Sistine Chapel

“If before the Last Judgement we are dazzled by splendour and fear, admiring on the one hand the glorified bodies and on the other those subjected to eternal damnation, we also understand that the entire vision is deeply permeated by one light and one artistic logic: the light and logic of the faith that the Church proclaims by confessing: I believe in one God creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.”
[John Paul II on 8 April 1994]

Julius II’s decision to completely renovate the decoration of the Ceiling was probably due to the serious problems of a static nature that affected the Sistine Chapel from the earliest years of his pontificate (1503-1513). After a long crack had opened in the Ceiling in May 1504, Bramante, then the Palace architect, was charged with finding a solution and he fixed some tie rods in the area above the Chapel.

However, the damage suffered by the old painting must have been such as to convince the pontiff to entrust Michelangelo with a new pictorial decoration. On 8th May 1508, the artist signed the contract which foresaw the painting of twelve apostles in the pendentives and ornamental motifs in the rest. Subsequently, at the request of Buonarotti himself, who considered the project to be a “poor thing”, the Pope gave him a new commission in which he left the full planning of the programme to the artist.

Michelangelo placed nine Central stories illustrating episodes of the Genesis within a powerful painted architecture, with at their sides figures of Nudes, holding medallions with texts taken from the Book of Kings. At the base of the architectural structure twelve Prophets and Sibyls seated on monumental thrones are countered lower down by Christ’s forefathers, portrayed in the Webs and in the Lunettes (north wall, south wall, entrance wall). Finally, in the four corner Pendentives, the artist illustrated some episodes of the miraculous salvation of the people of Israel.

Michelangelo completed the first half of the Ceiling, that is from the entrance wall to the Creation of Eve, in August 1510. The work must have been completed by 31 October 1512, as the Pope celebrated Mass in the Chapel on 1 November.

Julius II’s decision to completely renovate the decoration of the Ceiling was probably due to the serious problems of a static nature that affected the Sistine Chapel from the earliest years of his pontificate (1503-1513). After a long crack had opened in the Ceiling in May 1504, Bramante, then the Palace architect, was charged with finding a solution and he fixed some tie rods in the area above the Chapel.

However, the damage suffered by the old painting must have been such as to convince the pontiff to entrust Michelangelo with a new pictorial decoration. On 8th May 1508, the artist signed the contract which foresaw the painting of twelve apostles in the pendentives and ornamental motifs in the rest. Subsequently, at the request of Buonarotti himself, who considered the project to be a “poor thing”, the Pope gave him a new commission in which he left the full planning of the programme to the artist.

Michelangelo placed nine Central stories illustrating episodes of the Genesis within a powerful painted architecture, with at their sides figures of Nudes, holding medallions with texts taken from the Book of Kings. At the base of the architectural structure twelve Prophets and Sibyls seated on monumental thrones are countered lower down by Christ’s forefathers, portrayed in the Webs and in the Lunettes (north wall, south wall, entrance wall). Finally, in the four corner Pendentives, the artist illustrated some episodes of the miraculous salvation of the people of Israel.

Michelangelo completed the first half of the Ceiling, that is from the entrance wall to the Creation of Eve, in August 1510. The work must have been completed by 31 October 1512, as the Pope celebrated Mass in the Chapel on 1 November.

The last judgment

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 Judgement 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 honoured 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“.
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 Judgement that were considered “obscene” covered.