The Last Judgment by Michelangelo

It is the largest fresco in Rome (44 by 48 feet).


The Last Judgment by Michelangelo, on the front wall of the Sistine Chapel        A public domain photo published here

What is the great painting about?  See Who’s Who in the Last Judgment.

How did Michelangelo start the job?

He looked for a long time at the big wall he was supposed to paint. He wanted to be sure to avoid some of the problems the ceiling frescoes had given him twenty-five years earlier.

The wall had two windows. He had them blocked up so he would have a nice, empty surface.

Next he worried about dampness seeping through from outside.  That might spoil his painting.  He decided not to paint the actual chapel wall but to build a second one of dried bricks in front of it and to leave a space between the two walls for ventilation.

And to keep the dust from collecting on it he gave the new wall a slant.  It  slopes inward as it rises and overhangs at the top about a  foot.

At first Michelangelo planned to paint with oil paints and he had his helper Sebastiano del Piombo give the whole wall a coat of mortar with resin to seal it. But later he changed his mind and ordered him to chip his primer away. Michelangelo was an experienced fresco painter now and who knows what  disagreeable surprises oils might give him. He would stick to fresco and  would apply his own layer of sand and lime each day as he went.

These preparations took a year. Meanwhile he worked on his cartoons. He began to paint in June 1536.

The wall was unveiled on Halloween, 1541.  He was 66 years old. It was twenty-nine years since the unveiling of the ceiling frescoes.

He fell off the scaffolding once when he was alone in the chapel. Though he was badly hurt he dragged himself home and crawled into bed in great pain.  He refused to let anyone see him and wouldn’t open the door when they knocked.  Finally, one of his friends, a doctor, “made his way up by a secret way from room to room until he found Buonarroti, who was in a desperate condition. Then [the doctor] refused to go away or leave his side until he was better.” (Vasari)

The great painting scared people.  Pope Paul III, who commissioned it, is supposed to have exclaimed when he saw it the first time: “Lord, please don’t charge me with my sins when you come on Judgment Day!”

Some thought the nudes were out of place. The papal Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, said the painting made the chapel look like a stufa d’ ignudi’ (a bathing house).  For that remark, which he heard Cesena say, Michelangelo supposedly put his face on Minos, the great judge of Hell, and gave him donkey ears.


Cesena complained to the Pope, who answered wittily that it was outside his competence to rescue him from hell. “Had you been in Purgatory I might have done something.”

The worst criticism came from the poet and blackmailer Pietro Aretino, who at first wrote flattering things to Michelangelo from Venice and made suggestions for the painting. Michelangelo answered that though his suggestions were very interesting the fresco was too far along then to be changed.  Eight years later Aretino published an open letter to Michelangelo in which he accused him of being irreverent.  “Such things might be painted in a voluptuous bathroom,” he wrote, “but not in the choir [sic] of the highest chapel…Our souls are benefitted little by art, but by piety.”


A close up showing some of the nudity veiled

In 1563 the Council of Trent forbade the representation of unsuitable subjects in churches. Daniele da Volterra was ordered to paint over all the offending nudities. People called him “Danny the Panty-Painter”.  But it was no laughing matter—more than once in the following years the fresco came very close to being destroyed. More and more clothes were added.  In 1574 El Greco himself offered to chip it away and paint a new fresco that would “be decent and pious and no less well-painted than Michelangelo’s.”

Three more times (1625, 1712, and 1762) artists were ordered to “do something about those nudes”.
The critic Thode thought the fresco had been altered so much that it was no longer even possible to judge the artistic qualities of Michelangelo’s work.
But the latest cleaning has changed its look so much that few think now of how the virtue-coverings might have mutilated it.

My source for many of these facts is Ludwig Goldscheider’s book Michelangelo: Paintings. Sculptures. Architecture. Phaidon Press.


This entry was posted in architecture, art, art history, El Greco, fresco painting, great artists, Michelangelo, painting, Renaissance, Sistine Chapel, Vasari and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to The Last Judgment by Michelangelo

  1. Ken Januski says:

    A great story Swallows. It’s been so long since I’ve read much about Michelangelo, other than your posts, that much of this information is like hearing it for the first time. What a life he led!

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: I bet the Sistine Wall isn’t the same as you saw it last either. What do you think of the “new” colors? On little reproductions the wall looks almost like a page out of the old comic books. That blue is very hard to believe.

  2. Erik Ebeling says:

    I’ve looked through much of this website, it’s very interesting. I’ve always been fascinated with Leonardo and Michelangelo. Their work is in a completely different world from anyone else, ever.

    While I was in Europe, I attempted to see every piece that Michelangelo sculpted or painted that still exists, in person. I wrote about my journey on my own site, I think you might find the story interesting:

    Keep up the good work, people need to see just how brilliant these artists were.


  3. Ken Januski says:

    Hi Swallows,

    It’s been so long since I’ve seen it in person, probably 25 years, that it’s hard to compare this with what I saw. On the other hand all but the color-blind I think would remember all that rich blue! Have you read much about the latest cleaning? Do people think it is true to the original or some modern and mistaken revision?

    I wouldn’t be completely surprised if it were accurate because I’ve always wondered if frescoes don’t wash out their colors over time. But that’s not an educated opinion, just one based on a very superficial general impression that I have. I have to say it has been many years since I’ve seen or read about frescoes, outside of the many contemporary ones that cover the outside of many Philadelphia buildings and I think they’re a bit different. So my ignorance is large. It looks to me like a cobalt blue and it’s hard for me to think of a more beautiful color, straight out of the tube, like the sky when it is its purest blue. So I could understand Michelangelo using it for the background if his thought was to show the most beautiful sky imaginable. If there’s anything that does stand out it’s the blue ‘panties’ at center left.

    I have to chuckle and wonder about the portrayal of Cesena. Imagine if artists had that power and used it today! Lawyers would be all over the place, suing here, suing there. Of course I can’t blame Cesena for being unhappy: portrayed for all time with his donkey ears. As usual one fascinating story!!

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: Don’t you write before finishing your coffee. Don’t you hate cold coffee? I haven’t seen the Chapel since the restoration either. I think I’ll make a digest of the articles I’ve read on it and post it soon. I agree the Virgin’s blue stands very far out. The Cesena story comes from Vasari and might be true. Of course many people have imagined they saw portraits of Michelangelo’s contemporaries on that wall. I’ll put in another post on that soon too. Un saludo.

  4. cantueso says:

    I don’t like that painting at all, and this Christ happens to look a lot like the concejal de cultura of some little town near here. The holy Mary is the only one who went to Heaven with all her clothes on.

    • 100swallows says:

      Michelangelo couldn’t very well paint HER nude too, could he? See a future post of mine on the resemblance of some of those saints and devils to Michelangelo’s contemporaries Pope Julius, Pope Paul III, Dante, Savonarola, and others.

  5. expat21 says:

    My initial impression was that I don’t like this painting when I see it. I feel the same when I look at it carefully. Of course it is magnificent, however, and I still enjoyed reading the story about it.

    Expat 21
    “Expat Abroad”

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, expat21. I can understand someone’s not liking it. Michelangelo comes on very strong. Maybe you will at least enjoy reading more about it in my next posts.

  6. Ken Januski says:

    I must have written before I finished my coffee so need to correct a number of errors:
    1)Philadelphia has murals, not frescoes.
    2)The figure at left is Mary, which I really hadn’t noticed. But still I think that blue is more jarring than the blue of the rest of the painting, not that it’s ugly in itself, just that it doesn’t seem to fit in with the other colors.

    It’s so hard to talk about paintings like this based on a small reproduction on the web. I would hazard a guess that I’d be impressed if I saw it in person in its new ‘cleaned’ version. But I wouldn’t bet any of my old lira on it.

  7. quotes says:

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  8. shruti says:

    it is a nice website

  9. Sue Tatem says:

    The blue “panties” over Mary’s knee are a tear falling from the eye in the face composition that Michelangelo used for The Last Judgment. See book by Sue Tatem, Michelangelo: Faces and Anatomy in his Art, Xlibris, 2010.

  10. Pingback: Who’s Who in the Last Judgment? | The Best Artists

  11. joey lee says:

    Best painting ever!

  12. nicole says:

    Swallows ! Please I hope you see this I am doing a report on The Last Judgment , and I even checked out the book u mention… but no where in it do I find anything on Cesena and the Mino. Please help me out?!

    • 100swallows says:

      Nicole: Hi. On page 20 of my edition of the Goldscheider (revised and reprinted 1967) it says:
      “According to Vasari, [Michelangelo]caricatured Biagio in the figure of Minos, the supreme judge of hell (Plate 232); the ears resemble a donkey’s. Biagio complained to the Pope, who answered him, as witty as Boccaccio, that to rescue him from hell was outside his province; if he had been in Purgatory, that would have been a different matter, but ‘ibi nulla est redemptio’. Nevertheless, Biagio’s opinion finally prevailed…”
      I don’t know where Goldscheider got the funny Papal quote—the implication is that it is from Vasari. But it isn’t there where Vasari tells the story—at least not in my Penguin Classics edition of the Lives (p. 379). Maybe it was in his first version of the Life of Michelangelo, which I don’t have at hand. I’ll keep looking.
      Un saludo

  13. Pingback: How Michelangelo Painted the Sistine Chapel | Great Names in History

  14. An older and more thoughtful Michelangelo originally accepted the commission for this important painting from Pope Clement VII.

    Truly a genius.

  15. Pingback: Cómo pintó Miguel Ángel la Capilla Sixtina | Great Names in History

  16. Anonymous says:


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