceiling, Clement VII (1523-1534) asked him to paint the far wall of the Sistine Chapel. Work began only under the next pope, Paul III Farnese (1534-1549), and the magnificent fresco was finally unveiled during an official ceremony on October 13th, 1541. The painting also symbolised the Papacy’s regained supremacy, after the tragic events of 1527, when the Lansquenets, German mercenary troops, sacked Rome, and the Lutheran crisis which had undermined the Roman Church’s authority. First of all, Michelangelo lined the wall to be painted with a layer of brick. To prevent dust from settling on it and improve the perspective, this new surface was angled slightly outwards at the top (26 cm). Some 15th century frescoes were thereby lost and so were the lunettes Michelangelo painted. Although Michelangelo was inspired by the Bible, particularly by the Revelation, and by Dante’s Divine Comedy, his own tragic philosophic vision prevails in this work. Christ, in the middle of the fresco with the Madonna beside him, decides the inevitable afterlife destiny of each human being with a simple gesture of his arms: some are saved (the figures on the left, rising to Heaven), but most are damned (the naked people on the right, plunging into Hell).
The figures move in a kind of vortex, against the background of a blue sky without any architectural structures. The dead, seen on the lower left, are woken from their long slumber by angels’ trumpets, and their skeletons gradually transform back to being bodies. These angels in the middle of the painting have no wings and hold up two books: the smaller book held by the Archangel Michael records the names of the blessed, while the larger book is a list of the damned. On Christ’s left are Saint Andrew, seen from the back with his cross and Saint John the Baptist with a powerful physique, who might represent Adam. Lower down are Saint Lawrence with a ladder, symbolising his martyrdom on a grate over hot coals and Saint Bartholomew, holding a fleshless human skin (some consider it a portrait of Michelangelo).
On the right are Saint Peter, actually a portrait of the commissioner, Pope Paul III, holding a silver and a gold key; below Peter is Saint Blaise, with the iron combs used to torture him and Saint Catherine of Alexandria with the toothed crescent-knife of her martyrdom. These two figures, particularly Saint Blaise, were heavily repainted in 1565 because they were thought indecent. Saint Sebastian kneels beside them, with arrows in his hand. Slightly below this, on the right, is the famous figure of a damned man who, frightened by the terrible sight, covers one eye. In another significant scene, the mythical boatman Charon, who ferried the damned in Virgil’s Aeneid and Dante’s Divine Comedy, actually pushes sinners out
of his boat towards Hell, abandoning them to their dramatic fate. Biagio da Cesena, a well-known papal master of ceremonies at that time, is at the end of this group. He criticised Michelangelo’s work, saying that it was worthy of a bath or tavern, and Michelangelo took revenge by using Biagio to represent Minos, one of the Underworld judges in Greek-Roman mythology, wrapped in serpents’ coils that indicate to what circle of Hell the damned are destined. At the very top of the fresco the symbols of Christ’s passion can be seen: the cross, the crown of thorns, the dice used by the guards, the Flagellation column and the sponge with which he was wet. Here Michelangelo’s style is quite different from that in the ceiling, and expresses his changed attitude towards life: God is the severe judge whom none can question, not even the Virgin Mary, and certainly not man. This is why the bodies seem heavy with grief, as if they carried traces of their experiences on earth, which weighed them down. The colours stand out against an intense and dominating blue, generally changing from a whole gamut of reds to green, brown and black tones, which stress a tragic way of interpreting events. Only the background behind Christ and Mary, who has a light blue cape, is enlivened by an intense yellow that emphasizes the power of Christ’s raised arm. The Council of Trent, ended in 1563, decreed that art works in sacred places had to be modest and completely respect the Scriptures. Because of this, the “Last Judgement” frescoes were somewhat repainted in 1565 by one of Michelangelo’s pupils, Daniele da Volterra, who covered the figures’ nakedness with famous veils and loincloths, earning the nickname of “il Braghettone” (the maker of breeches). Other repainting was done for the same reason in the late 16th century and during the next two centuries.