Sistine Chapel: Last  Judgment  Michelangelo (continuation)

Sistine Chapel ‘Last  Judgment’ large size
Sistine Chapel Last  Judgment Michelangelo

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. Good quality images of the Last Judgment can be found on the following websites: Mvsei Vaticani and Web Gallery of Art. Another great way of taking a virtual look at the chapel from all angles can be found on the internet here.

After and before the restoration
Piazza Navona Piranesi ca.1650

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.

Reconstruction wall before the Last Judgment of Michelangelo frescos Perugino large size
Sistine chapel reconstruction wall before the Last Judgment of Michelangelo frescoes Perugino

Last Judgment:
1. Youtube Khan Academy Last Judgment (7.28 minutes)
2. Youtube (starts at  50.10 minutes)
3. Youtube Last Judgment  3D virtual tour & documentary (5 minutes)

Meaning and restoration:
4. Youtube lecture Michelangelo, Copernicus and the Sistine Chapel  Dr Valerie Shrimplin (48.57 minutes).
5. Youtube restoration of the  Sistine chapel (49.42 minutes)

Titian ‘Paul III’
Titian Paul III

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 near Trajan’s Column (House with the tower to the left Trajan’s Column).

Étienne Dupérac ‘Forum of Trajan with column of Trajan in Rome’ Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam 
Étienne Dupérac Michelangelo’s studio in Rome near Trajan’s Column 1575 large size
 Étienne Dupérac 157 5Michelangelo's studio in Rome near Trajan’s Column

While there, the pope looked at many designs and statues, including Moses. As before with the ceiling, Michelangelo did not want to accept the commission.

Alexandre Cabanel ‘Pope Julius II visits Michelangelo in his studio’ 1859
Alexander Cabanel Pope Julius II visits Michelangelo in his studio 1859
However, at the moment that he realised he didn’t have a choice, he put if off for as long as he could, pretending to be really busy with the cartoni – which was partly true – even though he was secretly still working on the statues of the tomb [Teg: partly still visible in Rome in the San Pietro in Vincoli].

Ascanio Condivi, ‘The life of Michelangelo’, Phaidon, Oxford 1976, page 75 (original edition 1553)

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

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.

Condivi provides an accurate description of the situation as follows:

In this work, Michelangelo depicts all human figures [four hundred] imaginable in art, not leaving out a single action or pose […] In the central part, the sky near the earth, are seven angels, as described by St John in the Apocalypse with trumpets at their mouths summoning the dead from the four corners of the earth for their judgement. Two of them are holding open a book with their hands, in which everyone can read, and recognise their past, almost as if one could pass his own verdict. At the sound of the trumpets all graves open up and the human race rises up from the earth, in all variety and beautiful gestures; while some are only half covered in flesh, others fully; some naked, some dressed in the shrouds and grave clothes they were wrapped in when they were buried and trying to free themselves thereof. Among them are those who are not yet fully awake, looking up in despair wondering whether they will be summoned for the divine judgement. It is a beautiful sight to see how the raised dead struggle to come out of the earth and ascend to heaven with their arms outstretched. Above the angels with their trumpets sits the Son of God in all his majesty, in the shape of a man, with his arm and strong right hand lifted upward. He wrathfully curses the condemned, and drives them away from his visage and into the eternal fire. He appears to draw the chosen toward him. Angels can be seen on earth and in the sky carrying out his holy orders. They come to his right hand to help the chosen […] and to his left to push back to earth the condemned who in their insolence try to ascend to heaven. Demons drag the condemned to the abyss […] each sinner by the limbs with which he committed his sins. Below them is Charon with his boat on the muddy Acheron, just like Dante describes him in his Inferno, his oar raised to strike at the souls who remain behind. They are then told their verdict by Minos and dragged into a bottomless pit. […] In the middle of the composition, on a heavenly cloud, the Blessed, […] all of God’s saints, each showing the gigantic Judge the symbol of their martyrdom with which they glorified God: Andreas with his cross, Bartholomew with his flayed skin, Lawrence with the grid, Sebastian with the arrows, Blasius with iron combs, Catherine with the wheel. […] above all of this on the right and left, in the upper section of the wall, are groups of angels, holding up the cross in heaven, the sponge, the crown of thorns, the nails and the whipping post.

Ascanio Condivi, ‘The Life of Michelangelo’, Phaidon, Oxford 1976,  (original edition 1553) page. 83-87.

The despair of a damned man and his face
sistine chapel last judgement 'The despair of a damned man' Michelangelo
Drawing of the Last Judgement with 26 out of a total of 400 figures:
1.   Gabriel
2.   Christ the Judge
3.   The Virgin Mary
4.  St Lawrence
5.  Bartholomeus
6.  Flayed skin (self-portrait Michelangelo)
7.  Petrus (keys)
8.  Adam
9.  Eve; or Job’s wife
10. Esau
11. Jacob
12. Simon van Cyrene of Dismas
13. St Sebastian (arrows)

  14. St Cathrine of Alexandria (broken wheel)
15. St Blaise (Iron combs)
16. The Good Thief
17. Simon Zelote (saw)
18. St Andrew (cross)
19. St John the Baptist
20. Group with personification of motherhood
21. Eva
22. Virgil
23. Angels with trumpets
24. Two convicts saved by Rosary
25. Charon 
26. Minos
Michelangelo St Lawrence and the sketch
Michelangelo Last Judgement St Lawrence

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 ‘Last Judgment Sistine Chapel altar wall’ large size  
Michelangelo on the scaffolding for the Last Judgement
Michelangelo Last Judgement Sistine Chapel altar wall
Michelangelo  ‘Last Judgement’ detail large size
Michelangelo  'Last Judgement' detail Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo  ‘Last Judgement’ detail large size
Michelangelo  'Last Judgement' detail Sistine Chapel


Angels summon the dead for the apocalypse large size
Michelangelo  'Last Judgement' detail Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo ‘Last Judgement’ detail large size
Michelangelo  'Last Judgement' detail Sistine chapel

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). 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 ‘Resurrection of the flesh’  fresco 700 cm Cappella di San Brizio Duomo Orvieto large size
Detail    Large size
LLuca Signorelli Resurrection of the flesh fresco 700 cm Cappella Nova Duomo Orvieto
Two condemned man saved by the rosary
Michelangelo Last Judgement Sistine Chapel Two condemned man saved by the rosary

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.

St Bartholomew     Large size

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 fresco’s 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.

Pope Francis


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. 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.

After and before the restoration big size
Donkey’s ears
Michelangelo Sistine Chapel Last Judgement Minos (portrait of Cesena)
Michelangelo’s Last Judgment fresco, unveiled on October 31, 1541, opened like a hit show. All Rome, it is said, flocked to the Sistine Chapel to gape at the spectacle—the grandest of pictures, the most lavish of incident, the most urgent in advertising the perpetual imminence of the Last Day. The City shuddered in awe and stupefied admiration.

Source: Leo Steinberg

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 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 what Last Judgement originally looked like except where the original paint disappeared big size
Reconstruction of what St. Catherine originally looked like    Original paint disappeared

Before the major restoration with the work of the breeches-maker and after the restoration.

The side walls were restored during the major restoration of 1964 and 1974 (see floor plan, letters A through O). The ceiling was restored next. Read more about the restoration on the Wikipedia website.

 Youtube de restoration (49.42 minutes)    Large  size
Sixtijnse kapel verdrijving Adam Eva uit Paradijs restauratie

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.

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.

After and before the restoration large size
Sixtijnse kapel Michelangelo Laatste Oordeel

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.

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