The Protestant Reformation and Michelangelo’s Last Judgment

“It truly seems to me that if this fury of the Romanists should continue, there is no remedy except that the emperor, kings, and princes, girded with force and arms, should resolve to attack this plague of all the earth no longer with words but with the sword. . . . If we punish thieves with the gallows, robbers with the sword, and heretics with fire, why do we not all the more fling ourselves with all our weapons upon these masters of perdition, these cardinals, these popes, and all this sink of Roman sodomy that ceaselessly corrupts the church of God and wash our hands in their blood so that we may free ourselves and all who belong to us from this most dangerous fire?”
Martin Luther, 1521

Introduction to the Protestant Reformation 1 + 2 of 4 (Smarthistory)

Raphael, Portrait of Pope Leo X, c. 1517

Julius II was succeeded by Pope Leo X, a member of the Medici family.  A shrewd and self-indulgent man, he was known for his self indulgence and extravagant lifestyle.  He once wrote to his brother:

“Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.”

Within one year of his pontificate he was bankrupt, necessitating the sale of indulgences on an unprecedented scale.

Image of indulgences being sold in a church, with the Medici coat of arms in the background
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Martin Luther, Bust in Three-Quarter View, 1520 (The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Martin Luther, Bust in Three-Quarter View, 1520 (The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

Raphael’s portrait was painted during troubled times.  When Martin Luther visited Rome in 1510 (while Julius II was still in power), he was shocked by the worldliness of the papal court, and the corrupt practice of selling indulgences to raise revenues for extravagant artistic commissions.  He responded by drafting his 95 Theses, or criticisms of the church, which he nailed to the doors of Wittenberg Cathedral in the very year that Raphael painted Leo X’s portrait.  Luther’s actions sparked the Protestant Reformation, which brought an end to Catholic domination in Europe.

If the Reformation and religious reform movements challenged the spiritual authority of the church, the Pope’s temporal claims were equally threatened by the rise of the Hapsburg Emperor Charles V, whose kingdom extended from the Netherlands into parts of Italy, Germany and Spain, as well as into a vastly expanding colonial empire.  In 1527 the King’s armies sacked Rome, leaving the papal city in ruins, and forcing the Pope to flee into hiding.

It was in the wake of these events that Michelangelo was summoned back to Rome to complete the Sistine Chapel.

Michelangelo, Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel, 1534-1541

In his fresco of the Last Judgment Michelangelo seems to revert to an almost Medieval conception of the Apocalypse, with its emphasis on damnation and the terrifying consequences of sin.

In the center of the composition, Christ appears as a powerful figure who raises his arm in anger, as if he is about to condemn all of humanity to the agony of hell.  Gone is the idealism of the figures Michelangelo had painted on the ceiling more than 20 years earlier, and gone too is the optimism that inspired his vision of harmony between the human and the divine.

While the souls of the saved are being raised into heaven with the help of muscular angels on the left, tortured souls tumble into hell on the right, as they are tormented by hideous demons.  Unlike the ideal figures of Michelangelo’s earlier work, the bodies here are strangely distorted and disproportioned.  Their ugliness can be read as an outward manifestation of their corrupt and tainted souls.  Michelangelo expressed his own anxieties about the coming day of judgment by including a self-portrait in the flayed skin of Saint Bartholomew.

Michelangelo’s Last Judgment (Khan Academy)


Web Resources:

Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, Khan Academy

The Protestant Reformation, Khan Academy

The Protestant Reformation, History Guide

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