It is the largest fresco in Rome (44 by 48 feet).
The Last Judgment by Michelangelo, on the front wall of the Sistine Chapel A public domain photo published here
What is the great painting about? See Who’s Who in the Last Judgment.
How did Michelangelo start the job?
He looked for a long time at the big wall he was supposed to paint. He wanted to be sure to avoid some of the problems the ceiling frescoes had given him twenty-five years earlier.
The wall had two windows. He had them blocked up so he would have a nice, empty surface.
Next he worried about dampness seeping through from outside. That might spoil his painting. He decided not to paint the actual chapel wall but to build a second one of dried bricks in front of it and to leave a space between the two walls for ventilation.
And to keep the dust from collecting on it he gave the new wall a slant. It slopes inward as it rises and overhangs at the top about a foot.
At first Michelangelo planned to paint with oil paints and he had his helper Sebastiano del Piombo give the whole wall a coat of mortar with resin to seal it. But later he changed his mind and ordered him to chip his primer away. Michelangelo was an experienced fresco painter now and who knows what disagreeable surprises oils might give him. He would stick to fresco and would apply his own layer of sand and lime each day as he went.
These preparations took a year. Meanwhile he worked on his cartoons. He began to paint in June 1536.
The wall was unveiled on Halloween, 1541. He was 66 years old. It was twenty-nine years since the unveiling of the ceiling frescoes.
He fell off the scaffolding once when he was alone in the chapel. Though he was badly hurt he dragged himself home and crawled into bed in great pain. He refused to let anyone see him and wouldn’t open the door when they knocked. Finally, one of his friends, a doctor, “made his way up by a secret way from room to room until he found Buonarroti, who was in a desperate condition. Then [the doctor] refused to go away or leave his side until he was better.” (Vasari)
The great painting scared people. Pope Paul III, who commissioned it, is supposed to have exclaimed when he saw it the first time: “Lord, please don’t charge me with my sins when you come on Judgment Day!”
Some thought the nudes were out of place. The papal Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, said the painting made the chapel look like a stufa d’ ignudi’ (a bathing house). For that remark, which he heard Cesena say, Michelangelo supposedly put his face on Minos, the great judge of Hell, and gave him donkey ears.
Cesena complained to the Pope, who answered wittily that it was outside his competence to rescue him from hell. “Had you been in Purgatory I might have done something.”
The worst criticism came from the poet and blackmailer Pietro Aretino, who at first wrote flattering things to Michelangelo from Venice and made suggestions for the painting. Michelangelo answered that though his suggestions were very interesting the fresco was too far along then to be changed. Eight years later Aretino published an open letter to Michelangelo in which he accused him of being irreverent. “Such things might be painted in a voluptuous bathroom,” he wrote, “but not in the choir [sic] of the highest chapel…Our souls are benefitted little by art, but by piety.”
A close up showing some of the nudity veiled
In 1563 the Council of Trent forbade the representation of unsuitable subjects in churches. Daniele da Volterra was ordered to paint over all the offending nudities. People called him “Danny the Panty-Painter”. But it was no laughing matter—more than once in the following years the fresco came very close to being destroyed. More and more clothes were added. In 1574 El Greco himself offered to chip it away and paint a new fresco that would “be decent and pious and no less well-painted than Michelangelo’s.”
Three more times (1625, 1712, and 1762) artists were ordered to “do something about those nudes”.
The critic Thode thought the fresco had been altered so much that it was no longer even possible to judge the artistic qualities of Michelangelo’s work.
But the latest cleaning has changed its look so much that few think now of how the virtue-coverings might have mutilated it.
My source for many of these facts is Ludwig Goldscheider’s book Michelangelo: Paintings. Sculptures. Architecture. Phaidon Press.