While Michael Angelo worked upon his Moses, Clement VII., following the example of Julius II., would not leave him alone for a moment. It was a trick of all these Popes to exact from the poor artist something different to what he was doing at the time. To obtain some respite, he was forced to promise the Pope that he would occupy himself at the same time with the cartoon of The Last Judgment. But Clement VII. was not a man to be put off with words; he supervised the work in person, and Buonarroti was obliged to pass continually from the chisel to the pencil and from the pen to the mallet. The Last Judgment! Moses! these are two works of little importance and easy to do off-hand! And yet he had to. His Holiness would not listen to reason.

One day it was announced to Michael Angelo that he would not receive his accustomed visit: Clement VII. was dead. The artist breathed freely just during the Conclave.

The new Pope, Paul III., had nothing more pressing to do than to present himself in Buonarroti's studio, followed pompously by ten cardinals. The newly-elected Pope was easily recognized there!

The Last Judgment. Michael Angelo.

The Last Judgment.
Michael Angelo.

"Ah!" said the Holy Father, in a tone of firm decision, "I hope that henceforth the whole of your time will belong to me, Maestro Buonarroti."

"May your Holiness deign to excuse me," replied Michael Angelo, "but I have just signed an engagement with the Duke of Urbino, which forces me to finish the tomb of Pope Julius."

"What!" exclaimed Paul III.: "for thirty years I have had a certain wish and now that I am Pope I cannot realize it!"

"But the contract, Holy Father, the contract!"

"Where is this contract? I will tear it up."

"Ah!" exclaimed in his turn the Cardinal of Mantua, who was one of the suite, "your Holiness should see the Moses which Maestro Michael Angelo has just finished: that statue alone would more than suffice to honour the memory of Julius."

"Cursed flatterer!" muttered Michael Angelo in a low voice.

"Come, come, I will take charge of this matter myself," said the Pope. "You shall only make three statues with your own hand: the rest shall be given to other sculptors, and I will answer for the Duke of Urbino's consent. And now, Maestro, to the Sistine Chapel. A great empty wall is waiting for you there."

What could Michael Angelo reply to such an emphatic wish expressed so distinctly? He finished in his best style his two statues of Active Life and Contemplative Life—Dante's symbolical Rachel and Leah—and not wishing to profit by this new arrangement to which he was forced to submit, he added fifteen hundred and twenty-four ducats to the four thousand he had received, to pay with his own gains for the works confided to the other artists.

Having thus terminated this unfortunate affair, which had caused him so much worry and fatigue, Michael Angelo was at last enabled to occupy himself exclusively with the execution of his Last Judgment, to which he devoted no less than eight to nine years.

This immense and unique picture, in which the human figure is represented in all possible attitudes, where every sentiment, every passion, every reflection of thought, and every aspiration of the soul are rendered with inimitable perfection, has never been equalled and never will be equalled in the domain of Art.

This time the genius of Michael Angelo simply attacked the infinite. The subject of this vast composition, the manner in which it is conceived and executed, the admirable variety and the learned disposition of the groups, the inconceivable boldness and firmness of the outlines, the contrast of light and shade, the difficulties, I might almost say the impossibilities vanquished, as if it were all mere play, and with a happiness that savours of prodigy, the unity of the whole and the perfection of the details, make The Last Judgment the most complete and the greatest picture in existence. It is broad and magnificent in effect, and yet each part of this prodigious painting gains infinitely when seen and studied quite near; and we do not know of any easel-picture worked upon with such patience and finished with such devotion.

The painter could only choose one scene, several isolated groups, in this appalling drama which will be enacted on the last day in the Valley of Jehoshaphat, where all the generations of man shall be gathered together. And yet, admire the omnipotence of genius! With nothing but a single episode in a restricted space, and solely by the expression of the human body, the artist has succeeded in striking you with astonishment and terror, and in making you really a spectator of the supreme catastrophe.

At the base of the picture, very nearly in the centre, you perceive the boat of the Inferno, a fantastic reminiscence borrowed from Pagan tradition, in accordance with which first the poet and then the painter were pleased to clothe an accursed being with the form and occupation of Charon.

"Charon with the eyes of burning embers gathering together with a gesture all these souls, and striking with his oar those who hesitate."1

It is impossible to form an idea of the incredible science displayed by Michael Angelo in the varied contortions of the damned, heaped one upon the other in the fatal bark. All the violent contractions, all the visible tortures, all the frightful shrinkings that suffering, despair, and rage can produce upon human muscles are rendered in this group with a realism that would make the most callous shudder. To the left of this bark you see the gaping mouth of a cavern; this is the entrance to Purgatory, where several demons are in despair because they have no more souls to torment.

This first group, which very naturally attracts the spectator's attention, is that of the dead whom the piercing sound of the eternal trumpet has awakened in their tombs. Some of them shake off their shrouds, others with great difficulty open their eyelids made heavy by their long sleep. Towards the angle of the picture there is a monk who is pointing out the Divine Judge with his left hand; this monk is the portrait of Michael Angelo.

The second group is formed of the resuscitated ones who ascend of themselves to the Judgment. These figures, many of which are sublime in expression, rise more or less lightly into space, according to the burden of their sins, of which they must render account.

The third group, also ascending to the right of Christ, is that of the Blessed. Among all these saints, some of whom show the instrument of their execution, others the marks of their martyrdom, there is one head especially remarkable for beauty and tenderness: it is that of a mother who is protecting her daughter, turning her eyes, filled with faith and hope, towards the Christ.

Above the host of saints, you see a fourth group of angelic spirits, some bearing the Cross, others the Crown of Thorns,—instruments and emblems of the Saviour's Passion.

The fifth group, parallel to the fourth which we have just pointed out, is composed of angels; such, at least, they seem to be by the splendour of their youth and the aërial lightness of their movements; and these also bear, as if in triumph, other emblems of the divine expiation—the column, the ladder, and the sponge.

Above these angels, on the same plane as the saints and to the left of Christ, is the choir of the just; the patriarchs, the prophets, the apostles, the martyrs, and the holy personages form this sixth group.

The seventh is the most horrible of all and the one in which the art of Michael Angelo has displayed itself in all its terrific grandeur: it is composed of the rejected ones, overwhelmed by the decree and led away to punishment by the rebel angels. The very coldest spectator could not remain unmoved by this spectacle. You believe yourself in hell; you hear the cries of anguish and the gnashing of the teeth of the wretched, who, according to the terrible Dantesque expression, vainly desire a second death.

The eighth, ninth, and tenth groups, occupying the base of the composition, are composed, as we have already said, of the bark of Charon, the grotto of Purgatory, and the Angels of Judgment, eight in number, blowing their brazen trumpets with all their might to convoke the dead from the four quarters of the earth.

Finally, in the eleventh group, in the centre, very near the upper part of the picture, between the two companies of the blessed, and seated upon the clouds, the sovereign Judge with a terrible action hurls his malediction upon the condemned: "Ite maledicti in ignem aeternum." The Virgin turns away her head and trembles. On Christ's right is Adam, and on his left, St. Peter. They have exactly the same positions assigned to them by Dante in his Paradiso.

This immense work was exhibited to the public on Christmas Day, 1541. It had cost eight years of work. Michael Angelo was then sixty-seven years old.

Several anecdotes relating to this great picture have come down to us.

It is related that the Pope, scandalized at the nudity of certain figures, a nudity which Daniele da Volterra was afterwards charged to clothe, sent word to Michael Angelo that he must cover them.

Michael Angelo replied with his usual brusqueness:

"Tell the Pope that he must employ himself a little less in correcting my pictures, which is very easy, and employ himself a little more in reforming men, which is very difficult."

It is said that Maestro Biaggio, master of ceremonies to Paul III., having accompanied the Pope on a visit that His Holiness made to see Michael Angelo's fresco when it was about half finished, allowed himself to express his own opinion upon The Last Judgment.

"Holy Father," said the good Messer Biaggio, "if I dare pronounce my judgment, this picture seems more appropriate to figure in a tavern than in the chapel of a Pope."

Unfortunately for the master of ceremonies, Michael Angelo was behind him and did not lose a word of Messer Biaggio's compliment. The Pope had scarcely gone before the irritated artist, wishing to make an example as a warning for all future critics, placed this Messer Biaggio in his hell, well and duly, under the scarcely flattering guise of Minos. That was always Dante's way when he wanted to avenge himself upon an enemy.

I leave you to imagine the lamentations and complaints of the poor master of ceremonies when he saw himself damned in this manner. He threw himself at the Pope's feet, declaring that he would never arise unless His Holiness would have him taken out of hell: that was the most important thing. As for the punishment, that the painter deserved for this dreadful sacrilege, Messer Biaggio would leave that entirely to the high impartiality of the Holy Father.

"Messer Biaggio," replied Paul III. with as much seriousness as he could maintain, "you know that I have received from God an absolute power in heaven and upon the earth, but I can do nothing in hell; therefore you must remain there."

While Michael Angelo was working at his picture of The Last Judgment, he fell from the scaffold and seriously injured his leg. Soured by pain and seized with an attack of misanthropy, the painter shut himself up in his house and would not see any one.

But he reckoned without his physician; and the physician this time was as stubborn as the invalid.

This excellent disciple of Æsculapius was named Baccio Rontini. Having learned by chance of the accident that had befallen the great artist, he presented himself before his house and knocked in vain at the door.

No response.

He shouted, he flew into a passion, and he called the neighbours and the servants in a loud voice.

Complete silence.

He goes to find a ladder, places it against the front of the house, and tries to enter by the casements. The windows are hermetically sealed and the shutters are fast.

What is to be done? Any one else in the physician's place would have given up; but Rontini was not the man to be discouraged for so little. With much difficulty he enters the cellar and with no less trouble he goes up into Buonarroti's room, and, partly by acquiescence and partly by force, he triumphantly tends his friend's leg.

It was quite time: exasperated by his sufferings, the artist had resolved to let himself die.

Trois Maîtres (Paris, 1861).


1 Dante, Inferno III.