Italian Paintings – The Last Judgment

This is one of the twelve great pictures. It is above the altar in the Sistine Chapel. It was painted by order of Paul III., the Farnese Pope. As soon as he was made Pope he sent for Michelangelo. He found him at work upon the tomb of Julius. The statue of Moses was finished, and said Paul III., “That statue alone is glory enough for one Pope.” Michelangelo protests that he cannot leave, that he is under contract to the Duke of Urbino. “Let me tear up your contract,” said the Pope.

“Have I been waiting these long years for an opportunity to have you work for me, then to be refused? I want you in the Sistine Chapel.” At last Michelangelo consented, and once more threw down the chisel for the brush.

The original idea was to begin the cycle of the Sistine compositions with the fall of the rebel angels, and with the Last Judgment form the celestial prologue and epilogue to the drama of humanity, which was represented on the ceiling. Paul decided Michelangelo should begin on the Last Judgment, which he did, and which cost him eight years’ incessant toil. It seems to me it could never have been, at its best, a picture one would delight to look upon. Now, it has been so restored, is so blackened with the smoke of incense, and the dust of centuries, one gazes upon it with pity almost. Mr. Symonds says : “Whether we regard this fresco as closing the long series of Last Judgments to be studied on Italian church walls, from Giotto downward, or whether we confine our attention, as contemporaries have done, to the skill of its foreshortenings, and groupings, or whether we analyze the dramatic energy, wherewith tremendous passions are expressed, its triumph in either case is decided. The whole wall swarms with ascending and descending, poised and hovering shapes, men and women, rising from the grave before the Judge, taking their station with the saved, or sinking with unutterable anguish to the place of doom ; a multitude that no man can number, surging to and fro in dim tempestuous air. In the center, at the top, Christ is rising from his throne with the gesture of an angry Hercules, hurling ruin on the guilty. He is such as the sins of Italy have made him. Squadrons of angels bearing the emblems of his passion, whirl round him like gray thunder clouds, and the saints lean forward from their vantage ground, to curse, and threaten. At the very bottom, bestial figures take the place of human lineaments, and the terror of judgment has become the torment of damnation. Such is the general scope of the picture. Dante’s visions and Savonarola’s prophecies are embodied here.”

The picture produced a marvelous effect and evoked a storm of criticism, but the Pope stood firm. It pleased him, it met with his entire approbation.

Below the Christ, on the right, sits St. Bartholomew, who was flayed alive ; he is holding his skin. On the left sits St. Lawrence, who was roasted alive; he is holding a gridiron. On the right in the front kneels St. Catherine of Alexandria, who was martyred between two wheels, set with sharp knives; she holds a section of a wheel. Next to her kneels St. Sebastian, holding a bunch of arrows. All the martyred throng are there, but even death and the certain knowledge that Heaven is theirs seem not to have effaced from their memory the tortures they suffered on earth, and, stranger still, the spirit of revenge seems to have taken possession of them.

An amusing anecdote is told of the Pope’s master of ceremonies, Biago. He was at the chapel one day with his Holiness, who asked him what he thought of the picture. He replied, “I think it a disgraceful thing to put so many nude figures in so sacred a place.” Michelangelo heard of it, and when alone put in a likeness of the master of ceremonies, under a representation of Minos; the resemblance was so striking, the story soon spread over the city. The unfortunate Biago came to the Pope with his grievance. “Where did he put you?” asked the Pope. “In Hell, your Holiness.” “Alas,” said the Pope, laughing, “if he had only put you in Purgatory, I could have gotten you out; but as you are in Hell, I can do nothing for you. My power does not reach so far. “Nulla est redemptio.”

Minos with the face of Biago stands in the right-hand corner, at the bottom of the picture. Minos I. was a King of Crete. He was the son of Zeus and Europa. Ile gave such wise and just laws to his people he became celebrated throughout Greece, and was called the favorite of the gods. After his death, Zeus rewarded him with the office of supreme and absolute judge in the kingdom of Hades. This domain was surrounded by a stream, over which the dead, on paying their passage money, were ferried by the boatman Charon. The triple-headed dog Cerberus guarded the entrance, and the three judges, Minos, AEacus and Rhadamanthus allotted his place of bliss, or pain, to each of the dead. AEacus and Rhadamanthus sat at a point in a meadow, where the path branched off to the Isles of the Blessed on one side and to Tartarus on the other. If any case proved too difficult for them, it was reserved for the decision of Minos. In this picture Michelangelo has combined Christianity and paganism with serene impartiality. Christ on his throne, the Blessed Virgin by his side, saints and angels around and above him, and below is the river and Charon with his boat taking the condemned to the kingdom of Hades, where Minos seems to be receiving them.

Julius III. and Marcellus II. respected the work of the great artist, but Paul IV. wanted to efface the Last Judgment, as soon as he became Pontiff. He had actually given an order to have it removed, but was finally induced to revoke it.

( Originally Published 1912 )

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