The Last Judgment

Near the end of his life, Pope Clement VII was given the idea to commission a large fresco depicting the Last Judgment. Since it would be in the Sistine Chapel, it was only natural to ask Michelangelo, who had

painted the ceiling 20 years beforehand, to come and paint this large fresco, the largest single fresco painted in that century. Clement died on September 25, 1534, right around the time Michelangelo arrived in Rome to receive his commission. He then had to wait for Clement’s successor, Pope Paul III Farnese, to confirm the commission, and scaffolding was not put up until April 1535.

Painting this fresco did not take as large a toll on Michelangelo’s health as the ceiling had, though it took him until 1541 to finish. Even before it was finished, there was a great deal of controversy surrounding the work. The most famous complaint was from the Vatican’s Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, who said that “it was mostly 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.” As revenge, Michelangelo painted him into the lower right corner of the painting as Minos, the mythological king of Crete who after death became one of the three judges of hell, with a snake coiled around him. This did not stop others from criticizing Michelangelo, and some even accused him of heresy. The controversy got so bad that, at the Council of Trent in January, 1564, just a month before Michelangelo’s death, it was decided that the fresco should be “amended”. A painter by the name of Daniele da Volterra, who had been acquainted with Michelangelo, was then hired to paint loincloths and veils onto all of the figures in the Last Judgment, earning him the nickname “Il Braghetonne”, literally meaning “the breeches maker”.

The painting itself centers around Christ in the moment before he utters the verdict of the Last Judgment. Next to him is Mary and around him are his Saints, some easily identifiable by icons associated with them, for instance St Bartholomew holding his own skin, which may be a self-portrait of Michelangelo. At the bottom of the fresco are depictions of humans rising to heaven and being led into hell by Charon, another figure from Greek and Roman mythology who would supposedly ferry the dead across the River Styx into the underworld. Over the years, many more parts of the Last Judgment were “amended”, however, during the restorations of the 1980s and 1990s, the masterpiece was nearly returned to its original state, leaving only the changes made by Daniele da Volterra.

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