My wife and I had watched, over the years, the emergence of Michelangelo’s gelato colors from the murk of the Sistine ceiling; but we could not do the same thing for the Last Judgment at the altar end of the chapel. The ceiling was restored in stages, but the Judgment was entirely closed in for the years of its repristination.

Last spring, we had to leave Italy just before the Judgment was revealed again to the public (in May), so we got back to Italy as soon as we could, in order to see it. Since we had to begin our next Italian stay in Venice, we traveled down the peninsula looking at the major Last Judgments that had preceded Michelangelo’s—all those wall-filling visions of The End, whether they were done in mosaic or in fresco. At one point this took us to four different walls in four cities on four successive days. We were baffled in only one place—Orvieto, where Luca Signorelli’s Last Judgment is still behind restorers’ scaffolds. Michelangelo’s work was all the more impressive for this buildup, though it is theologically grimmer than anything we saw in the weeks before we arrived at the Vatican.

1. Torcello: Cathedral

(Eleventh Century)

Torcello, seven miles out into Venice’s lagoon, is largely abandoned now, but its eleventh-century cathedral is still well cared for. (People go out for lunch at Cipriani’s restaurant on the island, then tour the church before the boat goes back.) The cathedral’s high entry wall is filled with a mosaic divided into seven horizontal layers—a complex vision of the apocalyptic End of History. This iconography for the Last Judgment was elaborated in the East and brought to Venice by Byzantine mosaicists.1 Torcello’s is the most humane and optimistic Judgment we would encounter.

Alone at the narrowing top of the wall is the crucified Jesus, streaming life-giving blood over his mother and the disciple John. The second layer down contains the most interesting of the sequences depicted. The figures here are much larger than on any other level. Michelangelo, too, made the figures high up on his Judgment wall larger than those below, in part to make up for the shrinking effect of distance upon the viewer. But the angels and other persons on the second layer of the Torcello mosaic are vastly out of scale with the other segments. This, the most important part of the design, presents what used to be called, in English, “the harrowing of Hell.”

Modern Christians make little of that clause in the old creed that says Jesus “descended into Hell” after being buried on the day of his execution; but it was an important part of the early Christian scheme of salvation. The clause addressed a major concern. If salvation comes only with Jesus, what happened to all those who lived before him? The answer is that Jesus, going down to those who preceded him in death, broke open “the gates of Hell” that cannot withstand him, and led out of captivity Adam and Eve and their descendants. The Greek church calls this the extraction (anastasis) of souls from Hell. Christ redeems all of history, starting with Adam, and the devil howls with impotent rage as Jesus breaks open Hell and frees its prisoners. In the Torcello version, Jesus has burst open the gate, and treads on its diabolic keeper. All the useless bolts, keys, and other shattered apparatus are scattered around the fallen door, and Jesus moves energetically across such barriers, stepping briskly, but looking back to draw Adam up out of his rocky enclosure.

The third layer down is not technically a Judgment scene but a “pleading” (deæsis): Jesus, in his almond-shaped body-halo (mandorla), shows his upturned palms as symbols of redemption, their wounds a victory sign. Mary to his right and John the Baptist to his left plead for humankind. Ranked around and behind the two intercessors are angels, Apostles, and blessed spirits. Only at the very bottom of the mandorla is there a hint of condemnation—a thin stream of fire runs from the halo’s outer edge, snaking through the next layer, then widening out into Hell fires on the right of the bottom three layers.

In the fourth layer down, the fire runs along unobtrusively past another not-quite-Judgment symbol. This is the so called hetoimasia, the “preparation” for judgment, showing a cushioned stool backed by the instruments of Christ’s Passion (the cross, the spear that pierced his side, the crown of thorns, the sponge lifted up to him on a stick). This is the throne that waits through all history for the moment when Jesus will sit on it and, by virtue of his redeeming and damning death, sort mankind into its lasting communities. Flanking this throne are the trumpets that summon up the dead for the moment of judgment. On the left we see wild animals surrendering the human bodies they ate. On the right, bodies come out of fish and sea monsters (presided over by a fetching pagan sea goddess).


Only on the fifth level down does the act of judging take place—and it is not done by Jesus. Michael the Archangel, as the executor of God’s battle plan, weighs souls in a balance (psychostasia), fighting off devils who try to tip the scales. The act of judgment is made as lenient as possible, something reflected in the choirs of clerics and virgins singing God’s praises to the left. Beneath these saints is a collection of comforting scenes—the angel-guarded gate of Heaven, with Dismas, the good thief saved by Jesus on the cross, about to enter it. Dismas ties this lower level to the large upper “harrowing” scene, since Jesus was often depicted as taking Dismas with him to free the captives, in accordance with his promise on the cross: “This day, with me, you will enter Paradise” (Luke 23:43). To Dismas’s right are the Virgin Mary (repeating her appearance in the deæsis) and Abraham, with the saved in his bosom. To his left, Saint Peter, with his keys, gestures toward Heaven’s open gate.

On the right of Michael’s scale are the lost souls in fire, with the devil, a white-haired parody of Abraham, seating the Antichrist in his bosom.2 Satan’s throne is made of live monsters who eat sinners. Below the scene, in what was a single lower level on the other side (with the gate of Heaven), two small layers are divided into three compartments each, where six classes of sinners are lodged—the lustful in fire, the gluttons eating their own flesh, the angry soused in water, the envious reduced to skulls eaten by their own worms, the avaricious with their jewels, and the slothful as stray bones too lazy to recombine. These make up—with the proud who feed the fires around the Devil—the seven deadly sins.

Full-scale Judgment scenes were usually placed on the entry (west) wall of a church—carved in the tympanums over the door of a Gothic cathedral, or done in mosaic or fresco on the inner wall—to assist in penitential preparation for the mysteries presented at the other end of the church, where the altar was usually placed near a picture of salvation (Christ’s birth, death, resurrection, or ascension; Mary’s assumption into Heaven, or her crowning there).3 We must travel a long, not very happy, theological path to find the Judgment moved east onto the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel.

2. Florence: The Baptistry

(circa 1260–1270)

The next Judgment we saw was created almost two centuries after the Torcello wall. The medium, mosaic, makes for continuity with the great Venetian-Byzantine model, though the cartoon for this Judgment is now attributed to the School of a Tuscan painter, Coppo di Marcovaldo.4 The octagonal vault of the Florence cathedral’s baptistry is entirely lined with mosaics. The Judgment takes up three of the eight sides in this cupola, and its figures are larger than those in other scenes. The judging Christ, in a huge mandorla, sits on the Heavenly spheres. His hands are not exposed symmetrically on either side of him, palms up to show his wounds as salvific; rather, his right hand calls the saved toward Heaven, while the left one is turned down, in a shoving gesture that topples the lost into damnation. Mary, seated with the Apostles, plays no intervening role.

The dead come out of their tombs, helped by angels, on Christ’s right. On his left, the sinners are driven and tormented, in a scene of tumbling confusion (not the neatly enclosed categories of sin at Torcello). Satan again sits on a throne of devouring beasts, but now he eats sinners too. He is far grislier than the white-bearded devil at Torcello, and he made his impact on both Giotto and Dante who were familiar with this fresh landmark in the Florence of their youth. 5

3. Padua: Arena Chapel


The first great fresco on our trip was Giotto’s entry wall to the Scrovegni family’s “Arena Chapel” in Padua. At the very top of the picture, Giotto puts in visual terms the words of Isaiah 34:4: “The heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll.” Two angels peel back the blue surface of the wall as if opening up the church itself. Behind each angel we catch a glimpse of the gates of Heaven. The rolled-in heavens are about to close over the sun and moon.6

Below, Christ sits in an oval halo, ringed by the celestial spheres (as in certain creation scenes) rather than sitting on them (as in the Florence Baptistry). Mary is, strikingly, absent from the Judgment scene—she appears below, receiving a model of the chapel from its donor.7 Jesus is seated on the cushioned and backless throne seen in hetoimasia scenes. He turns his left hand down, in damnation. But his head is turned to the right, where his other hand beckons the saved. The Apostles sit in an arc around Jesus, on a floating platform (imitated by Raphael in his Vatican Disputa).


The saved on Christ’s right are individuated—as soldiers, nuns, merchants, priests—and are far larger figures than the damned on his left. But it is the left side of the picture (the viewer’s right) that catches most attention. Four immense rivers of fire gush out of the oval halo and race across the wall, sluicing sinners down toward a bloated Satan who eats and defecates them.8 His dragon throne is especially grand—green and yellow, in contrast to his own blue-gray body. Not only do its dragons eat sinners. On the dragons’ backs other sinners are trapped by devils—the one on Satan’s left is supine in agony as a devil bites into his penis.

By making his sinners so small, Giotto creates a sense of spaciousness in Hell—a zone where individual tragedies are played out. The tortures are of individuals, not mere types. A lustful woman is hung upside down by a hook through her genitals. A liar hangs by his tongue. A sodomist is reamed with a turning spit that enters his mouth and exits his anus. A corrupt pope blesses the man bribing him while a devil drags the pope down. Dante, an admirer of Giotto, was working on his own Inferno during the decade (1300–1310) of this painting’s completion and fame, and his Hell of novelistic dooms is fully in Giotto’s spirit. Both men drew on the descriptions of travel in the underworld written in the twelth century.9

The storytelling power of Giotto is seen in the little sinner who hides behind the great cross that divides saved from damned—we do not see, yet, what angel or devil will spot him; the story is unfolding before our eyes. The fresco’s great achievement, not equaled till Michelangelo did the same thing, was to unite the whole Judgment scene as a single drama played out in cosmic depths of blue.

4. Florence: Strozzi Chapel

(circa 1357)

When the Strozzi decorated their family chapel in the Dominican church, Santa Maria Novella, they hired two painters to follow the complex theological program of Pietro di Ubertino, a Strozzi himself, and a Dominican scholar. The painters were Andrea di Cione and Nardo di Cione. The first, better known as Orcagna (“Archangel” in dialect), painted the elaborate altarpiece, while Nardo and his assistants frescoed all three walls of the chapel as one vast Judgment.10

On the north wall, above the window, the judging Christ stands thighdeep in clouds (there is no room for a throne). His hands are summoning and dismissing, as on Giotto’s wall. Flanking the windows are angels with the customary instruments of passion. Farther down are Mary and John in their typical deæsis pose. Then the Apostles, seated on clouds. Below, individualized humans of all classes and types are being channeled toward the side walls, into Heaven or Hell.

The Paradise wall shows Jesus and Mary seated on the same throne. Below them is an angel orchestra, surrounded by particular saints and generalized saved souls. On the Hell wall, following Pietro’s scholarly direction, Nardo painted the first detailed Inferno taken from Dante’s Comedy.11 An upper Hell shows Charon, Cerberus, and other classical images of the voyage downward. In the center are the ramparts of “the City of Dis,” and a ring of fiery tombs for heresiarchs. Paolo and Francesca fly through the air.

The choleric rend themselves. In the bottom corner, the rebels and traitors, Brutus and Cassius, are freezing. The fresco is badly deteriorated, but the general scheme is clear, and remaining details can be read with opera glasses. (Some kind of binocular instrument is necessary for viewing all the fourteenth-century frescoes, since they are so faded, darkened, or otherwise damaged as to impede seeing what was originally clear to the naked eye.)

5. Pisa: Campo Santo

(circa 1335)

The growth of Hell as the most interesting part of Judgment paintings is made clear in the huge monastic hall at Pisa famous for the Triumph of Death fresco on its long wall. On the short wall there is a Judgment now attributed to Bonamico Buffalmacco, the artist whose pranks are celebrated in Boccaccio’s Decameron.12 There is no Heaven section, but Hell spills over to create a larger scene on the adjacent wall than is devoted to the act of judging. That judging is itself unusual: Christ and Mary sit side by side in mandorle of equal size. Both are turned toward the damned, over whom Christ’s right-hand is raised in command. His left hand is opening his robe on the right side, to expose the wound given him by the centurion’s spear—a wound that, according to John’s Gospel (19:34), ran blood and water. The wounds of Christ can be consoling or condemning emblems; but the wound in the side is always a symbol of mercy tempering justice (the water is probably connected with the spring of living water in the breasts of believers, John 7:38). Only Michelangelo, in his sketches for the Sistine wall, comes close to making even this wound menace the onlooker.

There is a crisscross (chiasmos) pattern to Jesus’s pose here—the left hand exposing the breast to those saved on his right, while the right hand is raised against sinners on the left. Jesus is pictured in Pisa as having already called his saints up to Heaven, and only then turning toward the left in order to damn those bound for Hell. (Mary, too, turns in her separate mandorla to cast a look of pity on the damned.)

The side wall is full of the regular torments of the underworld—the avaricious man with molten gold poured into his mouth, the spitted sodomite, the evil rulers strung up on hooks that pierce their throats. The Satan here is especially revolting, broken out with eyes all over his body like a surreal rash, while he chews a sinner between protruding tusks. Figures from history are included, as in Dante’s Inferno.13

6. Verona: Sant’ Anastasia

(mid-Fourteenth Century)

At this church we encountered the only Judgment (except Michelangelo’s) inside the sanctuary. But this one is on a side wall, not the altar wall—and that position softens the presentation. The Judge, whose artist is unknown, has both hands out, with palms up, and is receiving the pleadings of Mary and John the Baptist in their deæsis. The instruments of the passion are displayed beneath, and Michael the Archangel drives the damned into a very narrow strip on the bottom right of the picture (darkened, now, to the point of indecipherability). The saved have taken over the composition. This near the altar, Hell slips almost out of the picture.

7. San Gimignano: Duomo


Taddeo di Bartolo created a threepart Judgment inside the entry door of the cathedral at San Gimignano. Jesus, above the entrance, is in a mandorla flanked by the pleading Mary and John; but instead of having his palms stretched out, he has reverted to the raised right hand and dismissing left hand, as in Giotto, and others.

On the Paradise arch, Jesus and Mary sit in separate orbs of light. The Hell is as savage as anything since Giotto. The huge Satan is chewing Judas in his mouth, while his hands hold Brutus and Cassius, ready to be popped in as soon as Judas is lowered toward defecation. The proud are having their heads sawn off. Others’ bowels come out in long scrolls. A particularly tortured harlot has a large screw being twisted into her genitals, which are also licked by a snake, while a second devil drags her through fire by his tail (wound into her hair), and a third pours fire over her. The sodomite is spitted through the anus, and the spit emerges from his mouth to enter his partner’s mouth, devils all the while turning the spit. Another devil craps coins into a usurer’s mouth. Hell has become about as grotesque as it can.

8. Orvieto: Duomo


There was a reaction in the fifteenth century toward more classical, less medieval, underworlds, typified by Luca Signorelli’s Judgment in the Duomo’s chapel of San Brizio (see page 56). Vasari said that Michelangelo studied this work while planning his own, done thirty years later. Both artists create devils with classical human bodies colored weird blues and greens. The damned are tortured mainly by anatomical strain and displacement, suggesting psychic anguish. Luca’s work is in some ways a return to the Byzantine apocalypticism of the Torcello mosaic—it is paired, for instance, with a theologically subtle presentation of the Antichrist.14

Unfortunately, the San Brizio chapel has been undergoing restoration for years, and it was totally occluded with scaffolding, so we had to content ourselves with reproductions showing how Michael and other angels carry out the order to corral and chain naked sinners, biting them but using no other torture instruments. (Jesus is not shown, nor is Mary presiding over this activity—another point of resemblance to Torcello.)

We were able to study the Judgment carved in relief on the entrance wall’s exterior by Lorenzo Martoni and his helpers in the 1320s. Signorelli used motifs from this scene for his own work inside. Jesus, seated on the spheres in a mandorla formed of angels’ heads, is turned to the right, toward the saved, reaching down to them with his right hand while his left is held up, palm out, as if suspending judgment while Mary and John plead in their deæsis pose (but from a lowered position). The saved fill all of the second and third tiers under Jesus’s mandorla, and half of the fourth (bottom) tier. The damned, crowded into the right half of the lowest level, are wreathed into contorted groups, lashed by angels, with snakes woven throughout the jumble of (mainly) standing figures. The sculptor’s sense of the body is akin to both Signorelli’s and Michelangelo’s paintings, though two centuries, separate Martoni from Michelangelo.

9. Vatican: The Sistine Chapel


At last, the Big Enchilada. The first thing to be said about the restoration is that it gives us a picture entirely different from the debased one we saw before. One obvious effect planned by Michelangelo was lost when a general murkiness darkened the figures. The people rising from the dead, on our left as we look, are still mummified, not fully disengaged from their cerements. Leathery skin is still on the bones. But as the figures rise in their restored color, the flush of life returns to their limbs. We see blood run under the skin. By the time one’s eye reaches the wall of flesh across the upper layers of the picture, the natural lighting, stronger on the top half of the picture than the lower, makes this expanse pulse with muscular life. The figures are molded by the artist’s use of shadow to round out limbs. This gives a 3-D effect to things like Christ’s raised arm, which terrifies those around him.

The restoration makes it more evident that the act of damnation not only awes but horrifies many of the saved. Some flinch as if to say, “Oh no!” Most tellingly, Mary averts her face from the terrible moment—reversing her normal intercessory gaze at Jesus. The prominent and motherly woman on the left shelters a girl clutching her knees as if protecting her from Christ’s arm, at which the woman is looking.

The gravity of this damning act is signified by the intense athletic struggle the angels must engage in to get the instruments of the Passion—the cross on the left, the flagellation column on the right—to the scene. Those instruments could be used as signs of hope, or as warrants for damnation. They wrought mankind’s redemption, but they were wielded by sinners who will be punished. The ten Bernini angels who skip along the sides of the Ponte Sant’ Angelo in Rome carry the instruments triumphantly, in tribute to Michael the Archangel’s victory atop the Castel Sant’ Angelo. Often the instruments float over the throne, or are carried easily. On the Sistine wall, their weight and toppling menace show how heavy is the sentence Jesus is about to pronounce.15

The ferocity of this Judgment can be gauged, as well, from the ledgers of souls opened by the angels on the cloud that carries trumpeters through the air: the book of the saved, opened toward those on Christ’s right, is a slim quarto. The book opened toward the damned is a huge folio—bigger than Leporello’s book of his master’s sins.16

Another harsh feature in this judgment is the use martyrs make of the instruments of their passion, brandishing them to ward off the approach of sinners. Martyrs are far more prominent here than in other Judgments, which might show Saint Catherine in Paradise, with her wheel used merely to identify her. Here the martyrs form a parapet across the middle of the picture, from the two central martyrs (Saint Lawrence and Saint Bartholomew) running all the way over to the right wall. Lawrence reaches out his grill, Bartholomew his flaying knife, Simon his saw, Philip his cross, Catherine her wheel, Blaise his hackle (or, comb), Stephen his arrows, Dismas his cross. Andrew and Catherine look back to Jesus—as do Lawrence and Bartholomew—as if taking their cue from him in this use of their torture instruments. They fence out those trying to climb up from Hell. This is clearest in the case of Stephen, who holds up his (short crossbow) arrows to ward off any approach.

Every element of mercy in the tradition has been removed or weakened. Mary no longer plays her deæsis role, and neither does John the Baptist—he is moved from Jesus’s left to his right, where he balances Peter as an executor of the harsh sentence. Peter holds out his keys for binding and loosing, at Christ’s service in the moment of ultimate binding. They are huge keys, hard to lift—like the ponderous cross and column. This Peter is far from the genial Saint Peter of the Torcello mosaic, who shows his keys near Heaven’s open gate.

Since every shudder and plunge of this picture radiates out from the power of Christ’s damning gesture, it is important to read his body language correctly. In general, he adopts the “criss-cross” pose seen in other Judgments—right hand addressed to the left, left hand near the wound in his side. But the left hand is moving out toward us, with the palm down as in earlier (non-crisscross) dismissals of the damned.

Michelangelo’s surviving sketches of Christ’s posture are revealing. All three show him seated.17 In the drawing at Bayonne, his body-torque is so extreme that his right hand ends up over his head, and his left hand covers up the wound in his side. In the Casa Buonarotti and Uffizi drawings, he seems to be drawing his clothes away from the wound and twisting to the left to make it a menace to sinners. These are harsher poses than we have seen before—though the first two still show Mary and John the Baptist in their deæsis roles, pleading with Jesus. In the Bayonne sketch, Mary is seated below Jesus facing toward him with arms reaching forward and upward. In the Casa Buonarotti drawing, she is half-kneeling, with arms stretched out, imploring. Only in the final version does she actually turn away.

If we compare these sketches with the fresco on the wall, we can see that Jesus is not seated in the fresco—he is rising from the backless hetoimasia throne (where Mary still sits). Nor is he standing, striding forward as Charles de Tolnay thought.18 He is in the act of rising. He has shown his wound to those on the right; now his hand moves away, as he turns to his left (and Mary turns, symmetrically, to her right). The final moment is imminent, but not yet arrived. The hand is raised, but the damning words are not yet pronounced. That is why faces are turned toward Jesus with rapt but fearful anticipation. That is why the instruments of the Passions are still being rushed to the site. That is why his left hand has been pulled away from the wound. That is why the martyrs have created a provisional barricade to hold the damned at bay while the saved are being called up. The power of the scene comes from Michelangelo’s ability to catch the split-second rise and turn of Jesus’ body by which the whole cataclysmic act will—a split second from now—be completed.

Some have thought Michelangelo’s treatment of the damned more restrained, more humanistic, than the grotesque tortures depicted in earlier Judgments.19 It is true that he gives a certain classical dignity to those trying to storm Heaven, pitting them against warrior angels in a gigantomachy. But we may gauge the motive by noting the other (tremendous) difference between his Hell and others. There are no certainly identifiable women among Michelangelo’s damned. I can think of no other Judgment where that is true—not even Signorelli’s, which stands closest to Michelangelo’s in its distance from medieval savagery. Women as the provokers of male lust were spectacularly punished, in lurid, often prurient detail, by earlier painters.

In fact, the specification of sins is hardly attempted by Michelangelo. There is only one of the customary attributes involved—the miser’s money bag that weighs down one sinner as he topples backward toward us. Another sinner is tugged at by his scrotum, suggesting lust. Otherwise, the greatest suffering seems to be an intellectual realization of what is happening on the faces of those being toppled in the air, or driven and dragged from Charon’s boat.

The reason for this no doubt comes from the commissioning of this fresco as an early trumpet-blast of the Counter-Reformation. Michelangelo was engaged to put a Judgment on the altar wall by Pope Clement VII, who had ex-communicated Henry VIII (under a suspended sentence), but the fresco was executed under the pugnacious Paul III, who enacted the sentence against Henry VIII, called the Council of Trent, and established the Jesuit order.20 Other Hells had made much of “heresiarchs” (who are always male). It was the heresy of Protestantism that baffled and infuriated Paul, who put the damning Christ, the Peter with papal keys, above the altar of his own chapel. When he turned to the altar during Mass (or watched its celebration from his little orifice on the side wall), he was the vice-regent of the tremendous Authority above him. He would be merciless in his pursuit of error. The absence of women shows that Paul is concerned with sins of the intellect, not of the flesh. (The Pope’s own record was shady on this latter point.) The sinners are all men because women were not considered intellectually serious enough to lead others into heresy.

The removal of all touches of softness can be seen in the hole opening into Hell just above the altar, at the priest’s eye level. Altarpieces had customarily shown the mysteries of salvation embodied in Christ or Mary—the altarpiece Michelangelo painted over was of Mary’s assumption into Heaven, done in fresco by Perugino.21 Nothing could be farther from such comforting artifacts than this masterpiece of drama, human emotion, and baleful theology.

We have traveled a long way from the mosaic at Torcello, which kept Christ as distant from the actual damnation as possible, stressing his positive reclamation of all history in the prominent “harrowing” section of the wall. Here Jesus is intimately involved with the damnation, to the shock, almost the disapproval, of those around him. Other Judgments balanced mercy and justice, giving equal emphasis to Heaven and Hell. Here, even Heaven is armed with martyr-instruments to war on Hell. The closest any other fresco came to total absorption in the act of damning was at Pisa, where both Jesus and Mary addressed the damned by the whole torque of their bodies. But with Michelangelo even Mary flinches at this ultimate act of damnation. Jesus is given the torso of the Belvedere Herakles, since his heroic act of cleansing surpasses all the purgative labors of the classical hero. Herakles defeated monsters and cleansed stables. Jesus sweeps the heavens clear of heretics. It is a task to which he steels himself when even some saints shy away from it. It is the role the Pontiff saying Mass at the altar meant to take upon himself.

This Issue

April 20, 1995