Michelangelo Sistine chapel II

Michelangelo ‘The last Judgement’        In situ        Before the restoration
Michelangelo ‘Study of the composition’

Michelangelo Sistine chapel 'Last Judgement'
photo: Francisco Anzola and Wikipedia

Twenty-three years after Michelangelo painted the ceiling and is nearly 62, he is commissioned to paint the rear wall of the Sistine Chapel. He was to paint the Last Judgment on the wall near the altar. This is also the culmination of all the frescos painted in the Sistine Chapel as described earlier.

Raphael ‘Portrait of Perugino’ 1504

Pietro Perugino had already adorned the wall with frescos. The reconstruction of the Sistine Chapel’s rear wall before Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. Frescos and altar piece by Perugino.

Titian 'Pope Paul III' c. 1543, Toledo Cathedral
photo: Richard Mortel

Titian ‘Pope Paul III’ c. 1543, Toledo Cathedral
Alexandre Cabanel ‘Julius II visits Michelangelo in his studio’ 1859

In 1533 Clemens VII wanted a more contemporary fresco and of course Michelangelo immediately came to mind. After his unexpected death in 1532, Clemens VII was succeeded by Paul III. The new pope desperately wanted Michelangelo to paint the rear wall.  To persuade him, Paul III with eight cardinals in tow went to visit him at his home and studio [Rijksmuseum] near Trajan’s Column (House with the tower to the left Trajan’s Column).

The upper windows were closed up, giving Buonarroti more room for his fresco.

“Michelagnolo [Michelangelo], then, caused a projection of well baked and chosen bricks to be carefully built on the wall of the above named chapel (a thing which was not there before) and contrived that it should overhang half a braccio from above, so that neither dust nor any other dirt might be able to settle upon it.”
Giorgio Vasari ‘The Life of Michelangelo’ pdf 49. p. 461

According to Condivi, the design of the Last Judgement was definitively decided on in 1533. It was considered a good warning for those leaving the church, which was a clear reference to Luther and Calvin. The first scaffolds were not erected until March 1535. All this time, in addition to working on his cartoons, he had occupied himself with his greatest passion: his statues. /static/8f181ab9da553b3479a6bdcec763da88/R735-scaled.jpg

Michelangelo ‘Tomb of Pope Julius II’

photos: Georges Jansoone and Moses: Rodney

Michelangelo probably only then decided to use the traditional fresco technique instead of oil paint. Sebastiano del Piombo had already prepared the wall for oil paint, but Michelangelo considered oil paint ‘only suitable for women or lazy painters like Sebastiano del Piombo’. With oil paint it is much easier to overpaint something when you decide you don’t like it after all. This is not possible with the old fresco technique. There was nothing for it but to remove the layer that Piombo had applied to the wall and cover it in a new layer of plaster.

Angles with trumpets and books announce the apocalyps

photo: Khan Academy

“And I saw the seven angels who stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets […]
And the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound. […]
And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of the things which were written in the books, according to their works.
And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.
And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.
And whoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.” Revelation 8: 2, 8: 6, 20: 12-15

Michelangelo 'Last Judgement' detail:
Christ Mary

Ascanio Condivi  described Michelangelo’s ‘Last Judgment’ as follows:
“In this work Michelangelo expressed all that the art of painting can do with the human figure [four hundred], leaving out no attitude or gesture whatever. […] In the central part, near to the earth, are seven angels, described by Saint John in the Apocalypse, with trumpets to their lips, calling the dead to judgment from the four corners of the earth. With them are two others having an open book in their hands, in which every one reads and recognises his past life, having almost to judge himself. At the sound of these trumpets the graves open and the human race issues from the earth, all with varied and marvellous gestures; while in some, according to the prophecy of Ezekiel, the bones only have come together, in some they are half clothed with flesh, and in others entirely covered; some naked, some clothed in the shrouds and grave-clothes in which they were wrapped when buried, and of which they seek to divest themselves. Among these are some who are not yet fully risen, and looking up to heaven in doubt as to whither Divine justice shall call them. It is a delightful thing to see them with labour and pains issue forth from the earth, and, with arms out-stretched to heaven, take flight; those who are already risen lifted up into the air, some higher and some lower, with different gestures and characters. Above the angels of the trumpets is the Son of God in majesty, in the form of a man, with arm and strong right hand uplifted. He wrathfully curses the wicked, and drives them from before his face into eternal fire.” Author (translation Condivi) Charles Holroyd ‘Michael Angelo Buonarroti’, Chapter IX pp. 70 – 71      

Christ, Mary and Saints

Michelangelo 'Last Judgement' detail:
Christ martyrs saints
photo: Alfonso de Mendoza

Ascanio Condivi wrote in his biography of Michelangelo:
“The angels are seen between heaven and earth as executors of the Divine commands.

The despair of a damned man       Zoom out

On the right they rush to aid the elect, whose flight is impeded by malignant spirits; and on the left to dash back to earth the damned, who in their audacity attempt to scale the heavens. Evil spirits drag down these wicked ones into the abyss, the proud by the hair of the head, and so also every sinner by the member through which he sinned. Beneath them is seen Charon with his black boat, just as Dante described him in the ‘Inferno’, on muddy Acheron,raising his oar to strike some laggard soul.” Author (translation Condivi) Charles Holroyd ‘Michael Angelo Buonarroti’ , Chapter IX p. 71

Ascanio Condivi  described Michelangelo’s ‘Last Judgment’ as follows:
“In the middle of the composition, on the clouds of heaven, the Blessed already arisen form a crown and circle around the Son of God. Apart, and beside the Son, appears His Mother, timorous and seeming hardly secure herself from the wrath and mystery of God; she draws as near as possible to the Son.

The crown of thorns

[…] St. Andrew the cross, St. Bartholomew his skin, St. Lawrence the gridiron, St. Sebastian the arrows, San Biagio the combs of iron, St. Catherine the wheel, and others other things whereby they are known. Above these on the right and left, on the upper part of the wall, are groups of angels, with actions gracious and rare, raising in heaven the Cross of the Son of God, the Sponge, the Crown of Thorns, the Nails, and the Column of the Flagellation.” Author (translation Condivi)Charles Holroyd ‘Michael Angelo Buonarroti’ , Chapter IX pp. 71 – 72

Looking at the wall with the Last Judgment from a distance, you can discern four horizontal bands in the jumble of tumbling and ascending figures. That way, a certain measure of unity is created and the whole becomes quite easy to read. Also, as Condivi mentioned as well, the figures you see on the left are ascending to heaven while on the right the condemned are falling down.

Michelangelo ‘The last Judgement’

Michelangelo 'Last Judgement'

Michelangelo ‘Last Judgement’

Michelangelo 'Last Judgement' detail: bottom
photo: Francisco Anzola

Charon drives the damned to hell by the river Styx

Michelangelo 'Last Judgement' detail: Charon drives the damned to hell
photo and article by Dr. Esperança Camara: Khan Academy

Dante describes in his ‘La Divina Commedia’ the boat where the damned sail across the river Styx to the inferno. A fiery glow on the far right indicates hell.

Michelangelo 'Last Judgement' detail: 
Charon boat


“And lo! towards us coming in a boat
An old man, hoary with the hair of eld,
Crying: “Woe unto you, ye souls depraved!
Hope nevermore to look upon the heavens;
I come to lead you to the other shore,
To the eternal shades in heat and frost.” […]
“Thereafter all together they drew back,
Bitterly weeping, to the accursed shore,
Which waiteth every man who fears not God.
Charon the demon, with the eyes of glede,
Beckoning to them, collects them all together,
Beats with his oar whoever lags behind. […]
So they depart across the dusky wave,
And ere upon the other side they land,
Again on this side a new troop assembles.”
Dante Alighieri, La Divina Commedia, Inferno,
canto 3. 82 -87 and 106-120.

Luca Signorelli ‘Self-portrait’
Luca Signorelli ‘Resurrection of the flesh’

For the scenes at the bottom of the fresco, Michelangelo did not just thoroughly read the text of Ezekiel 37: 1-7, but was also strongly influenced by Luca Signorelli. This 15th century painter also painted a resurrection of the dead in the cathedral of Orvieto (not far from Rome; Wikipedia). He did not quite succeed in painting the corpses and half-putrefied bodies in a convincing way. Michelangelo had mastered the technique to perfection, but then again, he had dissected many a body to the bone.

Luca Signorelli 'Self-portrait'

Self-portrait Michelangelo as St. Bartholomew

Michelangelo also painted himself. This time, not as a severed head, as in Judith and Holofernes on the ceiling or as Zadoch in a lunette, but as St Bartholomew’s flayed skin.

Michelangelo painted the fresco’s many figures, such as for instance Christ, naked. Many people felt this was going too far. Paul III’s master of ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, came to take a look with the pope when the wall was about three-quarters finished. In the presence of Michelangelo and the pope, Cesena decried the frescos many nude figures. He said that this would have been appropriate for a tavern of public bath, but not for a chapel were Christ’s vicar on earth celebrated mass.


“Biagio is said to have complained about The Last Judgment, saying ‘it was disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully’. Biagio went on to say that the painting was more suitable “for the public baths and taverns” than a papal chapel. Source Wikipedia. Michelangelo did not immediately react, but after the master of ceremonies had left the Sistine Chapel he gave Minos (the figure at bottom right with the donkey’s ears and a snake coiled around his body) the face of Cesena (Wikipedia). When the master of ceremonies went to Paul III to complain, the pontiff told Biagio: God has given me a certain degree of authority in Heaven and on earth, but it does not extend to hell.’ And so, the Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, was immortalized as Minos. During the last major and sweeping restoration it was discovered that Michelangelo had not only gotten his own back by giving Minos Biagio’s face, but also by making the snake that is coiled around Minos’ (Cesena’s) body set his poisonous fangs in the master of ceremonies’ penis.

Vasari, who was a great admirer of Michelangelo Buonarroti, writes the following about the Sistine Chapel and the Last Judgment:

“Having recovered from his injury, he [Michelangelo] returned to his labour, and, working at it continually, he carried it to perfect completion in a few months, giving such force to the paintings in the work, that he justified the words of Dante – Morti li morti, i vivi parean vivi. And here, also, may be seen the misery of the damned and the joy of the blessed. Wherefore, when this Judgment was thrown open to view, it proved that he had not only vanquished all the earlier masters who had worked there, but had sought to surpass the vaulting that he himself had made so famous, excelling it by a great measure and outstripping his own self. For he imagined to himself the terror of those days, and depicted, for the greater pain of all who have not lived well,  the whole Passion of Christ,  causing various naked figures in the air to carry the Cross, the Column, the Lance, the Sponge, the Nails, and the Crown of Thorns, all in different attitudes, executed to perfection in a triumph of facility over their difficulties.” Giorgio Vasari, ‘The Life of Michelangelo’ pdf 49. p. 461

Jan van Scorel ‘Pope Adrian VI’ c. 1625

The many nudes were a stone of contention. The Dutch Pope Adrian VI (1522-1523) wanted the frescos removed ‘because it was a public baths with nude figures [..] and disgusting expressions of worldly lust.’ Clemens VIII (1592 -1605) had the same idea as the Dutch pope. Fortunately, a plea by the painters’ guild, the Accademia di San Luca, did not fall on deaf ears. However, later popes did take action. They ordained that at least part of the nudity be hid behind loincloths. Something similar happened to the classical statues that were fitted with fig leaves. Daniele da Volterra (Wikipedia) was commissioned to paint over quite a lot of genitals. Other painters mockingly called him the breeches-maker. Serious painters looked down on Da Volterra. Even though a painter like El Greco offered Pope Pius V to paint something decent over the wall with the Last Judgment.

Reconstruction of the Last Judgement before the loincloths

Michelangelo 'Last Judgement'

A lot of thought was given to the issue of whether to remove the work of the ‘breeches-maker’ from the Last Judgment, but eventually this proved to be only partly feasible. The paint that was used for the loincloths has damaged the original layer of paint to such an extent that the restorers decided to leave some of Da Volterra’s breeches in place.

The side walls were restored during the major restoration of 1964 and 1974. The ceiling was restored next. Read more about the restoration on the Wikipedia

A composite image of The Fall and Expulsion of Adam and Eve by Michelangelo.
The upper left is shown unrestored, the lower right is shown restored.

Michelangelo restoration Sistine chapel Adam and Eve

The damned man after the restoration
Before the restoration

And finally, at the end of the twentieth century, the wall behind the altar with the Last Judgment. Some very interesting discoveries were made during its restoration, including Michelangelo’s fingerprints and palm print. Buonarroti probably lost his balance and had to grab hold of something. Vasari reports that Michelangelo fell of the scaffolding one day and broke his leg. Another discovery was that Michelangelo used cartoons at first, but later worked freehand on the plaster.

Soon after the first restoration between 1964 and 1974, it became clear that the frescos quite quickly became dirty again. Not really surprising when you consider that about two million people visit the chapel each year. The high humidity in the chapel as a result of their respiration and evaporating perspiration has a devastating effect on the frescos. So the Vatican has installed an ingenious ventilation system to cool down the moist air rising up from the crowd. If you have brought binoculars and have a little patience you can spot the special equipment (censors) that was installed near the ledges on the walls. It creates a continuous flow of air along the walls and ceilings so that the polluted air cannot reach the frescos and cause damage.

Continuation Rome day 5: Spanish Steps