The Last Judgment by Michelangelo
The Last Judgment is a masterpiece by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). It is located on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo began his work on The Last Judgment in 1536; twenty years after he finished the fresco on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The Last Judgment was completed in 1541 (Müntz 174). It is an eschatological work that portrays the Second Coming of Jesus Christ in relation to the final and eternal judgment over humanity. Michelangelo draws his inspiration from the book of Revelation, written by the Apostle John. Through a simple process of basic analysis of this work of art, we can begin to understand and appreciate not only Michelangelo’s skill but also his Christian worldview and faith.
The Last Judgment is part of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes. Fresco is a technique in which pigments suspended in water are applied to fresh wet plaster (Sporre 43). Michelangelo showed his mastery over the medium in the fact that once the pigments are applied; no changes could be made without having to reapply the plaster. The scale of the entire work is a magnificent 48×44 feet, in which Michelangelo employed scaffolding in order to accomplish his commission (Müntz 220). Interestingly, the fresco angles out at the top, which is two-fold: The angle improves the perspective of the fresco; while at the same time prevents dust from settling on the artwork itself (Last Judgment Web).
Admittedly, the first time I saw this work of art was during the research for this analysis. Therefore, I have confined interpretation only to my perception and have purposely avoided scholarly input from those who understand this work of art as it was meant to be. At first glance it translates as a massive medley of human activity. It emits feelings of anxiety and bewilderment, yet underlying the initial impact, a feeling of curiosity and wonderment begin to take over. It is soon realized that Michelangelo is portraying man as helpless and in great need of assistance. Humanity is being either pulled up or down by the surrounding angels and demons, who are clearly battling for mankind.
It is important to understand that the piece emphasizes more of a Catholic theology rather than a Protestant reformation theology. This, of course, is because Michelangelo was a devout Catholic; therefore, certain conflicting theological thoughts will most assuredly occur when approached from a protestant perspective. For example, the Virgin Mary is by Christ’s side in the fresco (see fig. 1), which suggests the Catholic belief that she will reign as Queen at the right hand of her Son (Lane 310). A non-Catholic perspective may prove to be a barrier to understanding what Michelangelo was trying to convey. Nevertheless, this does not distance us from its core Christian theme of the Second Coming.
The Christian worldview that Jesus Christ will ultimately come again is central to the theology behind Michelangelo’s masterpiece. His placement of Jesus Christ within the center upper portion of the fresco signifies that God has put all things in subjection under his feet (English Standard Version 1 Cor. 15:27). One immediately senses the energy behind Christ’s right hand being raised up over his head, which symbolizes the moment of judgment has arrived. The artist has decided to keep Christ’s proportions the same as the other figures within the fresco. This adheres to the Christian worldview that Christ is fully human as well as fully God. Also of great significance is the way that Michelangelo has separated Heaven, Earth and Hell. This too is in agreement with traditional orthodoxy found within Christian thought.
The core message behind The Last Judgment appears to be that of retribution and fear of the Lord. Rather than joy and rejoicing, there is struggle and punishment. Even Mary’s gaze is shifted away from Jesus Christ while he carries out his task. This should not be interpreted as disapproval, but rather it symbolizes her compassion for all. Furthermore, the emotion of fear and anticipation is observable on the faces of those looking towards Christ. There is no sense of joy that radiates from Michelangelo’s depiction of the Final Judgment; however, its absence enhances the core magnitude of humanity’s depravity. For Christians, conforming to God’s expectations is rewarded, and violating God’s commands brings punishment (Hill & Walton 176). This theology is known as the Retribution Principle, and Michelangelo aptly gets this core message across to all those facing this beautiful fresco on the Altar wall.
Michelangelo held a belief that the image from the artist’s hand must spring from the idea in his or her mind (Sporre 278). This tells us that because of Michelangelo’s belief we can clearly see that he was honoring God through the gifts that God bestowed upon him, which was clearly art. Through viewing any of his creations, whether it be one of his sculptures; a literary work; or one of his magnificent frescoes, it is evident that Michelangelo used his gift as an artist to bring glory to God.
Although the majority of us will never be able to reach the heights of creativity obtained by Michelangelo, we can clearly see that through his hands an image of God has been given to us. Just because we are not all equally gifted with the same abilities does not prohibit us to enjoy the gifts of others. This is especially true of art. When we view masterpieces such as The Last Judgment we are not only enjoying the gifts that God has bestowed upon the artist, we are also enjoying the gifts that God has given us through the artist.
The Last Judgment is clearly derived from the mind of Michelangelo’s theology. I believe it to be a good, true and beautiful representation of God’s sovereignty, omniscience and omnipotence over all of creation. The fact that its theme is eschatological leaves it open to a large amount of interpretation and criticism, both from the artist as well as the viewer. It was mentioned earlier that what is evident throughout the piece is its strong emphasis on Roman Catholic belief. As I have suspected, my lack of knowledge on Catholicism has proven to be a handicap on my ability to interpret this piece with confidence. For instance, I do not quite understand the meaning behind what I presume to be one of the saints holding what appears to be skin torn from a body (see fig. 2). Nor do I understand the saint directly across from him holding a ladder (see fig. 3). Perhaps it is a suggestion of Jacob’s staircase taken from Genesis 28:12.
Finally, I do not fully agree with Michelangelo’s decision to depict the Final Judgment as such a chaotic event void of any joy or rejoicing. Despite its bright vivid background, I find that it represents vengeance more so than the true reason for the Final Judgment, that is, the complete restoration of man being redeemed and brought back to God. Regardless of my baffled situation, I am eager to carry on my research after the conclusion of this essay. At that time I will be able to indulge myself to the scholarly interpretations that I withheld from in order to test my assessment skills for the purpose of this assignment. Perhaps that is where I will discover the joy and love behind this truly magnificent work of art.
Hill, Andrew E., and John H. Walton. A Survey of the Old Testament. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House, 2009. Print.
Lane, A. N. S., and A. N. S. Lane. A Concise History of Christian Thought. Completely Rev. and Expanded ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2006. Print.
“Last Judgement, Michelangelo’s Sistine Masterpiece.” Italian Renaissance Art.com. Web. 15 Dec. 2015.
Müntz, Eugène. Michelangelo. New York: Parkstone International, 2011. eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 13 Dec. 2015. http://0-search.ebscohost.com.library.regent.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=e000xna&AN=416971&site=eds-live
Sporre, Dennis J. Reality through the Arts. 8th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2013. Print.
Location of all images: http://www.italian-renaissance-art.com/Last-Judgement.html