Last Judgment Fresco by Michelangelo
Interpretation, Meaning of Sistine Chapel Religious Mural

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Last Judgment fresco painting by Michelangelo
Last Judgment fresco
By Michelangelo.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

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Last Judgment Fresco (1536-41)


The Commission
Chapel Alterations and Design Issues
Michelangelo's Design
Little Perspective - No Frame
Features of the Painting
Why Was The Last Judgment Painted?
Critical Response
Explanation of Mannerist Paintings


Painting: Last Judgment Fresco
Date: 1536-41
Artist: Michelangelo (1475-1564)
Medium: Fresco painting
Genre: Religious history painting
Movement: Mannerism
Location: Altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, The Vatican, Rome.

For the meaning of other pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

The Commission

Painted on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, The Last Judgment was commissioned by Pope Clement VII (1523-1534) shortly before his death, and confirmed in 1535 by his successor, Pope Paul III Alessandro Farnese (1468-1549). A monumental work of Christian art, it was the largest single fresco mural painting of the 16th century, and took Michelangelo four years to complete. He accomplished it more than three decades after finishing his earlier cycle of Biblical art - the Genesis fresco - on the Sistine ceiling. As the name indicates, The Last Judgment depicts Judgment Day on the Second Coming of Christ, as recorded in the Bible. It is considered to be the greatest masterpiece of religious art of the 16th century, and represents either the final late flourish of High Renaissance painting, or the first major example of Mannerist painting - the new style that superceded the classicism of the High Renaissance. (Note: The 16th century art theorist Giorgio Vasari considered Michelangelo to be an important source of inspiration for Mannerist artists for the rest of the century.)

Alterations to the Sistine Chapel and Design Issues

We do not know what motivated the decision of the Medici Pope Clement VII (1523-34), in 1533, to repaint the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. Perhaps he was simply extending the biblical story of the Sistine Chapel frescoes which Michelangelo had last painted in 1512, under the orders of Pope Julius II. In any event, the project necessitated bricking up the two clerestory windows and destroying the quattrocento decorations - Pietro Perugino's frescoes of Pharaoh's Daughter Finding Moses and the Adoration of the Shepherds, and the portraits of the Popes - all of which had encircled the Chapel and continued across the altar wall. It was also necessary to destroy the altarpiece created by Perugino, and its frame, as well as Michelangelo's own Ancestors of Christ in the two lunettes. The final solution reached by the painter to untilize the entire wall, without even a frame, radically changed the appearance of the Chapel, overriding the horizontal accent, which the continuous bands of windows and frescoes across this wall and others gave it, and introducing a strong vertical element.



Michelangelo's Design For The Last Judgment Fresco

Michelangelo overhauled the traditional image of the Last Judgment in keeping with the late Renaissance art of the Mannerist movement. Up to then it had been rigidly organized to convey God's central place in the ordered cosmos and his control of Man's final destiny. Michelangelo divided the composition into two tiers. In the celestial zone, Christ the Judge was flanked by the choirs of Apostles, angels, saints, martyrs and Patriarchs. In the terrestrial zone below, the Resurrection of the Dead was laid out on the left, while the Damned's descent into Hell appeared on the right. Each obedient population, assembled in its designated place, performed its role with predictable emotion: the Elect joyful, the Damed in torment. The ranks were fixed and closed.

Michelangelo conceived his Last Judgment as a swirl of bodies - male nudes and female nudes, in keeping with his humanist philosophy - around the dynamic centre of Christ, with every figure either in motion or tense with emotion. The predictability has been swept away, replaced by anxious uncertainity whereas the traditional iconography was static and hierarchical, Michelangelo's vision is of a dynamic explosive event. Flowing robes have been put aside, for in Michelangelo's view we will all meet the Lord stripped of all rank and emblems of our earthly status.

Although Michelangelo avoided the sharply divided sections of earlier artists' versions, he introduced zones that correspond to the divisions of the sidewall frescoes. The area of the lunettes at the top is filled with the angels and the implements of the Passion (the Cross and Pillar). Underneath, we see the densely massed ranks of the Elect. Further down, a zone marks the transition between those who are already among the Elect surrounding Christ and those who are rising or descending. The line continues across the fresco, where there is suddenly an unimpeded glimpse of blue sky. At the extreme right of this zone, Simon of Cyrene appears to place his cross on the ledge of the Entablature. The bottom zone of the wall features (on the left) graves being opened to release their occupants upwards towards Christ, and (on the right) Hell, where Charon the Boatman is ferrying the Damed across the River Styx to the underworld.

Overall, The Last Judgment exemplifies the triumph of disegno (design) over colorito (colour/paint).

Little Perspective - No Frame

Some earlier painters, like Giotto, gave the illusion of depth to their Last Judgments by depicting choirs of similiarly posed figures receding in perspective. Instead of using linear perspective, Michelangelo resorted to overlapping his figures in densely packed groups, forming chains to indicate the current of movement. As figures moved back in space they lose acuity, sometimes painted very thinly. One of Michelangelo's most remarkable innovations is his elimination of a frame. Figures are cut off at the edges, as if to imply that we are seeing only a portion, and the scene continues in all directions, laterally and also below. Instead of giving a sense that all have their places here and no what they are, Michelangelo portrays the uncertainity of men and women being moved by a force outside of their control to a fate still unknown to them. When they discover their destinations, he shows their demonstrations of surprise, joy, or horror.

Features of the Painting

The Lunettes

The two Lunettes at the top of The Last Judgment feature the symbols of Christ's Passion, the Cross, the Pillar against which he was scourged, the Ladder, the Sponge, and the Crown of Thorns - all carried by wingless angels. They are given unaccustomed prominence because their inclusion makes clear that the final Resurrection shown lower down was made possible only by the sacrificial death of Christ and his Resurrection.

The Trumpeting Angels

Set in the middle of the wall in the lower half beneath Christ another group of angels respond to Christ's coming and his command: "they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of Heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his Elect from the four winds." (Mt 24:30-31)

Christ and the Virgin

The commanding figure of Christ dominates The Last Judgment fresco. He is set against a golden aureole, which also includes his mother who cleaves to his side. In earlier sketches Michelangelo had drawn Christ seated in the traditional manner, but in the painting he seems to be striding forward, perhaps rising to his feet.

His stance reminds us of images of Christ at his Resurrection, bursting from the tomb. The 16th century art writers Giorgio Vasari and Ascanio Condivi described Christ's gesture with his right arm as angry, but his impassive face contradicts this interpretation. His raised arm should be understood rather as a gesture of command, setting in motion the events we see unfolding before us - the angels sound the trumpets, the dead are raised, after which they proceed to their appointed places, either rising to join Christ in Heaven or falling into the abyss of Hell. He displays the wounds on his hands and feet and side, reminding us that he is the Resurrected Christ and also of his suffering and at what cost this eternal life was won for us.

The Virgin turns her head aside and folds her arms, as if to say that the time for her merciful intercession has passed. The golden light behind Christ, which Michelangelo went to the trouble of painting a secco in brilliant yellow pigments that he used nowhere else in the fresco, becomes the sun around which the whole event moves in an inevitable rotation. This visual feature has given rise to statements about Christ's resemblance to Apollo, the God of the Sun, around which all the planets revolve.

The Elect

Surrounding Christ and the Virgin are crowds of saints, martyrs and others who have risen to paradise. A few have attributes from which we can identify them but most have not. We recognize St Lawrence with his grate and St Bartholomew with his knife and flayed skin, St Peter holding the keys of the Kingdom, St Andrew with his cross, St Sebastian holding up the arrows with which he was shot, St Blaise with his wool combs and St Catherine with her wheel. Two figures from the Crucifixion - the Good Thief, Dismas, and Simon of Cyrene, who carried Christ's cross for him - remind us again of the significance of Christ's sacrificial death and resurrection as the necessary precursor to the event represented.

The Ascending

From the lower left where the graves are giving up the dead, bodies are rising towards the elect. Some are taking flight, some are carried by angels, one pair grasping hold of a rosary is being hoisted by a muscular angel, apparently in a demonstration of the power of Faith. Further cardinal Virtues may be recognized in other figures.

The Damned

Opposite those on the left who are rising towards the Elect, are those on the right who are descending into Hell. Some are being battered down by angels thwarting their frantic attempts to ascend; some are cast down headlong while others are dragged by demons. According to Condivi, sinners are hauled down by the part of the body with which they sinned; the proud by their hair, the lascivious by their pudenda. In fact, many figures seem to be allegories of the Vices, some even with attributes, like the money purse signifyingavarice.


In classical mythology, Charon is the boatman who ferries the damned across the River Styx (or Acheron) to the underworld. Like Minos, also featured here, Charon figured in Dante's Divine Comedy, where he is described as a demon who torments the damned with their hopeless plight and bullies the reluctant with blows from his oar. As there is very little in the scriptures describing the afterlife, Dante's vivid imagery filled the gap for Michelangelo, who knew his Dante so well, we are told by his contemporaries, that he could recite much of it from memory. However, during the era of Catholic Counter-Reformation Art (c.1560-1700), the inclusion of a pagan figure like Charon was much criticized.

The Cave

At the foot of The Last Judgment in the centre of the painting is the Cave, a black cavern filled with demons. Another figure is silhouetted by a fiery glow. It is unclear exactly what this cavern represents, although experts now believe it signifies Purgatory. It is only from Purgatory that one can escape, and the priest at the altar would know that his celebration of Mass was helping souls suffering in Purgatory. The Post-Reformation Council of Trent was quick to confirm the existance of Purgatory in the face of the Protestant claim that it was a cynical fraud designed to enrich the Church through the sale of indulgences.


In the lower right corner the tonality shifts abruptly. In Dante's Inferno, the light is so dim it is hard to make out the forms. Thus the painter, following Dante, when he came to grapple with the demons and Damned at the entrance to Hell, needed a deeper palette than fresco can provide, with its technique of applying semi-transparent tones over a white ground. The untramarine sky does not penetrate here; instead we see the murky waters of the River Styx and dingy figures barely distinguishable in the forbidden gloom. To obtain the sombre effect he sought, Michelangelo covered the white intonaco with a reddish-brown umber, then painted the mid-tones and lights on top. In a few passages in this zone where he wanted to use certain green and blue metallic pigments that are not compatible with fresco, he used oil as his medium, following Sebastanio del Piombo's successful murals in the Chapel in San Pietro. In one light-hearted aspect of Michelangelo's portrayal of Hell, as reported by the biographer Giorgio Vasari, the artist painted Minos (the Judge of the Souls) with the ears of an ass and the face of the Papal Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, who had frequently objected to His Holiness about the nudity of Michelangelo's figures. When Cesena hysterically complained to the Pope about this effrontery, the Pope is alleged to have replied that his hands were tied as his jurisdiction did not extend to Hell! (See also: Renaissance Colour Palette.)

Why Was The Last Judgment Painted?

In some past scholarship, Michelangelo's Last Judgment was regarded as an "atonement," created in the wake of the Sack of Rome in 1527 by troops of Emperor Charles V, who pillaged the city and compelled the Pope to abandon the Vatican and flee to Orvieto. These events were seen by many as an indication of divine wrath. According to this view, like Sodom and Gomorra, Rome had been overrun because it had become a place of decadence and sin, and The Last Judgment reflected the mood of penitence that followed these traumatic events. Pope Clement's commission to Michelangelo has, in fact, been described as an "illustration of the catastrophe of his reign". This may indeed have been the view of the Sack held by the Protestants, and may even have been the initial response of some Roman Catholics immediately following the event. Modern historians, however, agree that the Catholic Church recovered its self-esteem much more quickly. Pope Clement signed a peace treaty with Charles V, then in 1533 gave Michelangelo the commission for The Last Judgment and then in 1534 died. So it was the Farnese Pope, Paul III, who oversaw the work, and there is no evidence of overweening penitence in his personality.

Response to Michelangelo's Last Judgment Fresco

As soon as the fresco was unveiled in 1541 it was recognized instantly as one of the greatest religious paintings of the Italian Renaissance, and became a new model for artists. In 1586, the painter and writer, Armenini, recollected how, as a young man, when he was drawing in the Chapel, he would be among many others, and would overhear discussions about minute details of Michelangelo's work. It became a kind of school of anatomy, the best place in Rome - or anywhere - to study the nude figure.

It is often said that the modelling of Michelangelo's figures is exaggerated. Late in the 16th century the great Mannerist Annibale Carracci described the nudes in The Last Judgment - in contrast to the figures on the Sistine ceiling - as "too anatomical". Even the critic Raffaello Borghini, writing in 1584 in Michelangelo's native town of Florence, where Il Divino continued to be regarded as greater than the best artists of all time, warned artists against the excesses that arose from copying Michelangelo's anatomy. Do not give a delicate woman the limbs and muscles of a man, the painter is told. The modelling of muscles should not be exaggerated.



Explanation of Mannerist Paintings

For more about Mannerist paintings, see the following articles:

Transfiguration (c.1518-20) by Raphael.
An important precursor of Mannerism.

Madonna With the Long Neck (1535) by Parmigianino
Graceful Virgin and Child with allegorical message.

The Burial of Count Orgaz (1586-88) by El Greco.
Depicts the legendary funeral of Don Gonzalo de Ruiz.

View of Toledo (1595-1600) by El Greco.
Wild, atmospheric landscape of El Greco's beloved city of Toledo.

The Disrobing of Christ (1577) by El Greco.
Dramatic scene in which Christ is stripped before his crucifixion.

Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple (1600) by El Greco.
Illustrates the Biblical story of the Cleansing or Purification of the Temple.

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