The painting of “The Last Judgment” by Michelangelo was a fresco which was executed between 1537 and 1541 at the behest of Pope Julius II who commissioned Michelangelo to perform the task. This scene is based on the passage in the Bible on what would happen when Christ would come again. Both the living and the dead, who would be raised then, will be judged by Christ and their fates would be determined if they are going to heaven or hell.
The artwork was done on freshly spread lime plaster that was still moist with water-based pigments. Michelangelo’s palette developed highly embellished monochromatic work and the symmetry of his figures made it appear broader and more threatening, if not intimidating to the uninitiated, intended to evoke a sense of awe to anyone who would view it.
This large, solid and heavy wall painting can be viewed behind the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City and it took Michelangelo more than four years to complete this masterpiece which was a break from the usual sculptures he used to do where he had made outstanding works such as “David,” “Pieta” and “Moses” as he dabbled with the concept of mural painting which was probably the largest masterpiece he had ever done in his life as “The Last Judgment” formed part of the vast murals that adorn the walls of the chapel which is the Pope’s private chapel and at present, a place with significance as this is where Popes are chosen during conclaves and “The Last Judgment” is considered an appropriate artwork to adorn the altar of this historic chapel for such an occasion. The ideas and sense of appreciation from the painting itself depicts the individuality of every personality on the artwork. They each have varied deep explanations of every detail in the painting. Explanation is on the basis of their own experiences in relation to the painting and to themselves.
Each dimension of this painting has its own perspective to present making it open to various interpretations. One’s eyes have to move from the center going up then look down after in analyzing overall the images then breaking it down to individual parts. The meticulous ones would be made to zoom in to see the every little detail, thinking whether it has connection or relevance with other images. The painting itself provides varied insights and explanations allowing for varied ways to comprehend the painting. For instance, the angels in the middle of the paintings are depicted blowing their trumpets to raise the dead, shown on the lower left-hand side of the painting, from their long deep slumber to prepare them for their appointment with God.
Two of them, apparently the archangels Michael and Gabriel are seen holding the two books in which all has been written down about the individuals where Jesus will base his judgment. The smaller book contains the names of the ones to be saved while the larger one contains the names of the damned (Michelangelo; Ruehling). This is consistent to what is stated in the Gospel according to Matthew. A similar passage would be also stated in the Book of Revelation (Rev. 20:11-15): “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels in heaven, he will sit upon his royal throne, and all nations will be assembled before him. Then he will separate them into two groups, as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. The sheep he will place on his right hand, the goats on his left (Matt. 25:31-33). ”
On the left panel, the chosen ones situated on the right side of Christ, those who had been judged worthy are escorted to heaven by the angels where they would live eternal bliss with the Almighty. The right panel, on the left of Christ shows the damned, the ones deemed unworthy and proven to now have repented their sins, are being led to hell where they would suffer eternal damnation (Michelangelo). Besides the Bible, Michelangelo got his inspiration for making his artwork from Dante Alighieri’s “Inferno” as it provided him with graphic detail or has enabled him to “flesh out” the scenes he would be depicting. In addition, he added personalities and characters from Greek and Roman mythology as part of his “fleshing out” of the scenes (Barnes 1).
One would be able to recognize Charon (holding an oar), the ferryman of Hades of the Greek mythology as he and his minions are seen leading the damned to be judged before Minos found at the extreme lower right-hand corner with a snake wrapped around his body. Minos is another figure in Greek mythology where he was the king of Crete but in this case and using artistic license, Michelangelo depicts the Cretan king as the ruler of hell instead of using Hades or Satan. Jesus is situated in the middle, befitting his stature as the King of Kings with his mother Mary at His side. The two large figures flanking Christ are the disciples Saints John the Baptist on the left and Peter on the right, depicted with keys of heaven in his hand. The figure underneath and further right of Jesus is another disciple Saint Bartholomew, whose image is a self-portrait by Michelangelo himself.
Also included are most of the saints who were martyred. They are seen in the painting holding the instruments of their martyrdom such as Saint Sebastian holding arrows used to kill him; Saint Blaise, holding iron combs used to torture him to death and Saint Bartholomew holding his skin, underscoring how he was flayed (skinned alive) to death by his tormentors (Michelangelo). Above the lunettes are symbols of the Passion of Christ which are the cross, the crown of thorns, the pillar where Jesus was bound and scourged, the spear that was used by Longinus to stab his side, and the sponge dipped in vinegar and hyssop used to sate Christ’s thirst while hanging on the cross.
In terms of scale, technique and drama “The Last Judgment” is an absolute highlight of Renaissance painting as one can see the humanist approach taken by Michelangelo that showed a return to the classical style of Greco-Roman influence and a complete departure from the medieval style which was formless and lacking depth. Originally, most of the images were depicted in the nude but owing to the sanctity of the place, a certain degree of modesty and decency was exercised and it fell upon Michelangelo’s assistant, Daniele de Volterra to “edit” the painting by covering the private parts in such a way that it did not compromise the intention of his mentor to depict the well-proportioned bodies of his subjects (Barnes 88). Jesus Christ: Physically, Michelangelo depicted Christ with broad, powerful proportions, appearing in a radiant glow of divine light befitting His place as the Son of God and King of Kings.
Michelangelo further accentuated this radiance by painting the figure in a section that is best illuminated by the chapel’s window for “special effect. ” Christ is portrayed barely clothed and bare-legged instead of being majestic as one would expect in his Second Coming, wearing only a long strip of cloth across his loins in a manner in order to reveal the wounds of his crucifixion – the puncture wounds on his hands and feet where the nails were driven and the wound on his side where the spear was thrust. These not only emphasize his passion as well but also resonates images of his resurrection, proving once and for all that he had conquered death and has redeemed mankind from the wages of sin and thereby emphasizing his undisputed position as the ultimate judge of mankind (Ruehring).
Despite the rather “modest” image of Christ, Michelangelo still managed to evoke a powerful image of Jesus as final judgment is being carried out without fear or reservation in order to justly and ultimately determine who deserves to be punished and committed to hell. Michelangelo depicted Christ in such a way to express the righteous anger of promptness and firmness in passing judgment towards the individual, further reminding one of the fate that awaits when that time really comes. The painting also depicts the Blessed Virgin Mary seated beside Christ. Mary is regarded by Catholics as a great intercessor for anyone seeking solace or succor in times of trouble.
In this particular case, she appears to be downcast as her head appears to turn away as a sign of resignation which implies that she could no longer intercede for anyone at this point in time and can only be a spectator witnessing the judgment of mankind (Michelangelo; Ruehring). Minos: At the lower right-hand corner of The Last Judgment is Minos, whom Michelangelo depicts as the king of hell instead of Satan. It can be inferred here that Michelangelo employed artistic license in using a different character to be the ruler of hell and he drew his inspiration from Dante’s work “Inferno” where Minos is depicted as the king of hell (Alighieri 23,75).
He is shown with a serpent wound tightly around him, symbolizing the circle of hell. Michelangelo’s physical depiction of Minos also served for him as a stinging caricature against his enemy Biagio da Cesena, then the Pope’s chamberlain, as a way of getting back at him for saying his painting was not worthy to adorn the walls of the Vatican despite the commission from the Pope. Michelangelo’s spite was very evident as he tried to depict Minos in the most hideous way possible complete with ass’s ears and a serpent striking his genitalia as a form of “revenge” against his nemesis whom he could not physically harm owing to his stature in the Vatican (Ruehring). Charon:
Michelangelo borrowed another character from Dante’s work and Greek mythology in Charon, the boatman who ferries the souls of the dead across the River Styx leading to Hades though in this case, it is hell. Physically, Charon is depicted hideously with dark skin, thick dark hair, pointed ears, bulging and glowing eyes, giving him a devil-like appearance, short of depicting him as an actual demon. He is depicted herding the darkly gaunt and tortured souls as they spill upon the shores of hell. Michelangelo has truly captured Charon as an agent of hell in this painting and seamlessly combining classical (Greek) mythology with Christianity to come up with a very strong image (Barnes 108, 113). All in all, “The Last Judgment” can be truly be called a masterpiece by Michelangelo.
He had done justice to the work and in a way, rendered great service to the Church by blending horrors and beauty; of condemnation and redemption, all these wonderfully captured in his painting. Works Cited Alighieri, Dante. Inferno. London: Smith, Elder and Company, 1865. Barnes, Bernadine. Michelangelo’s Last Judgment: The Renaissance Response. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998. Michelangelo. The Last Judgment. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City. Ruehring, Lauren Mitchell. “Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. ” 2010. How Stuff Works. 12 May 2010 <http://entertainment. howstuffworks. com/arts/artwork/michelangelos-last-judgment6. htm>. The New American Bible. Camden, New Jersey: Catholic Publishers, Inc. , 1970.
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