Conclave for new pope held under eyes of Last Judgement

Michelangelo's Sistine masterpiece adds to conclave drama

Conclave for new pope held under eyes of Last Judgement

Rome, February 25 - As cardinals of the Catholic Church labour in the Sistine Chapel to select a new pope, they will be working under what many consider to be one of the masterpieces of Renaissance art: Michelangelo's Last Judgement. Of course, competing in that same fortress-like chapel for the title of masterpiece are some of the era's other greatest works; in particular, Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling. And right alongside, covering the lower walls of the chapel, are brilliant fresco cycles painted by many of the other great masters of the period, including Pietro Perugino, Sandro Botticelli, and Luca Signorelli. But the eye is drawn to the vast altar wall of the Sistine Chapel where, in the massive space of 13.7 meters by 12.2 meters, Michelangelo completed in 1541 a vision of a chaotic and distressed human destiny, awaiting the divine verdict in fearful uncertainty. Above, the saints and the blessed souls; below, ruthless demons and the damned. Scaffolding for the massive fresco rose in 1536, and Michelangelo chose to centre the entire work around the dominant figure of Christ, captured in the moment just before He delivered the verdict of the Last Judgement. Christ's calm imperious gesture seems to both command attention and placate the surrounding agitation of the figures, which draw the observer's eye in a wide, slow rotary movement involving all of the figures in the scene. The work, commissioned by Pope Paul III Farnese, was controversial at the time. According to the Vatican's own description of the work, the Master of Ceremonies of the day, Biagio da Cesena, said of the Last Judgement that "it was most dishonest in such an honoured place to have painted so many nude figures who so show their shame, and that it was not a work for a Chapel of the Pope but for stoves and taverns". Such anger led to a decision in 1564 by the Congregation of the Council of Trent to cover some of the figures of the Judgement that were considered "obscene". The task of painting the covering drapery - the so-called "braghe" (pants) - was given to Daniele da Volterra, who after that became known as the "braghettone". Daniele's "braghe" were only the first - others were added in the following centuries but most of those have since been removed again in restoration work. In response, it is believed that Michelangelo worked Cesena's face into the scene as Minos, judge of the underworld, who is presented with the ears of a donkey to indicate his foolishness. Some say that when Cesena complained of this depiction to the pope, the pontiff joked that he was powerless in this matter because his jurisdiction did not extend to hell. Some art historians have also argued that Michelangelo depicted himself in the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew in the Last Judgement, as the painter often drew himself in a way that conveyed a man with no power over his own fate. It is believed that the original plan for the altar wall was to preserve an existing fresco of the Virgin Mary's Assumption by Perugino, and that Michelangelo was expected to paint his Last Judgement above. However, that wasn't to be as Michelangelo instead used every bit of space on the altar wall and worked even into the corners and over two of his own, previously painted lunettes on the ceiling. The gripping and relentless images represented a complete break with the humanistic tradition of the Renaissance, represented in the vaults of the Sistine ceiling painted some 20 years earlier by the same Michelangelo. For that project, completed between 1508 and 1512, the Tuscan master had been commissioned by Pope Julius II to complete a cycle of Biblical stories.

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