It is a depiction of the Second Coming of Christ and the final and eternal judgment by God of all humanity. The souls of humans rise and descend to their fates, as judged by Christ who is surrounded by prominent saints.
Altogether there are over figures, with nearly all the males and angels originally shown as nudes; many were later partly covered up by painted draperies, of which some remain after recent cleaning and restoration. The work took over four years to complete between and preparation of the altar wall began in Michelangelo began working on it twenty-five years after having finished the Sistine Chapel ceiling , and was nearly 67 at its completion.
In the lower part of the fresco, Michelangelo followed tradition in showing the saved ascending at the left and the damned descending at the right. In the upper part, the inhabitants of Heaven are joined by the newly saved. The fresco is more monochromatic than the ceiling frescoes and is dominated by the tones of flesh and sky. The cleaning and restoration of the fresco, however, revealed a greater chromatic range than previously apparent.
Orange, green, yellow, and blue are scattered throughout, animating and unifying the complex scene. The reception of the painting was mixed from the start, with much praise but also criticism on both religious and artistic grounds. Both the amount of nudity and the muscular style of the bodies has been one area of contention, and the overall composition another. Where traditional compositions generally contrast an ordered, harmonious heavenly world above with the tumultuous events taking place in the earthly zone below, in Michelangelo's conception the arrangement and posing of the figures across the entire painting give an impression of agitation and excitement,  and even in the upper parts there is "a profound disturbance, tension and commotion" in the figures.
Freedberg interprets their "complex responses" as "those of giant powers here made powerless, bound by racking spiritual anxiety", as their role of intercessors with the deity had come to an end, and perhaps they regret some of the verdicts. At the centre of the work is Christ, shown as the individual verdicts of the Last Judgment are pronounced; he looks down towards the damned. To the left of Christ is his mother, Virgin Mary , who turns her head to look down towards the Saved, though her pose also suggests resignation.
It appears that the moment has passed for her to exercise her traditional role of pleading on behalf of souls; with John the Baptist this Deesis is a regular motif in earlier compositions. Surrounding Christ are large numbers of figures, the saints and other saved souls. On a similar scale to Christ are John the Baptist on the left, and on the right Saint Peter , holding the keys of Heaven and perhaps offering them back to Christ, as they will no longer be needed.
This used to be interpreted as the saints calling for the damnation of those who had not served the cause of Christ,  but other interpretations have become more common,  including that the saints are themselves not certain of their own verdicts, and try at the last moment to remind Christ of their sufferings. Other prominent saints include Saint Bartholomew below Peter, holding the attribute of his martyrdom, his own skin.
The face on the skin is usually recognized as being a self-portrait of Michelangelo. Ascanio Condivi , Michelangelo's tame authorized biographer, says that all of the Twelve Apostles are shown around Christ, "but he does not attempt to name them and would probably have had a difficult time doing so". The movements of the souls reflect the traditional pattern. They arise from their graves at bottom left, and some continue upwards, helped in several cases by angels in the air mostly without wings or others on clouds, pulling them up.
Others, the damned, apparently pass over to the right, though none are quite shown doing so; there is a zone in the lower middle that is empty of souls.
A boat rowed by an aggressive Charon , who ferried souls to the Underworld in classical mythology and Dante , brings souls to land beside the entrance to Hell; his threatening them with his oar is a direct borrowing from Dante. Satan , the traditional Christian devil is not shown, but another classical figure, Minos , supervises the admission of the Damned into Hell; this was his role in Dante's Inferno.
He is generally agreed to have been given the features of Biagio da Cesena , a critic of Michelangelo in the Papal court. In the centre above Charon is a group of angels on clouds, seven blowing trumpets as in the Book of Revelation , other holding books that record the names of the Saved and Damned. To their right is a larger figure of a soul who has just realized that he is damned, and appears paralyzed with horror.
Two devils are pulling him downwards. To the right of this devils pull down other souls; some are being pushed down by angels above them. The Last Judgment was a traditional subject for large church frescos, but it was unusual to place it at the east end, over the altar. The traditional position was on the west wall, over the main doors at the back of a church, so that the congregation took this reminder of their options away with them on leaving. It might be either painted on the interior, as for example by Giotto at the Arena Chapel , or in a sculpted tympanum on the exterior.
Many aspects of Michelangelo's composition reflect the well-established traditional Western depiction, but with a fresh and original approach. Most traditional versions had a figure of Christ in Majesty in about the same position as Michelangelo's, and even larger than his, with a greater disproportion in scale to the other figures.
As here, compositions contained large numbers of figures, divided between angels and saints around Christ at the top, and the souls being judged below. Typically there is a strong contrast between the ordered ranks of figures in the top part, and chaotic and frenzied activity below, especially on the right side that leads to Hell. The flow of souls usually began at the bottom viewer's left, as here, as resurrected souls rise from their graves and move towards judgment. Some pass judgment and continue upwards or to the left, to join the company in heaven, while others pass over to the right and then downwards towards Hell in the bottom right corner compositions had difficulty incorporating Purgatory visually.
The project was a long time in gestation. It was probably first proposed in , but was not then attractive to Michelangelo. A number of letters and other sources describe the original subject as a "Resurrection", but it seems most likely that this was always meant in the sense of the General Resurrection of the Dead , followed in Christian eschatology by the Last Judgment, rather than the Resurrection of Jesus.
Vasari , alone among contemporary sources, says that originally Michelangelo was intended to paint the other end wall with a Fall of the Rebel Angels to match. Michelangelo stipulated the filling-in of two narrow windows, the removal of three cornices , and building the surface increasingly forward as it rises, to give a single uninterrupted wall surface slightly leaning out, by about 11 inches over the height of the fresco.
The preparation of the wall led to the end of more than twenty years of friendship between Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombo , who tried to persuade the Pope and Michelangelo to do the painting in his preferred technique of oil on plaster, and managed to get the smooth plaster finish needed for this applied.
It is possible that around this stage the idea was floated that Sebastiano would do the actual painting, to Michelangelo's designs, as they had collaborated nearly 20 years earlier.
After, according to Vasari, some months of passivity, Michelangelo furiously insisted that it should be in fresco, and had the wall re-plastered in the rough arriccio needed as a base for fresco.
The new fresco required, unlike his Sistine Chapel ceiling, considerable destruction of existing art. There was an altarpiece of the Assumption of Mary by Pietro Perugino above the altar, for which a drawing survives in the Albertina ,  flanked by tapestries to designs by Raphael ; these, of course, could just be used elsewhere.
Above this zone, there were two paintings from the 15th-century cycles of Moses and Christ which still occupy the middle zone of the side walls. These were probably Perugino's Finding of Moses and the Adoration of the Kings , beginning both cycles.
The structure of the chapel, built in a great hurry in the s,  had given trouble from the start, with frequent cracks appearing. At Christmas in a Swiss Guard was killed when entering the chapel with the pope when the stone lintel to the doorway split and fell on him. The new scheme for the altar wall and other changes necessitated by structural problems led to a loss of symmetry and "continuity of window-rhythms and cornices", as well as some of the most important parts of the previous iconographical schemes.
The Sistine Chapel was dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin , which had been the subject of Perugino's altarpiece. Once it was decided to remove this, it appears that a tapestry of the Coronation of the Virgin , a subject often linked to the Assumption , was commissioned, which was hung above the altar for important liturgical occasions in the 18th century, and perhaps from the s until then.
The tapestry has a vertical format it is 4. The cloth is shown as plain, but the artist also omits the paintings below the ceiling, and may well not have been present himself, but working from prints and descriptions. The Last Judgment became controversial as soon as it was seen, with disputes between critics in the Catholic Counter-Reformation and supporters of the genius of the artist and the style of the painting.
Michelangelo was accused of being insensitive to proper decorum , in respect of nudity and other aspects of the work, and of pursuing artistic effect over following the scriptural description of the event. On a preview visit with Paul III, before the work was complete, the pope's Master of Ceremonies Biagio da Cesena is reported by Vasari as saying that: "it was most disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully, and that it was no work for a papal chapel but rather for the public baths and taverns".
It is said that when Cesena complained to the Pope, the pontiff joked that his jurisdiction did not extend to Hell, so the portrait would have to remain. The mixing of figures from pagan mythology into depictions of Christian subject matter was objected to. As well as the figures of Charon and Minos, and wingless angels, the very classicized Christ was objected to.
Beardless Christs had in fact only finally disappeared from Christian art some four centuries earlier, but Michelangelo's figure was unmistakenly Apollonian.
Further objections related to failures to follow the scriptural references. The angels blowing trumpets are all in one group, whereas in the Book of Revelation they are sent to "the four corners of the earth". Christ is not seated on a throne, contrary to Scripture. Such draperies as Michelangelo painted are often shown as blown by wind, but it was claimed that all weather would cease on the Day of Judgment. The resurrected souls are in mixed condition, some skeletons but most appearing with their flesh intact.
All these objections were eventually collected in a book, the Due Dialogi published just after Michelangelo's death in , by the Dominican theologian Giovanni Andrea Gilio da Fabriano , who had become one of several theologians policing art during and after the Council of Trent. Two decades after the fresco was completed, the final session of the Council of Trent in finally enacted a form of words that reflected the Counter-Reformation attitudes to art that had been growing in strength in the Church for some decades.
Every superstition shall be removed And that these things may be the more faithfully observed, the holy Synod ordains, that no one be allowed to place, or cause to be placed, any unusual image, in any place, or church, howsoever exempted, except that image have been approved of by the bishop. There was an explicit decree that: "The pictures in the Apostolic Chapel should be covered over, and those in other churches should be destroyed, if they display anything that is obscene or clearly false". The defences by Vasari and others of the painting evidently made some impact on clerical thinking.
In , when Paolo Veronese was summoned before the Venetian Inquisition to justify his inclusion of "buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs, and other such absurdities" in what was then called a painting of the Last Supper later renamed as The Feast in the House of Levi , he tried to implicate Michelangelo in a comparable breach of decorum, but was promptly rebuffed by the inquisitors,  as the transcript records: Q.
Does it seem suitable to you, in the Last Supper of our Lord, to represent buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs, and other such absurdities? Certainly not. Then why have you done it? I did it on the supposition that those people were outside the room in which the Supper was taking place. Do you not know that in Germany and other countries infested by heresy, it is habitual, by means of pictures full of absurdities, to vilify and turn to ridicule the things of the Holy Catholic Church, in order to teach false doctrine to ignorant people who have no common sense?
I agree that it is wrong, but I repeat what I have said, that it is my duty to follow the examples given me by my masters. Well, what did your masters paint? Things of this kind, perhaps? In Rome, in the Pope's Chapel, Michelangelo has represented Our Lord, His Mother, Saint John, Saint Peter, and the celestial court; and he has represented all these personages nude, including the Virgin Mary [this last not true], and in various attitudes not inspired by the most profound religious feeling.
Do you not understand that in representing the Last Judgment, in which it is a mistake to suppose that clothes are worn, there was no reason for painting any? But in these figures what is there that is not inspired by the Holy Spirit? There are neither buffoons, dogs, weapons, nor other absurdities Some action to meet the criticism and enact the decision of the council had become inevitable, and the genitalia in the fresco were painted over with drapery by the Mannerist painter Daniele da Volterra , probably mostly after Michelangelo died in Daniele was "a sincere and fervent admirer of Michelangelo" who kept his changes to a minimum, and had to be ordered to go back and add more,  and for his trouble got the nickname "Il Braghettone", meaning "the breeches maker".
He also chiseled away and entirely repainted the larger part of Saint Catherine and the entire figure of Saint Blaise behind her. This was done because in the original version Blaise had appeared to look at Catherine's naked behind, and because to some observers the position of their bodies suggested sexual intercourse.
His work, beginning in the upper parts of the wall, was interrupted when Pope Pius IV died in December and the chapel needed to be free of scaffolding for the funeral and conclave to elect the next pope. El Greco had made a helpful offer to repaint the entire wall with a fresco that was "modest and decent, and no less well painted than the other".
These additions were in "dry" fresco , which made them easier to remove in the most recent restoration —94 , when about 15 were removed, from those added after