Not Your Father's MichelangeloIn a previous article, I speculated as to whether Michelangelo in painting his Last Judgement fresco, located in the Sistine Chapel behind the altar, might have been influenced by the Flemish painter Hieronymous Bosch. I suggested this because The Last Judgement is a far cry from the classicism of Michelangelo's ceiling fresco. Painted some 29 years later and unveiled by Pope Paul III in 1541, the new work had taken some seven years to complete. It sparked another twenty years of controversy.
Behind the debate was the question of "decorum" or whether or not the work was appropriate to the chapel. The controversy was all the more unusual coming in an age of unprecedented freedom in the area of intellectual and artistic pursuits. There was the nudity thing of course. Michelangelo was no stranger to this debate. It had dogged him all during the time he worked on the ceiling. This time however, he didn't have Julius II to go to bat for him. As a result, while the bodies remained nude (for all intents and purposes), later artists thinly disguised the genitals.
Beyond this though, there was other nit picking. The figure of Christ was beardless and too young to portray the "majesty" some thought it should exude. The bodies are "heavy" as compared to the "grace" of the ceiling figures. And in the Last Judgement , unlike the ceiling, there was not the loving innocence, the optimism, or the Sunday school lesson qualities that had made his early work so beloved. The Last Judgement is chaotic, hard-edged, frightening, and frankly, to paraphrase Oldsmobile, "Not your father's Michelangelo". In short, the work was disturbing. A cold wind was blowing into the Catholic Church and its art, and behind it all, was Martin Luther.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
18 January 1998