“Then Christ will come “in his glory, and all the angels with him... Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left... And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” — Catechism of the Catholic Church (Mt 25:31,32,46).
The Last Judgment depicts the day when everyone gets what’s coming to them. Final judgment is a popular theme in many religions, and each puts its own spin on it. The Zoroastrians called it Frashokereti, a kind of renovation of our corrupted universe. In Islam it’s yawm al-qiyāmah, where archangel Israfil blows a trumpet, killing all of humanity, then blows it again to resurrect every person to have ever lived for simultaneous judgment. This universal resurrection for judgment was also the doctrine of the Catholic church in Michelangelo’s day, and has changed little in the five hundred years since. In the Catholic visual tradition, the last judgment was a common trope with artists spanning centuries tackling the apocalyptic scene described in Revelation 20:11-15:
“And I saw a great white throne and the one sitting on it. The earth and sky fled from his presence, but they found no place to hide. I saw the dead, both great and small, standing before God’s throne. And the books were opened, including the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to what they had done, as recorded in the books. The sea gave up its dead, and death and the grave gave up their dead. And all were judged according to their deeds. Then death and the grave were thrown into the lake of fire. This lake of fire is the second death. And anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire.”
The last judgment was commissioned by Pope Paul III, part of a flailing attempt to pull the Catholic Church out of a burgeoning crisis. Rome had been sacked and the Protestant Reformation kicked off by Martin Luther and his bunch of radicals was getting super popular. Paul III was a new Pope, too. Elected in 1534, one of his first moves was to hire the greatest living artist to continue the brilliant work he'd emblazoned on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel nearly twenty years before. But Paul wasn't buying any old masterpiece, he commissioned a scene of devastating awe. The final act—when Christ himself descends in glory to levy final judgment on mankind, separating the wheat from the chaff.
And remember, while the Sistine chapel sees thousands of tourists through its doors each week, in the sixteenth century it was a private sanctum, the altar room was where the Pope led mass for a select group of religious elites, and new popes were elected by the College of Cardinals. I doubt Paul III was concerned for the salvation of his inner circle, but the imagery reinforced the seriousness of their task in shepherding the world towards God, and illustrated their wet dream of divine judgment against the Protestant upstarts.
Yikes. While artists often painted themselves into their artworks, rendering some second-rate disciple in the background as a self-portrait, Michelangelo’s hidden selfie is a grim one. See the shockingly toned old man below and to the right of the radiant Christ in the center of the composition? That’s not Michelangelo—the buff guy holds a drooping, empty skin-suit in his left hand, recently removed from the flayed body of St. Bartholomew—that’s Michelangelo.
Wow. So, why? Most speculation into Michelangelo’s gristly self-portrait is surprisingly dull. The historian and iconology expert Edgar Wind thought it was a reference to a kind of Neoplatonic resurrection, “a prayer for redemption, that through the ugliness the outward man might be thrown off, and the inward man resurrected pure.” Ok, makes sense. Bernadine Barnes, a professor of Renaissance art history who literally wrote the book on Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, cites a more contemporary view that Michelangelo was worried for his soul, since his windblown exterior dangles over the flames of hell. My own thought is, as usual, decidedly less ecumenical. Michelangelo was an opinionated dude, often speaking his mind through his brush. During the long creation of The Last Judgment, the Papal Master of Ceremonies was scandalized by Michelangelo’s many nude forms, and campaigned for them to be censored. In stone-cold revenge, the artist painted the prudish official as a judge presiding over demons, replete with donkey’s ears and a large snake biting him on the penis. All to say that subtlety was optional for Michelangelo. I suspect that after four years of work, burocratic delay, a frustrating patron, and impatient, nosey critics, Michelangelo felt hollowed out by the project, exhausted, empty, and longing for his preferred artistic format—three dimensional sculpture.
On its completion in 1541 the Last Judgment triggered a tsunami of criticism and debate. Even before the Council of Trent’s moratorium on nudity (spoilers!) Michaelango was pushing the limits of what society and the church was willing to accept and I suspect intentionally antagonizing some of the more conservative players in the Vatican.
The nudity was a huge issue. Even before the work was finished, the papal master of ceremonies Biagio da Cesena stopped by with Pope Paul III and complained “it was most disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully, and that it was no work for a papal chapel but rather for the public baths and taverns.” If this was the first complaint directed to Paul III it certainly wasn't the last.
A lot of traditional religious iconography the church had taken for granted for centuries, Michelangelo just skipped. He painted the angels without wings, Christ’s throne—a fixture of previous judgment day depictions—is nowhere to be found, and Christ himself is beardless! One spectacularly pedantic critic cited Revelations 7:1, “After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back its four winds so that no wind would blow on land or sea or on any tree” and pointed out garments that look to be flapping in a stiff breeze. Sacrilege!
Pissing off hidebound clergy is delightful, but some of the more nuanced criticisms still resonate. One concern was the legibility of the artwork for lay people. If everyone’s naked, and the angel’s don't have wings, and Jesus doesn't have a beard, how do we know who anyone is? Renaissance art was becoming seen as overworked, self-referential, and Michaelango’s absurdly maximalist flesh party played right into it. A most comprehensive examination of the Last Judgment was published the year of the artist’s death, by the cleric Giovanni Andrea Gilio. Gilio’s Dialogue on the Errors and Abuses of Painters was a good deal more even handed than the title suggests, describing the complexities an artist faces when trying to balance the truth (vero), the truth-like (finto), and the fabulous (favoloso)—elements that are all necessary, but when used out of proportion distract from the intended message of the work.
For centuries the artists of the Italian Renaissance looked back to the Greek and Roman obsession with the perfect human body, and painted an absolutely heroic number of nudes in the middle of a stridently Catholic society. But in 1563, the party was over. A massive Catholic council was called to order in response to the growing Protestant Reformation. It was called the Council of Trent, and it was a thorough and conservative house-cleaning of the Catholic Church. Among decrees on the ‘excellence of the celibate state’ and affirmations of transubstantiated sacraments was this prudish little gem: “figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust, ... there be nothing seen that is disorderly, or that is unbecomingly or confusedly arranged, nothing that is profane, nothing indecorous, seeing that holiness becometh the house of God.” What a bummer.
With The Last Judgment’s history of controversy and prominent location in the Vatican itself, it became a central battleground in the call to ‘reform art.’ We, the viewers of this work centuries later, got unimaginably lucky. In 1565, a year after Michelangelo’s death, the papacy hired the Mannerist painter Daniele da Volterra to “fix” The Last Judgment. But Volterra had worked in the old master’s circle, and the two got along so well that Michelangelo helped Volterra sketch out his commissions, and pulled strings to get the young artist employed within the Vatican. So Volterra, bless his heart, did his best to keep his changes to a minimum. Adding a robe here, a fold of cloth there to cover the bold bodies from their fragile audience. The only truly massive change Volterra was forced to commit was a scraping and repainting of Saint Catherine and Saint Blaise, who in the original image were positioned such that very little imagination was required to suppose the two actively engaged in intercourse. Volterra, the reluctant revisionist, was quickly dubbed Il Braghettone, the breeches-maker, and in the end wasn't even able to finish his modifications when the pope-of-the-moment Pius IV died. In the years that followed, the Mannerist upstart El Greco offered to replace the entire wall with something “modest and decent, and no less well painted than the other,” and while his offer was refused eventually more than 40 figures were fig-leafed or haphazardly clothed.
I visited The Last Judgment. Fifteen years ago I was stumbling around the Vatican, more interested in flirting with fellow students than the incalculable density of history, power, religion and art that surrounded me. The Last Judgment snuck up on me. What I hadn't realized from my dog-eared copy of Janson’s History of Art was that this artwork is not flat. It’s convex, painted into a curved wall and up into two partial domes. It surrounds you, more massive than a billboard and infinitely more personal. The characters vary in size but they acknowledge human scale, they acknowledge you. Bodies rise, saints elevated to paradise and the twisting wicked fall toward the flames. Far above but rendered in bold outline a hot, beardless Jesus raises his hand like a superhero about to let fly an earth-shattering blow, you, little you, are right in his firing line.
And there are too many people in this painting. The absolute compositional excess I suspect to be a clever and intentional device to overwhelm the viewer. Are you familiar with Dunbar’s number? It’s the theoretical limit to how many people at a time you can maintain a relationship with, and the general consensus is that it’s about 150 people. The Last Judgment features 300 figures. 300 saints, martyrs, angels, and demons with twisty little horns grappling the screaming damned. There’s a skeleton wearing the helmet of a Spanish knight. An angel blows his trumpet so hard his immortal eyes have rolled back into his head. And Charon’s there! Ported over from Greek mythology to ferry wicked souls and he looks like he’s ready to whup some ass.
The Last Judgment is what Richard Wagner later termed a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art. The composer had a more formal definition in mind, art synthesizing visual media, stagecraft, costuming and music—but Michelangelo accomplishes totality in one medium, using scale to absorb the viewer, remove them from their life and its many concerns, and drop them into humanity’s last moment—the eschaton. It’s a nightmare, it’s beautiful, it’s horrifying. It doesn't feel good or uplifting, it feels inevitable.
As a bored, horny, distracted student in 2007, it was like putting on a VR headset for the first time. A second before I was annoyed by the Vatican guards shout-whispering “shush!” at the press of gawping turistas, mouths slung open to look at the famous ceiling overhead, and suddenly my world was stolen out from under me. Hello, welcome to the End of days. I fled. I wasn't ready. It was too much. I pushed my way between khaki shorts and polo shirts and heavy DSLR cameras full of images no one would ever look at and left the chapel. I suspect that’s precisely what Michelangelo intended.
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Reed Enger, "The Last Judgment," in Obelisk Art History, Published May 17, 2020; last modified November 08, 2022, http://www.arthistoryproject.com/artists/michelangelo/the-last-judgment/.