Michelangelo began work on his Last Judgment (1541) 25 years after the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and although in the same room, that space had become a different world. The Neo-Platonic context that had provided the context for Michelangelo’s first Sistine Chapel project had been replaced by a new narrative. He was living through a paradigm shift not to his liking and one that would cause him to give up painting. The Counter-Reformation had begun the same year that he started painting the Last Judgment and only the intervention of a group of artists on Michelangelo’s behalf kept it from being painted over, from being obliterated. Why? What had changed in that quarter century?
The paradigm shift named the Protestant Reformation (1500s) had begun and had prompted a reaction, a Counter-Reformation. The reactions of men like Martin Luther in Germany and John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland would spread throughout Europe and affect every institution in the Renaissance paradigm. Religion, science, politics, economics, art and society in general would experience radical change and no one was left untouched, not even Michelangelo the greatest artist of his time.
We know that fear is the energy that drives P-B and the leaders of the Universal Church were afraid of the Protestant rebellion. But that was not all. Copernicus’ book Revolution of the Planets in their Orbits positing a sun-centered rather than an earth-centered cosmos, along with other scientific discoveries, began to weaken the belief of the faithful in the infallibility and power of the Church.
The Church, launching the Counter-Reformation, reacted with the Grand Inquisition to silence dissent and the Index Expurgatorius to censor books that challenged Church orthodoxy. Even the background myth so crucial to the very identity of the Church shifted. “God appeared not as the Living Father, but as a terrifying judge, Christ not as the Good Shepherd but as the Great Avenger.”[i] As with all reactions, fear became the weapon of choice.
Charles I of Spain became Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire and that part of Europe, including most of Italy under his control, became subject to hyper-conservative religiosity. “Ignatius of Loyola came from Spain to obtain papal sanction for his Society of Jesus, a militant order dedicated to foreign missionary work, education and active participation in world affairs.”[ii]
The Neo-Platonic pagan sibyls, nude adults and nude youth (ignudi) of the Sistine Chapel ceiling would not have been possible in this new paradigm. “Michelangelo’s Last Judgment was censured because his Apollo-type Christ was un-bearded, drapery was ordered to cover his ‘offending nudes.’”[iii]
“The great man became a recluse in his last years, gave up figurative art for the abstraction of architecture, and devoted himself to the building of St. Peter’s.”[iv] Nothing influences human behavior so much as does the story in which we are contained. If we want the arts to flourish, we must take care in choosing a narrative that nurtures the joy we find in the creative process rather than one that feeds our fear and destroys our connection to the source of the good, the true and the beautiful.
Michelangelo Caught Up in the Shift
[i] Fleming, William. Art, Music and Ideas. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. 1970, page 215.
[iii] Ibid., page 217.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.