This large and impressive drawing copies two groups of figures in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican. It is one of a group of large scale copies all executed in red and black chalk after Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel. This group includes another copy of similar dimensions (47 x 72 cm.) also on two joined sheets, now in the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg, of an adjacent detail of the Last Judgment (J. Wood, op. cit., 2011, no. 191) and eight drawings in the Louvre after some of the Prophets and Sibyls painted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the chapel. The watermark of a pilgrim inscribed in a circle on the left sheet is also found on two of the Louvre drawings (The prophet Daniel and The prophet Zachariah; Wood, op. cit., nos. 172 and 177) and in two recently rediscovered copies by Rubens after the antique (U. Westfehling, ‘Drei Verscholllene Zeichnungen von Peter Paul Rubens’, Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrburch, LXII, 2001, pp. 209-210 and 220 note 108, fig. 73). This suggests that the artist executed all these copies at about the same time and that the drawings were originally part of the same sketchbook as they are on the same batch of paper.
The figures in the present drawing are from the lower left quadrant of the Last Judgment. Two resurrected men are carried to Heaven by angels while demons try to pull them down to Hell. The main difference between Rubens’s drawing and Michelangelo’s fresco is that the two groups are placed close together in the original with the right hand group higher, whereas in the drawing they are presented on the same level, with a much wider gap between them. This is because they were originally drawn by Rubens on two different sheets and he only joined them later, adding in the right section the foot of the resurrected man represented in the left. This change means that the hand which in the fresco grips a serpent and emerges out of the ground, appears in the drawing floating in space. The head of the serpent has been omitted in the drawing and its body has been treated as if it was a rope.
Rubens used the black and red chalk with great care and virtuosity to suggest the colors of the fresco. For instance, the resurrected man on the left still has the pallor of death, and in the drawing this is conveyed by drawing his body solely in black chalk, with no animating touches of red. Rubens then used some stumping, especially on the torso to emphasize the decomposing state of the body. The other resurrected man, in the right part of the drawing, is shown upside down. He is more animated than his companion and his flesh has a warmer color in the fresco. Rubens has conveyed this by applying delicate touches of red chalk.
There has been some debate about when and where Rubens made this copy and the ones of the Prophets and Sybils in the Louvre. Although it has sometimes been suggested that the artist used engravings or even earlier copies by other artists after Michelangelo’s frescoes to produce his own drawings, Anne-Marie Logan and Jeremy Wood have convincingly established that Rubens drew them in front of the originals in the Sistine Chapel. For example, the application of red and black chalk described above suggests an extremely careful study of the use of color in the fresco. Rubens made two visits to Rome, one from May 1601 to April 1602 and the other in 1606-08. Anne-Marie Logan and Jeremy Wood both date the present drawing and the series from the Louvre to the earlier trip by comparison with the very accomplished and concise copies executed solely in red chalk which they date to the later visit. According to Jeremy Wood, ‘The earliest of Rubens’s copies after the Prophets and Sybils were drawn first in black chalk and red was added almost as an afterthought […] Although black chalk dominates in the Last Judgment copies, red chalk was added with subtlety and used to interpret the color and tonal values found in the fresco, and this, together with the lack of distortion in the treatment of the figures, points to a slightly later date than the Louvre copies, although perhaps only a matter of months’ (Wood, op. cit., 2014, p. 184).
The present drawing remained in Rubens’s study collection. While it was there its right part was copied by Willem Paneels (1600/05-1634) in a drawing in black chalk with grey wash (30.6 x 21.3 cm.) now in the Statens Museum for Kunst (Wood, op. cit., 2011, fig. 76). Rubens himself does not seem to have used his drawing in preparation for a painting although he represented an upside down male nude, gripped by both a serpent and a ferocious demon, in the Small Last Judgment, generally dated to 1618-20, now the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, but posed very differently. Nevertheless, according to Jeremy Wood, ‘the conception of Michelangelo’s foreshortened figures hurtling either upwards to Heaven or downwards to Hell, had a great impact on Rubens’s depictions of the [Great] Last Judgment and Fall of the Damned [both also in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich and dating respectively from 1615-16 and circa 1621] in a less specific but still fundamental way’ (op. cit., 2012, p. 192).
The drawing has a distinguished provenance. It bears the marks of the Flemish painter and associate of Peter Lely, Prosper Henry Lankrink (1628-1692) and of the painter Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) who assembled one of the greatest collection of Old Master drawings ever formed. According to Jeremy Wood (op. cit., 2011, p. 190), the present drawing was among the most admired works attributed to Rubens in the Lawrence collection. Described in the 1830 Lawrence inventory (Case 7 Drawer 2, no. 6, ‘Rubens, two leaves pasted together from the celebrated Last Judgment of M. Angelo’) it passed with Lawrence's estate to the dealer Samuel Woodburn (1786-1853) and sold in 1840 with some of the greatest drawings in the collection to the future King William II of Holland (1792-1849). It was not included in his famous 1850 estate sale but retained by his daughter Sophie, Grand Duchess of Sachsen Weimar-Eisenach (1824-1897) in whose family it remained until 1999.