MICHELANGELO's own Last Judgment
Michelangelo Buonarroti paints the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in Rome between 1534 and 1541.
The subject of a Last Judgment lends itself to a display of life after death. But it is clear from the way Michelangelo sets out the composition that he is thinking only about human death. Other scholars have pointed out that in the layout of the wall, he arranges human figures into groups in such a way that the entire surface is designed as a human skeletal head. The arches at the top are the eyes, the nose cavity is the circle around Christ, and the smile with teeth is suggested by the curving figures hanging in the sky in the balance between heaven and earth. Here I have outlined the areas in the skeletal face with black and yellow lines:
earthly section to see that he gives the viewer a hint as to the basic design. Among the dead whose souls are about to rise up to Heaven, he paints a skeleton looking out at us:
Consequently, in his wall image he envisions only two things that happen to people after death: they are either consigned to heaven or to hell. He imagines the afterlife, not with a Purgatory, as Dante did, where souls can work their way up to heaven, but with only a Hell and Heaven. Michelangelo's Hell has several elements of Dante's Hell, his pagan Boatman Charon driving souls over the River Styx, his Minos the judge, and his eternal hellfires: (the cave at left is part of Virgil's Book 8 description)
The figure of Charon holds a threatening oar that he uses to swipe the frightened bodies from the winged boat into the water and over to land. On the right Minos is waiting with serpent coiled around his torso and eternal fires rage in the background. Minos has been much discussed in the literature because his face is a portrait of a papal master of ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, who had criticized Michelangelo's Last Judgment as worthy of a brothel. Minos is a judge in Hell and the serpent's coils indicate the circle of Hell to which a soul will be consigned, but Minos himself is a devil and suffering the serpent's bite as he looks at the damned. While Michelangelo's revenge on Biagio da Cesena occurs in Minos, the artist's own anti-clerical feelings in general are on display in the figure of Charon.
The swing of Charon's oar seems to be aimed at the group of poor souls in front of him in the boat, but it is also aimed at any priest who is saying mass at the altar in the Sistine. Placed directly above the Christ on the cross seen in photograph, his Charon is a pictorial swipe at the clergy stepping up to the altar. The figure is so realistic that the viewer can easily imagine the continued arc of the oar hitting the chapel's celebrant in the next moment.
As a painter who had lived through nine popes by the time he was commissioned to do the altar wall, the artist is not afraid to undercut the power of the papal clergy here. The gesture he paints into Charon is one way for the rebel in him to imply that his own personal talent is more riveting than the political power of the men who were his patrons. (He actually lives through 13 papacies by the time he dies in 1564.) His self-confidence extends to a belief that he himself deserves to live in heaven after death. He paints himself into the realm of the blessed on the wall, a fact discovered by the scholar Frederick Hartt when he was up on the scaffolding during the painting's cleaning.
The Misericordia was a charitable organization whose purpose was to bury the dead, accompany funeral processions, and pay death fees for the poor. (It still exists and includes the ambulance services now). Michelangelo considered his pious duties in this organization as good works, works good enough to allow him a place in the heavenly realm, as if his painting the papal chapel were not enough. He wears the same hood in this image as he does in his self-portrait in the Pieta carved for his own tomb:
While we might regard his self-confidence as hubristic, in other ways he is quite unsure of his own place in the afterlife. He paints several self-portraits in various guises into the work, imagining himself as dead person, skeleton, rising dead person, blessed person, person hanging between heaven and hell, and person in Charon's boat in hell. I have circled several of the places where he seems to have painted a self-portrait and the wall may contain many more than these:
He wonders what it will be like to be dead in the skeleton. He wonders what it will be like to wake up dead:
knows where his soul will end up. I have marked the direction of his gaze and his final destination. Appropriately, the line runs through Christ's head.
One self-portrait imagines what it is like to look up to heaven on the way up:
and two others are placed looking at Christ in wonderment on the right side of the blessed:
One of these portraits has the hands covering the mouth, the other is strangely formed out of the skin of St. Peter's torso, as though Michelangelo always painted in the shadow of the pope.
Below this group is the famous skin held by St. Bartholomew, an image so striking it deserves its own blog entry:
Then at the bottom of the painting on the right, he imagines what it is like to be part of the group of condemned souls herded into Hell by Charon; curiously he has the Misericordia hood here, too, perhaps as a way of identifying him, but perhaps as a sign of his worry that his charitable deeds may not be enough to keep him out of Hell.
One other compositional arrangement is suggested in his groupings on earth and in Hell. The round oval outline of the hill on the left together with the oval outline of Charon's boat are distinct shapes that contain humans arising from earth to a place among the blessed on the left and humans being shoved into a place of hellfire on the right. Are the two ovals at the bottom of the painting meant to remind us of the weighing pans in a Renaissance balance scale?
In Michelangelo's version the pan on the right in Hell is larger and heavier than the pan on the left. The plumb line leads down from Christ and his gestures could almost be holding the scale. In between pans and Christ is a group of angels, some of whom trumpet. In that group are also two angelic figures who hold books:
Usually in Italian Renaissance paintings the saint pictured with a weighing scale is St. Michael because St. Michael is the Archangel responsible for the weighing of souls after death. In this role he is shown holding a simple weighing scale with a person on each side of the scale.
The person with the heaviest sins will go to hell, the lighter one will go to heaven. Luca Della Robbia makes a ceramic St. Michael (now in the Met) with the human figure in the right pan heavier than the other, the weight of his sin lowering him as St. Michael looks at his fate.
Neither of the figures in the group of trumpeters and books is St. Michael, however.
In fact, St. Michael does not appear in the whole of the frescoed wall.
We need not be astonished by this omission, however. The artist himself is the creator of the whole scene, the blessed and the damned. He includes himself on both sides of the weighing scale because he is a fair judge and believes in adding up his chances realistically. He is St. Michael, a fact patently obvious to a speaker of his name in Italian: Michelangelo, MichaelAngel, Michael, the Archangel. He does not paint St. Michael into his Last Judgment because he has painted MichelAngelo into every aspect of his Last Judgment.
The artist is 59 when he begins the wall, 66 when he finishes it, well beyond the 30 years of average life-span in his era. He also lives for 30 more years, dying at 89 in 1564, but he paints his preparation for dying on this wall. Part of the way he prepares is to weigh the possibilities in the literal face of death.