If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

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.

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)