Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement is a work in which we see a kind of dark spirituality—“Christian pessimism” that was sweeping through Europe as a result of the Reformation.
There is a great emphasis on the carnal in Michelangelo‘s The Last Judgment, for the nude is everywhere in the painting, but it is not what early works were, a celebration of the carnal. For this painting is a work in which we see a kind of dark spirituality—“Christian pessimism” that was sweeping through Europe as a result of the Reformation. The Last Judgment cannot be seen as containing a tone of celebration and it is not joyous. The quiet beauty of humanism, of classical balance, of the celebration of the human body, has been replaced by a sense of cosmic terror. Michelangelo’s religious feelings, always important to him, seem to have become more intense in his later life. They seem to have gone beyond the realm of intellectual convictions and into the realm of strong emotions. That, in my opinion, accounts for much of the difference between the earlier and later works of Michelangelo. It is not that he was forced by the subject matter into pictorial exaggeration. Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement was different from many of his other works in the following ways:
- As Michelangelo neared death, he came to feel (rather than think about) religious matters in a more intense way.
- In his later years his great artistic genius was forced by his emotional states—an increasingly fervent religiosity—to go off into new directions, away from classicism and towards something much more twisted, dark, and pious.
There was no time in Michelangelo’s life when he was not a religious man and no time in his life when his work did not display frank sensuality. With respect to religion he expressed approval of Savaranola’s radical program in Florence. And, in the Last Judgment, we can still see his delight in the beauty of the nude human figure. But in his later life his works became, undeniably, less a classical-humanist praise of man, and more deeply religious and transcendental in character. The difference in tone between the painted wood Crucifix of 1492-3 and the Last Judgment is profound, so profound that some have suggested that, in his later years, Michelangelo—forced by his subject matter into channels foreign to his artistic nature—suffered from a kind of artistic deterioration that led to pictorial exaggeration. It would, of course, be utterly presumptuous of me to disagree with an assessment made by Bernard Berenson, but I think another interpretation is possible.