The Last Judgment: Michelangelo's Painting & Gislebertus' Tympanum

Instructor: Jonathan Morgan

Jonathan is a college professor specializing in art history and has a master's degree in fine art.

This lesson explores how artistic interpretations of the story of The Last Judgment reflect how religious views of human nature and the human body have changed over time, and how artists often struggle to balance contemporary opinion with religious dogma.

The Last Judgment

The Last Judgment has been a popular source of artistic inspiration in the Western world for over 1,000 years. This Christian story of the end of the world involves Jesus coming back to Earth to judge the souls of the living and the dead to determine who goes to heaven and hell for eternity. That's a pretty heavy storyline, and artists have found numerous ways to express their cultural and historic views of this event. In the medieval era, people were consumed with the flaws and potential for sin they saw in humanity. The Last Judgment was a reckoning of the evils of the world and a reminder to everyone that their deeds would be judged one day. After the Renaissance, Europeans had recast human beings as their God's most perfect creations, with humans' capacity for evil in balance with an exhilarating potential for greatness. The Last Judgment's previous value as a tale of warning became less important as artistic expression of the story's drama was given more attention.

The Romanesque Sculpture of Gislebertus

Our first piece is known as Gislebertus' Last Judgment, a Romanesque sculpture made around 1130 CE at the Cathedral of Saint-Lazare, Autun, France. The piece is often attributed to a supposed sculptor named Gisleburtus, but research shows that individual artists rarely signed their work during this time in European history.

Cathedral of Saint-Lazare, Autun, France
Saint-Lazare Entrance

The Romanesque period is hard to define, but a rough range from the 5th century CE through the 12th century has the most support. The later portion of this period was defined by the rise and fall of the Carolingian Empire that Charlemagne founded. In 800 CE, he was crowned by the Pope as Holy Roman Emperor and took great care to instill Catholic ideals into his Celtic empire. As the first European king to convert, Charlemagne felt churches were especially important as the anchors of medieval society. Given that a majority of people were illiterate, the sculptural works of the church weren't just decoration, but also served as public education pieces about the faith. The last judgment we're looking at here is located in the tympanum, a semicircular space above the main entrance of the church. As a result, everyone would see it whenever they came to church services.

The Last Judgment (Gislebertus), c. 1130 CE
The Last Judgment (Gislebertus)

The message it sends is clear and tellingly harsh. We see Jesus at the center portrayed as powerful, ideal, and balanced. On the left we see angels helping to push lucky souls up into Heaven looking elongated and otherworldly.

The Last Judgment (Gislebertus), detail of angels helping souls ascend
The Last Judgment (Gislebertus), left detail

This was meant to emphasize their status as above mere humans. Medieval European Christianity gave people a very negative view of humanity, and especially the human body. People are shown as frail, flawed, and weak. The human body was seen as the gateway to temptation and sin. This connection between imperfect bodies and sin is even more apparent in the demons on the right of the piece.

The Last Judgment (Gislebertus), detail of demons torturing the damned and cheating
The Last Judgment (Gislebertus), right detail

We see the demons laughing as they drag the damned into Hell; their bodies shown as skinless, flayed with exposed ribs. Their limbs are overstretched and their faces are twisted and deformed to reflect their embodiment of sin and despair. This connection between beauty/deformity and holiness/evil was rampant in medieval religion and art, but gave way to a more idealized view of humanity and the body in the Renaissance.

The Renaissance Fresco by Michelangelo

The Renaissance period is equally difficult to pin down, but most scholars agree that it spanned from the 14th to the 17th centuries CE. It was brought about via a rediscovery of Greek and Roman art, writing, philosophy, and science. The Greeks idealized the human body and viewed it as the most perfect thing in the universe. Their gods and goddesses were shown as perfected versions of human beings, not abstract and formless forces of nature. As the nobility of Europe began to dig into these ideas, Christianity and its representation of people began to change. The new philosophy of humanism, based on studying these ancient texts and images, was the first school of thought in Europe to declare human beings as more than just flawed vessels for the soul. We were now seen to have limitless potential for great things and that we were capable enough to change our lives for the better. Individualism became standard in Western culture for the first time.

The Last Judgment by Michelangelo, ca. 1537-41 CE
The Last Judgment by Michelangelo

Michelangelo (1475-1564) was a star painter, sculptor, and architect of the Renaissance. During the transition from Renaissance to Baroque art in Italy, he was commissioned to paint the interior of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, Rome. The Last Judgment (ca. 1537-41 CE) is a large fresco on the back wall of the chapel, behind the altar. As different as it is from the medieval depiction of the story, there are some similarities. Jesus is still at the center of the piece and we do see people ascending to Heaven and being dragged to Hell with their bodies exaggerated from normal.

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