In her analysis of Michelangelo's Last Judgment, Bernadine Barnes provides an original and stimulating view of this renowned fresco and of the audience for which it was created. Because Michelangelo is so often regarded as a nearly superhuman artistic genius, we tend to forget that his works were not created to illustrate his life. The Last Judgment did have great personal meaning for him, but his representation of this religious event was not purely self-directed, says Barnes. She argues that Michelangelo had a particular type of viewer in mind as he designed his work.
The Last Judgment dealt with an especially evocative subject, and Michelangelo engaged viewers by creating highly imaginative scenes tempering fear with hope and by referring to contemporary events. The painting's original, elite audience—the papal court and a handful of distinguished lay persons—was sophisticated about art and poetry, almost exclusively male, and orthodox in its religious beliefs. That audience later broadened and included artists allowed into the Chapel to copy Michelangelo's work. These artists helped to create another, less sophisticated audience, one that knew the fresco only through reproductions and written descriptions. The response of this latter audience eventually prompted the church to censor the painting.
Beautifully illustrated with photographs of the recently restored Sistine Chapel, Barnes's study greatly enhances our understanding of changing Renaissance attitudes toward art. Her book also provides valuable insights into one of Michelangelo's greatest works.
Bernadine Barnes is Associate Professor of Art History, Wake Forest University.