Michelangelo is the undisputed king of visual art around the globe. The Last Judgment, which covers the wall behind the alter in the Sistine Chapel is one of his most outstanding works depicting the second coming of Christ. Accordingly, the Last Judgment was the largest fresco mural painting during the sixteenth century and it took Michelangelo four years to complete. Visually, the Last Judgment is a Renaissance fresco that clearly raises controversy between the existence of heaven and hell. Other significant visual aspects of the work include Christ and the Virgin Mary, the trumpeting angels, the elect made up of saints and martyrs, the ascending, the damned, and hell. Its iconography is based on the fixed hierarchy of the cosmos where heaven and hell are clearly distinguished and the ascending and descending individuals heading to different directions based on the result of their judgment. With its impeccable Mannerism style, the Last Judgment reveals significant historical, social, cultural, religious, and artistic norms and cultures of the Renaissance period in Europe as would be discussed in this essay. This essay explicates the Last Judgment as an epic Mannerism style painting revealing the last coming of Christ and specific events that would mark the judgment day for both the living and the dead.
In terms of visual aspects, the Last Judgment is brought out as a Renaissance fresco mural painting highlighting events that would occur on the judgment day. It basically adheres to the Mannerist style of painting that was a massive shift from the traditional approach. This approach is instrumental in bringing out the intended meaning of what heaven and hell would mean on the judgment day.
Accordingly, various components constitute the Last Judgment. One of the most significant components is the lunettes located at the top of this piece of art. They are strategically placed at the top of the Last Judgment to represent the passion of Christ. The specific elements that signify this passion include the cross, the spear, the pillar of flagellation, and the crown of thorns. Apart from this component, there is also the image of Christ and His mother, the Virgin Mary. In the Last Judgment, Christ is located at the middle and His mother is strategically placed by His side. Christ is placed at the center of the painting to reflect His decision over the destiny of human race especially with His right arm raised. The left hand is not raised, and this is perceived to be casting away the damned to hell. More so, He is not bearded and is brought out as a muscular individual indicating His authoritative nature.
Images of the elect, made up of saints and martyrs are also present in the Last Judgment. From the painting, there are crowds of saints and martyrs surrounding Christ. Most of these are brought out in such a way that they hold objects of their sainthood and martyrdom. Some of the saints identified in the painting include Saint Bartholomew holding a knife and flayed skin, Saint Peter holding keys, Saint Lawrence with his grate, Saint Andrew and the cross, Saint John the Baptist, and Saint Paul. In addition to the saints and martyrs are trumpeting angels who seemingly blow their horns to raise the dead from their deep sleep.
More so, hell is also heavily captured in the painting. It is located on the lower right side of the painting. Hell is basically brought out as one of the darkest and most scaring areas with Charon, the mythological boatman serving the underworld struggling to escort the condemned souls across river styx to the land of the dead, which is hell. As illustrated in the painting, most souls getting to hell seem terrified and there are two demons assisting with the introduction of individuals into hell.
The last significant component of the painting is the images of those ascending to heaven and those descending to hell. The ascending are on the lower left side where the dead are raised and their bodies rise toward the elect (saints and martyrs). Other ascendants are carried by angels to heaven. On the other hand, the damned are located on the right side of the painting are illustrated to be descending to hell apparently because of their deeds while on earth.
The iconographic aspects of the work are anchored on the idea of the fixed hierarchy of the cosmos. One of the key aspects is the elements of a flat earth that appears to be the bridge between heaven and hell. The earth is where humans live and reflects a place where their fate would be determined on the judgment day. It symbolizes the neutral place where human beings will be judged before moving to different directions. Another significant iconographic aspect of the painting is hell, which is situated at the lower edge. This matches the cosmological understanding of hell as an underworld where the condemned would have to go. Heaven is also a significant aspect in the painting and is located at the highest level with singing angels. All these images are a perfect symbol of what the Church has believed from time immemorial about the real structure of heaven, earth, and hell, and their different effects in the lives of humans. The image is as represented below.
It is worth appreciating that the Last Judgment could also be contextualized in relation to historical, social, cultural, religious, artistic norms, and stylistic trends of the European Renaissance. The historical context of the painting is anchored on the Sack of Rome in 1527. This occurred because of the key disagreements between the Protestant wing of Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church. Notably, the Sack of Rome in 1527 by the troops of Emperor Charles V was perceived an indication of the divine wrath hence the need to contextualize these happenings in the most effective manner. Therefore, Pope Clement VII commissioned the painting in 1933 after signing an agreement with Charles V. In the course of commissioning the painting, Pope Clement VII was focused on emphasizing the resurrection, but this aim changed when Pope Paul III took over after his death. Pope Paul III felt that it would be more befitting to name the painting the ‘Last Judgment’ because of the evils that were happening in the contemporary Rome. This would be an appropriate sign for the people and would offer them the opportunity to understand their fate in based on their actions. Thus, Michelangelo took four years from 1536-1541 to paint the image that offered a perfect sense of the condemnation of man especially in Rome. This historical aspect also set the ground for the continued differences between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Church.
In terms of the social and cultural context, the painting seemed to bring about new understandings from the existing notions of art during the traditional medieval period. In the traditional medieval period, most images were supposed to be painted with fully covered bodies. This means that they were to be fully dressed in every aspect. However, Michelangelo went beyond the existing social and cultural norms by not dressing the characters in respect to their social positions. He came up with a new social and cultural approach with images equalized in their nudity. This approach raised many questions in both the social and the cultural context. It was argued that Michelangelo had been insensitive to the required mode of art presentation to the society. More criticism was received based on the location of the painting in a religious place, the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, despite its nudity. The conclusion that could be drawn in the social and cultural element is that the Last Judgment went against the existing context by taking on a new and controversial approach that is yet to be settled.
As aforementioned, the painting was basically religious in nature with the focus on the second coming of Christ. Pope Paul III felt that it was necessary to give people a clear view of the events that would happen on the judgment day and the manner in which individuals would move based on their deeds on earth. The religious context of the painting is depicted by the centralization of Christ alongside His mother, the Virgin Mary. It teaches of the real happenings brought out in the Bible about the end times and the need for people to prepare themselves for the day. Some of the specific religious aspects captured in the painting are the presence of angels that are obviously part of both the past and contemporary religious teachings. In tandem with religious teachings, angels are always illustrated as intermediaries between humans and God. This similar element was brought out in this painting where angels are welcoming the saved to heaven while putting away the condemned. Similar to religious teachings about the last day, the painting shows the saved rejoicing and ascending to heaven while the damned are being taken to the underworld, hell. The religious context appears heavily throughout the painting and makes sense to the overall teachings that have been taking place since the early times. The most interesting thing is that it reveals the general religious teachings that apply to the different sects, i.e. both the Roman Catholic and the Protestant wing. The religious context is underscored by the presence of both heaven and hell where heaven seems to be full of joy and enjoyment while hell appears to be a place filled with trouble and suffering for those headed there.
In respect to the artistic forms and the stylistic trends of the European Renaissance, the painting is contextualized as a groundbreaking reform of the normal paintings that were done during the period. Notably, it came up with a more genius Mannerism style that did not follow the traditional conventions required by the existing European Renaissance. For instance, with its Mannerism style, it was more monochromatic compared to the ceiling frescoes dominating the existing European Renaissance. Its monochromatic nature is more complex because of the different colors used including orange, yellow, blue, and green that make it more beautiful and interesting for anyone to watch and understand. Apart from this, the painting entailed a more current stylistic trend of overlapping images rather than linear images that had been used by earlier painters such as Giotto during the European Renaissance. In doing this, he remarkably transformed the artistic approach and trends by eliminating the use of the frame. The lack of a frame gave a more appropriate view of the directions that individuals would take during the judgment day. There would be different directions that need to be understood in the most effective manner possible. Another critical artistic trend in the image is the use of flesh and the sky, which was not common in the European Renaissance at this time. These reflect the high level of transformation in the change of style that was later adopted by other painters because of its beautiful nature.
In conclusion, the Last Judgment is one of the key paintings that transformed the Renaissance era by introducing the Mannerism style. Michelangelo took over the role of painting the image after the initial commissioning by Pope Clement VII. The visual aspects of the painting are some of the strongest with a strong terrifying message of the happenings of the judgment day. For instance, Christ is placed at the center with the right hand raised and the left hand not raised. This is interpreted as a commanding aspect where He welcomes the saved into heaven and those who do not qualify are directed to hell. Angels and saints are also part of the whole representation and they undertake the role of welcoming the saved to heaven. Hell is not left out in the whole painting, and is reflected as a troubled place where individuals do not have the opportunity to live in peace. They face a high level of harassment from the welcoming point Religiously, the painting is significant because it clearly reflects the Biblical teachings of the last day and the need for individuals to brace themselves with the right actions. The sack of Rome in 1527 was a significant historical aspect motivating the Last Judgment, as the Catholic Church focused on informing individuals of what awaits them because of their actions. It was more of a warning sign for individuals in Rome. As much as the painting was criticized for the exposure of nudity, it still made sense to the religious world and the artistic trends that were happening during this time.