Michelangelo’s Last Paintings

They are on the walls of a chapel next to the Sistine, closed to the public and rarely seen.

This is the first one, the Conversion of St. Paul.

Conversion of St. Paul (or Saul) by Michelangelo, in the Cappella Paolina, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican  (a public domain photo shown here)

The story is from the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles, IX, 3. St. Paul, then called Saul, riding with his soldiers on a mission to persecute the Christians in Damascus, is struck down by a heavenly apparition and converted to Christianity.

A few who have had a look  give it high points:

“The Fall of St. Paul cannot be represented with greater power than this,” wrote the great Swiss art critic Woefflin in 1899.  “This is no longer the classical style; but neither is it senile indifference; Michelangelo outdoes himself in the energy of his representation…powerful and imperious lines slash through the painting like lightning; grave and concentrated masses alternate with broad empty areas.”

But most critics were disappointed:

“Nothing in these two compositions is reminiscent of the great Michelangelo: confusion in the whole, barrenness in the details, poverty of color…” G. Clausse, Les San Gallo, Paris 1902

“The flexibility, the elasticity, the sharpness with which Michelangelo had always treated the nude have all disappeared…” J. A. Symonds, 1893

“The defects, hidden in the Last Judgment by the overpowering qualities, fill both the Pauline frescoes.” P. Toesca, Michelangelo in the Encyclopedia Italiana, XXIII, Rome, 1934

Michelangelo was old.
Vasari says, as if to excuse him: “These scenes, which he painted at the age of seventy-five, were the last pictures he did; and they cost him a great deal of effort, because painting, especially in fresco, is no work for men who have passed a certain age.”

Here is the other fresco, Michelangelo’s very last painting, the Crucifixion of St. Peter.  The story is not in the New Testament but was an old tradition.  St. Peter was crucified  upside down.

Crucifixion of St. Peter, by Michelangelo (a public domain photo shwon here)


“…the languid left-overs of his strength.”   The Gentleman’s and Connoisseur’s Dictionary of Painters, London, 1770

“The lack of the study of nature is even more evident than in the Judgment…” C. H. Wilson, 1876

“You esthetes are missing the point of these works,” said some of the critics. “They present us with a Michelangelo renewed in his old age, in possession of a spiritual certainty…so grand and firm.” (V. Mariani,  1946).  The frescoes are about the religious experience.  They show the “two essential moments of the religious life or human asceticism: conversion and martyrdom”. (Argan, 1963)

These critics go so far as to affirm that the Conversion of St. Paul reflects Michelangelo’s own conversion.  The fallen St. Paul is the artist himself: it is a self-portrait.

See this photo enlarged here.

These have been meticulously restored in a process that began in 2004. See this.


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

38 Responses to Michelangelo’s Last Paintings

  1. Frank Lin says:

    I must say, there is a certain lack of elegance and design in both these paintings…The vigor, the “awesomeness” of the poses are absent…Maybe I’m not seeing something..but I’ve always found it hard to admire these later paintings…There’s just something clumsy and crude about the compositions…

    • 100swallows says:

      I agree, Frank, that the terribilitá is gone. But the Mannerists found things they liked. They considered some of the oddities here and in other of his works exciting new directions.

      There is a strange perspective in these pictures—Michelangelo was clearly trying something new. Look how some of the figures up front are cut off. It is as if the whole scene were “lowered” to bring it closer to the viewer, to involve him more deeply in the drama. This is more evident in the St. Peter fresco, where you’d think the photographer had cut away the bottom fifth of the picture when he made his selection at Photoshop.

      The other experiment is the breaking away from the single point of view. This was apparently meant, in the St. Paul, to make the viewer feel part of the confusion of the event. Michelangelo plays with distances everywhere too. Who stands where? How close is one to another? All the figures are squeezed up front. This certainly adds to the crowding of the paintings and, perhaps, to their failure. He had done this recently on the Sistine Wall too, of course. But in fact, already in his first oil painting, the Tondo Doni, there is a baffling division in the painting—it is two scenes put together with a brutal seam showing.
      The youths in the background and the Virgin in the fore are shown from different angles. And big St. Joseph must stand in a hole!

  2. Frank Lin says:

    Now that I think about it, Michelangelo’s style does come off a bit mannerist (unintentionally so) when compared to Leonardo or Raphael..The cropping of the scenes may be a nice innovation, one we take for granted in the modern world..but as for as the grouping of the figures, the effect as explained by you is too mild to me to be result of calculated precision..it is lost upon the average viewer..I’d expect more exaggeration and warping of perspective. Maybe to do so is to underestimate the constraints of the times…As great as Michelangelo is, can’t it just be said that he’s lost ” a step or two” to borrow a sports phrase. He isn’t superhuman…his abilities wane, he was never great at the composition of design..It is his obssession with the male nude, that makes his work so powerful. To me, these paintings look like he just painted as many figures as possible to fill the landscape, it’s only passable because the subject matter is supposed to be portrayed as somewhat chaotic and claustrophobic…Even if his intent is as what you suggest, his execution does not match the idea. In advertising we call this bad art direction; and this painting is an ad for the Vatican.

    • 100swallows says:

      Frank: But why do you say “unintentionally so”? Mannerism started with Michelangelo–at least there’s a case to made there. Leonardo and Rafael were both long gone when he painted these frescoes. The innovations came from his own experimenting. That the grouping of the figures is too “mild”and is lost on the viewer means, perhaps, that Michelangelo failed. But I think the paintings are strange enough that you have to concede that he was trying something. To say that he invented groups of figures only to fill the landscape is really not giving him enough credit. And to claim that he was never great at “the composition of design”–that is untrue. The problems of composition and design are just as great in the parts of a single figure as in their combination. And in his statues he shows the highest aptitude for solving them. You are certianly right that age was destroying his powers.

  3. Rich says:

    The horse on St.Paul has a different size than the ones on St.Peter which look so tiny and out of proportion. Probably they are meant to be farther in the background, but at the same time they press into the foreground.

    My impression is, that many of those figures were drawn without any model, as after all those years, Michelangelo must have known the human body inside and out. I like to look at all those legs and arms, hands and feet, and of course faces – at whatever unclothed.

    • 100swallows says:

      Rich: I’m sure you are right, that Michelangelo drew these figures without a model. He must have done that many times all through his life but these didn’t come out so well. Never before could anyone dare criticize him for awkwardness or actual mistakes in anatomy. They do seem to be the result of a loss of sensitivity or of care or discipline.
      Have you seen how small the horses are on Greek urns (compared to their riders or trainers)? Maybe the convention was to make them like that to show liveliness but they look much smaller than modern cavalry mounts. Marcus Aurelius’ horse in the Capitolio looks small too.

  4. expat21 says:

    Very interesting article,with some interesting ideas to think about.

    Expat 21

    • 100swallows says:

      Expat21: Thanks. Had you seen these before? I wonder if they will clean them, now that they have finished the Sistine. The last cleaning job was in 1934—not so long ago. The frescoes were in bad condition. Apparently many people had hoped that the awkward look of some of the figures—or all the disappointing features—would be found to be the work of restorers through the centuries. But only a few “moralizing cloths” (says Camesasca) were found to be later additions. The rest was by Michelangelo.

  5. Ken Januski says:

    I’m only going to say something about the first painting, The Conversion of St. Paul, maybe because it fits my theory better or maybe just because I can’t find much to like in the second.

    I always find it a little presumptuous to say anything about Michelangelo because I’ve just never followed him that closely, especially his paintings. I may not have the slightest idea what I’m talking about.

    With all that said though I wonder if Michelangelo’s intentions weren’t a bit different in the St. Paul painting. Maybe his foremost goal was to represent what it might look like for someone to be hit by lightning. Like others I find the painting unappealing visually. The colors seem off, the design is odd, even the figures seem crude by Michelangelo’s standards.

    The one thing that does make some sense to me, other than that Michelangelo has just lost his powers, is that he really was trying to portray his vision of the story. Everyone would shoot off in various directions, most covering their eyes, St. Paul looking fragile and weak. I think he has accomplished that goal, even if it’s not all that pleasant to look at. If you were to picture yourself at such a scene it probably would look chaotic.

    From my limited knowledge of Michelangelo I’d say that at least in painting his figures look best when they are more staid. He often has them twisting and turning in various ways but still they tend to remain somewhat classical, as though they know they’re twisting and turning but still they’re going to hold that beautiful pose. They don’t stretch or twist quite so far as to be ugly.

    Here there doesn’t seem to be much of that. No one is holding a classical pose. They’re more trying to portray an emotionally realistic rendering of the scene. I’ve never really studied Mannerism. But it does make sense to me that having emotional realism as a goal rather than physical realism could lead to exaggerations. Artists who see such exaggerations and like them could easily go one step further into exaggeration for its own sake, what some might call mannerism.

    It’s an interesting question Swallows as to just what to make of them. And you’ve quoted a wealth of opinions so that we don’t too quickly decide one way or the other. I tend to think that Woefflin might have been the most accurate………

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: I think you hit the nail on the head. Michelangelo had changed his aim, consciously or not. Sentiment now took precedence over physical beauty. He had actually renounced “art” (see the poem I quoted for Erika)–which for him was the male nude. He clothed him! And he didn’t even make the folds of the cloth pretty. He boldly breaks out of classical discipline. “Admittedly my fresco is a mess according to classical norms,” he might say. “And the figures are emotion-creators rather than beautiful designs. I’m sorry if you are disappointed. This is something that will take getting used to.” (Reminds me of the fourth and subsequent albums of Bob Dylan. We saw and had to accept that he wasn’t going to be bound to any style.) Of course since this last stage of Michelangelo’s artistic evolution coincides with his depressed old age you wonder whether the innovations, though they may represent spiritual strength, aren’t in fact artistic failings. Or senility. Old people often toss discipline and even shame to the winds (cf. old Baron Charlus in Proust).

  6. erikatakacs says:

    I’ve never seen this these frescos before. My first reaction was it doesn’t look like a Michelangelo. I didn’t like the colours and where is the orgy of the bodies? The clothed figures actually look better to me. These frescos seem dirty(as far as I can tell from the pics), so who knows what the original colours were like. Mike seems tired. But I really enjoy looking at St.Paul and the little group surrounding him. What do the critics mean by St.Paul’s conversion reflecting Michelangelo’s own conversion?

    On the second one St.Peter looks very odd peering at the viewer from the cross. Weird. I like that figure in the foreground on the right the best, there’s something appealing about him. Who is that figure?

    Ken’s description of emotive exaggeration makes me a sort of mannerist–never thought of that. A bit shocked.

    • 100swallows says:

      Erika: Michelangelo became very religious in old age. Vasari says he liked to read the sermons of Savonarola, whom he had heard preach in Florence. He thought a lot about death and suffering. While he was painting these frescoes he and his friend Vittoria Colonna exchanged religious poetry and talked about Juan de Valdes’ theories of prayer. He gave her drawings of Crucifixions and Pietás. He began a statue for his own tomb with a self-portrait as Nicodemus carrying the dead Christ. He wrote poems renouncing vanities such as art:
      “That passionate fantasy which made
      Art a monarch and an idol for me,
      Was laden down with sin, now I know well… ”

      He was also depressed. And sick. Twice he interrupted the frescoes for months because of illness.

      That figure in the right foreground is surely striking—I don’t know who it is supposed to be. The cap reminds one of the cowl Nicodemus is wearing in the statue Michelangelo was carving at this time. A pilgrim, a convert, a thinker. Another self-portrait?

  7. Ken Januski says:

    Oops! I don’t want to accuse anyone of mannerism, especially readers of Swallows blog. If I did I might have to include myself in the group at least for some of my work………

    I think emotive exaggeration is not necessarily manneristic but followers can tend to see just the exaggeration and not the reason/emotion behind it. So followers of Michelangelo might become mannerists. I think the same fate awaits any artist who does something new. If I recollect correctly Matisse was always bothered by imitators who didn’t understand that he really was a formalist not an exponent of anything goes in art. And Picasso criticized the ‘cult of the ugly’, which some people might have said he started.

  8. Frank Lin says:

    Perhaps I was a bit harsh on Michelangelo, and he’s one of my alltime favs…So perhaps he didn’t just paint those figures haphazardly, that he is trying something new…but I think we all agree, this new direction is not within his fate to lead, it’s up to the next wave of artists to arrive at…I don’t think he was a mannerist per say…I think he inspired the real Mannerists who purposely tried to go against the classical Renaissance…Though History may classify him as an early practitioner, I personally don’t feel it’s an accurate portrayal.

    • 100swallows says:

      Frank Lin: There is a clear evolution in Michelangelo’s style—toward Mannerism or whatever one decides to call it. Compare the body of the Christ in the Pietà with later nudes. Compare the colossal David outside the Signoria Palace with the Victory (or David) inside, sculpted many years later. Compare even the Sistine ceiling figures with the ones on the wall. Though Michelangelo always paid lip service to “the ancients” he departed from their canons already halfway through his career, except in architecture. There are good examples in these frescoes of everything art historians have called Mannerism. There is, of course, no such “school”, really. Historians felt they had to somehow qualify a messy period between the Renaissance and the Baroque. They can’t even agree on what the best artworks of those days had in common. But one was Michelangelo’s influence.

  9. erikatakacs says:

    Ken, your comments are always enoyable to read, your original thoughts on mannerism were interesting, as the refined afterthoughts. I didn’t mean to make you feel bad at all, should’ve not even mentioned anything.

  10. Ken Januski says:

    Hi Erika,

    Don’t worry at all about what you wrote. I’m happy you did. You didn’t make me feel bad.

    I was just a wee bit afraid that what I said might have been taken as a criticism, though I didn’t really think so, and I wanted to write something in response. I was hoping to be lighthearted about it but it didn’t come off that way. I guess I should have put a smiley face at the end of my sentence about ‘accusing readers of Swallows blog’ of being mannerist so it would have been clear that I was saying it tongue-in-cheek.

    In any case I’m very happy that you wrote what you did. I always enjoy reading what you have to say.


  11. wrjones says:

    No matter what is painted or how well or how poorly – some will love it and some hate it.

    These seem to be dull but that may be only because they have not been cared for.

    Certain hero worshipers can’t handle the thought that the great master could do work that was not perfect. They feel that every stroke by their hero was placed with knowing skill and was intentional even if it is the wrong shape, size, color, value, etc. The man was human, some of his work is great and some not. But these pieces were a LOT of work and very difficult to do at all.

    • 100swallows says:

      Bill: Yes, but don’t you think these show signs of failing powers? Vasari says that in old age Michelangelo destroyed many of his works because he didn’t want to leave around anything imperfect. You wonder if he wouldn’t have liked to chip these away, in spite of all his work. Many of his fans would have offered to do it for him, I’m sure.

  12. erikatakacs says:

    Ken, web communication has its shortcomings, doesn’t it? Your comments were very general. My reaction to them caused a chain reaction of reactions. :) I think we are way too polite. :)

  13. Rich says:

    I haven’t known these paintings before. Have not seen them before consulting Swallow’s blog. So, recently, I have been looking at them again and again. And each time there’s something new to look at, something not discovered before.

    Like my bookshelf. There are some books there I have read. A few of them I have read twice. Because I found them so extraordinary and worth reading a second time.
    And then, there are some I have read twice and feel like reading a third time. Is there anybody here having a book in his or her shelf, read three times?

    For me, in a figurative way, Michelangelo here qualifyes.

    • 100swallows says:

      No, Rich, I will not fall into your temptation to write about good books. All the great paintings until recently seem to be full of things to discover and look at again and again. Remember Ruskin’s definition of great art: that which shows the greatest number of the greatest truths. Let’s leave aside the inevitable argument about those greatest truths and just focus on his idea of wealth. Great pictures were rich in great ideas. It wasn’t only that the artist had more time to work. It was that his mind was wonderfully fertile.

  14. Giovanni, Rome says:

    I’m feeling better thinking that there are places where people talk and discuss about the meaning of “beauty”, “art” and in the last analysis, of what is the nature of the human being.
    Thank you for the blog and the quality of messages you spread in the web.
    Please forgive me for my poor English.

    • 100swallows says:

      Giovanni, Rome: Thanks. I hope you will post a comment on any of those subjects. You have reached a level in English where you can stop apologizing for it.

  15. Rich says:

    No, I didn’t mean to tempt anyone to write about good books. Wasn’t expecting that at all. It was just a “rhetorical” question. Wanted to say that such fine pieces of art as shown here, may compare with such rare pieces of literature: with books in the shelf one feels tempted to read a third time.

    The wealth of your writings on art suffices, Swallows. No need to divert into books.

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  17. zahra says:

    thanks alot for all of the information.could you give me some of the rafaels figurative design.i study art at tehran university and i need these design.

  18. 4thepriests says:

    The fresco restoration is complete and the Pope presides over his first service there this weekend! But the big news centers around the discovery of Michaelangel’s self portrait discovered in the restoration process!!

    Vatican City, 1 July (AKI) – The Vatican has unveiled a chapel fresco which includes a self-portrait by the famous Italian Renaissance artist, Michelangelo. The mural is one of two wall murals restored in the Vatican’s Pauline Chapel in a major project which cost 4.5 million dollars.

    The two large frescoes were painted by Michelangelo in the chapel from 1542 to 1549 and depict the Christian conversion of the apostle Paul and the crucifixion of St Peter.

    Michelangelo’s self-portrait was discovered by head of Vatican restorations, Maurizio De Luca.

    “It is an extraordinary and moving discovery,” said De Luca. “What’s extraordinary is the ‘new’ old Michelangelo emerged in the final stage of restoration because after the Pauline Chapel he ended his life as a painter and dedicated himself only to sculpture and architecture.”

    The recently completed restoration to clean and repair the frescoes began in 2004 and was funded by Vatican museum arts patrons.

    Michelangelo’s self-portrait is included in the Crucifixion of St Peter, a dramatic scene in which he is depicted on horse back in the fresco wearing a bright blue turban.

    It is not the first time the renowned Italian master included his portrait in one of his works.

    One of his most famous self-portraits is included in his depiction of the Last Judgment on the wall of the Sistine Chapel.

    Michelangelo began work on the Pauline Chapel murals in 1542 after he had finished the work in the Sistine Chapel.

    He completed his contribution to the Pauline Chapel at the age of 75.

    The newly restored chapel is in the Apostolic Palace used by the pope and is not open to the public.

    Pope Benedict XVI will officially inaugurate the restored chapel with an evening prayer service on 4 July.

    Vatican arts patrons from the United States, England and Ireland are expected to attend the ceremony.

    • 100swallows says:

      4thepriests: Thanks a lot for the news. I suppose they will open the chapel to the public now, at least for awhile. Few have seen those frescoes.
      What I find surprising is that De Luca is calling Michelangelo’s self-portrait his own discovery. That head has long been considered a self-portrait. Right now I can’t find an earlier source, but a World’s Classics paperback (Oxford University Press) called Michelangelo’s Life, Letters and Poetry, published in 1987, had the painting on the cover. On the back it said: “Cover Illustration: detail of Crucifixion of St. Peter (assumed to be a self-portrait), c. 1550, by Michelangelo”.

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  22. Victoria says:

    Can someone help me with some of these citations on this article? I am writing my thesis on the self portraiture of Michelangelo and finding sources is much harder than one would think. The author quotes V. Mariani and such, but I don’t seem to see his bibliography anywhere.

    • 100swallows says:

      Victoria: My source for most of these quotes was La obra pictórica completa de Miguel Ángel in the Clásicos del Arte series published by Noguer-Rizzoli Editores, Barcelona, originally copyrighted by Rizzoli Editore, Milán, 1966, and translated into Spanish in 1968. I suppose there was an English edition but I’ve never seen it. The translations into English (back into English, some of them!) are my own.

      The biography and critical notes are by Ettore Camesasca. In his anthology of critiques at the beginning of the book Camesasaca only gives the name of their author and a date, and there is no bibliography at the back of the book, so I realize how difficult it will be to dig up each of the articles he cites.
      I was interested only in showing diverse opinions and not in a critical anthology as such, so I didn’t follow them up. They are all old. Sorry.

  23. patmalone51 says:

    I find it interesting to compare Michelangelo’s Crucifixion of Peter with Caravaggio’s, done 50 years later. It’s clear that Caravaggio had seen M’s version — the central elements of the painting are nearly identical, right down to the spade on the ground near the head of the cross, and both capture the same moment in time as the cross is hoisted by the executioners. But what different visions of the event! By paring down the details to the essential core, C creates a much more dramatic scene.

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