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When Michelangelo Made an Ass of his Critic
The artist strikes back at prudishness
Those glorious donkey ears rising off the head of a Vatican official's head is Art History's best example of an artist exacting revenge on a critic.
For almost 475 years poor Biago da Cesena has stood naked and ass-eared in the Sistine Chapel, posed as one Michelangelo's demons at the Gates of Hell in the monumental The Last Judgement fresco.
Between 1536 and 1541 Michelangelo was busy decorating the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. He was in his mid sixties at the time, and it had been decades since he completed the famous ceiling. Michelangelo was always a cranky man who would not suffer fools gladly.
Now he was back to work on this massive fresco, a masterpiece measuring forty feet across and forty-five feet tall. More than nude 400 figures representing a manner of saints, demons sinners and saved souls are spread across that space.
Biagio da Cesena was the pope's master of ceremonies, a high church official responsible for maintaining decorum and supervising holy services in the chapel. Because the chapel is the place where cardinals elect popes, and attend mass, the church considers it one of its most important and holiest places, something Biagio would take seriously.
What Biago wanted to see happen was the removal and covering of genitals, and there were scores of those. All over that wall. It must have galled him that it would have been impossible for priests to kneel and take communion at the altar without gazing up at those uncovered body parts he found so objectionable.
Apparently not everyone in authority at the time agreed the fresco needed to be altered for modesty. Like other institutions, the church embraced the Renaissance ideals and aesthetics from classical times. Nudity was definitely part of that.
This might explain why Michelangelo expected to prevail in the dispute, and why he doubled down by depicting a nude Biago as Minos, Hell's demonic judge of sinners. A snake coils around Biago's body, its mouth engorging on the penis.
How ironic. Biagio is the only figure in the fresco who would appear then to be at risk of losing his genitals.
To add insult to this injury, Michelangelo gave Biago long donkey ears, suggesting foolishness. That is, calling him a jackass.
Pope Paul III seems to have found all this amusing. The story goes that Biago complained to the pope, who said something along the lines of "I"m sorry, but my jurisdiction does not extent to Hell."
Twenty four years later, after Michelangelo's death, church authorities did finally order the genitalia painted over. Although, the repainting was never fully completed. The pope died, so work was interrupted and scaffolding was taken down so that the Cardinals could gather in the chapel to elect the next pope. So, today Biago remains just as Michelango depicted him. Donkey ears, snake and all.