In 1534 Pope Clement VII invited Michelangelo back to Rome (after two decades in Florence) to work on the altar wall in the Sistine chapel. Michelangelo had not painted in fresco for over twenty years, yet his Last Judgement was a highly original, if controversial, masterpiece.
The Last Judgement was a common theme in church art, but Michelangelo’s interpretation was entirely novel. His vision of the Apocalypse is a swirling maelstrom, filled with thick-set and muscular naked figures. Traditional symmetry and order are replaced by dynamic,often violent, action, in which the rules of perspective and proportion are suspended. The painting speaks directly about the salvation of souls—an issue which was widely debated in this period of religious upheaval.
Although Michelangelo took great care to strip the nude figures of their sensuality, the Last Judgement still caused offense to some members of the church. After his death in 1564 there were calls for it to be censored, largely because so many prints of the painting were circulating. As a result, Michelangelo’s friend Daniele da Volterra painted drapery on some of the figures.
This is a study for the soul emerging from a grave at the bottom left of the Last Judgement. The detail in the drawing contrasts with other drawings for the same commission. This drawing is more detailed because of its position on the altar wall—it is one of the lowest and therefore most visible to the viewer. The chapel is rather gloomy and so any detail higher up would have been pointless. The foreshortening of the arms, elbows, wrists and hands in this image is remarkable. Michelangelo convinces us that the body is rising up from the grave with real force.
Michelangelo’s art and writings show that he was a devout Catholic. Outwardly his faith was evident in his acts of charity and his abstinence during Lent. During his lifetime he witnessed the end of a united Christendom in Western Europe with the emergence of Protestantism. This affected his faith, and he was increasingly drawn to a more devotional and inward-looking form of Catholicism. The religious imagery in Michelangelo’s work is personal and intensely heartfelt. In his drawings he could also explore ideas which he could not use in finished works of art.
In the last three decades of his life, inspired by his friendship with the poet Vittoria Colonna and a growing sense of his own mortality, Michelangelo’s faith deepened. His meditation on death and redemption bore fruit in his Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, and in the Crucifixion studies made right at the end of his life. We can see Michelangelo’s age in his faltering hand in these moving and intense images.
In this Crucifixion study Michelangelo shows Christ on a Y-shaped cross. He would have seen this old fashioned type of cross in the church of Santa Croce in Florence, which penitents once carried in processions throughout the city. Perhaps Michelangelo included it here to contrast the act of penitence—an individual’s mortification of the body to expiate sin—with Christ’s ultimate sacrifice on the cross that Christians believe rescued mankind from sin. Michelangelo has almost obsessively reworked the poses of the two mourners. He has made heavy use of diluted lead white in the figure of the Virgin, both to define the final form and to cover up some of his earlier work. Her crossed arm gesture, familiar from representations of the Annunciation and from her pose on Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, symbolizes her acceptance of her son’s death.
© Trustees of the British Museum