From The Archives: Michelangelo’s Last Judgement As Merciful Heresy

Michelangelo's The Last Judgement, 1536–41, 48 by 44 feet. Sistine Chapel, Vatican. Photo Scalia, New York.


The art historian Leo Steinberg (1920–2011) is renowned for his penetrating and controversial studies of renaissance art. He especially cherished Michelangelo, writing two books on the master’s sculptures and paintings. “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer,” on view through February 12, 2018, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, features around 150 drawings and highlights the artist’s blend of devotedly Christian and heretically individual inspiration. To mark the occasion, we are publishing an abridged version of Steinberg’s roving analysis of the Last Judgement, which also attests to the independence of Michelangelo’s religious thinking, specifically his disbelief in a material hell. The article originally appeared in the November/December 1975 issue of A.i.A. —Eds.


Michelangelo’s Last Judgment fresco, unveiled on October 31, 1541, opened like a hit show. All Rome, it is said, flocked to the Sistine Chapel to gape at the spectacle—the grandest of pictures, the most lavish of incident, the most urgent in advertising the perpetual imminence of the Last Day. The City shuddered in awe and stupefied admiration.

Only two groups kept cool. Artists and connoisseurs paid hom­age with informed admiration—marveling especially at the way the scorti (foreshortenings) had been handled. For the scorto, in 16th-century theory, was the supreme test of art—hard to bring off, difficult to decipher and appreciable only by specialists. And as this fresco out-foreshortened all predecessors, you congratulated yourself on being party to a historic event.

Then there were the religious—understandably nervous about Catholic orthodoxy at a time when half of Europe lay plunged in heresy. They picked the composition apart and enumerated its errors. The beardless athlete at center, they observed, was not a Christ known to the faithful; the Madonna, denied her intercessory role, was too timorous; the Holy Virgins and Martyrs were too unashamedly nude; the angels, being unwinged, could not be distinguished from Saints, nor these from sinners; and the oar-swinging ferryman at the bottom, Charon of pagan legend, was out of place—his very presence reduced the Christian doom to the status of fable. As a permanent backdrop to the Pope’s throne, the fresco was irresponsible and licentious. Some wished it destroyed, or at least painted over in the offending parts.

Common both to the champions of orthodoxy and the lovers of art was a tendency to read the fresco piecemeal, episodically. Artists copied and raided it, turning it into an inexhaustible store of ready-made anatomic motifs. And this same brittle, disjunctive approach determined the criticism of the Last Judgment for the next 300 years. Not until the late 1800s did advanced art historians regain the holistic vision which once had come as a matter of course to the awestruck and the submissive.

It was suddenly noticed that the horizontal zoning of the design paralleled the storeys of the Chapel architecture; that the procession of clerestory windows along the Chapel walls climaxed in the light about Christ. A few sentences in Wölfflin’s Classic Art, 1898, are revolutionary: “Nothing,” he wrote, “counts individually, all is concentrated upon the grouping of masses.” And he proceeded to discern a pattern— “. . .two diagonals converging in Christ. . . . Without this symmetrical order, it would have been impossible to give emphasis to the chief figure.”

The next decade heard Riegl and Justi propose that the composition was built on an arching or even a circular principle—not merely in the choral round about Christ but in the lager rotation encompassing the entire field, rising at left, falling at right. By 1920, writers were insisting that the dominant energies in the fresco were not muscular, localized, additive, but space-pervading—like stresses in a gravitational field. The Last Judgment began to approximate modern abstraction. “All is movement,” wrote Dagobert Frey, “but it is not matter from which movement unfolds by extension; space itself is reinterpreted as a phenomenon of motion.” Panofsky declared Michelangelo’s non-perspectival space to be gravitational, like a planetary system; and Tolnay, soon after, analogized the Christ to the sun.1

In becoming more “modern,” the fresco was also de-Christianized. By 1938, Panofsky could see it “resemble a Wheel of Fortune,” but with the downward trend stronger—“a typical instance of Michelangelo’s pessimism.” Where Riegl, 30 years earlier, had still read the Judgment in the traditional manner, as exhibiting “Christ’s subjective desire for revenge.” Panofsky’s reading implied the subjection of every will to larger orbits. Michelangelo, it now appeared, had envisaged an ontological process which, as Tolnay put it, made man “a puppet in the hands of fate” —a revolving system centering a personified Sun rather than a personal God wounded in the thirty-third year of his Incarnation.

The Panofsky-Tolnay analogy with the Wheel of Fortune is infelicitous. Taken literally, it would mean that the Saints must soon go to Hell and the wicked rise to the top; and this accords neither with Christian prophecy nor with the design of the fresco, which could suggest a huge arch or giant parabola but no wheel—it does not come round at the base. But right or wrong, these invoked analogues of circulation led to an unexpected result: if the inexorable rotation implicit in Michelangelo’s scheme symbolized Fatum, universal Destiny as impersonal as the working of gravitation, then the depicted event could not proceed from a personal will, and the deity lording over this cosmic round could not be angry. Centered, sunlike, Copernican, he must be part of a pattern which neither wrath nor compassion could modify. The logic was irresistible, and it led Panofsky and Tolnay to see what no one had seen before—that there was not the least sign of anger to be read on the face of Christ. A process begun in formal analysis was reverting to meaning.

Divesting the Judge of his anger is a matter of far-reaching consequence, because everything, from the composition itself to the interpretation of it, radiates from the Christ out. Begin by seeing an irascible God, and the Madonna and Saints will be quaking in fear, the Martyrs abetting their Lord by calling for vengeance, the downward trend of the design will predominate, and the whole turn into a dies irae. Such indeed are the interpretations launched from the beginning by Michelangelo’s friends. For Vasari describes the Christ as “terrible and fierce of countenance”—con faccia orribile e fiera, cursing the damned. And Condivi: “Wrathfully, he curses the wicked, and drives them from before his face into eternal fire.” These descriptions fit the canonic vision of the Last Judgment given to us in Christ’s “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire” (Matt. 25:41), confirmed in St. Mark (Chap. 9:43—48) and the Apocalypse of St. John (Chaps. 14 and 22), and repeated from St. Augustine to St. Thomas Aquinas to the Council of Trent. Hence the ready agreement of most later writers on Michelangelo, who persist in seeing the fresco as a “wholly punitive manifestation.” Ludwig Pastor, the chronicler of the Popes, concludes that “the fresco has been called something of a misnomer. It would be better entitled ‘The Condemnation of the Lost.’2

Can it be that all these writers went wrong? How so, since their interpretations go back to the primary sources, to those two biographers who wrote almost to the master’s dictation? And yet, Tolnay demurred: having found a circuiting movement in the design and a theory of Fatum to follow, he challenged those primary sources.

Vasari and Condivi describe the Last Judgment only in part from their own visual experience. For the rest, they rely on their preconceived notions, which derive from tradition. This explains their overlooking the most essential new feature, the revolving movement around the center and the impassivity of the face of Christ. . . It was Vasari and Condivi who coined the generally accepted interpretation . . . of the anger of Christ.3

Let me propose an alternative: that the artist’s biographers were—more or less consciously—misrepresenting the work be­cause, having both looked and listened, they sensed that its very survival would be imperiled if truth were told. On no account must the suspicion arise that the fresco, culpable in so many details, might be heterodox in essentials. Michelangelo’s well-wishing friends, who saw in the Last Judgment the ultimate triumph of art, must bend every effort to ward off suspicions. And they had reason to fear, for Michelangelo’s fresco—and this is the burden of the present hypothesis—embodied a long-abhorred heresy, a doctrine safe enough nowadays, even appealing, but mortally dangerous to a Roman Catholic of the 1540s and ’50s: I mean the heresy of doubting the eternal torment of sinners and the vindictive, retributive nature of the Last Judgment.

As in thematic apperception tests posed by psychologists, the character of the depicted event hinges on the intention imputed to Christ. If the World Judge is moved by wrath, then he punishes not for the good of the sinner but in revenge, and the mass of mankind is rejected eternally, immortalized only to suffer ever­lasting pains without end, as the Church teaches. But if his expression is neutral and his action turns out to be unpredictable, then there arises for us the possibility that the sentence is yet undetermined; all the data of the huge fresco will appear otherwise if the judgment has not yet fallen and the Judge’s mood is unfixed.

The Michelangelo literature has been reluctant to face these uncertainties. Yet they yield a rich harvest, as I hope to prove in the following propositions.


1. That the intent of Michelangelo’s Christ is unknowable.

The question—what the Christ in the Last Judgment is doing—is wrongly put if it assumes a foreseeable outcome. Eschatology may predict God’s design, but Michelangelo’s resists definition. Consider the posture. Vasari tells us that Christ is seated—“mistakenly,” according to modern authors who follow the alternative tradition that he is standing; 17th-century writers relying mostly on 16th-century reproductions, saw him as “on his feet” or “on tiptoe.” Delacroix, too, had him stand. 4 But many keen-eyed observers see him moving to rise—“ . . . rising from his throne with the gesture of an angry Hercules” (Symonds), or as leaping up from it—though no throne or supporting cloud offers the figure a seat or point of departure. Finally, those who conceive the moment as an Advent, a Coming, perceive a Christ “advancing with a powerful stride.” 5  Such differences of opinion proceed les from carelessness in the viewer than from a given ambiguity which the viewer resists. No writer who respected the work was willing to acknowledge the indeterminacy of the stance. In the literature, it is cited only in derogation, as in J.D. Fiorillo’s History of Art (1808): “The figure of Christ lacks nobility and majesty; it neither sits properly nor stands properly on its feet.”6

That the ambiguity was intended may be proved by comparing the Christ in the fresco with preliminary drawings for the Last Judgment. In all the drawings the Judge is seated, as tradition dictates. But the artist remained unsatisfied until he had found the definitive mystification—an elusive, indescribable synthesis, as irksome to writers as to copyists. In Martino Rota’s well-known engraving (1569), Christ’s left leg is straightened so as to rationalize the pose into a stance—not to make a sitter stand up, but to clarify what the engraver took for a standing position. In other words, we are watching Michelangelo’s Christ in a posture that can be neither exactly described nor readily copied but only interpreted.

So then we know what Vasari could not yet have known—that the pose of the Christ is describable in four or five different ways: seated, standing, rising or springing up, or striding forward. Shall we vote to elect one of these readings, implicitly charging the artist with an inability to make himself clear? Better to let our disagreements lead to the conclusion that Michelangelo cast the Christ of the Second Coming in a posture which cannot be matched in our vocabulary or analogized to normal physical habits.


2. That the imperturbability of Christ’s face turns all interpretation—into projection.

As Christ’s lower limbs are ambivalent, so is his facial expression. The traditional accounts of that Apollonian visage—irate, fierce, vengeful, orribile, and so on—are naive; it is mistaking the nature of visual information to pin such simplistic labels on these grave, unsearchable features. Tolnay did right to insist on their impassivity.


3. That the Virgin is not represented as sacred.

The Madonna is said to be recoiling in fear; so Vasari had written—shrinking in fear at the sight of such ruin. A few years later, Gilio da Fabriano, having read his Vasari, denounced the cappriccio that depicted “the glorious Virgin all fearful and full of terror.” And fearful she has remained ever since. Even such scholars as Panofsky and Tietze call Michelangelo’s Virgin “bashful and frightened,” and “gripped by the terror of the moment”; they too were misled by their reading.7But the primary text in the present case is a physical posture. And as in the study of written texts one repeats a difficult sentence aloud, so perhaps one should “repeat” here, bearing in mind that the non-verbal disciplines of drawing and dancing may prove better guides than erudition.

Once, in a classroom, I heard a well-read student describe the Virgin as shrinking in fear. I suggested that she try imitating the pose against a flat wall, so as to experience within herself what the Madonna was doing. Then, as we watched the experiment, we discovered that every part of the Virgin’s body pressed gently towards the right—the way one snuggles up to a warm stove. The Madonna cleaves to Christ along the whole length of her form; only her head is bent, inclined towards the ascending elect and the prayer addressed to her in the rosary.


4. That the artist’s self-portrait as empty skin signals his anxiety to partake in Resurrection.

Michelangelo’s self-portrait in the flayed human skin held up to the gaze of Christ by St. Bartholomew has the character of an unfathomable mythical symbol. Since 1925, when this “signature” in the fresco was first reported in print, half a dozen interpretations had been put forward, none wholly convincing. It is a precipitous subject, and a full critical treatment of it is beyond the scope of this paper. A recent book on Michelangelo’s Cappella Paolina frescoes, written by the present author ventures this partial reading:

The artist’s presence at the focal point of the action usurps Christ’s immediate attention. Christ’s glance and suspended gesture, whether to damn or save, direct themselves pointblank at the rag stamped with Michelangelo’s features. And the line that descends from the Judge through the martyred Apostle to the artist’s distorted face becomes the main artery of the design. A verdict is about to be handed down, and the first arraigned is the wretched likeness of Michelangelo’s self. The whole cosmic drama collapses upon his destiny. Not because the artist thinks himself foremost amongst mankind, but because the Last Judgment conceived as more than a fable, and more than a warning to others, is real and serious only to the extent that the man who tells of it knows himself to be the first on trial.8

I would now go a step further. At this terminal moment, when all humankind resurrect, when even those due for punishment are possessed of their “longed-for flesh,” one man alone remains unrestored, a dejected sheath lacking body. Could it be that Michelangelo had been touched by those 16th-century heresies that denied Hell and afterlife to the wicked, and allowed immortality only to the righteous and those redeemable by purgatorial fire?9 Then St. Bartholomew, himself excoriated into saintdom but here holding another man’s skin, pleads as that other man’s intercessor: “Do not cast him away; let him too resurrect into eternal life.”


5. That the tumblers above are not sinners but allegories of Sin.

We have seen that the wretches in Charon’s barque are individualized personalities. This is precisely what distinguishes them from the rain of the larger-scaled figures above. No signs of contrition here. Rump, crutch and somersault—a welter of bodies that lets only two faces show: one upside down, lurking in shadow beneath an upended arse; the other directly below, with more lewd obscenity between its cheeks than in all the pudenda Pope Paul IV ordered draped. I do believe that Michelangelo is here giving us allegory—as in his drawing, the Dream of Mankind. The drawing (ca. 1535) is exactly contemporaneous: a nude youth leans on the orb of the world, roused by a celestial trumpet from his dream of the senses, while images of the Seven Deadly Sins condense in the air around him, parsing his moral consciousness. Perhaps in the fresco, too, the plummeting bodies, battered by angels and tugged by demons, should be read as symbolic projections, an unfurling of guilt, the unendurable content of the mind of the great shamefaced sinner. As if to evade this his only remaining vision, he blinds his left side.

Not that such an interpretation is provable, but it is preferable to imagining a gigantomachia in which these degenerates had been trying to take Heaven by storm. Since this nonsense is often repeated in the Michelangelo literature, it should be pointed out that the resurrected at the Last Judgment have lost their autonomous wills, hence would be incapable of mounting a military operation. Even more inept is the frequent designation this group as a contest between angels and demons. In fact, angels and demons here make common cause, pushing down from above, dragging down from below. Such is the supersession of natural law at the Last Judgment, the universal trend to levitate upward to Christ, that only concerted forces (hatred of Sin and weight of Sin) can make bodies sink.

Not individual malefactors but personifications of the Mortal Sins. At least two of them are distinguishable: the man tumbling heels over head is weighted by keys and a bagful of coins, emblems of greed; and the lecher at the right margin, shielding his buttocks and stuffing his rubber mouth with his fist while a demon hauls him down by the scrotum, presumably represents lust.

And there is reason to think that a monumental vision of the Deadly Sins overthrown by the hands of angels would have been on Michelangelo’s mind when he undertook the design of the fresco. We recall that it was the Medici Pope Clement VII who conceived the commission for the Last Judgment. Clement, while besieged in the Castel Sant’Angelo during the Sack of Rome, had vowed that if he survived unscathed, he would erect, on top of the tower of the Castel Sant’Angelo, a colossal bronze group of the Seven Deadly Sins being hurled down by.

Following his deliverance, Pope Clement sought to fulfill his vow by commissioning Michelangelo’s rival Bandinelli to execute it. Bandinelli was installed in the Belvedere and actually produced the first of the figures—a development certainly known to Michelangelo. But the project was dropped, to be replaced by the Sistine Last Judgment. And I suspect that Michelangelo’s group of falling figures may have been meant to fulfill Clement’s vow posthumously—not without the irony that marked Michelangelo’s attitude to the pope he had known since their boyhood together—showing how such a spectacular precipitation of vices would look. Vasari may have known something of this, for he refers to the group as the peccati mortali.

Two conclusions follow from the proposed allegorization of these falling figures: it would mean that Christ’s rejection of them conveys his hatred of Sin, not of sinners. Secondly, if they are not individual evildoers, they do not increase the sum of the damned shown in the fresco—Charon’s uneasy cargo.


6. That punishment in Michelangelo’s fresco is not to be everlasting.

The squad of bookkeepers and trumpeting angels includes a revealing detail—the waiting action of two of the trumpeters. Four blowhards on the left puff mightily to awaken the dead—they are spirits come from the four winds to “breathe upon these slain, that they may live” (Ezekiel 37:9). Of the remaining four, two aim their trumpets into the distance. But the other two, both closely associated with the keeper of the large folio and both facing the disconsolates at the edge of Hell, are not sounding their brass, so that their assignment cannot be that of rousing or inspiriting the dead. Yet one of them, smiling, seems impatient to start, while the other, his trumpet laid to rest upon his shoulder, seems prepared to wait for a cue. What can these angel-buglers be waiting for? If they do not sound their instruments now—at the last trumpet—when else? Can it be that they wait to recall even the rejected ones after appropriate eons of expiation? This would be damnable thinking, for the orthodox Christian view permits no recall from Hell. Yet one finds this heterodoxy in Michelangelo’s verse, as when he compares the survival of cold rock in a hard kiln to “a soul purged, returned from Hell [da l’inferno] to Heaven . . . ”; which passage Michelangelo’s Catholic commentator explains as referring to the purifying effect of purgatory— as if Michelangelo, lifelong reader of Dante, had been unaware of the difference between “Inferno” and “Purgatorio.”

In the fresco Michelangelo has dared include, at the very center of Charon’s barque, what must be meant as an act of brotherly charity—one stalwart of noble features trying to stay the headlong fall of a comrade who is being raked down by a fiend. Such mutual aid among the condemned implies the survival of moral nature, hence the possibility of amelioration. Later theories of “Universalism,” which unlike Catholicism posit a morally dynamic Hell, would have recognized in the youth’s action “the beginning of the redemptive process that will finally save him.” The Hell Michelangelo painted on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel is either a Hell from which, after due punishment, the condemned are restored into God’s rest, or else only Purgatory, and no Hell at all. Both alternatives are heretical, and it is perhaps providential that the two pausing trumpeters in the fresco have been rendered almost illegible by abrasion, the constant rubbing against them of the festive baldacchino of the High Altar.


7. That the interpretative tradition feeds on itself, with minimal interference from the object interpreted.

It is said that Christ’s full attention is absorbed by his work of damnation—”only an avenging God,” writes Panofsky. But this is too simplistic a reading of body language. Christ’s upper body does pivot leftward, but with a recoil to the blessed side. And the shadowed aspect he shows to the side of perdition (significantly, the North, in view of the Chapel’s occidentation) tends to seal off; the head is withdrawn, the left shoulder draped, the forearm raised like a barrier and the corresponding thigh flexed; whereas the lighted, undefended, auspicious side leaves itself open, signaling welcome. Nor can one resist the impression that Christ’s hands together sustain the motion of the entire system, like those of a conductor, raising a crescendo on his right side while muting the other, the lifted hand causing that universal updraft by which the resurrected are drawn.

The resurgence of the buried dead is the supreme act of divine mercy, the wresting of victory from the grave. In Michelangelo’s fresco the event is continuous with the Ascent into Heaven: no intervening judgment, no separation of sheep and goats or weighing of souls. One erstwhile cadaver, with cerements still lashing his ankles, breaks the horizon, sustained like one rescued from drowning. Close by and a little above, a fantastic four-figure symplegma—two candidates for resurrection fought over by seraphic and chthonic agents. The men cleave back to back, one of them upside down and held up under his knees, between which appears the head of his fellow. We know the outcome: against the effortless lift of their champion, the goblin who strains to retain them for underground will not prevail. Higher still—we are moving inward and up towards Mary along another mystic concatenation—two figures are being pulled up by a rosary, i.e., by the power of prayer. And to the left of this steep diagonal, a shoal of new bodies floats upward—some on the rising current willed by Christ’s arm, others by dint of love. Figures in private transport alternate with paired fellowships, mutual trust. By converting the ascent of these saved into scenes of rescue or rapture, Michelangelo was able to endow their motions with a dramatic and athletic intensity equal to the plummeting of the Sins.

This half of the fresco, which leads to the realm of grace that embraces the whole upper zone to include scenes of reunion and exultation, reflects, I believe, some of Michelangelo’s inmost longings, expressed in motifs of great passion and tenderness. And yet, for 400 years, those who gave account of the picture in word or image obeyed a compulsion to accentuate whatever seemed harsh to unsee and suppress any tremor of exaltation or gentleness. The abundance of Michelangelo’s hope was either ignored or warped into its opposite.

And not by writers only, but by artists as welt. In the earliest known borrowing from Michelangelo’s fresco, a painting dated 1542, Jan van Scorel takes the elated heavyweight near the left margin—the one being plucked by his wrists—and turns him into an image of agony, a St. Sebastian. In Salviati’s Beheading of St. John the Baptist, 1553, the gentlest of Michelangelo’s merciful figures—the one drawing two suppliants up by the rosary—turns executioner, stooping to pick up the severed head of St. John. In a fresco at Sant’Andrea in Mantua, dated ca. 1570, we are given a vision of Hell receiving its feed. Made up of shuffled quotations from the Sistine Last Judgment, the picture manages to confer damnation on no less than five of Michelangelo’s saved. At dead center is a figure which in the original is ecstatically rising to heaven; the Mantuan fresco converts it into one being dragged down to Hell.

It may be that such pejorative adaptation reflect no more than old habits of visualizing virtue and vice—the former being traditionally shown in repose, the latter in action. Michelangelo’s professional colleagues may have misunderstood the expressive charge of his visionary anatomies, the dance of bodies inhabited by a spirit entranced. Their notions of beatitude were confined by conventional images of relaxed calm, leaving all restlessness to characterize pain, vice and strife. Since the Baroque dramatization of ecstasy, which absorbs physicality into saintliness, was as yet unimagined, Michelangelo’s athletic expressions of mystic transport were unintelligible: such restless figures as those risers in the left half of the Judgment must needs be in discomfort, so that their ecstatic contortion were adaptable only in a negative sense.

But though such incomprehension is surely a factor, the persistent negation of positive elements in the fresco reflects a larger compulsion. In Della Casa’s engraving of the Last Judgment, 1543 or 1548, the portion of Hell is enlarged, the scale of Christ and his entourage greatly diminished. Similar alterations occur in the later prints of Bonasone, Cavalieri (1567), Martino Rota (1569), Cartaro (1569) and Dupérac (1578); and in a print by Ambrosio Brambilla of 1589, the Charon figure has not only moved more than halfway across the field, but the entire design with its firm horizontals is reinterpreted as an irreversible listing towards the side of the damned. The same again, and more pronounced, in such painted adaptations as that by Hans Mielich, 1554, which retains most of Michelangelo’s elements, but rearranged, so as to turn almost the entire picture into a fall of the damned. Giovan Domenico Pezzi’s free copy of the Last Judgment, 1584, in Valsolda reduces the blessed acres, so that Hell occupies a full third of the field.

We often hear about the offending “nudities” in the fresco and how these were repeatedly overpainted. “The Theatines are foremost in saying that the nudities are out of place here,” the Mantuan ambassador wrote to Cardinal Ercole Gonzaga in November 1541. But His Excellency added at once that after studying the work carefully he could find at most 10 figures out of so many hundreds that were indecent. It was obviously easy enough to cover these minor blemishes and thus save the whole. But there was matter here which seemed irremediable, stirring a sense of profound unease among the religious. They sensed the artist’s personal license in interpreting the Last Things, and this smacked of Luther and heresy. For the ultimate horror in the eyes of the Roman Church—more damnable than any deviant doctrine or error—was the presumption to substitute opinion and personal feeling for the millennial traditions of the Holy Church. The menace of free-thinking theologies was precisely the abandonment of the old path at the bidding of private passion.

It was, I suggest, to protect Michelangelo’s fresco from the most dangerous charges that there arose a tradition of interpretation which sought to adjust the work to the orthodoxies of the Council of Trent—even at the cost of distorting Michelangelo’s art and the grace of his spirit.