Michelangelo’s Last Judgment on an Unwelcomed Critic

No one enjoys receiving criticism. Even the greatest artists in history dislike critiques. Unlike the rest of us, great artists have a way of getting even that should give all of us a moment’s pause before offering an unsolicited judgment of someone else’s work.

Biagio Martinelli (also known as Biagio da Cesena) was best known during his lifetime as a Vatican official who served as Papal Master of Ceremonies for four popes: Leo X, Adrian VI, Clement VII, and Paul III. He earned his lasting place in history in a much more humiliating way.

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Biagio was serving Paul III when Michelangelo completed his great fresco The Last Judgment. The massive painting covers the whole altar wall of the Sistine Chapel and depicts the Second Coming of Christ and the final judgment of all humanity. Over 300 figures appear in the scene, with most of them unclothed.

Biagio examined the work as it neared completion and offered his assessment. “It was mostly disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully.” He said a better venue for the painting would be “for the public baths and taverns” than a Papal chapel.

Michelangelo did not welcome the critique. If he debated the bureaucrat, those words have been lost to history. What has remained, preserved in the lower right corner of what has become one of the most famous paintings in all of history, is an image that tells us what the great artist thought of Biagio’s observations. As a final touch, Michelangelo added Biagio’s face on the figure representing Minos, judge of the underworld adorned with donkey ears. Biagio likely took little solace in the fact that Michelangelo attempted to preserve his modesty by covering — for the most part — Biagio’s nudity. He did this by wrapping a coiled snake around Biagio’s body and having the serpent bite the man’s genitals.

Biagio was less than amused. Upon seeing himself parodied in this way, he went straight to the Pope to complain. Rather than receive a sympathetic hearing, however, Biagio had to endure the pontiff’s laughter, along with the response that the pope’s jurisdiction did not extend to hell, so the fresco would have to remain.

Read more about critics and responses to criticism.

Read more fun facts about the Vatican.

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