There are in the Bible certain references to a great day when the Son of Man shall be seen "coming in the clouds with great power and glory." "And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other."[35] St. Paul, in a letter which he wrote to the Christians in Corinth, speaks of this as a "mystery," and says:[36] "We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed."

[35] Matthew, chapter xxiv. verse 31.

[36] 1 Corinthians, chapter xv. verses 51, 52.

In the Middle Ages these passages were interpreted very literally and had a great influence over the people. At that time the Christian religion was a religion of fear rather than of love, and men were continually picturing in their minds God's angry separation of the good from the wicked.

How much such thoughts occupied them we may see from Dante's great poem describing a vision of the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. This was written in the thirteenth century, and in the same period appeared a short Latin lyric, or hymn, called "Dies Irae," or the Day of Wrath, from an expression used by the old Hebrew prophet Zephaniah. The author was a Franciscan monk named Thomas of Celano, and we may see how deeply he felt from these verses:—

"Ah! what terror is impending
When the Judge is seen descending,
And each secret veil is rending.
"To the throne, the trumpet sounding,
Through the sepulchres resounding,
Summons all, with voice astounding.
"Sits the Judge, the raised arraigning,
Darkest mysteries explaining,
Nothing unavenged remaining."

This vivid word picture forms the subject of many great paintings by the older Italian masters, known under the title of the Last Judgment. Michelangelo's was one of the last of these, and in general arrangement his composition resembles those of his predecessors.

From the upper air a company of angels descends, carrying a cross, a crown of thorns, and other instruments of the Saviour's sufferings. Below them is the Judge himself surrounded by the apostles and other saints. Underneath are the archangels blowing their trumpets. On earth, in the lowest part of the picture at the left, the dead rise from their graves and ascend through the air to the Judge. At the right, opposite the ascending dead, are the condemned sinners, descending to the boat which will carry them over the river Styx into the Inferno.


Please click here for a modern color image

Our illustration gives only the central figures in this great multitude, the Divine Judge accompanied by his mother. He is a man of mighty muscular power, young and handsome, with an expression of imperious dignity. Enthroned on the clouds, he seems just rising from a sitting posture to execute his judgments. He lifts his arms in a sweeping motion as if to part the multitudes pressing upon him on both sides. In so doing he shows the wound in his right side made by the soldier's spear at the crucifixion. Neither expression nor gesture manifests anger; those beautiful hands with delicately extended fingers will strike no blow. The gesture itself is a command.

Beneath Christ's upraised arm, on his right side, sits his Mother Mary. Each must interpret for himself her attitude and expression. Some think that because she turns her face away she is shrinking from her son in terror. Yet her expression is so gentle that others say she is nestling close to him for protection. This is certainly as we should imagine the situation. When she was a young mother, she was proud to take care of her child. And now on this great day she is equally proud to let him take care of her. As he clung to her, his mother, so she now clings to him, the Judge.

Looking at the composition of the picture, we see that her figure completes a pyramid, whose apex is the uplifted hand of the Judge, and whose base lies along the cloud supporting his feet and hers. This gives proper stability to the figures which dominate the whole great picture. Considered in a larger way, the pyramid is itself the upper part of a long oval which keeps the central group apart from the surrounding host.

The picture of the Last Judgment was painted by Michelangelo on the end wall of the Sistine Chapel, over the altar, nearly twenty years after the completion of the ceiling frescoes. There is a great difference between the two works. The figures on the ceiling are strong and powerful, their attitudes spirited and graceful. Those in the Last Judgment are huge and cumbersome, their attitudes strained and violent. The entire effect of the vast company of colossal figures is awe-inspiring, but not pleasing.