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Employment and Migration Blog

Sistine Chapel...Part 2

Posted by Stephen Booth on 11 Mar 2013

In my last post,  I reported on a visit to the Sistine Chapel, and focused on the ceiling.  But there is much more to the Chapel than that, since most of the wall space is filled with wonderful 16th century paintings in jewel-bright colours.  The most dramatic occupies the whole end wall, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, painted 1536-41, more than twenty years after he painted the ceiling frescos.  This is full of swirling energy and turmoil, with Christ hurling sinners into hell and raising the saved to paradise.  It takes some effort to shift from the movement in the overall image to focus on the details - but when you do, one point in the bottom right corner has particular employment law resonance.

In Hell, there is a portly figure with donkey’s ears and a large snake curled around him to cover his nakedness (actually, it is worse, but as this is a respectable professional blog I’ll leave it at that).  This is Minos, judge of the underworld, receiving the souls of the damned.  As a model, Michelangelo used Biagio de Cesena, the Pope’s Master of Ceremonies at the time, presumably without consent.  Michelangelo was always an irascible character, and Biagio was his loudest critic and objected to the many nude figures which Michelangelo included – but had his revenge in perpetuity.

So, Michelangelo had revenge in perpetuity – he depicted him in hell (in itself not a good look for a servant of the church), with asses’ ears to signal his stupidity, and a serpent to make him decent.

The employment law point?  Well, consider the ramifications today if an employee published an obscene and offensively mocking picture of a colleague (let alone a senior manager) on Facebook, and published it to everyone who came into the workplace!  Presumably the Pope, as the Chairman and CEO of the organisation, condoned it, given the great artistic merit of the whole, which would only make things worse. 

One would expect Biagio to be claiming at least:

  • constructive dismissal (if he felt compelled to resign because he couldn’t continue in the workplace:  indeed, he has been famous for 450 years because of Michelangelo’s mockery)
  • defamation (reasonable people would conclude that he was a fool with an uncomfortably close relationship with a pet python)
  • stress leave and remedies for workplace bullying (because he was a laughing stock among the cardinals and his employer did nothing to stop it)
  • discrimination (held up to sexual ridicule in the workplace).


It raises the very difficult question of how you deal with brilliant but difficult employees who cause grief with other staff.  Sometimes, an individualised approach, dealing with the bad behaviour, rather than engineering a termination and losing the brilliance, is an option we look at when faced with issues of this kind. 

One hopes that in 1541 the Pope and the Cardinals at least provided poor Biagio with some counselling. 

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