Michelangelo, that fascinating Italian Renaissance sculptor, painter, and architect has been a source of wonder and intrigue since his own times. Vasari refers to Michelangelo’s birth as a gift from the gods, and Athos writes “In his own time, it was said that Michelangelo’s work rivaled God’s, and his force and authority are still overwhelming.” Indeed, the power of Michelangelo is still great. People flock from around the globe to marvel at his marbles. The David, the Pieta, the Bacchus, and many others are sculptures so beautiful that the marble seems to breathe, to break out of their marble skins. In painting as well as in sculpture, Michelangelo shines. In the ceiling paintings of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s neo-platonic, graceful, classically-influenced figures, albeit ones reluctantly painted, give us, in Arthos’ words, “the freshness of Earthly Paradise,” as well as clearly understood messages and Biblical stories. Yet, it is in the fresco The Last Judgment, made for the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, from 1534-41, that we see most clearly Michelangelo’s brilliant, conflicted, anguished, arrogant self. Begun approximately twenty years after the completion of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and nineteen years after Martin Luther’s initiation of the Reformation, Michelangelo’s frameless fresco, The Last Judgment, shows us evidence of the artist’s shifting psychology, a psychology which celebrates all the awe and terror inherent in the sublime, but a side which also admits to the immense strain and tension, as well as the underlying anxiety and restless energy experienced by Michelangelo in the latter part of his life. Michelangelo, in this fresco, gives the viewer a manifesto and a warning. Nobody, not even the highest ranking members of the Church, not even the most gifted artists, can evade the day of reckoning. Moreover, Michelangelo makes a clear point that not only people’s actions but their characters that determine their ultimate fate. The impassive Christ, the seemingly impotent Mary, and the shock of the skin of Bartholomew, on which it seems Michelangelo painted his own face, all add to the general effect of hope and fear, anxiety and unrest, doubt and faith all juxtaposed in the fresco.
Schnellmann, Ana, "Michelangelo's Last Judgement: A Crisis of Conscience" (2015). Student Scholarship. 3.
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