Breeches of The Last Judgment

After Michelangelo’s death, his friend Daniele da Volterra was employed by the Vatican to paint over the genitalia of the Sistine Chapel’s Last Judgment.

Detail from Michelangelo's The Last Judgement
Michelangelo and Daniele da Volterra, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Michelangelo’s fresco The Last Judgment adorns the wall behind the altar in the Sistine Chapel. It is a landmark in art history, painted in Michelangelo’s last years to complement the ceiling – which he had completed more than twenty years before. It was also intensely controversial at the time. Why? Because of the nudity, of course.

Hmm, that may be a bit glib. The Counter-Reformation was the Catholic Church’s attempt to clean up their act in response to the existential threat of Protestantism. The Council of Trent in the mid-16th century came up with a range of prescriptions for the church, and one of those (a last-minute addition) was about art. In their words:

In the invocation of saints, the veneration of relics, and the sacred use of images, every superstition shall be removed, all filthy lucre be abolished, finally, all lasciviousness be avoided; in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a wantonness of beauty.

Council of Trent, Session XXV

The Last Judgment, full of nudes, was in the firing line. It had been controversial even as it was being painted; the papal Master of Ceremonies had objected to the amount of human flesh on display. Michelangelo responded by painting that Master of Ceremonies into the fresco himself, complete with donkey’s ears and a snake biting his junk. At the time the pope had defended Michelangelo’s artistic vision, but when the Council of Trent published its decrees both Michelangelo and his patron had been dead for decades.

Detail of The Last Judgment
Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

So, what to do with The Last Judgment? A friend and protege of Michelangelo was employed to cover up the offending genitalia. Daniel da Volterra complied, and painted subtle loin-cloths or fig leaves on all the nude figures. In one particular section, he even repainted a male and female figure who were 1. too nude and 2. close to each other in a way that was suggestive of a… more intimate relationship?

Da Volterra’s version is pictured above; you can compare it to this copy of the original to see how it was changed:

Detail of Marcello Venusti's copy of Michelangelo's The Last Judgement
Marcello Venusti, after Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

For his efforts, da Volterra earned the nickname “Il Braghettone” – the breeches-maker. Poor guy was a skilled artist in his own right, but is now known to history as the man who painted over one of the most famous works of art in the Western canon. Some of his work on the fresco survives today, but much of it was removed in a 20th century restoration.

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