A detail showing Christ at the centre of Michelangelo’s painting of the Last Judgement on the end wall of the Sistine Chapel. From 1536 until 1541 Michelangelo painted the Last Judgement or Resurrection of the Dead on the wall above the high altar of the Sistine Chapel at the request of Pope Paul III, though the original request of the former Pope Clement VII had been for a Resurrection scene.
At this time, there was a desire for reform within the Church prompted by the crisis of the Reformation. The Consilio was drawn up at the request of the Pope by an inner circle of reformers. It was a radical set of measures for the renewal of faith. Michelangelo was close to the group which wrote the Consilio, which included Cardinal Pole and to its supporters, including Victoria Colonna and shared their desire for renewal. The Last Judgement is a painting full of religious intensity by the very nature of the subject, but Michelangelo’s rendering is especially so. The mouth of hell is centrally placed at the bottom, just behind the crucifix of the high altar. In one sense this might be a key to the painting. It is still the redeeming action of Christ on the cross that has the capacity to save all and this saving action represented in the Eucharist is celebrated on the altar beneath the painting. What happens above is an awful possibility.
What strikes one about the painting is the fact that it is one great blue field or space populated by many nudes. Michelangelo may have been influenced by the commentaries on St Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians by Cardinal Cajetan, another reformer in the Church. The painting draws on 1 Corinthians 15 and the account therein of the bodily resurrection, and shares Cajetan’s emphasis on the resurrection being bodily for all humanity at the judgement. In effect, Michelangelo makes the nude body the vehicle for expressing both the glory of the elect and the bodily suffering of the damned. It also makes a visible statement about the individual and their bodily life on earth having relevance to eternal life.
Michelangelo creates an epic space with the figure of Christ coming as judge at the centre, based on the Apollo Belvedere, the classical sculpture in Rome. Next to him is Mary his mother and around him are the saints, while below are the elect being raised and the damned emerging to go to hell. All are bodily, the damned are not deprived of their bodies, but suffering in them. Marcia Hall notes that the saints included are those who lost their bodily integrity in one way or another in martyrdom, such as St Catherine, St Sebastian and St Bartholomew and that in depicting them, Michelangelo emphasises the change that takes place in the glorified body. Michelangelo may have wished to use the Apollo Belvedere as a model for Christ because there was interest in the writings of Copernicus about the sun being at the centre of the solar system. The painting shows Christ as Apollo, the sun god, at the dawning of the final resurrection.