Rome, Italy

The Last Judgment by Michelangelo

Sistine Chapel | The Vatican Museums

One hundred and eighty square meters, four hundred figures, five years of work: these are the incredible numbers of the Last Judgment and of the solitary genius of Michelangelo.

When one thinks of the Sistine Chapel, the stupendous frescoed ceiling and the Last Judgment come to mind together, as though they had created at the same time.

Actually, 20 years passed from when the vaulted ceiling was built to when the Judgment even began to be considered.

The Sistine Chapel was already thought of as a masterpiece but there was still the feeling that something was missing, a final scene. So a fresco that would remind us of the end times, when all the souls would be judged, came to mind.

This was an almost obligatory theme because the decorations of the Chapel started from the beginnings, the Creation. There's no doubt that the choice was also influenced by the atmosphere in the papal city in those days after the tragic Sack of Rome in 1527 by the Landsknechts.

So, in 1533, a little more than 20 years later, pope Clement VII de’ Medici again thought of Michelangelo and asked him to return to Rome. Almost all the artists had gone away and so had he, also because of the power his rival Raphael had at the papal court; Michelangelo was working at the time in Florence as an architect and sculptor.

He let the pope wait a bit until, one year later, in 1534, he returned to Rome, maybe a little late since pope Clement VII died two days afterwards.

The new pope Paul III decided to maintain a good rapport with the sculptor and so went personally to his house. There, he saw a preparatory sketch Michelangelo had prepared for Clement VII and approved it on the spot. But despite the passing of years, the artist still had the tomb of Julius II in mind.

His character hadn't sweetened at all with time so not even for Paul III was it an easy matter to convince the artist to again abandon the idea of the mausoleum and dedicate himself to the Sistine Chapel.

Naturally, everything took a bit of time and lots of talk before the works could begin.

For example, Sebastiano del Piombo, had convinced the pope to have the Judgment done in oils. Michelangelo didn't put up a fight, he simply didn't start to work.

When asked for an explanation, he exploded saying that he would only have done the work using the fresco technique and that oil painting was the kind of women's work that only lazy people like Sebastiano would even think of practicing.

So both the pope and the insulted painter had no other choice but to convince themselves that the fresco was the way to go.

Finally, in 1536, Michelangelo began to paint the Judgment. This time, the news had spread all over Italy and the artist was at the height of his fame particularly after the death of that detestable Raphael.

All eyes were on his work; even the poet Pietro Aretino, in 1537, sent him a letter giving him advice on how to arrange the images.

For an answer, Michelangelo affirmed that he didn't need it because the work was almost finished; just another one of his stratagems to keeping prying eyes away from his work.

Michelangelo wasn't always so lucky. During the work, pope Paul III went to visit the Sistine with his entourage of prelates. Among them was the pope's Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, who was absolutely scandalized by the great quantity of naked figures and strongly protested, affirming that a fresco of that kind didn't deserve anything more than the wall of a bar.

Michelangelo responded by painting Biagio da Cesena into Hell, as Minos, judge of the souls, with two huge asses ears and a serpent intent on nibbling his genitals. When the Master of Ceremonies resentfully complained, the pope responded by saying that his jurisdiction unfortunately didn't cover Hell.

At the beginning of the work, Michelangelo was forced to destroy two of his frescoes and two of Perugino's that were already on the walls. Then he created a slightly inclined wall so that it wouldn't get covered by dust.

Contrary to what happened to the Ceiling, in the Last Judgment, there was no need for a painted architecture to tie the various scenes together Michelangelo thus found himself in front of an enormous white wall on which his genius would reach its highest levels.

His only help and source of inspiration was the Bible and his familiarity with Dante, together with the talks on the division of the Church after Luthers Reform, very topical at the time.

The artist was very sensitive to these arguments, thanks mostly to his contacts in the Catholic Reform circles, those who maintained that, to obtain salvation, no religious practices were needed, faith alone was enough.

One of the first things that grab your eye in this marvelous fresco is without doubt the intense ultramarine blue that is totally absent on the ceiling above. His vivid color, made of ground Lapislazzuli, was, at the time, an incredibly costly material.

Even so, Michelangelo used it widely, since it was the pope who was footing the bill while 20 years previous, the costs of creating the ceiling were all paid for by the artist.

His techniques were again revolutionary and he used a different expedient for every image: he used a dimpling technique for the Madonna to give her more realism and depth; he gave the figures different dimensions, painting those higher up more than two meters tall and those lower down shorter than a normal person, all this to give the impression to the viewer of truly been within the scene.

Every since the Sistine Chapel opened to the public, it stimulated amazement and admiration but also, inevitably, bitter controversy that went on for years until it ended up with the artist being accused of immorality.

In the opinion of the moralists at the papal court, so much nudity was an outrage in such a holy place, and from that moment on all sorts of ways were tried to hide Michelangelo’s work, pope Paul IV went so far as to make plans to destroy the fresco to enlarge the chapel but fortunately, he couldn't carry through his idea.

The criticism continued up until the Council of Trent in 1563, when, in answer to the Lutheran's accusations of paganism, it was decided to cover the nudity of those figures considered "obscene”. So began the "fig-leaf campaign” inspired by the covered nudity of Adam and Eve, and Michelangelo couldn't do anything about it since he died a year after the Councils decision.

The thankless task fell to one of the artist's followers, Daniele da Volterra, who painted in pieces of cloth and drapes to cover the nudity. He created 41 "pairs of pants" that gained him the unkind nickname of "braghettone" (baggy-pants).

Saint Catherine of Alexandria, with the wheel of her martyrdom, was completely re-dressed and Saint Biagio behind her was totally re-drawn and re-frescoed. All was not lost, however: a painter, Marcello Venusti, managed to make an uncensured copy that today can be found in the Museum of Capodimonte, in Naples.

Over the course of centuries, the Sistine Chapel has been often retouched and restored, mostly because of cracks and saline deposits that formed on the paintings but many of these restorations only worsened the situation.

The mass of visitors, the smoke of the braziers and the fat let off by the candles, over the years, created a dark patina on Michelangelo's work.

When, in 1981 it was decided to proceed with a restoration, it took 13 years to remove the deposits of dirt, many more than the artist took to create the work in the first place; years in which the restorers, during this delicate work, had the chance to fell how the artist had worked, feeling his same discomforts.

Even the modem catwalk used for the restoration was built starting with that designed by Michelangelo, even using the same ancient fixture points.

After numerous experiments and a painstaking and difficult job, the restoration ended with a great revelation and the Sistine Chapel again showed its royal splendor in luminous, brilliant color. After almost 500 years, Michelangelo has again been able to spark controversy, just like the first time the frescoes were shown to the public.

It had been thought for centuries that the Sistine Chapel was done in dark colors so that explosion of blue and vivid colors caused great amazement and at the same time set off criticism in those who couldn't conceive of such vivid colors and thought the work had been retouched.

Actually, the walls were simply cleaned of that patina of time and the masterpiece reappeared exactly as it had been conceived by the artist. Only the "pants" weren't totally removed, there are still 24 of them intact because they're considered "historical" because of their ties to the Council of Trent.

The genius of Michelangelo still amaze us today and we can admire it openmouthed, just like his contemporaneous, with their noses in the air, their feet on the ground, imagining for a moment that we're flying, immersed in all that blue.