Michelangelo Buonarroti 1475 - 1564
Design for The Last Judgment
Pencil on paper
41.8 x 28.8 cm
Casa Buonarroti, Florence
Michelangelo Buonarroti 1475 - 1564
Design for The Last Judgment
Pencil on paper
34.5 x 29.1 cm
Musee Bonnat, Bayonne
Michelangelo Buonarroti 1475 - 1564
Studies for the Last Judgement: a flying angel and other figures including one with arms crossed. (preparatory to the angel above the column in the group carrying the Instruments of the Passion in the top r.-hand side of the 'Last Judgement')1534
Hard, sharply pointed black chalk
40.4 x 27 cm
The British Museum, London
Michelangelo Buonarroti 1475 - 1564
Studies for the Last Judgement:St Bartholomew in the 'Last Judgement'; the whole, nude figure to the front, omitting the head and the lower part of the the right leg
34.2 x 26.2 cm
The British Museum, London
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (6 March 1475 – 18 February 1564),
The Last Judgment
1537 - 1541
1370 x 1200 cm
The Sistine Chapel, Vatican City
The project of the fresco of The Last Judgment was the idea of Pope Clement VII, the brother of Pope Leo X.
He was the Pope who was in office when Rome was pillaged in The Great Sack of Rome in 1527.
The Vatican and even The Sistine Chapel itself were not spared destruction. The Sistine Chapel was used as a stable. The tapestries by Raphael which hung there were stolen.
He commissioned Michelangelo to carry out the work shortly before his death on 25th September 1534
Why the theme of The Last Judgment ?
His Pontificate had been a disaster. In The Sack of Rome, he was imprisoned and had seen Rome sacked. Many of its people had been killed and many of the churches and treasures had been destroyed. His policy towards the Holy Roman Empire and England exacerbated the tensions of The Reformation.
Some people think that he wished to meditate on repentance. However some think that he had other ideas.
The successor of Clement VII, Paul III, affirmed the commission and ensured that Michelangelo completed it
When the fresco was unveiled for the first time, Pope Paul III fell to his knees in an act of reverent adoration,
Other more recent Popes have expressed their appreciation for the works by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel.
Blessed Pope John Paul II discussed the works in some detail.
On the unveiling of the restoration of the work in April 1994 he said:
"The frescoes that we contemplate here introduce us to the world of Revelation. The truths of our faith speak to us here from all sides. From them the human genius has drawn its inspiration, committing itself to portraying them in forms of unparalleled beauty.
This is why the Last Judgement above all awakens within us the keen desire to profess our faith in God, Creator of all things seen and unseen. And at the same time, it stimulates us to reassert our adherence to the risen Christ, who will come again on the Last Day as the supreme Judge of the living and the dead. Before this masterpiece we confess Christ, King of the ages, whose kingdom will have no end.
It is precisely this eternal Son to whom the Father has entrusted the cause of human redemption, who speaks to us in the dramatic setting of the Last Judgement.
We are in front of an extraordinary Christ. He is endowed with an ancient beauty that is somehow detached from the traditional pictorial model. In the great fresco he strikingly reveals the whole mystery of his glory linked to the Resurrection.
To be gathered here during the Easter Octave is extremely propitious. More especially we stand before the glory of Christ's humanity. In fact, he will return in his humanity to judge the living and the dead, penetrating the depths of the human conscience and revealing the power of his redemption.
For this reason we find his Mother, the "Alma socia Redemptoris' next to him. Christ in the history of humanity is the true cornerstone, of whom the Psalmist says: "the stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone" (Ps 117 :22).
This stone therefore cannot be rejected. As the only Mediator between God and men, from the Sistine Chapel Christ expresses in himself the whole mystery of the visibility of the Invisible. ...
5. Did not Michelangelo draw precise conclusions from Christ's words: "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father?".
He had the courage to admire this Father with his own eyes at the very moment when he offered his creating "fiat" and called the first man into existence. Adam was created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gn 1:26). While the eternal Word is the invisible icon of the Father, the man Adam is his visible icon.
Michelangelo strove in every way to restore to Adam's presence his corporeity, the features of ancient beauty. With great daring he even transferred this visible and corporal beauty to the Creator himself. We are probably witnesses to an extraordinary piece of artistic audacity, since it is impossible to impose the likeness proper to man on the invisible God.
Would this not be blasphemy? It is difficult however, not to recognize in the visible and humanized Creator, God clad in infinite majesty. Indeed, as far as the image with its intrinsic limits permits, everything which could be expressed has been expressed here.
The majesty of the Creator, like that of the Judge, speaks of divine grandeur: a moving and univocal word just as, in a different way, the Pietà in St Peter's Basilica and the Moses in the Basilica of St Peter in Chains are univocal.
6. In the human expression of the divine mysteries is not the "kenosis" necessary as a consummation of what is corporeal and visible?
Such a consummation has forcefully entered the tradition of the Eastern Christian icons. The body is certainly the "kenosis" of God. In fact we read in St Paul that Christ "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave" (Phil 2:7). If it is true that the body represents the kenosis of God and that in the artistic representation of the divine mysteries the great humility of the body must be expressed so that what is divine can be revealed, it is also true that God is the source of the integral beauty of the body.
It seems that Michelangelo, in his own way, allowed himself to be guided by the evocative words of the Book of Genesis which, as regards the creation of the human being, male and female, reveals: "The man and his wife were both naked, yet they felt no shame" (Gn 2:25).
The Sistine Chapel is precisely - if one may say so - the sanctuary of the theology of the human body. In witnessing to the beauty of man created by God as male and female, it also expresses in a certain way, the hope of a world transfigured, the world inaugurated by the Risen Christ, and even before by Christ on Mount Tabor.
We know that the Transfiguration is one of the main sources of Eastern devotion; it is an eloquent book for mystics, just as for St Francis Christ crucified contemplated on the mountain of La Verna was an open book.
If we are dazzled as we contemplate the Last Judgement by its splendour and its terror, admiring on the one hand the glorified bodies and on the other those condemned to eternal damnation, we understand too that the whole composition is deeply penetrated by a unique light and by a single artistic logic: the light and the logic of faith that the Church proclaims, confessing: "We believe in one God... maker of heaven and earth, of all things seen and unseen".
On the basis of this logic in the context of the light that comes from God, the human body also keeps its splendour and its dignity. If it is removed from this dimension, it becomes in some way an object, which depreciates very easily, since only before the eyes of God can the human body remain naked and unclothed, and keep its splendour and its beauty intact."
In March 2003, shortly beore his death, he published "Roman Triptych, Meditations" a collection of poems. It was widely regarded as his spiritual Last Testament.
The “Roman Triptych” consists of eleven poems and is divided into three panels.
In the second panel (“Meditations on the Genesis. From the threshold of the Sistine Chapel - Meditazioni sulla Genesi. Dalla soglia della Cappella Sistina”), the Pope paused in contemplation when entering the Sistine Chapel.
Here, Michelangelo has succeeded in depicting the Word of God in the Genesis. The painter's work, with its “wealth of colours”, has been able to translate the stupour that dwells and exists in this extraordinary act of creation into a concrete vision.
In an intense passage, the Pope, with clarity and great calm, addressed the cardinals in the next conclave, hoping that they will be enlightened and guided by the light and transparency of Michelangelo's images
The threshold is the place where man awaits his encounter with God
Here is the translation from L`Osservatore Romano
"II. Meditations on the Book of Genesis at the Threshold of the Sistine Chapel
1. The first beholder
"In him we live and move and have our being", says Paul at the Areopagus in Athens—
Who is He?He is like an ineffable space which embraces all.He, the Creator,embraces everything, summoning toexistence from nothing, not only fromthe beginning, but always.
Everything endures continually becoming—"In the beginning was the Word, and through Him all things were made".The mystery of the beginning is born together with the Word and is revealed through the Word.
The Word—eternal vision and utterance.He, who was creating, saw—"saw that it was good",his seeing different from ours.He—the first Beholder—saw, finding in everything some traceof his Being, his own fullness—He saw: Omnia nuda et aperta sunt ante oculos Eius—Naked, transparent,true, good and beautiful—
He saw in terms so different from ours.Eternal vision and eternal utterance:"In the beginning was the Word, and through Him all things were made",all in which we live and move and have our being—The Word, the marvellous eternal Word, as an invisible thresholdof all that has come into being, exists or will exist. As if the Word were the threshold.
The threshold of the Word, containing the invisible form of everything, divine and eternal —beyond this threshold everything begins to happen!
I stand at the entrance to the Sistine—Perhaps all this could be said more simplyin the language of the "Book of Genesis".
But the Book awaits the image—And rightly so. It was waiting for its Michelangelo.The One who created "saw"—saw that "it was good"."He saw", and so the Book awaited the fruit of "vision".O all you who see, come—I am calling you, all "beholders" in every age.I am calling you, Michelangelo!
There is in the Vatican a chapel that awaits the harvest of your vision!The vision awaited the image.From when the Word became flesh, the vision is waiting.
We are standing at the threshold of the Book.
It is the Book of the origins—Genesis.Here, in this chapel, Michelangelo penned it,not with words, but with the richnessof piled-up colours.
We enter in order to read it again,going from wonder to wonder.So then, it is here—we look and recognizethe Beginning which emerged out of nothingness,obedient to the creative Word.Here it speaks from these walls.But still more powerfully the End speaks.Yes, the judgment is even more outspoken:the judgment, the Final one.This is the path that all must follow—every one of us.
2. Image and likeness
"God created man in his image,male and female he created themand God saw that it was very good.Naked they were and did not feel shame".
Was it possible?Do not ask those who are contemporary, but ask Michelangelo(and perhaps the contemporaries as well!?).Ask the Sistine.How much is said here, on these walls!
The beginning is invisible. Everything here points to it.All this abundant visibility, released by human genius.And the End too is invisible,though here, traveller, your eyes are caughtby the vision of the Last Judgment.How make the invisible visible,how penetrate beyond the bounds of good and evil?
The Beginning and the End, invisible, pierce us from these walls.
In the Sistine the artist painted the Judgment.The Judgment dominates the whole interior.Here, the invisible End becomes poignant visibility.This End is also the summit of transparency—such is the path of all generations.
Non omnis moriar.What is imperishable in menow stands face to face with Him Who Is!This is what fills the central wall of the Sistine profusion of colour.
Do you remember, Adam? At the beginning he asked you "where are you?".And you replied: "I hid myself from You because I was naked"."Who told you that you were naked?"…."The woman whom you put here with me" gave me the fruit....
All those who populate the central wall of the Sistine paintingbear in themselves the heritage of that reply of yours!Of that question and that response!Such is the End of your path.
It is here, at the feet of this marvellous Sistine profusion of colour that the Cardinals gather—a community responsible for the legacy of the keys of the Kingdom.
They come right here.And once more Michelangelo wraps them in his vision."In Him we live and move and have our being
Who is He?Look, here the creating hand of the Almighty Ancient One, turned towards Adam....In the beginning God created....He, the all-seeing One....
The Sistine painting will then speak with the Word of the Lord:Tu es Petrus—as Simon, the son of Jonah, heard."To you I will give the keys of the Kingdom".Those to whom the care of the legacy of the keys has been entrustedgather here, allowing themselves to be enfolded by the Sistine's colours,by the vision left to us by Michelangelo—so it was in August, and then in October of the memorable year of the two Conclaves,and so it will be again, when the need arisesafter my death.Michelangelo's vision must then speak to them.
"Con-clave": a joint concern for the legacy of the keys of the Kingdom.They will find themselves between the Beginning and the End,between the Day of Creation and the Day of Judgment.It is given to man once to die and after that the judgment!
A final clarity and light.The clarity of the events—The clarity of consciences—It is necessary that during the Conclave, Michelangelo teach them—Do not forget: Omnia nuda et aperta sunt ante oculos Eius.You who see all—point to him!He will point him out...."
By what turned out to be an ironic coincidence it was his very successor, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who presented the poems at the Vatican on 6th March 2003
"If you want to find the source, you have to go up, against the current". In the first verse of his meditation, he said: "The undulating wood slopes down"; woods and waters have shown a downward movement. His pursuit of the source, however, now obliges him to climb up, to move against the tide.
Next panels: the end and the beginning, vision of God
I consider that this is the key to the interpretation of the two following panels. Indeed, they guide us in the climb upward "against the current". The spiritual pilgrimage, accomplished in this text, leads towards the "Beginning". On arriving, the true surprise is that the "beginning" also reveals the "end".
Whoever knows the origin also sees the "where" and "why" of the entire movement of "being", which is becoming, and exactly in this way, also enduring: "Everything endures, continually becoming". The name of the source that the pilgrim discovers is above all the "Word", according to the first words of the Bible: "God said", which John took up and reformulated in an unmatched way in his Gospel. "In the beginning was the Word".
However, the true key word that sums up the pilgrimage in the second panel of the Triptych is not "Word", but rather vision and seeing. The Word has a face. The Word - the source - is a vision. Creation, the universe, comes from a vision.
And the human person comes from a vision. This key word therefore leads the Pope while he meditates on Michelangelo, to the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, that have become so dear to him.
In the images of the world, Michelangelo discerned the vision of God: he saw with the creative gaze of God, and, through this gaze, he reproduced on the wall, by means of daring frescoes, the original vision from which all reality derives.
In Michelangelo what helps us to rediscover the vision of God in the images of the world there seems to be realized in an exemplary way what all of us are destined to enjoy. The Pope says of Adam and Eve, who represent the human being in general, men and women: "So they too became sharers of that gaze...". Every human person is called to "recover that gaze". The way to the source is a path that leads to becoming seers: to learn from God how to see. Then the beginning and the end appear. Then the human person becomes just.
Epilogue to the second panel: Last Judgement, conclaves
The beginning and the end - probably for the Pope, a pilgrim journeying inwards and upwards - the link between them appeared obvious there in the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo presents to us the images of the beginning and the end, the vision of Creation and the impressive depiction of the Last Judgement. The contemplation of the Last Judgement in the epilogue of the second panel, is perhaps the part of the Triptych that moves the reader most. From the interior eyes of the Pope in a fresh way, there derives once again the memory of the conclaves of August and October 1978.
Since I was also present, I know well how we were exposed to those images in the hour of the important decisions, how they challenged us and how they instilled in our souls the greatness of our responsibility.
The Pope speaks to the Cardinals of the future conclave, "after my death", and says that Michelangelo's vision will speak to them. The word "con-clave" imposes the thought of the keys, of the patrimony of the keys handed to Peter.
To place these keys in the right hands: this is the immense responsibility of those days. Here we recall the words of Jesus to the lawyers, "Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge" (Lk 11,52). Michelangelo urges us not to take away the key, but to use it to open the door so that everyone may enter.
Second panel: Creation, dialogue in God
However, let us return to the true centre of the second panel, a look at the "origins". What do people see there? In Michelangelo's work the Creator appears "in the likeness of a human being": the image and likeness of the human person with God is so contrasted that we can deduce from it the humanity of God, that makes it possible to represent the Creator.
However, the way of looking that Christ has opened for us directs our gaze far beyond this and shows, by contrast, starting with the Creator, with the beginnings, who the human person really is. The Creator - the beginning - is not, as might appear in Michelangelo's painting, simply the "Almighty Ancient One". Instead, he is "a communion of persons, a mutual exchange...".
If, at first, we saw God beginning with man, we now learn to see the human person starting with God: a reciprocal gift of self - the human person is destined for this - if he manages to find the way to achieve this, he is a mirror of the essence of God, and so reveals the link between the beginning and the end."