Nobody had ever seen drawing like that.
Each figure—each hero, for that is what they are—is a colossal abstraction, a grand cartoon of Man. In fact, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment seems more an affair of Titans than of men and they struggle against some undefinable oppression. Where is God? Christ stands in the center of the picture but He is no different from the rest, and there are no symbols of His power. God is missing on the wall as He was missing in Dante’s book. Aren’t those brave Prometheans rather bearing the inevitability of Fate, like the giants that Michelangelo had carved for the Pope’s tomb?
Vasari says that Michelangelo, by painting the greatest variety of attitudes, was trying to express the wide range of the soul’s emotions and joys. Did he?
“I only see there details that hit you like a fist; but interest, unity, attraction – they’re missing,” said the French painter Delacroix years later.
Some viewers have thought all the figures, however varied and beautiful, say the same thing – or don’t say it. They do not show you that range of feelings. The whirling Giants are mere manikins; each wears a different mask but they are all from the same mold.
“Cold” is how many saw the work. The whole crowd of acrobats doesn’t touch your heart. They are aloof; they spin far off in space like stars. Such creatures can’t be loved, which is a terrible failing. That was the price Michelangelo paid for his abstraction – a formal beauty as hard and cold as his marble: his men are unapproachable. The Greeks, his teachers, hadn’t carried their Ideal so far: their statues, gods or not, were homey figures you could see yourself in. They cried and you cried; their beauty was the beauty of your lover, though modern viewers might not at first perceive it that way.
Most people do feel the terror of the scene. That was its most important object and in that it succeeds. They see all the demons and the gnashing of teeth, especially of the hell-bound souls at the bottom of the wall, and they feel frightened. You don’t want to be like those Damned. But meditation on the smug faces of the Blessed—that is not very fruitful.