Sistine Chapel

Michelangelo de Buonarotti, a distinguished painter, sculptor, architect, and poet of Italy was born in 1475 in the territory of Arezzo, in Tuscany. His time was of a new age of enlightenment where artistic and inventive freedom was beginning to come back into the forefront, Michelangelo stands as the archetype of the Renaissance genius, with a talent that transcends time and continues to influence and inspire contemporary artists. Michelangelo grew up and was first exposed to stone carving, “he regarded himself first and foremost as a sculptor.” (FIERO) Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II Della Rovere in 1508 to repaint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel frescoed earlier by Piero Matteo d’Amelia with a star-spangled sky. Buonarroti, who had always regarded himself as a sculptor, would now have to perfect the art of fresco. Michelangelo’s lament that “painting is not my art” proved a hollow objection since the pope’s stubbornness was greater than his. However, like all commissions that Michelangelo initially resisted, once he reconciled himself to the task, he threw himself into it with unrestrained energy. For four years, from 1508 to 1512, Michelangelo struggled with the manifold difficulties of painting nearly ten thousand square feet of a highly irregular, leaky vault. “Michelangelo inherited an enormous project more than three decades later, in 1547 having proved himself, among his other accomplishments, the most inventive and influential architect of the century.” (BECK) He painted the Last Judgment over the altar, between 1535 and 1541, being commissioned by Pope Paul III Farnese.
The Last Judgment, which Michelangelo finished in 1541 was the largest fresco of the Renaissance, it depicts Judgment Day. The entire ceiling and the altar wall were done in pure fresco. “Michelangelo declared that he would only do it in fresco, and that oil painting was a woman’s art and only fit for lazy well-to-do people.” (DeVECCHI) This fresco covers the entire altar wall. It is filled with angels, demons, and people. The people in this fresco appear to be either going to heaven or hell. The figure in the middle appears to be Christ because he has a bright light that surrounds him. There are also many references to his crucifixion on the fresco. Michelangelo painted the figures to be both nude and some are clothed. Those figures that are nude are anatomically rendered and have that perfected body much like the ancient Greeks and Romans. Michelangelo uses a wide variety of colors both vibrant and dull. In my opinion, this depiction of the Last Judgment is beautifully rendered and very stylized.


The idea of commissioning an enormous fresco, the largest ever painted in that century, depicting the Last Judgment, was probably suggested to Clement VII by the traumatic events that were undermining the unity of Christians at the time. After the pope’s death, on September 25, 1534, and only two days after Michelangelo’s arrival in Rome, his successor, Paul III Farnese confirmed the commission to Michelangelo, and in April 1535, scaffolding was put up in front of the altar wall. Even before its official unveiling, the Judgment became the target of violent criticisms of a moral character. All that had happened in the church in the years that preceded the Judgment, including the Reformation and the Sack of Rome, had a direct influence on the work’s conception: painted on the altar wall, the Last Judgment was to represent humanity face to face with salvation.


The first impression I have when faced with the Last Judgment is that of a truly universal event, at the center of which stands the powerful figure of Christ. His raised right hand compels the figures on the left hand side, which are trying to ascend, to be plunged down towards Charon and Minos, the Judge of the Underworld while his left hand is drawing up the chosen people on his right in an irresistible current of strength. Excluded are the two upper lunettes with groups of angels bearing in flight the symbols of the Passion (on the left the Cross, the nails and the crown of thorns; on the right the column of the scourging, the stairs and the spear with the sponge soaked in vinegar). Next to Christ is the Virgin, who turns her head in a gesture of resignation: in fact, she can no longer intervene in the decision, but only await the result of the Judgment. The Saints and the Elect, arranged around Christ and the Virgin, also anxiously await the verdict. Some of them can be easily recognized: St Peter with the two keys, St Laurence with the gridiron, St Bartholomew with his own skin which is recognized as being a self-portrait of Michelangelo, St Catherine of Alexandria with the cogwheel and St Sebastian kneeling holding the arrows. In the center of the lower section are the angels of the Apocalypse who are wakening the dead to the sound of long trumpets. On the left, the risen recover their bodies as they ascend towards heaven (Resurrection of the flesh), on the right angels and devils fight over making the damned fall down to hell. “This kind of representation of the Last Judgment had evolved slowly and in relation to the very nature and profound meaning of the image, conceived as a metaphor of the universal order and of a fixed immutable divine design.” (De VECCHI) Finally, at the bottom Charon with his oars, together with his devils, makes the damned get out of his boat to lead them before the infernal judge Minos, whose body is wrapped in the coils of the serpent. As was his custom, Michelangelo portrayed the entire figures nude. However, the nudity of the figures worried neither Paul III nor his successor Julius III. It was not until January 1564, and therefore about a month before Michelangelo’s death, that the assembly of the Council of Trent took the decision to “amend” the fresco.


For this work, Michelangelo did not choose one set point from which it should be viewed. The proportions of the figures and the size of the groups are determined, as in the Middle Ages, by their single absolute importance and not by their relative significance. For this reason, each figure preserves its own individuality and both the single figures arid the groups need their own background. “The syntax of the bodies alone defines the structure of the image painted on this vast wall as well as the rhythmic relationships between its separate parts. It also determines the meaning on a figurative level and especially its very strong emotional impact on the viewer.” (De VECCHI)
Michelangelo definitely was successful in any project he began, he mastered every type of media but his preferred was pure fresco. The Last judgment was in fact the strongest possible contrast with Michelangelo’s own ceiling. In the time period, that he had been creating the altar wall the Sack of Rome and the Reformation, and the confident humanism and Christian Neoplatonism of the Ceiling had curdled into the personal pessimism and despondency of the Judgment. “The very choice of subject is indicative of the new mood, as is the curious fact that the mouth of Hell gapes over the altar itself where, during services, stands a crucifix symbolizing Christ standing between Man and Doom.” (KING) Michelangelo’s intent was very clear, he wanted to represent what the Last Judgment would be like at this point. Michelangelo definitely was very creative when creating his subject matter; a lot of his figures are from Greek Mythology. When I compare Michelangelo’s the Last Judgment with Emperor Justinian and his Courtiers c.547, I can see how the reformation of the Classical Style has returned. The emphasis on a perfect human figure was very “Greek Like” as apposed to Justinian and his Courtiers, which is very Byzantine. Not only is it Byzantine but also the subject matter completely looses focus on Christ, he is not even represented in the mural at all. Michelangelo was clearly trying to focus on Christ for he emblems of the power to bind and to release men from sin.

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