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Michelangelo's Last Judgment: The Response

Nathan Zawie

            When the explosion of creative genius and artistic execution of the Fifteenth and early-Sixteenth Centuries culminated in the High Italian Renaissance, art was lauded for its classical style and idealized naturalism and brought immortal fame to its artist.  This emphasis on ars gratia artis provided Protestants with solid ground to attack the Catholic Church for its use of images.  In response to the Reformation, the Church demanded that artists renew their focus on the traditional function of art.  In the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, the Church defined the goal of images: to be visually and theologically clear in order to instruct believers, particularly the illiterate, and to be devotional and pathetic in order to incite piety.  This aim required form and content that was suitable and decent, clear and unambiguous.  The artist therefore had to conform, and possibly limit, his creativity to this higher purpose.  Within this tension between the artfulness of the High Renaissance and the renewed focus on traditional art, Michelangelo (1475-1564) created one of his greatest masterpieces: the Last Judgment.  Painted between 1536-1541, the Last Judgment offers a concrete example of the controversies of the day, both praised for its display of artistic genius and execution and attacked for its scandalous content.  Michelangelo, Creation of Adam 1508-11

            Novel in its own right as the first art history book based on the biography of an artist, Giorgio Vasari’s Life of Michelangelo immortalizes the unprecedented life and career of the great artist.  In his programmatic introduction, Vasari implicitly compares Michelangelo to Christ.  He is sent by God to enlighten the artists and the world toiling in vain to imitate the “grandeur of Nature” (1).  In painting, sculpture, and architecture, he is to achieve “the perfection of the art of design” (1).  Though it does not translate well into English, the Italian disegno implies not only invention or creation of an idea, but the actual act of planning, drawing, and shaping it.  Michelangelo is to be, therefore, the epitome of creative genius and master artist.  God also endows Michelangelo with “the true moral philosophy,” an allusion to which Vasari returns (on page 44) concerning Michelangelo’s Neo-Platonism.  As such a philosopher, Michelangelo aspires for God through the purer, ideal forms of Truth, Beauty, and Love.  Michelangelo is furthermore the “highest exemplar in the life, works, saintliness of character, and every action of human creatures,” who is to be acclaimed “as a being rather divine than human” (2).  Even the heavens foretell nothing but divine promise and greatness, born as he is ‘with happy augury” (2).  Thus is the fate of so great an artist and man. Michelangelo, Brazen Serpent, 1508-11

            Vasari’s in-depth analysis of Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel – both on the ceiling and on the Last Judgment – provides a good account of what makes Michelangelo such an exemplary artist.  Painted in a span of just four years (1508-1512), the Sistine Chapel’s fresco ceiling astounds the viewer because of “the excellence of the figures, the perfection of the foreshortenings, and the extraordinary roundness of the contours” (37).  Indeed naturalism, relief, and contour highlight Michelangelo’s fundamental concentration on the human form.  Having moved beyond the emphasis on perspective and away from the all-encompassing concerns of Leonardo (e.g. human balance, birds in flight, dust, etc.), Michelangelo focuses solely on the action of human creatures.  As part of his perfected art of disegno, Michelangelo exhibits tremendous skill in imagining the poses, then executing them.  His art is a mastery over the body.  In the iconic image of the Creation of Adam, Adam’s right arm is foreshortened to enhance the naturalism.  There is, moreover, little concern for objects other than the human body.  God the Father and Adam dominate the scene.  Praised as the best of the four scenes at the corners, on the spandrels of the vaulting, is the story of the Serpents of Moses, or the Brazen Serpent.  This scene exemplifies again Michelangelo’s command of the human form through the twists and convulsions of the bodies, but it is his ability to portray the vividness of “profound emotion” that makes this scene so striking.  The terror and utter pain of the figures on the right oppose the calm and relieved figures on the left.  The dramatic pathos is fully felt, but the narrative itself is rather unclear.  Michelangelo, Last Judgment 1537-41

The ambiguity and lack of clarity would have been a concern to those who espoused a renewed focus on the traditional function of religious art.  It may very well be this concern that Vasari addresses, as he describes nearly every aspect of the scene, both the actions and the emotions. It nevertheless still stands that the figure of Moses is essentially unidentifiable.  How could the mass of believers understand this Scriptural image, learn from it, and be moved to pious actions by it?  Such would seem to be the concern of the writers after the Council of Trent who dealt with this very problem.  In “Pictures with Obscure and Difficult Meanings,” Cardinal Paleotti discusses the dangers of images such as the Brazen Serpent.  Paintings “so obscure and ambiguous,” he says, “while they should . . . incite devotion and sting the heart, in fact confuse the mind, pull it in a thousand directions, and keep it busy sorting out what each figure is, not without loss of devotion” (in Klein and Zerner 125).  The goal of religious art is therefore lost.  Lack of visual and theological clarity leads to a lack of devotion.  Art is composed for its own sake, and what should be the superior value of religion is subjected to the value of art.

The Last Judgment is no less a subject of criticism.  Its theological message may in fact be clearer than the Brazen Serpent’s.  Christ as judge condemns those on his left to eternal fire, as he raises those on his right to heaven to join in the company of the angels and saints, including of course the Blessed Virgin Mary.  However, the bit of clarity is made confusing by the relative disorganization of the painting.  Those falling and rising according to Christ’s judgment appear jumbled and in a throng.  The same is true of the multitudes of heaven.  There is no clear organization like there is in Giotto’s Last Judgment (1306), for example.  In that painting, the choirs of angels and saints neatly line up row upon row to either side of the central judge.  The elect and the damned do not appear as well-organized, but more so than their counterpoints in Michelangelo’s. 

Detail Minos and CharonDetail Christ and the VirginIf the matter of theological clarity is not problematic enough, the scandal created by the use of pagan elements and nude forms was more than sufficient.  Paleotti again provides an implicit rejection of the Last Judgment, this time due to “the imitation of antiquity” (125).  Two of the more obvious allusions to pagan mythology are the characters of Charon and Minos.  However appropriate the ferryman and judge are to the underworld, they are nevertheless an infusion of the pagan.  If this is excusable on the grounds that the two figures are a common trope of underworld depictions and because Michelangelo was a great reader of Dante, the less obvious imitations of antiquity are harder to forgive.  Those are the sculptural models of Venus and the Apollo Belvedere, which Michelangelo used as a base for Mary and Christ respectively.  How could Michelangelo defend this position, having modeled the poses of the Mother of God and Christ the Judge after pagan precedents?  The theological and typological complexity of his possible answer would not make his overall ambiguity any clearer, but it may suffice for a more intellectual viewer.  Just as it was the goal of the Renaissance to imitate and even surpass nearly every aspect of classical antiquity, Michelangelo’s attempt is in the same vein.  His is for a theological purpose though.  Just as Mary is typologically the new Eve, so she is represented in the Last Judgment as the new Venus, the new goddess of love so to speak.  She has transformed pagan love into a Christian love.  Similarly, Christ is typologically linked to the sun god Apollo, and, like Mary, is represented as superior to his pagan predecessor.  Michelangelo is going beyond doctrine, and may be criticized for trying to argue theologically in a poetic fashion.  To the right audience, it would be powerful, but not to the masses, as religious art was supposed to.

Detail Sts. Blaise and CatherineThe biggest controversy of the Last Judgment stems from the nude figures, especially those of the saints.  Shocked by Michelangelo’s use of such indecorous figures, Messer Biagio da Cesena, the papal master of ceremonies, heavily criticized the work.  According to Vasari, Biagio “said that it was a very disgraceful thing to have made in so honorable a place all those nude figures showing their nakedness so shamelessly, and that it was a work not for the chapel of a Pope, but for a brothel or tavern” (69-70).  In light of the movement made by the Council of Trent, which stressed decorum and decency, Aretino attacked Michelangelo for his display of an “impiety of irreligion” (Klein and Zerner 122).  According to Aretino, Michelangelo was a Christian who, “because he rates art higher than faith, deems a royal spectacle of martyrs and virgins in improper attitudes, men dragged down by their genitals, things in front of which brothels would shut their eyes in order not to see them” (123).  The irreverent poses of St. Blaise and St. Catherine of Alexandria would seem to support Aretino’s claims.  Vasari defended Michelangelo’s work as theologically and artistically sophisticated (73).  Indeed Michelangelo believed that a beautiful body was the physical representation of a beautiful soul, especially in man’s prelapsarian state.  However, Aretino’s attack that Michelangelo valued art over religion was potentially damning.                         

Paolo Veronese, Feast in the House of Levi (Last Supper) 1573

The controversy between art and religion extended well beyond the Last Judgment.   In The Investigation of Veronese, the Holy Tribunal accused Paolo Caliari of Verona of indecency.  Dogs and other animals, buffoons, dwarves, drunkards, and German halberdiers were all deemed unsuitable in a depiction of the Last Supper.  Veronese conceded that his painting’s primary function was entertainment – ornamented “for pleasure,” not for its devotional representation of the Last Supper.  He even indicted Michelangelo as being similarly indecent in the Last Judgment by use of nude figures, but the Tribunal defended Michelangelo’s work because of its spirituality (132).  To avoid trouble, Veronese willingly changed the name of his work to the Feast in the House of Levi.  He was warned against similar work in the future, however, since it was damaging to the Holy Catholic Church in places like Germany.  An example of such damaging art is Lucas Cranach the Elder’s woodcut Antichristus, which portrays the Pope as the Antichrist, signing and selling indulgences.  Commissioned by Martin Luther in 1521, it was a particularly damning accusation.

The likes of Veronese, but more especially of Michelangelo, came in direct contact with a religious movement that required them to limit their art in some way or another.  Most of the nude figures in Michelangelo’s masterpiece had to be covered with drapery, and the St. Blaise-St. Catherine of Alexandria scene was cut out and redone by a different artist altogether.  In a career that spanned the pontificates of seven men, Michelangelo distinguished himself arguably like no other artist had ever done before.  Toward the end of his life though, Michelangelo appeared to rethink his distinguished career and to possibly even regret his previous art.  In his 1554 Sonnet, Michelangelo lamented the vanity of art and expressed his longing for religious experience.  Whether or not it was the effects of old age – namely his proximity to death and to the Last Judgment that, like the figures in his painting, he too would face – Michelangelo exemplified the master artist caught in the whirlwind of religious renewal.   


Klein, Robert and Henri Zerner. Italian Art 1500-1600. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1990. 

Vasari, Giorgio. Life of Michelangelo. Translated by Gaston du C. de Vere. New York: St. Pauls, 2003.


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