Michelangelo's Last Judgment


Last Judgment by Michelangelo was a controversial but important fresco (48 x 44 feet) that can be seen in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican. See more pictures of works by Michelangelo.

Michelangelo created no paintings between the completion of the Sistine Chapel ceiling in 1512 and the beginning of his painting Last Judgment in 1536. Commissioned by Pope Paul III, Last Judgment (1536-41) marked a change in style for the artist. His palette grew more monochromatic, and the proportions of his figures grew broader and more menacing. The piece, seething with nudity and brutality, was criticized because the massive and contorted figures, which were placed behind the altar of the Chapel, were shockingly naked and thus thought indecent.

 Michelangelo Image Gallery

An older and more thoughtful Michelangelo originally accepted the commission for this important painting from Pope Clement VII. The original subject of the mural was the resurrection, but with the Pope's death, his successor, Pope Paul III, felt the Last Judgment was a more fitting subject for 1530s Rome and the judgmental impulses of the Counter-Reformation.

While traditional medieval last judgments showed figures dressed according to their social positions, Michelangelo created a new standard. His groundbreaking concept of the event shows figures equalized in their nudity, stripped bare of rank. The artist portrayed the separation of the blessed and the damned by showing the saved ascending on the left and the damned descending on the right. The fresco is more monochromatic than the ceiling frescoes and is dominated by the tones of flesh and sky. The cleaning and restoration of the fresco, however, revealed a greater chromatic range than previously apparent. Orange, green, yellow, and blue are scattered throughout, animating and unifying the complex scene.

Follow the links below to see and learn about some of the most striking and important scenes from this powerful work, Michelangelo's Last Judgment.

  • Christ Within the Last Judgment: Michelangelo's Christ in the Last Judgment is broad and powerful. Read more about the central figure in this masterpiece.
  • St. Bartholomew Within the Last Judgment: Learn why Michelangelo chose St. Bartholomew's scene for his own self portrait.
  • Minos Within the Last Judgment: Michelangelo showed Minos, the king of Hell, with the unmistakable likeness of his own most despised enemy. Find out more about this scene from Hell's innermost circle.
  • Charon Within the Last Judgment: Michelangelo borrowed from Dante when he included Charon as the ferryman over the River Styx. Read more about the connection to Dante's Inferno.
  • Hell's Mouth Within the Last Judgment: Michelangelo chose the space above the altar for Hell's Mouth. Perhaps he wanted to remind the ecclesiastics of their own peril on judgment day. See this harrowing image of Hell.
  • More Painting Details Within the Last Judgment: While much of the fresco focuses on the torments of Hell, there is also beauty and angels. Go to the last page to see Michelangelo's angels in three different details.

On the next page, see Christ as Michelangelo chose to show him on the last day.

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Christ Within the Last Judgment

The powerful Christ of Michelangelo's Last Judgment (fresco 48 x 44 feet) can be seen in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican.
The powerful Christ of Michelangelo's Last Judgment (fresco 48 x 44 feet) can be seen in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican.

In Michelangelo's Last Judgment (1536-41), a figure of broad, powerful proportions, Christ appears in a radiant glow of divine light. Positioned in the section of the fresco best lit by the Chapel's windows, Christ is seen in a rare bare-legged portrayal, wearing only a mantle across his loins in a manner that reveals the wounds of his crucifixion and that echoes images of his resurrection.

Go to the next page to explore the figure sitting by Christ's left foot, St. Bartholomew.

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St. Bartholomew Within the Last Judgment

Michelangelo's St. Bartholomew is seen to the right of located in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican.
Michelangelo's St. Bartholomew is seen to the right of located in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican.

This detail is of St. Bartholomew from the Last Judgment (1536-41). It was in the figure of St. Bartholomew, the martyr who was flayed alive, that Michelangelo chose to create a tragic and anguished self-portrait. He depicted his own face in the empty envelope of skin that hangs grotesquely from the saint's hand, a metaphor for the artist's tortured soul.

St. Bartholomew's genitalia are now covered by a loincloth, as were many other parts of the fresco, in response to the conservative cultural climate of the Counter-Reformation. It was in January 1564, only one month before the Michelangelo's death, that the Assembly of the Council of Trent took action to amend the fresco. It was Michelangelo's own pupil Daniele da Volterra who was commissioned to paint folds of drapery throughout the fresco to cover the figures' nudity.

The next detail from the Last Judgment is from the lower part of the fresco, from hell. Go to the next page to see Minos.

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Minos Within the Last Judgment

Minos, shown at the bottom right of this detail, as depicted by Michelangelo in the Last Judgment (fresco 48 x 44 feet) in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican.
Minos, shown at the bottom right of this detail, as depicted by Michelangelo in the Last Judgment (fresco 48 x 44 feet) in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican.

At the bottom right corner of the Last Judgment (1536-41), Michelangelo shows Minos, the king of hell, with a serpent wound tightly around him, an indicator of the circle of hell to which each damned soul must descend. Michelangelo chose to render Minos as a stinging caricature of his enemy Biagio da Cesena (a Vatican official who declared Last Judgment unfit for sacred walls) complete with ass's ears and a serpent striking his genitalia. This horrible portrayal of the punishment awaiting the damned is more than just the artist's spiteful response to criticism from the papal chamberlain. The scene also bears witness to Michelangelo's religious belief in an absolute Creator, majestic and severe in his final judgment.

The next page describes another detail from scene of the entrance to hell. Read about Charon and the connection to Dante Alighieri's Inferno.

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Charon Within the Last Judgment

Charon is a detail from Michelangelo's Last Judgment (fresco 48 x 44 feet) within the Sistine Chapel, Vatican.
Charon is a detail from Michelangelo's Last Judgment (fresco 48 x 44 feet) within the Sistine Chapel, Vatican.

Michelangelo borrowed from the poet Dante by including Charon, gatekeeper of the river Styx, in his Last Judgment (1536-41) portrayal of hell. This hideous embodiment of evil herds the darkly gaunt and tortured souls as they spill upon the shores of hell. In his rendering of this figure, Michelangelo effectively brought to life Dante's "Charon, the demon, with eyes like embers."

Charon took the condemned souls to Hell's Mouth. Go to the next page to learn more about Michelangelo's version of hell.

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Hell's Mouth Within the Last Judgment

Hell's Mouth is a detail from Michelangelo's Last Judgment (fresco 48 x 44 feet) in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican.
Hell's Mouth is a detail from Michelangelo's Last Judgment (fresco 48 x 44 feet) in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican.

In his Last Judgment (1536-41), Michelangelo reserved the space above the altar for his terrifying depiction of Hell's Mouth. Given his views on the corruption of the papacy, it is easy to imagine that he chose to remind church leaders that they are as culpable in their sin as the rest of humankind. Still, the artist is implicit in his illustration of doom, painting only an ominous glow, no flames, and focusing on the intangible but ultimately more painful inner hell of each of the damned. Their tortured movements, contrasted with the glorious freedom of the figures of the select, hold a horrifying appeal.

From hell's horrors to some of the beauty of Michelangelo's divine scenery: his angels. Go to the next page to see details of the angels of the Last Judgment.

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More Painting Details Within the Last Judgment

This detail from Michelangelo's Last Judgment (fresco 48 x 44 feet) is painted on the wall and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Vatican.
This detail from Michelangelo's Last Judgment (fresco 48 x 44 feet) is painted on the wall and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Vatican.

As illustrated here, in this detail from Michelangelo's Last Judgment (1536-41), it is only by their extraordinary facial features, glowing with celestial beauty, that angels are distinguished from mere mortals throughout the fresco.

In the swirling mass of doom that is Last Judgment, Michelangelo chose to focus on a small number of people caught in an unresolved struggle between eternal suffering and eternal life.

Another detail of angels from Last Judgment.

These scenes were no doubt conceived as metaphors for the larger struggle between divine grace and evil for human souls, as well as vivid reminders to individual worshipers of their possible fate.

The seven angels from the book of Revelation is a detail from Michelangelo's Last Judgment.

According to the book of Revelation, seven angels will blow their trumpets before God to announce the end of all creation. While Michelangelo chose a literal translation of this prophecy, he again depended upon the human form to convey his message. In accordance with the difficulty of attaining salvation, the Book of the Select at left is small in comparison to the larger Book of the Damned shown at right. Damage to this section of the fresco was caused by the canopy of the papal throne that was located directly below and used for special occasions.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Lauren Mitchell Ruehring is a freelance writer who has contributed promotional commentary for the works of many artists, including Erté and Thomas McKnight. She has also contributed to publications such as Kerry Hallam: Artistic Visions and Liudmila Kondakova: World of Enchantment. In addition, she has received recognition from the National Society of Arts and Letters.