The Last Judgement is the name of the fresco located on the wall behind the altar of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. It was designed and realized by the Renaissance master Michelangelo Buonarroti between 1533 and 1541.
It depicts the Second Coming of Christ as well as the final and eternal Judgement by God on all humanity according to the Christian religion.
Michelangelo’s masterpiece was inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy and is mentioned by Dan Brown in his Inferno.
It is the second largest fresco by Michelangelo located in the Sistine Chapel, next to the frescoe on the ceiling illustrating episodes taken from the Book of Genesis. Between the two frescoes is an interval of almost twenty-five years, and one can witness between the two a change in Michelagelo’s artistic vision.
The realization and the location of the The Last Judgement came about as the result of the specific wishes of the first patron, Pope Clemente VII. Unfortunately, he would only see the compositional model: the actual painting of the fresco took place under his successor, Pope Paolo III Farnese, beginning in 1536 after a long and troublesome preparatory phase.
This phase consisted of the creation of the chapel’s wall, which involved the placing of a thick layer of bricks at the top and of a thinner layer of bricks at the bottom to create an inclined surface. The sloping of the wall was deemed necessary to improve visibility and to avoid the deposit of dust.
During this phase, three frescoes that were painted on upper the wall by the Italian painter known as Perugino were destroyed, as were two lunettes painted by Michelangelo himself over twenty years earlier. The result was the creation of space to paint one great piece of architecture.
Michelangelo worked alone for the entirety of the project, with the exception of minor assistance for the manual preparation of colors.
The painting is noted for its radical departure from traditional depictions of the Last Judgment. In particular, the overall structure replaces the traditional pattern of horizontal layers depicting heaven, earth, and hell with a single large space. The figures are grouped into individual plastic formations and are placed in isolation characteristic of eternity’s terrible emptiness.
At the centre of the work is a depiction of Christ, captured in the moment preceding the pronoucement of the verdict of the Last Judgement. To Christ’ right is his mother, Vergine Maria (the Virgin Mary), who turns her head in a gesture of resignation.
Surrounding Christ in a slow rotary movement are figures, identified as the saints and God’s elect. Most notable are San Pietro (Saint Peter) holding the Keys of Heaven and San Bartolomeo (Saint Bartholomew) with his own skin, which is usually recognized as a self-portrait of Michelangelo.
In the centre of the lower section are the angels of the Apocalypse, who are awaking the dead with the sound of long trumpets. On the left, the risen recover their bodies as they ascend towards heaven; and on the right, angels and demons fight over making the damned fall down to hell.
Below this detail is the representation of Hell, against the backdrop of a red sky in flames, and of Charon, leading the damned into hell where they are greeted by Minos, whose body is wrapped in the coils of the serpent. This part clearly references the Hell of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Michelangelo is able to convey the full force of terror at the supreme moment, when fate comes swiftly and where there is no time left or opportunity available to fix one’s mistakes. This instant represented by Michelangelo ends up having a universal connotation, as if it symbolizes the moment when life ends and no hope remains.
The entire painting is dominated by the human figure, almost always presented fully naked. The bodies are represented with great expressiveness and power.
The large amount of nudity in this fresco raised many eyebrows to the point where, by the death of Michelangelo in 1564, the church stepped in to cover up some of the more explicit nudity.
The artist Daniele da Volterra was designated to make some changes to this fresco but ended up only putting drapery over the figures’ private parts.
Despite this censorship, the painting has not lost its strong expressive power. In fact, today, after the recent restoration, it still appears as one of the most intense paintings in art history.
Picture by Wikipedia.org