The Last Judgment

The story is told that when Michelangelo completed his work on the enormous fresco of “The Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel in 1541, Pope Paul III arrived for the formal unveiling. The pontiff who convoked the Council of Trent beheld the painting and sank to his knees in prayer, awe and fear. For a pope who had undergone a personal renewal to be worthy of leading the Church in the Catholic Reform, the figure of the Last Judgment must have been quite a shock. 

Since that day, most of the popes have been elected in the Sistine Chapel. The cardinals gather under the stunning ceiling of Michelangelo, but they cast their votes in the conclave literally beneath the gaze of the severe and rather unsympathetic Christ on the altar wall. 

When Pope Paul commissioned the work in 1536, he deemed it appropriate to choose Michelangelo to do the fresco, even though it had been some three decades since the artist had completed the ceiling. It is easy to forget as we stare at the sheer magnitude of the works of Michelangelo that he was not just a professional artist. He was driven by his craft and his genius, but especially by his faith. He was aware of his own sinful nature and his many personal failings. And he was conscious of the judgment to come. After all, he included himself in the work, not in glory but as the flayed twisted skin of St. Bartholomew held by the risen saint. Little wonder that Michelangelo once declared, “I am a poor man and of little worth, who is laboring in that art that God has given me.” 

Our cover article this issue is intended to help us on our way a little as we begin Lent and progress toward the Easter season. Paul Thigpen answers the important question of the two judgments, one at the death of the individual, and one at the end of the world. As we read Paul’s article, “The Last Judgment” stands for all of us as it did for Michelangelo, as a reminder of what awaits us. But this is not something we should fear. As Pope Benedict XVI declared in 2009 while reflecting on “The Last Judgment”: “Michelangelo presents to our gaze the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of history, and he invites us to walk the path of life with joy, courage and hope. The dramatic beauty of Michelangelo’s painting, its colors and forms, becomes a proclamation of hope, an invitation to raise our gaze to the ultimate horizon.” 

A blessed Easter! TCA

Matthew Bunson, M.Div., D.Min., is editor of The Catholic Answer and The Catholic Almanac and author of more than 40 books. He is a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and a professor at the Catholic Distance University. You may e-mail him at mbunson@osv.com.