By William Landon, Northern Kentucky University
The Council of Trent, which Paul III convoked in 1545, concluded that works of Christian art that contained nudity, or pagan themes, were to be censored or destroyed. In the years following Michelangelo’s death in 1564, his Last Judgment, together with his decorations of the Sistine Chapel ceiling were censored.
Contracting Roman Catholicism
The Protestant Reformation, by 1534, had disintegrated into many movements. Some remained true to Martin Luther’s original vision of restoring the Roman tradition. Others had broken into quarreling denominational groups, as at odds with one another as they were with Rome.
Meanwhile, after having his request to divorce Catherine of Aragon rejected for the final time, Henry VIII had formally withdrawn from the Church of Rome in 1534—resulting in the founding of the Church of England.
Nearly half of the German states had defected to the Protestant side, Switzerland had become Calvinist, and large portions of France had converted to various iterations of Calvinist theology. Geographically, and demographically, Roman Catholicism was contracting.
Penance of Pope Clement VII
Against this tumultuous background, it became clear to Pope Clement VII that the Roman Church was in need of reform. And, on a personal level, he felt the need for penance. He had, after all, presided over the Protestant sack of Rome. Clement’s emphasis on a return to piety was hastened by his failing health.
In September of 1534, realizing that his death was imminent, Clement commissioned Michelangelo to decorate the Sistine Chapel—specifically, the wall situated behind its altar—with a scene of the victorious Christ returning to judge the world.
After Clement died on September 25, 1534, and after a new pope was elevated to the throne of St. Peter, Michelangelo’s commission was continued. It was eventually completed in 1541, to the general horror of the Roman clergy. Both contrasting and complementing the ceiling of the chapel, which Michelangelo had decorated decades earlier, the ‘Last Judgment’ depicts Christ beardless.
The Virgin Mary is given a place of secondary importance, tucked underneath the raised right arm of Christ. The dead are revived from their graves—some resuscitated to eternal bliss and others to eternal damnation.
Beatified Christian martyrs are central to Michelangelo’s narrative. In their newly bestowed heavenly bodies, they plead with Christ to avenge their deaths. St. Bartholomew, for example, who according to tradition, had been flayed alive, floats in space near Christ’s left foot. Petitioning Christ for justice, Bartholomew seeks to capture the Messiah’s attention by holding aloft in, his right hand, the knife that his executioners used to mutilate him.
In his left hand, the saint displays the shriveled sack that once was his skin. When we realize that Bartholomew’s face, the face on the flayed skin, is almost certainly a Michelangelo self-portrait, this particular vignette adds visceral emotion to the great artists’ visual imagery.
This article comes directly from content in the video series How the Medici Shaped the Renaissance. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
At the bottom right-hand side of the fresco, the dead are ferried across the river Styx by a monstrous Charon, and then poked and prodded, screaming and contorted, into hell by a host of demons.
At the left-hand side of the fresco, those who died in Christ, as St. Paul wrote, quite literally fly into the sky to greet him. What Michelangelo produced is a work of the highest genius. But that genius produced a puritanical reaction against it. The Virgin Mary’s subservient depiction, for example, lent credence to the notion that along with his republicanism Michelangelo might have had Protestant leanings.
To us, the way Michelangelo blended the Christian tradition with elements from the classical world makes the ‘Last Judgment’ seem to capture perfectly the spirit of the Renaissance, with all of its tensions.
Pope Paul III
Paul III’s pontificate began when he was elected to the papacy after Clement VII’s death in 1534. Paul’s birth name was Alessandro Farnese. He was the brother of Giulia Farnese—Pope Alexander VI’s long-time lover. It was Alexander who promoted Farnese into the senior ranks of the Church, thereby condoning the much younger man’s life of sexual license and excess.
Understandably, open hypocrisy of the sort represented by Paul III, did not sit well with Michelangelo, and more broadly, it did not sit well with those Florentines, many of them serious Catholics, who held fast to republican dreams.
Nudity or Pagan Themes
Interestingly, it was during Paul III’s pontificate, that the amount of bare skin and paganism on display in the ‘Last Judgment’ proved to be too scandalous for the increasingly conservative Roman Church.
Inferior artists added clothing to cover all of the nudity of the ‘Last Judgment’, and its pagan characters were removed. The angels, too, had wings added to them, following Christian scripture, Michelangelo had depicted them without wings.
Surprisingly, the so-called correction to Michelangelo’s decoration of the Sistine Chapel, together with an additional dozen or so interventions that continued to improve his fresco, was not undone until the ceiling and the ‘Last Judgment’ were only restored in the 1980s and ’90s.
Common Questions about the Roman Church and Michelangelo’s ‘Last Judgment’
After having his request to divorce Catherine of Aragon rejected for the final time, Henry VIII formally withdrew from the Church of Rome in 1534—resulting in the founding of the Church of England.
Beatified Christian martyrs are central to Michelangelo’s narrative in the ‘Last Judgment’. In their newly bestowed heavenly bodies, they plead with Christ to avenge their deaths.
Pope Paul III’s pontificate began when he was elected to the papacy after Clement VII’s death in 1534.