As we read through the third chapter of “The Last Judgment and The Critics” from Bernadine Barnes’s Michelangelo’s Last Judgment – The Renaissance Response, it is striking to see the two completely opposite views on the fresco by the sixteenth century critics, where ” those who approved of it saw it as the height of Renaissance art; those who disapproved saw it as an unsuitable use of art” and that “it was censured as the work of an arrogant man, and it was justified as a work that made celestial figures more beautiful than natural” (71).
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.
Although the copies might not seem as incomparable and important as the original fresco itself, the responses to the fresco deduced from the copies made most of the critics change their perspectives on the fresco. For instance, Pietro Aretino, “the quintessential Renaissance man of letters”, responded to the fresco “beginning before the fresco was finished, and ending thirteen years later”, in which “Aretino’s interest changed from an apparent desire to…
…hile ornamenting it with `figures’ that functioned in the same way as a poet’s figure of speech. Even those who disliked the fresco recognized this” (97-98), the reason for the Last Judgment to have received such bad criticism is: “the possibility of seeing a religious image as erotic seems to have become a problem only in the sixteenth century, possibly because by that time artists were more skilled in depicting the nude. But the sixteenth century was also a time when images once directed at a more exclusive audience” (87) “this is certainly the case with the Last Judgment. Although it was painted was painted where only a select audience could see it, reproductions, painted and printed, immediately became available to the general public. … The real problem is not nudity or artificial movement, but the distribution of copies of the painting for all to see” (88).