Michelangelo’s Hell

Whenever I look back at my writing, whether it be from five years ago or five months ago, I always see something I would change. I guess it’s good that I’m overly critical, because it must mean that I’m progressing, right? So although I see many things I would change in this paper, I thought I’d share it with all of you.

This was written for my Italian Renaisance Art class my junior year. I hope you like it!



Michelangelo’s Hell

In a time of wealth and prosperity like the Renaissance, painted scenes of damnation became unpopular. By the start of the Reformation and the Sack of Rome in 1527, however, many Italians needed the promise of salvation on their last day. Many also prayed for the damnation of their tormentors. Once again scenes of the Day of Judgement became suitable for patrons like Pope Paul III, as he commissioned Michelangelo to paint this on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in 1534. Michelangelo had been influenced by Savonarola as a young man and witnessed the horrors of the Sack of Rome, and this brutality had stayed with him when he painted the scene of hell (Connor, pg. 2-37). Using these painful memories, Michelangelo created a cacophony of movements and pained expressions embedded in a scene inspired by poetic depictions of hell.

In Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the scene of hell can be divided into four parts: the descending vices, the mouth of hell, Charon’s boat and Minos’ hell. Michelangelo’s depiction of hell differs from his predecessors in that his is not so obviously divided. Traditionally, the damned were separated and compartmentalized by their sins, the envious were grouped together, as were the gluttonous, and so on. In the middle, there would be a giant devil, usually eating and defecating the poor souls (Lorenzi, pg. 36). Michelangelo’s demons and damned move in a more natural way, as the developments of the Renaissance led spectators to expect (Barnes, pg. 20). Michelangelo also differed in the way he portrayed his damned souls as muscular as the saved. Previously, damned souls were portrayed as sickly and malnourished. Here, the only difference between sinner and saint is the expressions of pain and agony (Hall, pg. 28). This may have to do with his skill and favor of painting the muscular male nude.



Looking at the descending vices from left to right, one can see all of the Seven Deadly Sins according to Vasari and Condivi, Michelangelo’s biographers (Simons, pg. 18). The first, then, is Sloth. He is draped over the shoulder of a gray demon, with goat horns, ass ears and clawed feet. Sloth covers his face with his left arm while his right falls languidly behind him. True to his vice, he does not fight back. Instead, he merely hides his face because he fears the sight of hell beneath him.

Above Sloth, a damned soul known commonly as ‘the reprobate’ is the image of Envy. Envy is being dragged to hell by two demons, one gray with ass ears and fiery red clawed feet, whose hand was not corrected a secco by Michelangelo and is colored the same as the vice’s flesh, instead of the gray of his own skin (Connor, pg. 179). The other devil is brown with short horns. This devil grins satanically at the viewers below. Envy, like some other damned souls, is not trying to fight his way to salvation above. Instead he crouches and covers his face in shame and disbelief. A coiled snake bites the soul’s thigh, probably as an homage to the recently earthed Laocoön housed nearby. Both the snake and the covered eye are traditional symbols of envy, as seen in some of Giotto’s works (Simons, pg. 18).


To the right of Envy is Wrath. Wrath is kneeling on a cloud, and looks like a mirror image of the man climbing out of the river in Michelangelo’s earlier Battle of Cascina. He hastily tries to escape from his inevitable fate. Above, he is being beaten down by a deeply foreshortened angel in a green tunic. His loincloth, like many others in the scene, were painted a secco after the artist’s death. Encircling him are other damned souls with less detail and lighter coloring, suggesting depth. These background figures were painted without a cartone, drawn quickly and hastily (Connor, pg. 168). This depth was new in images of the Last Judgement, giving hell an eerie endlessness.

Hanging upside down next to Wrath is Avarice, identified by his hanging money bag and set of keys. He is being beaten down by an angel in gold while being tugged down by the dark gray devil at his throat. It has been suggested by scholars that the keys held by the damned soul represent the pope’s keys to St. Peter’s (Connor, pg. 176). This analysis is not surprising, as Michelangelo worked closely with no less than seven popes and the artist experienced firsthand the abuse of power within the church. Giotto and Torcello similarly placed members of clergy and other powerful figures in their representations of hell (Barnes, pg. 18). To the figure’s right, a cloaked soul, possibly a woman, says their last prayers while diving headfirst into the fiery abyss.


Recognized by an angel pushing down on his face is Gluttony. Vasari mentions that all vices are recognizable by their treatment, so Gluttony’s mouth and throat would be an obvious target for the merciless angels above (Vasari, pg. 131). This figure provides an excellent example of the musculature that Michelangelo specialized in. As the figure fights against the two angels above, he twists his torso and shows the bulging muscles of his back and arms. Despite his struggle, his eventual fate is not in question. The curious figure to Gluttony’s right is Pride. Pride is bent at the waist providing us with the view of his backside and distressed face that he hides from the angel with a clenched fist. He is a prime example of the figural poses Michelangelo experimented with in this fresco.

Below him we have Lust. Lust is easily recognizable by the way the demon below drags him down: by his testicles. Lust is shown from the back, though he turns enough for us to see his face in searing pain, biting down on his own fist to suppress a scream. With his right hand he reaches behind his back as an attempt to wave off the demon who torments him. The demon below him has a horse’s tail, a curious green and red hairstyle, horns and long ears.

Michelangelo Buonarroti Last Judgment 2

At the bottom center of the fresco is an opening in the earth that represents hell’s mouth. It is a cave-like structure with a group of demons who are waiting to grab any poor souls that come nearby. They are crouching together, both with deep-set eyes and large, thick teeth. The demon in the center has one horn sticking out from his forehead, and his feet have long curled talons. Behind them, a fiery depth glows. Some scholars say this cave represents purgatory (Connor, pg. 177). Most agree that the placement of the cave, right above the space where the pope would speak, was a deliberate warning against abuse of power (Connor, pg. 183). If he turned around, the pope would be face-to-face with the devils awaiting him.


Carting damned souls from earth to hell is Charon. Charon is the fictional character from Dante’s Inferno that leads the sinners to their fate. He holds his oar high, ready to smack anybody who tries to escape. He has a wild, cat-like face with long ears and whiskers. His eyes are round and are bulging from their sockets. He has dark gray-brown skin with clawed toes. He leads his winged boat through the water, some scholars say it is the River Styx (Connor, pg. 181), others say the waters of Acheron (Condivi, pg. 84), and some claim it to be the Lake of Brimstone (Salinger, pg. 50). The damned are huddled in the boat, leaning as far away from Charon as possible. Those closest to the demon hunch over and protect their heads from the threat of Charon’s oar. One brave soul dips his toe into the water, hesitating his descent. Another unconscious man is being dragged out of the boat by a demon who gnaws on the sinner’s leg. This demon has the legs of a goat that make him look like a satyr.


To the right, a man has fallen headfirst off the side of the vessel, and another man grabs his leg to try to help. Meanwhile, a demon onshore has his neck by a hook and is pulling the soul towards damnation. Two men next to him jump willingly towards the devils. A man at the prow is being dragged down by his neck. All of the sinner’s faces show fear and agony. A man in a gray robe shrieks. Overall they are a chaotic mass, fearing their own fate.

Awaiting the boatload of damned souls are the devils and demons of Minos. Minos, yet another reference to Dante, is the tall figure on the far right. His torso is wound with a serpent, who curls up between his legs and bites his penis. Giorgio Vasari, one of Michelangelo’s contemporary biographers, identifies the figure as a portrait of Biagio da Casena, the pope’s master of ceremonies who claimed the fresco had too many nudes and was more suitable for a bathing house (Vasari, pg. 125). The portrait is unflattering, with a snarl on his face and long ass ears. He marks the entrance of hell where the red flames glow ominously in the background.


Giorgio Vasari mentions in his biography, “It is impossible to describe the variety in the heads of the devils,” (Vasari, pg. 130). It is true that Michelangelo excelled in providing an abundance of features within the treacherous mob. They smile and snarl and stick their tongues out. Their poses, too, are varied. Some recline, others kneel or stand or crouch and many are pulling the damned out of the boat. The demon in the front with the curly red tail has a torso that imitates the so-called Torso Belvedere housed nearby. The variances in skin tone may have been inspired by Luca Signorelli’s Last Judgement in the Orvieto Chapel. In his composition, the devils are shown in brown, gray, red and green. Michelangelo is known to have praised the work (Barnes, pg. 25).

Michelangelo worked in a boustrophedon pattern, which is a Greek term meaning “ox-turning,” a pattern of working left to right, then right to left. This was to minimize time deconstructing and reconstructing the scaffolding. Using this pattern, we know that Michelangelo painted the scene of hell last. He also had a nearly fatal fall just before, and was bedridden for weeks. His depression worsened during this period. Nevertheless, Michelangelo finished the fresco in a timely manner; it took him only thirty days to paint twenty-five of the damned souls (Connor, pg. 178). In order to get the darker tones in the lower right, Michelangelo employed a technique where he covered the bright white intonaco with a reddish brown umber, and painted mid-tones and highlights on top (Hall, pg. 41).

Inspired by Giotto’s mosaic in the Florence Baptistery, Luca Signorelli’s fresco at Orvieto, Nardo di Cione’s fresco at Santa Maria Novella and Dante’s epic poetry, Michelangelo had an abundance of works to reference in his masterpiece. Unlike his predecessors, however, Michelangelo excels in portraying human emotion and movement. Scholar Marcia Hall recalls the figure of Envy:

His lonely figure anticipating eternal damnation is a far more effective admonition than graphic images of physical torture that mark depictions of Hell in earlier Last Judgements;… (pg. 28)

As a result of this work, many artists made copies and prints of the fresco that were sold all around Europe. Michelangelo’s experiments with figural poses were inspirations to young artists, and his breathtaking composition continues to awe to this day. In conclusion, Michelangelo created a scene of hell, inspired by many, that captures a variety of poses and emotions. In a traditionally compartmentalized, torturous scene, the artist provided unity. Overall, Michelangelo’s hell is a masterpiece in itself.

PS* All of my photos were found on Google Images and are not my own.

1) Barnes, Bernadine. “Michelangelo’s Last Judgement: The Renaissance Response,” New York, 1998, pg 20-30.

2) Codivi, Ascanio. “The Life of Michelangelo,” Italy, 2006, pg 117-134.

3) Connor, James. “The Last Judgement: Michelangelo and the Death of the Renaissance,” California, 2009.

4)  Hall, Marcia. “Michelangelo’s Last Judgement,” Cambridge, 2005, pg 15-105.

5) Lorenzi, Lorenzo. “Devils in Art: Florence, from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance,” Florence, 1997, pg 19-63.

6) Partridge, Loren W., Gianluigi Colalucci, and Fabrizio Mancinelli. “Michelangelo- the Last Judgment: A Glorious Restoration,” New York, 1997, pg 8-114.

7) Simons, Patricia. “Envy and the other Vices in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement,” Notes in the History of Art, vol. 33, no. 2, 2014, pg 13-20.

8) Vasari, Giorio. “The Life of Michelangelo” Italy, 2006, pg 117-134.


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