Michelangelo was a man of great intellect and artistic capabilities. One of his crowning achievements was the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Commissioned by Pope Julius II, the painting of the Sistine Chapel was a grand artistic endeavor that punctuated the victory of Rome over the French. Pope Julius the II was known as a “Warrior Pope“, and used aggressive campaigns to unite Italy under the Catholic Church. The painting of the Sistine Chapel was one of his campaigns, and his goal was to use traditional iconography to strengthen the papacy. Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Chapel in the manner of books of scripture.
Michelangelo was known as a great role model of the mannerism style of art during the Renaissance. Mannerism is characterized by an instability and tension, as opposed to the harmony and balance of early Renaissance works of art. It is shown through disproportions of human anatomy, lack of clear perspective, and “chaotic” scenes. He was also a great patron of humanism, an intellectual movement during the Renaissance. Humanism is a state of mind characterized by a higher concern and focus on secular and world subjects, rather than religious motivation.
Michelangelo’s contributions to the Sistine Chapel Ceiling are numerous, but one of the most controversial of his paintings is the work entitled The Last Judgment. The Last Judgment is a fresco painting done on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, which depicts the second coming of Christ. While the Church claimed this to be a time of wonderful reckoning, the artist definitely depicted it as more of a chaotic and horrific thing.
Michelangelo used a blend of classic Catholic beliefs and greek/roman characters to make up the subjects in the painting. Christ is at the center of the painting looks more like an angry Apollo than a loving redeemer. Charon, the greek ferryman who leads the dead down the river Styx, is pictured in the bottom leading the souls. St. Bartholomew is pictured to be holding his flayed skin, which starkly resembles Michelangelo himself. Even Minos, the judge of the damned, makes a guest appearance. And did I mention almost everyone in the painting is completely nude?
[From Left: Charon and St. Bartholomew with a flayed Michelangelo]
The Last Judgment actually came under heavy criticism during the Counter Reformation, which was the Catholic churches response to the Protestant reformation. The Protestant reformation was a time where everyone questioned the church, there were a lot of angry words, and people rioted. Etc. Etc. The Catholic church responded to this burst of angry people by launching a reformation of their own, in which they used spiritual movements and politics to try to bring the world back to its original Pope-Rule state.
But I digress!
The Last Judgment came under fire because of its obvious deviation from the traditional Catholic portrayals of scripture. Everyone was naked, people were flaying skin, Christ looked more like a movie star than a humble savior, and the entire picture more closely resembled a crazy swirly motion than the traditional horizontal-heaven-hell layering that was typical of religious paintings of the times.
Most notably was the critique of Biagio da Cesena .Da Cesena said that The Last Judgment was “mostly disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully.” And that the painting was not suitable for the church, but rather for “public baths and taverns.” Basically, he said the painting was tasteless and should be in a place where people poop rather than where people come to be awed and inspired. So what did Michelangelo do? He worked Da Cesena’s face into the painting as Minos, except with donkey ears to show what an ass Cesena had been. It’s the modern day equivalent of drawing devil horns on the face of that one girl in high school that you just couldn’t get along with.
The nude parts in the painting were eventually covered up by Daniele da Volterra in 1564 when the Council of Trent decreed that nudey parts were unacceptable and outlawed in religious art.
All in all, The Last Judgment was basically a giant “I DO WHAT I WANT” by Michelangelo. And a beautiful piece of Renaissance rebellion, at that.
Where I Acquired My Tidbits On…