Some of the more controversial nudity in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment was painted over the year after the artist’s death. Those additions were left intact when the Last Judgment was restored in the 1990s, but thanks to a farsighted cardinal we can see what the fresco looked like before it was censored.
Left: Michelangelo Buonarroti | Last Judgment | 1534-41 | Sistine Chapel, Vatican. Right: Marcello Venusti | Last Judgment | Museo e gallerie nazionali di Capodimonte | Images and original data provided by SCALA, Florence/ART RESOURCE, N.Y.; artres.com | (c) 2006, SCALA, Florence/ART RESOURCE, N.Y.
The Last Judgment was commissioned for the Sistine Chapel by Pope Clement VII just a few days before his death. Michelangelo hadn’t even finished the fresco before controversy erupted over its unclothed figures.
Not long after the painting’s completion, the Council of Trent condemned nudity in religious art, decreeing that “all lasciviousness be avoided; in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust.” Clement’s successor Pope Pius IV complied with the tenet, and in 1565, the year after Michelangelo’s death, had the more controversial nudity painted over by Daniele da Volterra, earning the artist the nickname Il Braghetonne, “the breeches-maker.” Da Volterra also substantially repainted the figures of Saint Catherine and Saint Blaise, whose positions were considered unseemly. Further coverings were added in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Michelangelo Buonarroti | Last Judgment | 1534-41 | Sistine Chapel, Vatican | photographed before the 1990-1994 restoration | Image and original data provided by SCALA, Florence/ART RESOURCE, N.Y.; artres.com | (c) 2006, SCALA, Florence/ART RESOURCE, N.Y.
When the Last Judgment was restored between 1980 and 1994, many expected the work to be returned to its original state before the censorship. But some historians had suggested that da Volterra had scraped away the offending parts and painted on top of freshly-applied plaster–which meant that there was nothing left underneath to restore–so his additions were retained.
Thankfully, the art-loving Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, afraid that the original was going to be destroyed, had commissioned Marcello Venusti to paint a copy of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in 1549. This tempera painting on wood is now our only guide to what Michelangelo’s work looked like before it was censored.
Marcello Venusti | Last Judgment | Museo e gallerie nazionali di Capodimonte | Image and original data provided by SCALA, Florence/ART RESOURCE, N.Y.; artres.com | (c) 2006, SCALA, Florence/ART RESOURCE, N.Y.
Recommended reading: Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King; Sayonara, Michelangelo: The Sistine Chapel Restored and Repackaged by Waldemar Januszczak; and Michelangelo’s ‘Last Judgment’ by Marcia B. Hall (editor).
Most important to know this dichotomy from a theological aspect as well. Issues of sexuality have always created a tension within the Church, so knowing the back story allows for a clearer understanding of the continual struggle that the Church has had over the centuries when it comes to human sexuality in opposition to spirituality. Some are shocked and some are not by the human flesh of our divinity, which is an important part of Imago Dei as expression of love as is restraint and chastity!
I like how the Cardinal asked Marcello Venusti to paint a copy of the Last Judgement before it was censored even thought it was the Church that asked Daniele da Volterra to cover private parts in the original. It’s interesting to me that though the Church deemed that religious paintings shouldn’t be showing full nudity by way of creating lust,Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who is part of the church, asks for a copy to be commissioned. I understand his fear of the original being destroyed especially since the Church didn’t like nudity in their art but Michelangelo’s painting was said to finished in 1541 if the Church wanted it destroyed I feel like they would have destroyed it after it was finished but the Cardinal waited till 1549 to commission a copy.
Yes, Cardinal Farnese did ask for a copy of the original Michelangelo. The Farnese family were huge art collectors and would have known the importance of Michelangelo’s original. Farnese actually had a daughter, Clelia, and many of the Italian Renaissance Popes had mistresses–common knowledge in Italy. Stranger things have happened in the Church and it’s early medieval history reveals that priests were married or had concubines until the mandatory celibacy rule took effect to maintain Church property.
Michelangelo did not have a contract with Clement VII for the fresco, and the design was certainly not finalized by 1534. Paul III negotiated an agreement with Michelangelo, paid for the work and certainly approved of the final design. The criticism of nudity in the original was not simply based on the image but its context. Nudity in art was not in and of itself objectionable; displaying hundreds of nudes in a tumultuous scene on the altar wall of the papal chapel raised some objections. The Sistine was, and remains, the most exalted ceremonial chapel of the popes. (St. Peter’s was a chaotic construction site when the fresco was painted and long afterwards.) In the Sistine, Masters of Ceremony ensured that every detail of ceremony followed tradition (as handed down in detailed manuscripts). Everything from seating arrangements to the appropriate fabric for liturgical dress was prescribed to ensure that each event in the chapel reflected and enhanced papal magnificence and dignity. The nude figures struggling, rushing through the sky and gesticulating to each other on the altar wall were in stark contrast to the elaborate display of papal majesty enacted below. The same image of the Last Judgment would not be objectionable in a private residence or private chapel. Paul III paid for the copy by Venusti in 1549, but his grandson, Cardinal Alessandrio Farnese, was probably involved in the commission. it was probably displayed in Alessandro’s palace. Daniele da Volterra did the alterations to the fresco in 1565 under Pope Paul IV. The copy by Venusti (1549) is not related to the alterations of the fresco. It is, however, an important record of the fresco’s appearance before it was censored.