One of the reasons I was so intrigued by this concept of “shock art” as a theme for this current season of ArtCurious is that I had frequently taken some art for granted in the past-- by that, I mean that I considered some works of art to be above reproach, as if they were always beloved since day one-- or at least, if not beloved, than accepted. Such was my original thought about the French Impressionists. This may very well be a future episode of the show someday, but here’s the gist now: I always considered the Impressionists to be boring-- all pastels and light, flowers and dappled landscapes. But it wasn’t until I studied art history that I discovered how totally subversive they really were, flouting art world norms and departing wildly from tradition. And it was that simple discovery that has forever changed my concept about these artists.
Because sometimes we think a work of art was always great and good, or beloved by all. But even for a big name, like Michelangelo Buonnaroti, that wasn’t always the case. Years after completing the masterpiece that is the Sistine Chapel ceiling, he was back at the Sistine again for another groundbreaking project-- only this time, the public reaction wasn’t nearly so positive.
Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. But the stories behind those paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. Today, we are continuing our season of episodes dissecting single works of art that shook their contemporary worlds, covering another painting that causes waves, even today. In this episode, we’re looking at Michelangelo’s stunning achievement, The Last Judgment, located in the Sistine Chapel. This is the ArtCurious Podcast, exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History. I'm Jennifer Dasal.
Michelangelo's paintings for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are among some of the most famous and recognizable pieces of religious art in the world. The iconic image from The Creation of Adam panel alone-- with God’s outstretched and determined fingers inching close to Adam’s limp hand and imbuing him with life-- are reproduced so frequently on coffee mugs, t-shirts, and tattoos around the world that we can barely look at them with fresh eyes, as we’re so used to seeing them in riffs and pop-kitsch variations everywhere.
But their overexposure is, first and foremost, a sign that we still find them important and inspiring, even today. As we discussed in the second episode of our last season, all about the rivalry between Michelangelo and Raphael (that’s episode 33, if you want to go back and listen again), the Sistine Chapel frescoes are, quite possibly, the number one must-see attraction for art lovers in all of Rome. Indeed, even during Michelangelo’s time, they were considered a revelation. Giorgio Vasari, who we’ve mentioned multiple times on this show, was a contemporary of Michelangelo’s, and one of his biggest supporters. About the Sistine Chapel ceiling, he wrote, quote, “This work has been and truly is a beacon of our art, and it has brought such benefit and enlightenment to the art of painting that it was sufficient to illuminate a world which for so many hundreds of years had remained in the state of darkness. And, to tell the truth, anyone who is a painter no longer needs to concern himself about seeing innovations and inventions, new ways of painting poses, clothing on figures, and various awe-inspiring details, for Michelangelo gave to this work all the perfection that can be given to such details.” I mean, wow. Really, Vasari’s basically saying to his readers, “Hey, you guys. Don’t even bother trying something new and original, because Michelangelo’s got you beat.”
That being said, not everyone was as enamored with Michelangelo’s Sistine paintings. As it seems to go in art history, nothing goes without criticism or controversy. Throughout the years, there have been quite a few snags surrounding the universal acceptance of one particular work found today in the Sistine Chapel, but it’s typically not the ceiling frescoes themselves that raise the most ire, but another work-- the large altar wall fresco, called The Last Judgment.
Let’s back up a bit and give a little bit of detail about how the fresco for The Last Judgment came about. If you listened to episode 33, you’ll remember that Michelangelo, under the commission of the dynamic Pope Julius II, completed the works on the Sistine Ceiling over a four-year span, from 1508 to 1512, transforming a generally middling Vatican structure to this end-all, be-all, can’t-miss chapel that is visited by thousands--THOUSANDS!--of people every single day. The artist gained widespread acclaim and beat his own expectations with the Sistine Ceiling, and audiences began to consider Michelangelo the “master of the human figure” and one of the greatest artists alive. Everyone wanted to work with him for many years after-- and that included the papacy once again. Nearly twenty-five years after he completed the Sistine Ceiling, in 1535, Michelangelo received a commission from Pope Clement VII. As always, the popes wanted to keep the tradition alive of working with the best contemporary artists around, and why not bring the great Michelangelo back to create a large altarpiece?
It is important to note that, at this time, the Sistine Chapel wasn’t open for general worship. It was simply dedicated to the practice and preaching of the highest members of the papal court. It was where the leaders of the Church came together to celebrate special events in the church calendar, where the pope’s body was shown prior to his funeral, and where the Cardinals still meet to elect the next pope. So just keep that in mind-- this was a special place, but one that was meant for the eyes of the very few.
Scholars have noted that it looks like the proposal of the altarpiece was originally broached with Michelangelo as early as 1533, specifically as a piece depicting the Resurrection of Jesus, or a general scene of the Resurrection of the Dead. Those were fairly typical subjects for altarpieces, wherein the faithful could rest their eyes on triumphant scenes while attending mass or in midst of prayerful contemplation. But somewhere along the way, a more somber subject matter was proposed-- whether by Michelangelo, the Pope, or others is unknown. The Last Judgement depicts the story of Christ on Judgement Day, after his second coming, separating the blessed and the damned in the afterlife. It’s a swirling triumph of painting, and one in which your eye can barely keep still, there’s so much to see. In total, Michelangelo painted some 300-plus figures, including Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and a slough of saints and angels who welcome the saved into Heaven at Jesus’s right side, and watch the damned descend into Hell at his left side.
Now, this was the type of image that has been painted time and time again, one of those standard religious scenes that was depicted long before Michelangelo, and long after him as well. By no means was it the subject matter that was the issue here. But at the completion of Michelangelo’s spectacular altar wall fresco, there was trouble. Big trouble. And the grousing and argument over this work of art continued for even centuries later. So, what’s the issue? It was the way Michelangelo chose to portray The Last Judgement-- even more specifically, all those characters in the scene itself. To contemporary critics, Michelangelo had created a scene chock-full of nudity, depravity, of all manners of sin which would be utterly detrimental to any and all members of the church. Nudity. In a chapel setting. With Jesus himself visualized therein. While the revealing nature of The Last Judgement might not be shocking or upsetting to us as contemporary viewers, the nude bodies and their contorted figures stunned and rocked the art world and Catholic church alike. More on this coming up next, right after this break.
Welcome back to ArtCurious.
A brief examination of Michelangelo’s figures in The Last Judgment shows some of what the general public had claimed to be offensive. Pietro Aretino, a famous literary figure and critic at the time, wrote that The Last Judgement, quote, “makes such a genuine spectacle out of both the lack of decorum in the martyrs and the virgins, and the gesture of the man grabbed by his genitals, that even in a brothel, these eyes would shut so as not to see it. It would be less of a sin for you not to believe than by believing in this manner, to weaken the faith of others.” It seems like pearl-grabbing in essence, and one that is strangely, and possibly, hypocritical, considering that Aretino was a noted and widely-read writer of pornography during the Italian Renaissance. But what really matters here is that Aretino stirred up some genuine feelings about Michelangelo’s work, feelings that were widely shared by critics and the faithful alike. Historically, nudity and art have gone hand-in-hand, and even back in the Renaissance, it was basically de rigeur to paint or carve nudes. And indeed, during the Renaissance, there was a huge uptick in studying and portraying the nude figure, as the tenets of humanism declared that the human body could be the most beautiful thing represented in art, and the most realistic and accurate depictions of the naked human body would therefore be the.best.thing. That being said, there was truly a time and a place for depictions of the nude figure, and in most religious art, nudity is tied directly to sin-- especially the concept of original sin. Think about depictions of Adam and Eve. Their nudity is called to attention only when it is shameful and not something to be proud of. But in The Last Judgment, Michelangelo doesn’t delineate between the sinners and the saved for nudity-- all are naked, even the virtuous. Heck, even Christ is mostly nude here, with the exception of a rather skimpy loincloth. On top of all that, he’s also sporting a very muscular but rather disproportionate torso, damning sinners with ease and nary a batted eye. And then, the final Jesus-related straw-- Christ here is beardless. What? I know, I can hear you freaking out right now. But back in the day, it was an art historical tradition to represent a bearded Jesus-- just think back to our previous episode on Durer’s Self-Portrait where he is modeling his own hirsute image on that of Christ. Michelangelo’s representation of Jesus was just another element that added up to a significant shock in its contemporary moment.
Pope Paul III was granted a preview of the work by Michelangelo before it was completed, and he brought along his master of ceremonies, a man named Biagio da Cesena, to check it out with him. According to Vasari, Cesena was so horrified by what he saw that he recoiled, and exclaimed to the pope, quote, “ It is most disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully, and that it was no work for a papal chapel but rather for the public baths and taverns.” So here, we can see that Cesena is mimicking the concerns of Aretino and other critics. The twist here, though, is that Cesena had this negative reaction in Michelangelo’s presence. And Michelangelo, who was not yet done with the altar painting, was then able to take long-lasting revenge. He painted Cesena’s portrait, from memory, apparently, into his scene as the mythological figure of Minos, a judge of the underworld, located at the bottom right of the work. He’s given donkey ears-- Michelangelo’s blatant way of calling him an ass-- and is similarly as naked as other figures, except that his nudity is covered oh-so-ridiculously by a coiling serpent whose sharp fangs are attached to… well, somewhere rather sensitive. When Cesena discovered this, he was naturally furious, and complained directly to Pope Paul. But here’s the thing about Paul, like Julius II before him. He had faith in Michelangelo and was the first to protect the artist’s work and vision. Pope Paul joked that his religious jurisdiction didn’t extend to Hell or the inhabitants of the underworld, and that Cesena, as Minos, was just going to have to stay. So, let this be a lesson to all of us: don’t make Michelangelo Buonarroti--or any other working artist-- mad. Also, it’s nice to have a pope on your side.
But even the pope was having a really hard time controlling the PR disaster that became The Last Judgment. The clamoring to edit Michelangelo’s designs-- or indeed, even just completely paint over it-- was so loud that Michelangelo himself couldn’t help but be affected. Surely such criticism must have felt like undue torture. And perhaps this sensation-- that he was being martyred for his art-- inspired him to add another prominent portrait within his Last Judgment scene- his own. Next to Christ’s left foot is the figure of St. Bartholomew, a martyr who had been skinned for his saintdom, represented by an odd vision of himself holding his shed skin, like that of a snake. And whose face has been rumored to be that of St. Bartholomew in the shed skin? Michelangelo himself, his self portrait dangling precariously between Heaven and Hell, a persecuted cast-off with hope of final redemption.
Even decades after the completion of the fresco in 1541, criticism still remained. Inspired partly by the disastrous responses to the Michelangelo piece, and partly by the raging criticism stirred up by the Christian Reformation, the final session of the Council of Trent, the group tasked with Counter-Reformation concerns, put pen to paper and defined Catholic art, once and for all, with words that declare, in part, quote, “Every superstition shall be removed ... all lasciviousness be avoided...figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust... there be nothing seen that is profane, nothing indecorous, seeing that holiness becometh the house of God.” Understanding that much of this new declaration clearly applied to the content of the Sistine, they also made an official proclamation that, quote, "The pictures in the Apostolic Chapel should be covered over, and those in other churches should be destroyed, if they display anything that is obscene or clearly false.”
Michelangelo died in February of 1564, and with his death came the critical action of editing--or censoring-- the Sistine Chapel Paintings. A follower of Michelangelo named Daniele da Volterra was brought aboard to paint over many of the offending elements, specifically the plethora of genitalia. From most accounts, this caused at least some anguish for Volterra, simply because he considered himself a sincere admirer of Michelangelo and was loathe to make changes to the original works of art. But changes he made, so much so that he ended up with a nickname from the edits: "Il Braghettone", literally translating to "the breeches maker.” The story goes that he also edited out two figures significantly, totally repainting the figure of St. Catherine, and completely deleting the figure of St. Blaise behind her, as it was believed that their bodies were intertwined in such a way as to suggest something less than decorous was going on between them.
Other artists got in on the action throughout the years. The Spanish master, El Greco, arrived on the scene and offered to totally redo the altarpiece to make it, quote, "modest and decent, and no less well painted than the other.” And other popes had their say, too, with no less than three pontiffs over the centuries coming forward with intentions of continued censorship to Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. Rumor has it that such thoughts persisted all the way into the 20th century, with Pope Pius XI even considering taking on the tradition. Throughout the years, a total of 40 figures have been repainted, though some of these edits have been restored to their original glory in the process of restoring all the Sistine Chapel frescoes during the 1990s (more on that, by the way, in episode #19 of this podcast). Quite a few art lovers were thrilled at the prospect of The Last Judgment returning to its Michelangelo-created, nude-filled splendor, but it turns out that such a matter would have been rather difficult, if not impossible, because Daniele da Volterra may have scraped away Michelangelo’s designs before repainting with his own images atop it. So there wouldn’t be anything to restore, in effect. And so the decision to keep Volterra’s edits was made.
But that doesn’t mean that we only have hearsay to understand exactly what Michelangelo’s primary design looked like-- instead, we have a contemporary copy of the work of art, and it is all thanks to the foresight of a thoughtful cardinal named Alessandro Farnese, a great patron of the arts who was himself a collector of art and supporter of artistic projects, and who even owned works of art by Michelangelo. Knowing of the grumblings from critics and clerics alike, he independently commissioned an artist named Marcello Venusti to paint a copy of The Last Judgment in 1549. This copy is a truly irreplaceable historical document-- a record of the way the great Michelangelo had always intended one of his biggest works to look for the rest of time.
Though Michelangelo stirred up controversy through The Last Judgement with his use of nudity, mythology, and representational style, it has become an iconic part of art history. No amount of slander, criticism, or censorship can dim its brightness, and it, alongside Michelangelo’s other Sistine Chapel frescoes, is a cornerstone of Italian Renaissance painting. Even if it was a little risque for its time.
Next time on the ArtCurious Podcast, it’s our season finale, and we’re ending one of the same artists who finished out our last season on rivalries. That artist’s shocking, career-making debut is coming up in two weeks-- don’t miss it.
Thank you for listening to the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal, with additional writing and research help by Valerie Genzano. Our theme music is by Alex Davis at alexdavismusic.com, our logo is by Dave Rainey at daveraineydesign.com, and social media help is by Emily Crockett. Our production and editorial services are provided by Kaboonki. Video. Content. Ideas. Learn more at kaboonki.com.
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Check back in two weeks as we continue to explore the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in the shocking works of art history.