Judgment call in art

Here’s a fascinating story: Michelangelo’s Last Judgment—uncensored.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Compare Marcello Venusti‘s copy with the pre-restoration Last Judgment in the Artstor Digital Library to see the extent of the changes that were made to the painting. Bonus: Check out the freer interpretation of the Last Judgment by the circle of Giulio Clovio.

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