THE LAST JUDGEMENT: Getting into the ‘skin’ of Michelangelo!

THE LAST JUDGEMENT: Getting into the ‘skin’ of Michelangelo!

As thousands of people trek to the Sistine Chapel, they are greeted by a yawning archway of a complex commotion of figures. Unlike the ceiling that unravels the salvation story of over a thousand years, the Last Judgement captures a moment. It is the moment of swirling drama, of clouds caught in the act of storm. It is a fresco teeming with an awe inspiring ‘terribilita’.

Terribilita! That’s would well describe Michelangelo’s personality! A Romantic hero brooded by guilt, grumpy, insecure, smelly, fretful, fearful and raging; above all, an eccentric! He lived a poor man, eating sparingly, drinking nothing and sleeping little. Michelangelo devoted himself to the beautiful ideas that sprung from the Divine Spirit.

When Pope Paul III commissioned the painting in 1534, the Church was in a crisis. The Reformation had sparked abuses; the Sack of Rome (1527) was a recent memory; war clouds were gathering over Italy and the mood of Europe had changed. Confidence had been replaced by anxiety and hope by fear.

The painting is a powerful execution of 391 figures, no two alike in an appalling drama in a variety of dynamic poses. At the centre of the composition is the demanding figure of Christ set against a golden aureole. His raised hand, as a gesture of command, sets the events into motion. The Virgin nestles by His side, her hands crossed, indicating prayer and intercession.

Right below Christ are the angels of judgement, 8 in number, blowing their trumpets with all their might to convoke the dead from the four quarters of the earth. On their right is the gaping mouth of a cavern, an entrance to purgatory. The dead with shaking shrouds and drooping eyelids realise it is time to rise. Some rise effortlessly, others are pulled by an invisible force; still others uplifted by an army of angels. Interestingly a pair of souls clings on to a rosary (prayer). Another soul is caught is a tug of war, pulled at one end by two angels and at the other by a nasty demon.

On the other side of the composition are the damned, gawky and muddy as they scream and scramble. They are being delivered to hell in the boat of the inferno. Charon, the boat man, with eyes of burning ambers torments and bullies the damned, striking them with his oar. It was Dante’s Divine Comedy and classical mythology that served as a source of inspiration for this scene.

Just above the scene are the damned battered down by angels, thwarting their frantic attempts to ascend. Probably the most harassed of all is the figure of the damned man. He has three demons coiled around him. But what’s interesting is his psychological unrest. He has recently realised that he is going to spend his eternity in hell. He covers his one eye fearing his fate, while with his second eye he gapes at the recognition of reality.

The painting is meant to provoke terror as well as the triumph of Christ. Surrounding Christ and his mother are the elect, the patriarchs, the saints and the martyrs. These include, (from Christ right to left) Eve, Adam, St. John the Baptist, St. Andrew, St Lawrence, St Bartholomew, St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Simon the Zealot, St. Phillip, St. Blaise, St. Catherine, St. Sebastian and Simon the Cyrene. They are recognised by the symbols they carry. Flanking the center are the angels carrying the instruments of the Passion of Christ.

The mystery that has unravelled the ages is that of the face on the flayed skin of Bartholomew. Theories speculate that it is the self portrait of the artist himself (thanks to my broken nose!). Intriguingly the skin is placed on a perfect diagonal. It begins with the Cross, then Christ, next the skin and finally the damned man. Bartholomew holds the skin ever so lightly, as if; the skin may suddenly slip and fall into the boat of Charon on its way to hell.

It is said that Pope Paul III asked Biageo da Cesena, the master of ceremonies, to give his opinion of the frescoes.  Biageo da Cesena, scoffing at Michelangelo’s work deemed that such pictures were suited for roadside taverns and bath houses. Enraged by Biageo da Caseana, Michelangelo painted his likeness as the figure of Minos, the judge of the damned. He gave him donkey ears with a large green snake encompassing his physical frame. A horrified Cesena complained to the Pope who wittingly replied, ‘Had Michelangelo sent you to purgatory, I could intercede for you. But since he has placed you in hell, I have no power to save you.’

Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum, Goregaon, Mumbai

The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday between 9am to 5pm. For a guided tour please contact: 022 – 29271557

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One thought on “THE LAST JUDGEMENT: Getting into the ‘skin’ of Michelangelo!”

  • My favorite and will remain so forever, thanks for the details….I was going through them and simultaneously studying the painting more closely…very enriching insights… Thanks … God bless.


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