Michelangelo’s Fresco of the Last Judgment

July 23, 2010


Michelangelo, The Last Judgment, 1536-41

A powerful meditation by José Granados, DCJM, is assistant professor of patrology and philosophy of the body at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. It was part of an article titled Risen Time: Easter as the Source of History in the Spring 2010 issue of Communio that is devoted to The Paschal Mystery. More information on the latter here: http://www.communio-icr.com/latest.htm

An online tour of the Sistine Chapel, which allows you to interact with the painting and the space, here:



Perhaps I should begin with the conventional view (from the Vatican website) before presenting Fr. Granados’ meditation on the fresco:

“The mighty composition, painted by Michelangelo between 1536 and 1541, is centred around the dominant figure of Christ, captured in the moment preceding that when the verdict of the Last Judgment is uttered (Matthew 25:31-46). His calm imperious gesture seems to both command attention and placate the surrounding agitation. It starts a wide slow rotary movement in which all the figures are involved. Excluded are the two upper lunettes with groups of angels bearing in flight the symbols of the Passion (on the left the Cross, the nails and the crown of thorns; on the right the column of the scourging, the stairs and the spear with the sponge soaked in vinegar). Next to Christ is the Virgin, who turns her head in a gesture of resignation: in fact she can no longer intervene in the decision, but only await the result of the Judgement. The Saints and the Elect, arranged around Christ and the Virgin, also anxiously await the verdict.

Some of them can be easily recognized: St Peter with the two keys, St Laurence with the gridiron, St Bartholomew with his own skin which is usually recognized as being a self-portrait of Michelangelo, St Catherine of Alexandria with the cogwheel and St Sebastian kneeling holding the arrows. In the centre of the lower section are the angels of the Apocalypse who are wakening the dead to the sound of long trumpets. On the left the risen recover their bodies as they ascend towards heaven (Resurrection of the flesh), on the right angels and devils fight over making the damned fall down to hell. Finally, at the bottom Charon with his oars, together with his devils, makes the damned get out of his boat to lead them before the infernal judge Minos, whose body is wrapped in the coils of the serpent.

The reference in this part to the Inferno of Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia is clear. As well as praise, the Last Judgment also caused violent reactions among the contemporaries. For example the Master of Ceremonies Biagio da Cesena said that “it was most dishonest in such an honored place to have painted so many nude figures who so dishonestly show their shame and that it was not a work for a Chapel of the Pope but for stoves and taverns” (G. Vasari, Le Vite). The controversies, that continued for years, led in 1564 to the decision by the Congregation of the Council of Trent to have some of the figures of the Judgment that were considered “obscene” covered. The task of painting the covering drapery, the so-called “braghe” (pants) was given to Daniele da Volterra, since then known as the “braghettone”. Daniele’s “braghe” were only the first and in fact others were added in the following centuries.”

Now read this carefully, I found it so impressive:

When Michelangelo’s fresco of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel was unveiled for the first time, Pope Paul III fell to his knees in an act of reverent adoration, fearful before the figure of Christ in judgment) This impression of a Christ condemning the damned has become a widespread interpretation of the painting. It is not the only possible reading, however; Jesus’ raised hand could indeed signify a rejection of the wicked, but it may equally well be viewed as an invitation to the blessed to advance toward him. In this view, Christ in judgment is the dynamic center of the painting and sets the entire scent in motion.

This interpretation is reinforced if we consider that Michelangelo’s original intention may have been to illustrate not the final judgment but rather the resurrection of the flesh. If this is the case, what the painter intends to focus on is precisely the body of the Redeemer, together with the bodies of all the risen. The center of the picture would then he the powerful strength that radiates from Christ and causes all the figures in the painting to move around him.

In this regard, it is important to note that the body of the risen Christ is not the type we find in Greek sculpture.  Michelangelo does not portray the self-contained body depicted in ancient art, a body that expresses the nobility and harmony of the soul. To the contrary, this Christian body is full of energy, it is a body that exerts a magnetic attraction over the other bodies on the Sistine wall, a body endowed with a force that springs out into the rest of the picture.

His vision of the body goes beyond the Greek harmony of a self-contained corporeal presence. What we have here is a body that comes out of itself a body capable of expansion and communication beyond its borders because it is filled with divine strength. It is from the dynamism of Jesus’ body, as Michelangelo painted it in the Sistine Chapel, that the whole of history is set in motion.

The dynamism that Christ’s risen body bestows upon the entire scene helps us to see the resurrection not only as the destination point of history, the final moment of a long series, but also as the very source of history’s dynamism. Thus, Easter brings with it a new understanding of time. Is it also a spiritual time, analogous to the spiritual body of the glorious Lord (cf. I Corinthians 15:44)?

Jesus’ risen body is the source of a risen time, a spiritual time fulfilled by the Spirit’s presence. This risen time is not alien to earthly time: its structure preserves an analogy to the human experience of past, present, and future, understood in light of an interpersonal encounter. The past is one with our coming from God and witnesses that the Father is Origin and Fountainhead. The present is the present of fidelity, of the keeping of the promise, first received from God and then uttered by us. The future is transfigured into the fecundity of love, the continuous excess of our encounter with the divine.

Since our time became at Easter a time fully shared in God with others, Jesus’ time call be donated to us, it can communicate to us its rhythm. Moreover, it is capable of expanding toward the past and future to embrace the whole of history. History, from beginning to end, has been inserted into the dynamism of filiation, promise, and fruitfulness that is proper to eternity. At the end of time, history will be fully conjoined to the embrace of love of Father and Son in the Spirit. And what Michelangelo requests in one of his poems will come to pass: “make my whole body an eye, so that there is no part of me that does not enjoy you.”

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