October 25, 2016
By Jacob Lattie and Steven Aceto
Censorship in the heart of the Vatican…
What: The Last Judgment
Where: Sistine Chapel, Vatican City
Why: A display of nudity deemed to be disgraceful for such a sacred location
Michelangelo was initially not willing to work on his now renowned piece of art, The Last Judgment, but “the Medici Pope Clement VII (1526-34) had commissioned Michelangelo to paint the wall behind the Sistine Chapel… on 22 September 1533” (Vines 1582). After pope Clement VII died, Michelangelo complied with the church and began work on April 16, 1535, completing it in 1541.
As seen above in Figure 1, The Last Judgment is a large fresco painted upon wet lime plaster. The image symbolizes the final judgment of God on the human race. Biblestudy.org describes The Last Judgment as “based on the Roman Catholic belief that God will judge all mankind in a single resurrection to determine their eternal fate,” which explains the overlaying theme of heaven and hell and why Michelangelo included small scenes of potential afterlives. With Jesus Christ painted in the middle, along with various well-known saints beside him, the mural grabs the viewers’ attention, beckoning them to focus on the center of the work. Michelangelo relates heaven and hell to the left most and right most portions of the fresco respectively, with many figures scattered across the fresco’s upper middle portion. In doing so, he further deepens the visual reference to the afterlife by exemplifying individuals on the bottom right as unworthy and collapsing into hell and individuals on the bottom left as leaving their bodies to ascend into heaven, obtaining salvation. Thematic color schemes accompany his work as well; light shades, including blues and greens, represent heaven, whereas darker colors portray hell. More precise shades, in fact, were discovered with the reversal of The Last Judgment’s censorship through careful reformation by Vatican museum staff. As explained by the Vatican City State’s official website, “the ‘re-discovered’ colors are actually light, vivid and bright, very skillfully blended to reduce the flattening effect inevitably produced on the figures by distance.” Michelangelo even included delicate details on the individuals in the mural, many of which depict well-known figures of the Catholic church, such as Michelangelo himself, the Papal Master of Ceremonies Biagio de Cesena, St. Catherine, St. Peter, Mary, and Jesus. Depictions of these historical figures were respectful, except for the last member, Biagio de Cesena. This papal Master of Ceremonies opposed the painting after seeing the work in progress, and regarded the fresco as unworthy of a church. He believed the artwork was more suited “for the public baths and taverns,” (Vines 1584). Because of his opposition, Michelangelo painted Biagio de Cesena into the fresco as Minos, judge of the underworld, with donkey ears and a snake biting his genitals.
This graphic depiction was merely one of the many examples that led to the Catholic church to censor the mural. After Michelangelo’s death in 1564, the artwork was targeted for censorship due to its various examples of nudity. These graphic depictions were criticized. Nudity, especially within the Vatican, became a fragile topic of discussion. In fact, “Michelangelo had not even finished the fresco before controversy erupted over its unclothed figures” (Garcia-Fenech). The nude depictions of such religious figures challenged traditional views on physical representations of religious history, making it hard to escape the Catholic censor. In turn, the church saw such radical changes as obscene and indecent for the reputation of the Catholic faith. Concern within the church escalated, and, “suggestions that the whole fresco should be removed and a substitute prepared” arose (Green 320). Despite the increased opposition, “Pope Pius V resisted complete destruction” and instead decided that the painting could be salvaged through disguise and drapery” (Green 320). The church retained Daniele da Volterra to cover the mural’s “more controversial nudity” (Garcia-Fenech). Da Volterra added cloth and painted over the original (a form or art known as a secco) in 1564, therefore preserving in part Michelangelo’s original work on the dry, lime walls.
For the next 430 years Michelangelo’s original was unseen by human eyes. Indeed, not until 1994 was his original fresco restored. As Elisabeth l. Vines explains in Censorship: A World Encyclopedia: “recent restorations have removed many of the superfluous layers and unoriginal garments, returning the work to Michelangelo’s own intentions” (Vines 1584). More specifically within the The Last Judgment’s redemption scenes, the Vatican City State’s website explains “The Sistine Chapel’s accurate restoration was done between 1980 and 1994 by a group of experts from the Vatican Museums, coordinated by Director Carlo Pietrangeli.”
Culture differences over the centuries, particularly in the Catholic faith, have caused a deviation away from the typically upheld traditional values one would expect from 16th century Vatican City. This dissociation from past values serves as reason for the sudden allowance of nudity in the Sistine Chapel. To build on this, Vines continues on to explain that “John Paul II declared the Sistine Chapel ‘a sanctuary of the theology of the human body’”, serving as justification for why the church ultimately changed its views on The Last Judgment’s content by connecting its graphic representations to religious history (Vines 1584). Religious involvement in the censorship of material can result in many controversial topics that create a “grey area” on what decision should be made. Many cases are not settled with both sides content due to uncompromising patterns found in religious practices. Artistic censorship in itself, on the other hand, can be considered a violation of given rights. If art can be considered a freedom of expression, many artists ask why a line must be drawn between their personal view on their created content and the religious interpretation that interferes with it. The censoring of The Last Judgment is where both types collide.
As religions gain popularity, the regional influence that religion can exert expands. Many authors have furthered this train of thought. One blog post by Artsor explains how wide the scope of religious censorship truly was relating to The Last Judgment. The post states,
… 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.
This passage elucidates this specific topic of religious censorship, which is enforced and carried out as a reflection of the current time period’s ideals and values. The effect of the censoring of Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment can be seen very clearly in Renaissance Era Europe, as a feeling of fear swept over its newly-enlightened denizens. As the fresco and other nude or semi-nude pieces of art were censored, people were told that celebration of the human body was neither acceptable nor appropriate for the world. Nicola Beisel, author of Morals Versus Art: Censorship, The Politics of Interpretation, and the Victorian Nude expands on why these issues arise by inquiring about “the relationship between art censorship and the defense of values held by a larger community.” She “highlights two questions: What makes believable a claim that an art work is obscene, and why does the public countenance censorship art” (146). These two questions ask how censorship is formed, and Beisel answers this questions by stating: “censorship is the product of intergroup conflict” (146). The opposition between Michelangelo and the Catholic church exemplify the clash between artistic and religious ideals. In the end, however, Michelangelo was publicly victimized by censorship and made people think about why visual depictions of the human body could become censored.
Emily Knox, professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, furthers the conversation on the stakes of religious and artistic censorship and how it relates to challenging authority and public fear in an interview conducted earlier this month. As she explains;
Censoring allows people to both work out these anxieties and also work to protect the morals and values that they believe are important in their own communities. I believe that this is essentially what happened with Michelangelo’s picture. Fear of the body (and following from that, sex) has long been a source of anxiety in the West. The idea that paintings of nudes need to be covered is a direct outcome of this…Such censorship practices say much more about the person doing the censoring rather than the actual work of art. By asking for nudes to be covered by fig leaves or curtains, it is the censor’s own personal anxieties and predilections that are on display.
Knox argues that discomfort and fear of the unknown serve as a catalyst for the censoring of culturally threatening objects. This is shown in the countless examples of blatant artistic censorship, both in papal Italy as well as much of the Western world; in many of these examples, artistic expression has been bombarded with criticism from authorities.
Nudity and mankind’s natural form eventually became much more accepted in the religious world as cultural and religious norms shifted. The remediation of The Last Judgment shines light into the ever-changing nature of the church, and the unintended consequences of censorship due to a challenge on the existing set of circumstances. By removing the centuries of censorship, what remains behind the alter in the Sistine Chapel is a resounding work of art and religion, of which beauty is only paralleled with impact.
Michelangelo, The Last Judgment, Religious, Censorship, Renaissance, Nudity, Sistine Chapel, Artistic
Beisel, Nicola. “Morals Versus Art: Censorship, The Politics of Interpretation, and the Victorian Nude.” American Sociological Review. 2nd ed. Vol. 58. DC: American Sociological Association, 1993. 145-62. Print.
Garcia-Fenech, Giovanni. “Michelangelo’s Last Judgment—Uncensored“. The Artstor Blog. 2013. Web. 20 Oct. 2016.
Green, Jonathon. The Encyclopedia of Censorship. New York: Facts on File, 1990. Print.
Jones, Derek. Censorship. London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2001. Print.
Knox, Emily. “An Interview With Emily Knox.” E-mail interview. 4 Oct. 2016.
“The Sistine Chapel“. Vaticanstate.va. N. p., 2016. Web. 20 Oct. 2016.
“What Is WRONG with Michelangelo’s Last Judgment?” Biblestudy.org. Biblestudy.org, Web. 19 Nov. 2016.