Tuesday, March 2, 2010
The Last Judgement
When I graduated from high school in 2008, my parents gave me a gift that I will never forget and is hard to top. I was able to pick anywhere in the world to travel to, so because of my historical interests, I chose to travel to Italy. While touring the Vatican City, my family and I were able to go into the Sistine Chapel, and while we were in there, I got to view a piece of artwork that absolutely blew me away. I’m not even talking about the Sistine Chapel ceiling; I’m talking about the artwork on the wall behind the alter: The Last Judgement. This gigantic painting, which measures about 45 feet by 40 feet, is one of Michelangelo Buonarroti’s most famous works and draws thousands and thousands of viewers each year.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another…” ---- Matthew 25:31-32
One of the most captivating stories from the Bible that has kept people fascinated for centuries is the story describing the end of the world. More commonly known as “Armageddon” or the “Apocalypse,” the Biblical Book of Revelation depicts an extremely detailed account of how the world is going to end. Back in 1534, the Catholic Church commissioned an artist named Michelangelo to not only paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but also the wall directly behind the alter. During this time, Michelangelo was at the peak of his artistic career, already having produced famous works including “La Pieta” and the statue of “David.” An interesting aspect to highlight about Michelangelo was that he was a homosexual, and viewers can easily see his obsession with the male body in that every figure is overly muscular/masculine. To put Michelangelo’s skill into perspective, his sole major competition/rival was Leonardo da Vinci, and both of these men lived in Italy. “In scale, technique, and drama, The Last Judgement is an absolute highlight of Renaissance painting (1).” The pope residing at the time of the commission was Pope Clement VII, but he died in 1534 (the same year as the commission), so Pope Paul III (the next elected pope) decided to continue as previously planned and have Michelangelo paint a scene from the final judgement.
When examining this piece of artwork, one must immediately realize that there are a lot of different things going on inside this one scene. One of the most obviously aspects of the painting that sticks out is Jesus. Jesus is the young white person in the upper center of the painting with the glow of light around him. What strikes me as interesting is the fact that Jesus is not only white, but also doesn’t look like a stereotypical Jesus (well groomed hair, a beard, clothed, etc). On Jesus’ left side, the Virgin Mary, his mother, is cowering and observing the pandemonium occurring underneath them on earth. Some other very noticeable figures around Jesus (going from left to right) are St John the Baptist (big, strong, nearly naked man looking at Jesus), St Lawrence (holding the ladder), St Bartholomew (holding his earthly flesh), St Peter (holding the keys to Heaven), St Blaise (holding the iron blade), St Catherine (holding the wooden wheel with spikes), and finally St Sebastian (holding several arrows) (2). Most scholars have come to a consensus and decided that the skin St Bartholomew is holding is actually Michelangelo’s self-portrait. After painting so many prominent Biblical figures in the nude drove Michelangelo to feel like a sinner undeserving of Jesus’ righteous judgement. All of the other figures in the clouds are martyrs/saints/angels, and are either allowing people into Heaven if they’re righteous or denying them if they are not.
Furthermore, Michelangelo did something incredibly remarkable in his interpretation of Hell (located in the bottom right corner): he incorporated Roman and Greek mythology into Christianity (2). Why he decided to do this is not known with certainty, but the demon holding the oar is named Charon and the man with the snake wrapped around him is named Minos. Charon is the boatman who ferries dead souls to the Underworld, and is also featured in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Minos was the king of Crete, son of Zeus, and one of the three judges of the Underworld. As Michelangelo was painting this masterpiece, the papal master of ceremonies, Baigio da Cesena, continually criticized the work because all of the figures (except Mary and Jesus) were completely naked. This, in turn, provoked and made Michelangelo angry, so he painted Cesena into the painting as the demonic Minos. Eventually, “…it was decided that works of art in sacred places had to be modest [not naked, so] a pupil of Michelangelo, Daniele da Volterra, was commissioned to cover the figures nakedness with loincloths and veils (2);” therefore, Cesena got the last laugh after all. Finally, following a long seven years, Michelangelo completed the fresco on October 31, 1541 (3).
This painting is extremely significant because it depicts the end of the world, and according to some civilizations, the world is ending in about two years (2012). This Biblical interpretation of the Apocalypse might have been intended to scare people and influence them to live good lives; otherwise, they would be justly judged and damned to hell by Jesus. There is a great amount of fear portrayed in the painting, and clearly there are more people going to hell than Heaven, so Michelangelo might be attempting to scare some decency into the viewers. Additionally, the painting clearly shows that Jesus is the Son of God and the ultimate judge over the living and the dead. This transparently shows that it is meant to have a strong impact on the Christian population, and that it’s important to worship Jesus. Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement is one of his finest works and is still one of the major reasons why people habitually visit the Sistine Chapel.
1. Author N/A. Art and the Bible. (2010). Retrieved from http://www.artbible.info/art/large/54.html.
2. Author N/A. The Last Judgement: Images of a Masterpiece. (2009). Retrieved from http://www.italian-renaissance-art.com/Last-Judgement.html.
3. Author N/A. Michelangelo Paintings and Art Gallery. (2005). Retrieved from http://www.chinatownconnection.com/michelangelo_art.htm.