The Sistine Chapel (Cappella Sistina) is a chapel in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Pope, in the Vatican City. Its fame rests on its architecture, which evokes the Temple of the Old Testament, and its decoration, frescoed throughout by the greatest Renaissance artists, including Michelangelo, whose ceiling is legendary. The Sistine Chapel is considered to be the greatest artistic creation in the history of mankind. Michelangelo could possibly be the greatest artist who has ever lived. His paintings in Sistine Chapel, the triumph of Renaissance humanist ideal, have changed the meaning of art forever.
The Last Judgement
The Last Judgment is a painting by Michelangelo located in the Sistine Chapel, above the altar. It took six years to complete. Michelangelo began working on it three decades after finishing the ceiling of the Chapel.
The work is massive and spans the entire wall behind the altar of the Sistine Chapel.The Last Judgment is a depiction of the second coming of Christ and the apocalypse. The souls of humanity rise and descend to their fates as judged by Christ and his saintly entourage. The wall on which The Last Judgment is painted cants out slightly over the viewer as it rises, and is meant to be somewhat fearful and to instill piety and respect for God's power. In contrast to the other frescoes in the Chapel, the figures are heavily muscled and appear somewhat tortured-even the Virgin Mary at the center cowers beneath him.
The Last Judgment was an object of a heavy dispute between Cardinal Carafa and Michelangelo: the artist was accused of immorality and intolerable obscenity, having depicted naked figures, with genitals in evidence, so a censorship campaign (known as the "Fig-Leaf Campaign") was organized by Carafa and Monsignor Sernini (Mantua's ambassador) to remove the frescoes. The genitalia in the fresco were later covered by the artist Daniele da Volterra, whom history remembers by the derogatory nickname "Il Braghettone" ("the breeches-painter").
- Sistine Chapel, The Last Judgment (1541)
- Sistine Chapel, The Last Judgment (Detail) (1541)
- Sistine Chapel, The Last Judgment (Detail 5) (1541)
- Sistine Chapel, The Last Judgment (Detail 6) (1541)
- Sistine Chapel, The Last Judgment (Detail 7) (1541)
Sistine Chapel, The Last Judgment (1541)
This fresco was commissioned by Pope Clement VII (1523-1534) shortly before his death. His successor, Paul III Farnese (1534-1549), forced Michelangelo to a rapid execution of this work, the largest single fresco of the century.
The first impression we have when faced with the Last Judgment is that of a truly universal event, at the centre of which stands the powerful figure of Christ. His raised right hand compels the figures on the lefthand side, who are trying to ascend, to be plunged down towards Charon and Minos, the Judge of the Underworld; while his left hand is drawing up the chosen people on his right in an irresistible current of strength. Together with the planets and the sun, the saints surround the Judge, confined into vast spacial orbits around Him. For this work Michelangelo did not choose one set point from which it should be viewed. The proportions of the figures and the size of the groups are determined, as in the Middle Ages, by their single absolute importance and not by their relative significance. For this reason, each figure preserves its own individuality and both the single figures arid the groups need their own background.
The figures who, in the depths of the scene, are rising from their graves could well be part of the prophet Ezechiel's vision. Naked skeletons are covered with new flesh, men dead for immemorable lengths of time help each other to rise from the earth. For the representation of the place of eternal damnation, Michelangelo was clearly inspired by the lines of the Divine Comedy:
Charon the demon, with eyes of glowing coal/Beckoning them, collects them all,/Smites with his oar whoever lingers.
According to Vasari, the artist gave Minos, the Judge of the Souls, the semblance of the Pope's Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, who had often complained to the Pope about the nudity of the painted figures. We know that many other figures, as well, are portraits of Michelangelo's contemporaries. The artist's self-portrait appears twice: in the flayed skin which Saint Bartholomew is carrying in his left-hand, and in the figure in the lower left hand corner, who is looking encouragingly at those rising from their graves. The artist could not have left us clearer evidence of his feeling towards life and of his highest ideals.
The painting is a turning point in the history of art. Vasari predicted the phenomenal impact of the work: "This sublime painting", he wrote, "should serve as a model for our art. Divine Providence has bestowed it upon the world to show how much intelligence she can deal out to certain men on earth. The most expert draftsman trembles as he contemplates these bold outlines and marvellous foreshortenings. In the presence of this celestial work, the senses are paralysed, and one can only wonder at the works that came before and the works that shall come after".
Sistine Chapel, The Last Judgment (Detail) (1541)
The artist's self-portrait appears twice in the Last Judgment: in the flayed skin which Saint Bartholomew is carrying in his left-hand, and in the figure in the lower left hand corner, who is looking encouragingly at those rising from their graves.
The picture shows St. Bartolomew and the flayed skin.
Sistine Chapel, The Last Judgment (Detail 5) (1541)
The picture shows Minos, the Judge of the Underworld. According to Vasari, the artist gave Minos the semblance of the Pope's Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, who had often complained to the Pope about the nudity of the painted figures. Biagio stated publicly "that it was a most dishonest act in such a respectable place to have painted so many naked figures immodestly revealing their shameful parts, that it was not a work for a papal chapel but for a bathhouse or house of ill-fame." Michelangelo took his revenge on Biagio by adding his portrait to the damned; in the guise of Minos, he looks on impassive and depraved, "with a huge serpent coiled around his legs, in the midst of a crowd of devils".
Sistine Chapel, The Last Judgment (Detail 6) (1541)
Sistine Chapel, The Last Judgment (Detail 7) (1541)
The detail shows a group of elect standing to the right of Christ. The huge figure holding the cross has been variously identified as the Cyrenean who came to Christ,s help on the way to Calvary, and as Dismas, the good thief. Below to the right, the St Sebastian is a fine example of a classical nude. He clasps in his hand the arrows which are the symbol of his martyrdom. To the left, Catherine of Alexandria turns towards St Blasius. In the original picture both of them were entirely naked, and Catherine's gesture - looking towards the man's sex, a pose of which Michelangelo was very fond (e.g. in Doni Tondo, and Temptation on the Sistine ceiling) - scandalised contemporary viewers.
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