Created at a time of great flux within the wider world, Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment is nonetheless an iconic piece of art from Renaissance Italy that draws together both Christian and pagan influences for a masterpiece of both visual storytelling and cultural heritage.
Commissioned by Pope Clement VII and completed under the papacy of Paul III, The Last Judgment is filled with historical details as well as Christian, Greco-Roman mythological, and personal narratives – all drawing on the rich heritage and tradition of Italia itself.
Here are ten interesting facts about Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment that you probably didn’t know:
1. There are many mythological figures in the painting. First, you notice Charon on the bottom ferrying the damned souls to hell much like his Greco-Roman counterpart would take departed souls down the river Styx. There’s also Minos, a judge in Hades according to Dante’s “Inferno.”
2. The Master of Ceremonies for the unveiling for Paul III, Biagio de Cesena, was reportedly depicted as the mythological judge Minos with a serpent biting his genitals. A cleaning of the fresco did reveal a serpent biting Minos’ genitals.
3. The Council of Trent commissioned artist Daniele da Volterra to cloth the nude figures in The Last Judgment just a short while before Michelangelo died.
4. A 67-year-old Michelangelo is believed to be featured in the painting as Saint Bartholomew. This is an interesting choice as the saint was flayed for his faith and is shown in the painting holding a knife and his skin in the opposite hand.
5. The Last Judgment measures some 39 feet by 45 feet making it much larger than even some of its contemporaries.
6. Over 25,000 people view The Last Judgment every day.
7. All of the different ways in which Michelangelo made The Last Judgment his own interpretation of the story of Christ’s The Last Judgment was compiled in a work titled Due Dialogi by Giovanni Andrea Gillio. Prominent among Michelangelo’s deviations from the standard narrative include a beardless, muscular Christ figure sans throne and heavenly host.
8. The Last Judgment actually covered up previous works by Michelangelo as well as Pietro Perugino.
9. The figures descending down into Hell are believed to correspond to the 7 deadly sins.
10. The aura around the Christ figure and the Virgin Mary could be a reference to the Greek god Apollo. This is further underlined by the motion of Christ’s arm in a circular fashion thus referencing the “cycle” of life, time, and the seasons.