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Last Judgment (altar wall, Sistine Chapel)

Michelangelo, Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel Ceiling, fresco, 1534-1541 (Vatican City, Rome) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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  • leaf green style avatar for user John
    Wasn't this fresco later censored by having convenient swathes of cloth painted over exposed private parts? If so, why wasn't the ceiling also censored?
    (22 votes)
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  • winston default style avatar for user Emily Mickel
    Why would Michelangelo portray his face in the skin of St. Bartholomew? Is there a connection between dying a horrible death/grotesqueness and Michelangelo? Or is that just a hideous face?
    (6 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user VizuSaysHi
      The St.Bartholomew is actually a cover up by Michelangelo. The nonskinned man is actually Julius the second, the pope of which Michelangelo did many art pieces for. Most of which Michelangelo would have preferred not to do. Therefore, Michelangelo depicts the pope as murderer who did not let Michelangelo, the skinned/killed one, from doing pieces he wished to and basically killing his talents. Depicting the pope as such was heresy and he used the St.Bartholomew as a cover up.
      (13 votes)
  • sneak peak green style avatar for user Ryan Nee
    At , she mentions St. Sebastian who died of getting pierced with arrows — where is St. Sebastian in the painting?
    (4 votes)
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  • old spice man green style avatar for user Don Spence
    The characters in this painting seem somewhat thicker bodied than Michelangelo's earlier work. Could this reflect his aging and losing the tone of youth shows up in his depiction of bodies which are older and more reflect our deterioration as we age? Been through that stage of life myself, which perhaps inspires my theory?
    (3 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user Stuart W
      I see what your saying. I lack empirical evidence, but my thoughts are that he has come to realize that the body is temporary. He uses its expression of power and general impressiveness to show us a figure's divinity and the importance of the narrative altogether, but he also shows us that the body is useless when our souls inhabit a non-physical world. This struck in particular when I saw some bodies of the damned at . Look at these absurd and unnecessary muscles that are painted in rather a repulsive pale color on figures whose backs are towards us. Is perhaps the physical world turning it's back on those who have lived only for the tangible and without faith?
      I have not personally experienced my body letting me down, but even I can see Michelangelo's representation of this axiom that the human body will not endure; it will not grant you salvation as you desire.

      I agree that he could have been realizing this human infirmity with each day he aged, but his experience with cadavers must also have enformed the idea for him early on that the world was temporary, and even the dead are capable of having a "perfect" form.
      (5 votes)
  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    In the upper right hand corner there are some figures grasping on to what looks like a classical column (perhaps Ionic? I can't quite see it well enough)...what is that all about?
    (3 votes)
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  • purple pi purple style avatar for user Keith
    Is the word he stated at "reiterated"? Was he referring to Michelangelo "going to" the ancient Greek mythologies?
    (3 votes)
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  • hopper happy style avatar for user tarris1
    There seems to be a technical mis-match between the points granted and the video now. Was the video longer before and if so, is the reduced length removing important details from the discussion?
    (2 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user drszucker
      We replaced the very old, longer, original video with one we made on a recent visit to Rome. We think the newer video is stronger and conveys more recent scholarship. It was also made with higher-quality photographs.
      (4 votes)
  • mr pants teal style avatar for user ava.andrews
    why are they all flying together in clumps?
    (2 votes)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user skylover29
    At , what is that black rectangle? Is that something in the wall or in front of it?
    (2 votes)
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  • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
    In the essay on Pollaluolo's "Battle of Ten Nudes" in the unit on the earlier renaissance, there was a comment by daVinci that the bodies in that print looked like "bags of nuts". I'm feeling that the bodies in Michelangelo's Last Judgment have something of that quality, too, bulges where people don't have bulges, muscles that are just too bumpy to feel real. Does anyone else have that feeling? Look back to the earlier unit and find the essay of Pollaluolo, and see if the pictures there don't make you think of the ones in this unit.
    (2 votes)
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    • duskpin sapling style avatar for user Grace Weinheimer
      i agree, personally i feel that his people are a bit over muscular and i used to see the muscles as bulges too, but i feel that it is just a glorification of these people and it makes their characters more raw and either vulnerable or strong depending on the temperature and feeling impressed on the person being depicted.
      (1 vote)

Video transcript

(soft piano music) - [Steven] More than 20 years after Michelangelo finished painting the frescoes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling he was asked to do another fresco, this time on the altar wall. - [Beth] And on the altar wall Michelangelo painted the Last Judgment. This is an old subject in art history from the New Testament from the Book of Revelation. - [Steven] It's not possible to overestimate how important this location is. This is the high altar of the Sistine Chapel. This is where the pope led mass, and this is still the room where the college of cardinals selects the next pope. - [Beth] So Michelangelo paints Christ in the top center. On either side of Christ are saints and Old Testament figures. But below Christ we have the separation of the blessed from the damned. On Christ's left, the damned who are going to hell, and on Christ's right, the blessed who are going to heaven. - [Steven] There is no more dramatic, no more powerful an image in the Catholic tradition. This is the end of time, and we see Christ as a powerful judge, who's facing towards the damned smiting them. - [Beth] He seems to be pointing to the wounds that he received on the cross. Beside him is the Virgin Mary, who crouches powerless. She seems no longer to be able to intercede for mankind. - [Steven] Although she looks down towards the blessed, and seems to give over to Christ the damned. - [Beth] On Christ's right the blessed rise up to heaven from their graves. They're pulled by angels who seem to assist them in their ascent to heaven. - [Steven] I love these images, because Michelangelo bodies are so dense. They're so powerful. They're so muscular. Even the spirits that are being resurrected, that they have to be lifted up with great effort. And you can see one angel pulling up the blessed by a rosary. - [Beth] That's right. A couple who's literally being helped to ascent into heaven on the strength of their prayer represented by the rosary beads. Directly below Christ we see angels blowing their trumpets awakening the dead from their graves. - [Steven] Look at those long golden trumpets. And this is in the Book of Revelation, so it is made explicit here. - [Beth] But those angels don't look very much like what we expect of angels. They are clearly male and powerful. Their heads are too small for their bodies. In blowing the trumpets they look almost as though they're going to explode with the power that that takes. - [Steven] Well, they have to wake the dead, and that's exactly what they're doing. We can crypts opening up. We can see graves. We can see these spirits that seem to emerge from the earth. It's so unexpected, the physicality that Michelangelo has rendered, the spirits. You would think that they would be incorporeal. They would have no mass. They would have no gravity. They would have no weight. But the opposite is true here. We feel the struggle, the difficulty of saving those souls, of bringing those souls into heaven. - [Beth] Yeah, there's no shying away from the body here. It is typical of Michelangelo that there's this interest in the physicality of the body, the musculature of the body. - [Steven] And we see the emphasis on the body even more so perhaps on the right side with the damned. - [Beth] So where on one side we see the blessed rising up toward heaven, on the opposite side we see the fires of hell and the damned being delivered there. - [Steven] They're being delivered on a boat. You can see the oarsman. This would be Charon, swinging his great oar to kick them off, and the demons are helping with their pitchforks and they're actually harvesting the new souls for hell. It's a pretty nasty scene. - [Beth] Yeah, there are demons everywhere pulling the figures off the boat and into hell. - [Steven] It's not just the demons that are doing their part. It's also the angels. Just above this scene we can see the damned who are being pushed down into hell, they seem to be striving desperately to get out, and they're being punched by angels who are above them. But probably most arresting of all is the representation of a single figure. He's got a devil that's pulling at him from below, but it's his psychological intensity that is giving him the name the Damned Man. - [Beth] He seems to have just realized that he's going to spend eternity in hell. And there are demons also wrapped around his legs pulling him down toward hell. - [Steven] But look at his face. The hand is covering one eye as if he can't believe, he can't bear to see his fate. On the other hand, his other eye is open wide as if this is the moment of recognition. - [Beth] When we look at the scene here in the Sistine Chapel we can look at Michelangelo's early work on the ceiling right above us where we see figures with bodies that are elegant and noble and have a sense of dignity. But here on the altar wall in the scene of the Last Judgment the figures look intentionally ugly and intentionally awkward. Their proportions are all wrong. Their heads are too small for their bodies. Their muscles look over drawn. - [Steven] That's especially true of the representation of Christ. I mean look at the size of that torso. It's completely out of scale with his head and with his height. So Michelangelo is looking at the human body not in the way that one might have in the high renaissance. That is, as a reference back to the classical tradition and a kind of ideal proportion. Instead, he's looking at the body as full of symbolic value. He's willing to distort the body for the power of the painting itself. - [Beth] Right, the religious message is key here. And the body is in the service of that message. In the intervening years the Church has been challenged by Martin Luther and the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation. - [Steven] This was a moment of great turmoil, and as Michelangelo gets older his earlier optimism seems to have been replaced by a deep pessimism. - [Beth] That might be best seen in the figure of St. Catherine, who holds a wheel, which is her attribute since she was murdered on a wheel. But here, she looks so ungainly and if we compare her to the beauty of Eve on the ceiling, the difference in the way Michelangelo is treating the body is clear. - [Steven] Another figure that represents the profound pessimism of this fresco can be seen just to the right and below Christ. We see there a very large figure on a cloud, nude, who's looking up at Christ holding a knife in one hand and his skin in the other. This is Saint Bartholomew, who was martyred by having his skin removed while he was alive. - [Beth] Saints are always identified by their attributes, often by the instrument of their martyrdom. So here it makes sense that Bartholomew holds a knife. - [Steven] But art historians noticed one curious decision by Michelangelo in the representation of Bartholomew. The face that we see in the skin is actually a self portrait by the artist. - [Beth] So that means we must ask the question why would Michelangelo put his own face, his own likeness on the skin of Saint Bartholomew here in the middle between Christ the savior and the Damned Man? - [Steven] And worse than that, Bartholomew seems to be holding the skin ever so lightly as if his fingers might open and he might simply let it fall into the boat of Charon on its way to hell. - [Beth] This seems to express Michelangelo's concern for the fate of his own soul, something that we also see in his poetry from this period. And in fact, we can draw a diagonal line from the upper left from the cross in the lunate through the crown of thorns, through Christ, through the skin of Saint Bartholomew, the Damned Man, and then down to the fires of hell. (soft piano music)