Last Judgment, Sistine chapel, Vatican

(1536-1541)
   In 1534, Pope Clement VII commissioned Michelangelo to paint a fresco on the altar wall in the Sistine Chapel depicting the Resurrection of Christ. But, when Clement died, Paul III, his successor, changed the subject to the Last Judgment. To execute the fresco, Michelangelo had no choice but to destroy the works on the altar wall carried out by Pietro Perugino in the previous century and some of the portraits of the earlier popes, as well as his own lunettes over the windows he included in 1508-1512 when he executed the Sistine ceiling. The Last Judgment was a common scene, yet it had never been depicted in such a grand manner. Instead of the compartmentalized renditions of earlier centuries, Michelangelo created a unified scene with Christ as judge in the center dramatically commanding the souls to rise from their graves. To his right is the Virgin Mary and surrounding him are the apostles and martyred saints. The blessed are aided by wingless angels on their climb up to heaven, while demons torment the damned and push them into hell. Charon, a character from Dante's Inferno, navigates the boat that leads the damned through the River Styx and into the underworld. For dramatic effect, Michelangelo changed the figures' scales. Christ and those around him are almost twice as large as the figures below them and the angels above who hold the instruments of the Passion. Each figure is posed differently, and their nudity reveals Michelangelo's keen understanding of anatomy. This proved to be a curse. Michelangelo was severely criticized for having included so many bare figures. No sooner had he completed the fresco than his pupil, Danielle Volterra, was instructed to paint draperies in all the right places to cover some of the nudity. Michelangelo documented his frustration over the incident in the fresco. The skin held by St. Bartholomew, martyred by flaying, is a sagging self-portrait that speaks clearly of Michelangelo's dejection over the controversy.

Historical dictionary of Renaissance art. . 2008.

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