Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgement” in the Sistine Chapel

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Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, located in the Sistine Chapel, stands as his final masterpiece in Vatican City and is renowned as one of Rome’s largest frescoes. 

This extraordinary work of art captivates viewers with its brilliant composition and profound religious symbolism, drawing in countless pilgrims each year. 

For those embarking on a journey through the remarkable Sistine Chapel, it is essential to delve into the divine significance of this renowned fresco by the esteemed Renaissance artist Michelangelo Buonarotti. 

This comprehensive article aims to provide you with all the essential information surrounding the Vatican’s famous fresco, The Last Judgment.

The Story & Symbolism of the Last Judgment Fresco 

The Michelangelo’s Last Judgment fresco is the largest painting in the Chapel, covering the entire altar wall!

It tells the Biblical story of the second coming of Christ.

This fresco is gloomy and shocking compared to the other beautiful Sistine Chapel paintings. 

Jesus will come back to Earth and pass his final judgment over all people and the souls of the dead, as per this story.

Pilgrims believe the Second Coming will be humanity’s last day and salvation for all. 

This fresco is so famous among visitors since it captures human facial expressions!  

Do you think Michelangelo did justice to such an important painting? Let’s decide together after discussing the composition of this masterpiece! 

When can you see the Last Judgment painting? 

You can see the Last Judgement painting on the Sistine Chapel’s altar wall anytime you enter the chapel. 

The Sistine Chapel accepts visitors between 8 am to 7 pm, from Monday to Saturday.

However, please note that on Sundays, the chapel remains closed, except for the last Sunday of every month. 

On these special Sundays, the chapel opens its doors from 9 am to 2 pm, with the last entrance permitted at 12.30 pm. 

What makes this day even more remarkable is that you can witness the majestic Last Judgment without any admission fee, as the Vatican Museums generously offer free entrance on the last Sunday of each month. 

For more information about the operating hours of this Chapel, Read our article on Sistine Chapel Hours. 

The Composition of the Last Judgment: Michelangelo’s Biggest Fresco

Why is the Last Judegment so famous
Image: Tiqets.com

The Altar wall, containing the Last Judgment fresco, has more than 300 human figures painted on it!

It is the largest fresco in Rome, measuring 39 by 45 feet in size!

Michelangelo made the impossible challenge possible, as he created separate scenes on the same wall, with no borders in sight!

It might be confusing to first-time visitors, so we recommend you begin observing the painting from the center of the Altar.

A powerful painting of Christ and Mother Mary at the Center! 

In a straight line over the Altar Cross, you can see the powerful figure of a man.

His body twists as he points out in all directions, and a woman kneels beside him.

This figure is Jesus, who divides people and souls into different groups, while Mary pleads with him to spare humanity. 

Many Saints, Angels, and other important Biblical figures surround Jesus and Mary.

They are there to help him decide on the final judgment. 

Some famous saints you will see among these people: 

  • Saint Peter, holding the Keys to Heaven
  • Saint Lawrence
  • St. Bartholomew, holding his flayed skin
  • St. John the Baptism

If you look closely, you will see a bunch of angels below, blowing their trumpets to call attention.

One hidden feature that most visitors miss is the two Angels showing the books of the sinners to the people in hell below!

This action symbolizes the Angels justifying the sinners’ punishment and showing them proof as they fall into Hell.

We recommend you take a Sistine Chapel guided tour for a deeper understanding of the fresco and to discover hidden facts from a professional guide! 

We will now explore the lower part of the fresco, dividing it into left and right, and observe accordingly. 

The Souls Chosen to Go to Heaven: The Lower Left Side of the Fresco

The good souls who passed the judgment and can enter heaven are on the left side of the Last Judgment fresco. 

You can see a bunch of angels pulling these people upwards and guiding them over the clouds. 

Visitors will also observe the people holding onto rosary beads.

This image aligns with the Protestant belief that good deeds and prayers will help them get to heaven. 

If you observe the base of the left side of the fresco, you can see Hell’s fires showing from under the ground as an Angel tries to free a soul from the Devil. 

The Damned Souls: The Lower Right Side of the Fresco

The lower right side of the painting is a chaotic mess of demons dragging evil souls to the bowels of Hell.

You can also see a bunch of angels pushing them back down to prevent these souls from escaping to heaven. 

Visitors with excellent observational skills will see a man holding bags of money.

He is being pushed down by an Angel and dragged down by a demon, and the bags show the sin of greed.

Similarly, you can also see sins like lust and pride depicted in the figures who did not pass the judgment. 

A tour guide will point out all these fine details that most visitors who have not done their research usually miss! 

This Michelangelo Sistine Chapel fresco also has a depiction of the Charon!

He is a Greek mythological figure who helps souls cross the River Styx and you can see him swinging his oar in the air! 

Even though the base of this fresco might be a bit scary, it shows Christ’s triumph, which is made obvious by the top part!

Christ’s Triumph Over Suffering: The Top Lunettes 

The topmost part of the Altar wall contains two lunettes, where you can see depictions of the objects that caused suffering to Jesus on Earth.

On the left side is a group of Angels holding up a wooden cross and a crown of thorns.

On the right is the pillar against which Jesus was beaten. 

These lunettes symbolize the connection between Jesus’ sacrifice and his Second coming. 

It is strategically placed so that when the priest celebrating the mass looks up, his eyes move straight away to these lunettes. 

Now that you have observed the entire Sistine Chapel Last Judgment portrait, did you find Michelangelo’s face hidden in this work? 

Last Judgment: Spot Michelaneglo’s Self-Portrait! 

You can see a grotesque-looking portrait of Michelangelo Buonarotti in the Last Judgment fresco at the Sistine Chapel. 

The flayed skin of St. Bartholomew, standing on the right-hand side of Jesus at the center, which is Michelangelo’s self-portrait!

You might wonder why he would paint himself in a gruesome manner in the beautiful Sistine Chapel.

Here are some of the speculated reasons for Michelangelo’s scary self-portrait:

  • It shows his hatred for the Sistine Chapel Painting work. He wanted to showcase his thoughts visually on being forced to paint frescos. 
  • Some critics believe that he took inspiration from his poem about a snake shedding its skin. It symbolizes the beginning of a new life after death. 
  • People also believe that this is because of Michelangelo’s self-doubt. He was not sure whether he would be in heaven or hell, and this is shown through this portrait. 
  • Researchers try to connect Michelangelo’s portrait to a story of Marsyas and the God Apollo. Marsyas was flayed alive for winning against God Apollo in a musical concert. This portrait showcases his pride. 

Artists who want to discover more exciting information about their idol Michelangelo should check out our Michelangelo Sistine Chapel facts article

Why was the Last Judgment considered to be Offensive to the Church?

One of the most unknown facts about Michelangelo’s Last Judgment is that it was offensive to the Papal Masters!

They did not approve of the nude figures painted all over the Sistine Chapel.

The nude people in the Last Judgment surprised them, as it was on the Altar wall. 

Pope Julius II forced Michelangelo to paint fig leaves in a way that would cover the offensive Chapel art. 

The restorations conducted in the 1980s and 1990s destroyed all these fig leaves.

Visitors exploring the Sistine Chapel paintings can now see Michelangelo’s original painting of the Last Judgment without the leaves! 

Critics were also angry with Michelangelo for not giving Jesus a beard and wings to the Angels, as per the original Biblical stories.

How Much is the Sistine Chapel Last Judgment Worth? 

Even though the Sistine Chapel ceiling painting Creation of Adam is the most valuable art piece in the Vatican Museum, the Last Judgment is no lesser in comparison!

You cannot only define its worth just by money since it has immense religious significance. 

You can pay €31 and watch the Last Judgment piece, which costs millions, for as long as you need, with the standard Sistine Chapel ticket

What Technique was used to paint the Last Judgment?

Michelangelo used similar painting techniques for the Last Judgment fresco as he did to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. 

The Last Judgment used the Buon Fresco painting Technique.

This technique consists of applying special watercolor paints to wet plaster.

Michelangelo had to apply lime-based plaster in small parts and paint it before it dried completely. 

The main reason for his frescos’ long lifespan for centuries was because of this technique!

The paint became part of the dried plaster and stayed there permanently.

The Last Judgment used a wide range of colors like oranges, blues, greens, and yellows to make the scenes more complex and realistic. 

He also used the Secco fresco technique, which included painting small facial details on dried plaster.

This technique captures every human emotion on each face.

These details are what made his work much more famous, and art students can gain so many new ideas from it! 

Michelangelo painted a blue sky around all the human figures in the fresco, which makes it stand out the most in the Chapel. 

He also used a linear perspective to create depth, which gives it a 3D look.

You will also be surprised to see that the fresco has no defined borders.

The human figures are cut off at the edge, which provides the illusion of live movement in the art. 

If you want to enjoy seeing more applications of Michelangelo’s delicate painting, perspective, and sculpture techniques in the Vatican, check out our Michelangelo in Vatican article! 

Why is The Last Judgment Fresco Popular?

If you have not already been convinced why you should see the Last Judgment Sistine Chapel painting by Michelangelo, here is a section explaining its importance. 

Michelangelo wanted his work to be as important as Dante’s epic Divine Comedy poem.

To do this he included many hidden metaphors in the fresco. 

The artist is also well-known for his ability to capture all human emotions and compositions, attracting art lovers from all over the world!

The Last Judgment takes on a very divine look with its Angel and Saint paintings, which have deep religious significance to all pilgrims.

But what makes it so popular is that it captures visitors the most in the Sistine Chapel, as this Biblical scene describes the future of all believers.

Most Churches have bright Biblical scenes, like the Ascension on the Altar wall. 

Some also show Jesus’ sacrifice by having a passion or crucifixion scene, encouraging visitors to pray for forgiveness.  

You might wonder why an apocalyptic fresco was chosen for the Altar wall. 

Let’s find out more about this while exploring the History of The Last Judgment Michelangelo fresco in the next section! 

History: Why is the Last Judgment painted on the Altar wall? 

Pope Clement VII commissioned the Altar wall fresco of the Sistine Chapel.

He wanted Michelangelo to paint the Resurrection of Christ.

Michelangelo painted the Last Judgment fresco between 1536 and 1541.

It took four over four years to complete, which is longer than the ceiling frescos!

Michelangelo painted the Last Judgment 25 years after completing the Sistine Chapel ceiling. 

When Pope Paul III took over after Pope Clement, he asked Michelangelo to paint the scene of the Second Coming instead. 

He chose this image for the fresco because he wanted to showcase the continued power of the Church after the 1527 sacking of Rome. 

The imperial troops, Russian soldiers, and German mercenaries stole expensive items from Rome and Vatican City.

This is the Sack of Rome in 1527, as they were not satisfied with their wages. 

Since you are planning to visit the Sistine Chapel, why not learn more about all the other artworks?

Check out our What to See in the Sistine Chape article for a comprehensive experience!  

Fun Last Judgment Fresco Facts! 

Here are some exciting facts about the Last Judgment fresco you must confirm on your visit!

  • Some weeks before Michelangelo’s death, the Council of Trent hired Daniele da Volterra. They wanted him to add clothes to all the Sistine Chapel Michelangelo frescos. 
  • The descending figures pushed into hell show the seven deadly sins of humanity. 
  • Michelangelo had to destroy two other artworks to paint this masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel. 
  • The circular motion of Christ’s arm indicates the circle of life and the changing of seasons. 
  • Giovanni Andrea Gillio gathered Michelangelo’s new interpretations of the Biblical story. He compiled them into a book titled ‘Due Dialogi.’
  • You can find the Greek Mythological figures of Charon and Minos in the Last Judgment fresco. 

Tips to remember when viewing the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel

Here are some helpful tips so you can have an exciting trip while visiting the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel!

  • Book your Sistine Chapel tickets in advance, as the Chapel is usually crowded. This will help you have a relaxing view of the Last Judgment fresco. 
  • Don’t push and get to the front as soon as you enter. Spend time observing the other Chapel frescos.
  • Stick to the Sistine Chapel dress code, or you will not be allowed in.
  • Wear comfortable shoes so you can stand and observe for a long time.
  • Photography and video recording are not allowed, as per Sistine Chapel rules. 
  • History buffs and art lovers should book a guided tour of the Sistine Chapel to learn more about the Last Judgment fresco and spot easy-to-miss hidden gems. 

FAQs for The Last Judgment Michelangelo

What is “The Last Judgement” by Michelangelo?

“The Last Judgement” is a famous fresco painting by Italian artist Michelangelo. It covers the entire altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.

When was “The Last Judgement” painted?

Michelangelo began painting “The Last Judgement” in 1536, and it was completed in 1541.

What is the significance of “The Last Judgment”?

The fresco symbolizes the final judgment of humanity, with Christ as the judge. It portrays the separation of the righteous and the damned, emphasizing themes of salvation and damnation.

Why is “The Last Judgement” famous?

“The Last Judgement” is famous for its artistic excellence, spiritual depth, and historical context. It is considered one of Michelangelo’s greatest works and a masterpiece of Renaissance art.

What is the controversy surrounding the artwork?

Controversy arose due to the inclusion of nude figures with explicit genitalia. This led to debates about morality and censorship in art.

Hence, some figures were later covered with strategically placed coverings in a campaign known as the “campaign of fig leaves.”

How can I visit the Sistine Chapel to see “The Last Judgement”?

Visitors can access the Sistine Chapel with a Vatican ticket or a guided tour of the Vatican Museums. Tickets can be purchased in advance.

Is photography allowed in the Sistine Chapel?

Photography is not allowed inside the Sistine Chapel to protect the artwork.

What does “The Last Judgement” symbolize in Christian theology?

The fresco represents the final judgment of souls, where Christ decides the eternal fate of individuals. It underscores themes of redemption, divine justice, and salvation.

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