Daily Dose of Europe: Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel

Even just a few months ago, travelers were complaining about the crowds in the Sistine Chapel. Today many of us wish we could be in that crowded room (safely) again. But for now, this virtual visit will have to do.

The coronavirus can derail our travel plans…but it can’t stop our travel dreams. And I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. One of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. Here’s one of my favorites.

Twenty-three years after doing the Sistine ceiling, the pope asked Michelangelo to return to the Sistine to paint the wall behind the altar. He had painted the story of creation on the ceiling. Now, he set out to complete his Christian history of the world by painting the world’s final event — the end of time.

The mood of Europe was completely different from when Michelangelo had last painted here. Conflict between Catholics and Protestant Reformers was raging across Europe, and the Renaissance spirit of optimism was fading. Michelangelo himself — once the champion of humanism — was questioning the innate goodness of mankind.

It’s Judgment Day, and Christ has come down to find out who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. Christ is a powerful figure in the center, raising his arm to smite the wicked. Beneath him, a band of angels blows its trumpets Dizzy Gillespie-style, giving a wake-up call to the sleeping dead. The dead — in the lower left — leave their graves and prepare to be judged. The righteous ones, on Christ’s right hand, are carried up to the glories of heaven. The wicked, on the other hand, are hurled down to hell, where demons await to torture them.

It’s a grim picture. No one is smiling, not even the saved souls in heaven. Meanwhile, over in hell, the wicked are tortured by gleeful demons. One of the damned (the crouched-down guy to the right of the trumpeting angels) has an utterly lost expression, like, “Why did I cheat on my wife?!” Two demons grab him around the ankles to pull him down to the bowels of hell, condemned to an eternity of constipation.

Overseeing it all is the terrifying figure of Christ dominating the scene. This is not your “love-thy-neighbor” Jesus anymore. He’s come for justice. His raised arm sends a ripple of fear through everyone. Even his own mom, Mary, crouched beneath his arm, turns away. When The Last Judgment was unveiled in 1541, the pope is said to have dropped to his knees and cried, “Lord, charge me not with my sins!”

This fresco changed the course of art. The complex composition, with more than 300 figures swirling around Christ, was far beyond traditional Renaissance balance. The tumbling bodies made it a masterpiece of 3-D illusion. And the sheer over-the-top drama of the scene was unheard of for the time. Michelangelo had “Baroque-en” all the rules of the Renaissance, signaling a new era of emotional art.

The Last Judgment also marks the end of Renaissance optimism. In the Sistine ceiling’s Creation of Adam, he was the wakening man-child of a fatherly God. Here, in The Last Judgment, man cowers in fear and unworthiness before a terrifying, wrathful deity.

Michelangelo himself must have wondered how he’d be judged — had he used his God-given talents wisely? Look at St. Bartholomew, the bald, bearded guy at Christ’s foot. Bartholomew holds a flayed skin. In the flayed skin you can see a barely recognizable face — the twisted self-portrait of a self-questioning Michelangelo.

This art moment — a sampling of what we try to incorporate in our tours — is an excerpt from the full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store.  To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Sistine.