Underpants in the Sistine Chapel: Was Michelangelo's Last Judgment Fresco Too Risque?
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
"Without having seen the Sistine Chapel, one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving. " -- Goethe
Michelangelo's The Last Judgment fresco on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican
On my last trip to Rome, I learned that Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel fresco, The Last Judgment, got a makeover after his death. It was censored. Underpants were added to the nudity-filled fresco. How did this come to pass?
Michelangelo is world famous for painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican in 1508. But, decades later, he also painted the altar wall. In 1533, Pope Paul III summoned Michelangelo to paint The Last Judgment -- the moment of judgment when your life ends. The pope wanted to give the faithful a warning of sorts as they left the chapel.
Michelangelo didn't consider himself a painter. So he was less than enthusiastic at the prospect of another multi-year painting project. He was still working on what he considered his master work, the Tomb of Julius II. But one can't refuse a pope. But, if you're a favored papal artist, one can try to subvert convention along the way.
Michelangelo did. He delivered a terrifying vision of The Last Judgment with nearly 300 dynamic figures. The fresco was a waterfall of figures, a massive mountain of twisting bodies. On the left, bodies ascend to heaven, while on the right the naughty folk are falling down.
An Adonis-like Christ stands, majestically, at the center of a vortex. Imperiously, he waves, appearing to invite souls to join him in heaven. Departing from established convention, Michelangelo depicted Christ as excessively youthful, muscular, and heroic -- floating on clouds. He looks like Apollo, rather than the suffering bearded savior one expects.
Perhaps to depict his unhappiness at the enforced painting servitude, Michelangelo hid two dour self portraits in The Last Judgment. He painted his face on Holofernes’ severed head and on the shedded serpent skin held by Saint Bartholomew.
High quality images of The Last Judgment can be found here.
Michelangelo's self portrait on the shedded serpent skin
But there's another real life vendetta involved in The Last Judgment.
Michelangelo was devout. For him, the perfection of the nude human form was the purest expression of the divine. But some of his contemporaries thought the nudity was just too much to bear. They were scandalized and repulsed by the fresco's naked bodies.
When Pope Paul III's master of ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, saw it, he didn't approve at all. He tut tutted that the fresco belonged in a brothel, or "public baths and taverns," not the pope’s private chapel. Nudity didn't belong in a chapel, after all.
As a sensitive and irascible sort, Michelangelo was offended by the criticism. Biagio's insult was an affront to his artistic ability and his spirituality. So Michelangelo retaliated. He reworked the vision of hell in the lower portion of the fresco. He added another figure to the ranks of the damned -- Biagio.
Biagio appears in the guise of Minos, the sentencing judge of hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Michelangelo gave him asses ears and the tail of a giant serpent. It coils around his body and chomps at his genitals.
Biagio da Cesena, depicted by Michelangelo as Minos in The Last Judgment
Not surprisingly, Biagio didn't appreciate the vengeful portrayal. He begged Pope Paul to order Michelangelo to expunge it. But the pope was unmoved. He replied, "Biagio, you know that I have from God power in heaven and on earth; but my authority does not extend into hell, and you must have patience if I cannot free you from there."
Biagio wasn't the lone task master. Michelangelo wasn't even finished with the fresco when controversy erupted.
History was moving away from the High Renaissance into the oppressive Counter Reformation. In a PR clamor, others lined up to criticize the fresco. As the years passed, the nudity of The Last Judgment was increasingly vilified.
Michelangelo died in 1564. In 1565, the Council of Trent formally condemned the portrayal of nudity in religious art. It was an outright act of censorship. With Michelangelo barely in the grave, Pope Pius IV hired Daniele da Volterra, a student of Michelangelo's, to "fix" the fresco.
His job? To make the indecent Last Judgment more modest and demure, getting rid of its aggravating nudity. Paintbrush in hand, Volterra covered the offending genital bits with loincloths, veils, and draperies -- effectively putting underpants on many figures. This paint job earned him the sobriquet of il braghettone, or the britches-maker.
Volterra's St. Catherine
Most famously, Volterra completely eradicated the figures of St. Catherine and St. Blaise. Both were originally nude. To some observers, the position of their bodies was just too carnally suggestive. So, Volterra re-painted them with flowing garments. In the 17th and 18th century, other artists added underpants to the fresco.
After Michelangelo's ceiling in the Sistine Chapel was cleaned and restored in the 1980s, attention turned to restoration of The Last Judgment. It was time to rinse away the grim on this masterpiece too.
And possibly the "underpants." Michelangelo purists and restorers rubbed their hands in glee at the prospect of returning the fresco to its original state, sans modesty overpainting by inferior artists.
Just as the masterpiece set off a firestorm when it was unveiled, the restoration was likewise contentious. Were the restorers going too far? Should the underpants be left, as a historical sign of the times at least?
detail of Michelangelo's The Last Judgment
Unfortunately, as the restorers found, most of the "underpants" couldn't be eradicated. Volterra had scraped away and destroyed much of Michelangelo's original painting. But restorers did manage to remove 17 of the 40 breeches. In the battle between artistic license and the forces of restraint, the end result was a compromise.
But purists need not despair too much. Thanks to a far sighted cardinal, we can see what The Last Judgment looked like before the alterations.
In the midst of the controversy, the art-loving (and very wealthy) Cardinal Alessandro Farnese stepped in. In 1549, he commissioned Marcello Venusti to paint a exact duplicate of Michelangelo's Last Judgment for posterity. He feared Michelangelo's work would otherwise disappear from memory because of censorship.
This painting is the sole evidence of what Michelangelo's fresco looked like before it was censored. You can gaze at it here. Venusti's copy is in the famed Capodimonte Museum in Naples. Thanks to the museum's collaboration with Google Arts & Culture, the Vensuti painting and other artistic gems of the museum can be admired online on the Google Arts & Culture platform.
If you'd like to visit the Sistine Chapel in Rome, pin it for later.