It is the end of the world. Christ has come to judge the living and the dead. He is the figure in the top center and beside Him is His mother, the Virgin Mary.
On His right are the Patriarchs, the Hebrew women, Holy Virgins, and Sibyls.
On His left, the Apostles, the Prophets, Confessors, and Martyrs.
In the two arches above Him hosts of angels (without wings) bring the instruments of His Passion—the cross, the pillar at which He was scourged.
Just beneath Him are two martyrs; and, below them, angels with trumpets, announcing His Coming.
At the bottom of the wall on the left men and women are rising from the dead.
Angels take them up to Heaven.
On the right side, angels are throwing the wicked men down to Hell, where a big Devil with eyes like burning coals drives them off a boat and other devils pull them down into that terrible place.
There are almost four hundred figures, many of them life-size and larger.
Some were meant by Michelangelo to be identified. For example, the big figure on Christ’s left who holds the Keys to Heaven can be none other than St. Peter; and the woman with the fragment of a wheel must be St. Catherine of Alexandría and the instrument of her martyrdom.
But whether Michelangelo intended to portray other specific personages from the Bible or history and even living men, no one can say for sure. Here is an outline of the main figures of the painting and their possible identification. It is taken from La obra pictórica completa de Miguel Ángel in the Clásicos del arte series published by Noguer-Rizzoli Editores, Barcelona, 1968
1 The Archangel Gabriel
2 Pharoah’s daughter who found Moses; or Eve; or Sarah
3 and 4 Niobe and a daughter [Niobe is a queen from mythology whose many children were killed by Apollo and Artemis; see this ancient statue]; or Eve and a daughter (the personification of maternity); or the merciful Church and a believer
5 Abel, who was murdered by his brother Cain; or Eve
6 Abraham; or St. Bernard; or Pope Julius II
7 St. John the Baptist; or Adam
8 Rachel; or Dante’s Beatrice
9 Noah; or Enoch; or Pope Paul III
10 St. Andrew; or John the Baptist; or Dimas [St. Dimas was the Good Thief who was crucified with Jesus]
11 St. Martha; or St. Anne; or Vittoria Colonna, Michelangelo’s great friend
12 St. Lawrence
13 *The Virgin Mary
14 *Christ the Judge
15 Solomon’s wife; or Dante
16 Francesco Amadori (the Urbino); or Tommaso de Cavalieri, Michelangelo’s friend
17 St. Bartholomew with the face of Pietro Aretino, the poet who criticized the painting as indecent
17a The skin of St. Bartholomew with the face of Michelangelo
18 St. Paul
19 St. Peter
20 St. Mark; or Pope Clement VII
21 St. Longinus, the soldier who lanced Christ on the Cross
22 Simon Zelote
23 St. Philip; or Dimas
24 Job; or Adam; or Abraham
25 Job’s wife; or Eve; or Pope Hadrian VI
26 St. Blaise
27 St. Catherine of Alexandria
28 St. Sebastian with the arrows of his martrydom
29 Dimas; or St. Francis of Assisi; St. Andrew; Simon the Cyrenian; the encarnation of Justice; the symbol of Man with his trials and tribulations
30 Moses; or Adam
31, 32, 33 One of the blessed; or an angel raising two black men
34 The Archangel Michael with the Book of the Chosen Ones
35 A proud man; or a swindler
36 A proud man; or one condemned for Despair (as opposed to theological Hope)
37 A devil
38 A proud man or a lazy (slothful) man
39 and 40 Pablo and Francesca
41 A miser; or the simoniac Pope Nicholas III
42 An irate or a proud man
43 A lustful man caught and thrown down to hell by his genitals
45 Michelangelo; or Pope Julius II; or Virgil; or St. Stephen; or Plato (or wisdom); or a charitable monk; or an angel; or Martin Luther
48 Charon [the boatman of mythology who ferries souls to the Underworld]; or Satan with the features of the Condestable of Bourbon
49 Cesar Borgia
50 Minos [the Judge at the gates to the Underworld] with the face of Biagio da Cesena
51 and 52 Count Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggeri
*Some say the Virgin has the face of Michelangelo’s great friend Vittoria Colonna or is a synthesis of the traditional depiction of the Virgin and the Greek statue of Aphrodite. It was the figure that took Michelangelo longest to paint (10 fresco days) and shows signs of several corrections.
*The figure is reminiscent of the Greek Jupiter the Archer
Read how Michelangelo painted the great mural and what some critics thought of it: The Last Judgment by Michelangelo