Michelangelo’s Last Judgement takes place in a painted sky covering the altar wall of the Sistine chapel. Unlike the ceiling, which arguably occupies its own artistic world, the Last Judgement irrupts into the world of the worshippers, and concentrates their lives in a moment of decision. The onlookers are guided by the saints—St Lawrence, St Bartholomew, St Catherine—who, fixing their gaze on Christ, present the instruments of their martyrdom as tokens of their choice. It is their resolution, not Christ’s, which appears to be the site of decision-making in this judgement.
Christ, though clearly the centre of the fresco, is more gazed upon than gazing. He is not serene on his throne delivering judgement, but contorted and agitated, his arms raised in an ambiguous gesture that may either summon or repel, as it directs upwards and thrusts downwards. His mother huddles against him as she draws her veil around her face while crossing her arms over her chest—perhaps in prayer.
The worshippers are cast into the middle of this drama. The sky—this-worldly and full of clouds—seems to rise above the altar. The figures are so hyper-corporeal that the weight of the saved must be dragged upward and the angels are without wings. And although Christ is framed by an Apollonian sun, the figures are illusionistically illuminated from the left, that is, the northern side of the church, prompting us to ask: where will light come from at the sunset of our world?
The text of Revelation 20 describes a vision of the end of the world. Here, the artist has torn down the boundaries between that final judgement and the worshippers’ own time, and brought them face to face with Christ, their response to whom determines salvation or damnation. Here in this chapel, they are called to decision so that, unlike the damned in the fresco, they will not, at the end of time, have to confront the horror of having made their choice without realizing it.
11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who sat upon it; from his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done. 13And the sea gave up the dead in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead in them, and all were judged by what they had done. 14Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; 15and if any one’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.