Michelangelo Paints the Sistine Chapel - History

Michelangelo Paints the Sistine Chapel - History

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Michelangelo Paints the Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo spent four years painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He worked unassisted.

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel had great symbolic meaning for the papacy as the chief consecrated space in the Vatican, used for great ceremonies such as electing and inaugurating new popes. It already contained distinguished wall paintings, and Michelangelo was asked to add works for the relatively unimportant ceiling. The Twelve Apostles was planned as the theme—ceilings normally showed only individual figures, not dramatic scenes. Traces of this project are seen in the 12 large figures that Michelangelo produced: seven prophets and five sibyls, or female prophets found in Classical myths. The inclusion of female figures was very unusual though not totally unprecedented. Michelangelo placed these figures around the edges of the ceiling and filled the central spine of the long curved surface with nine scenes from Genesis: three of them depicting the Creation of the World, three the stories of Adam and Eve, and three the stories of Noah. These are naturally followed, below the prophets and sibyls, by small figures of the 40 generations of Christ’s ancestors, starting with Abraham. The vast project was completed in less than four years there was an interruption perhaps of a year in 1510–11 when no payment was made.

Michelangelo began by painting the Noah scenes over the entrance door and moved toward the altar in the direction opposite to that of the sequence of the stories. The first figures and scenes naturally show the artist reusing devices from his earlier works, such as the Pietà, since he was starting on such an ambitious work in an unfamiliar medium. These first figures are relatively stable, and the scenes are on a relatively small scale. As he proceeded, he quickly grew in confidence. Indeed, investigations of the technical processes used show that he worked more and more rapidly, reducing and finally eliminating such preparatory helps as complete drawings and incisions on the plaster surface. The same growing boldness appears in the free, complex movements of the figures and in their complex expressiveness. While remaining always imposing and monumental, they are more and more imbued with suggestions of stress and grief. This may be perceived in a figure such as the prophet Ezekiel halfway along. This figure combines colossal strength and weight with movement and facial expression that suggest determination to reach a goal that is uncertain of success. Such an image of the inadequacy of even great power is a presentation of heroic and tragic humanity and is central to what Michelangelo means to posterity. Nearby the scene of the creation of Eve shows her with God and Adam, compressed within too small a space for their grandeur. This tension has been interpreted as a token of a movement away from the Renaissance concern with harmony, pointing the way for a younger generation of artists, such as Jacopo da Pontormo, often labeled Mannerists. Michelangelo’s work on the ceiling was interrupted, perhaps just after these figures were completed. When he painted the second half, he seemed to repeat the same evolution from quiet stability to intricacy and stress. Thus, he worked his way from the quietly monumental and harmonious scene of the creation of Adam to the acute, twisted pressures of the prophet Jonah. Yet, in this second phase he shows greater inward expressiveness, giving a more meditative restraint to the earlier pure physical mass. The complex and unusual iconography of the Sistine ceiling has been explained by some scholars as a Neoplatonic interpretation of the Bible, representing the essential phases of the spiritual development of humankind seen through a very dramatic relationship between humans and God. See also Sidebar: The Restoration of the Sistine Chapel.

The History of the Sistine Chapel

The large project of the Sistine Chapel began in 1473. The crumbling remains of the previous building were destroyed, keeping the bases of the walls intact and the asymmetrical plan of the building remained intact.

The construction was reinforced with a base and the ceiling covered with new vaults.
The real reconstruction interventions began in 1477 and lasted about 4 years.

The Sistine Chapel was used for the ceremonies of the papal court in which the most important figures of the city participated.

The first interior decorations of the Sistine Chapel date back to 1481.
The frescoes were first made by Perugino and later some of the most admired artists working in Florence: Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli and Cosimo Rosselli who collaborated with other artists already present in Rome including Pinturicchio, Bartolomeo della Gatta and Piero di Cosimo.
To decorate the Sistine Chapel ceiling Pope Julius II called Michelangelo Buonarroti who in just 4 years completed the decoration of the ceilings and vaults of this apostolic chapel.

From 1878 the Sistine Chapel is the seat of the Conclave, the assembly that elects the new Pope.
The Conclave takes place only in the event of the Pope's death or renunciation for personal reasons. The cardinals gather in the Sistine Chapel to elect the new Pontiff.

The last Conclave dates back to 2013, following the resignation of Benedict XVI, Cardinal Bergoglio was elected, Pope Francis I.

Secret images

In 1990, some physicians suggestedthat the flying-seat shape and figure of God in "The Creation of Adam" makes up an anatomically correct image of the human brain. In 2010, it was asserted that "The Separation of Light From Darkness" panel contains a human brain stem. Other theorists have suggested that Michelangelo depicted kidney imagery on the ceiling. As a sculptor, Michelangelo was fascinated by the human form. He studied cadavers to get a better sense of anatomy, and would have been familiar with the human brain.

Painting the Sistine Chapel was an exhausting task, and Michelangelo&rsquos relationship with the Catholic Church became strained doing it. Perhaps to depict his unhappiness, he hid two miserable-looking self-portraits in "The Last Judgment."He painted his deceased face on Holofernes&rsquo severed head and his ghoulish visage on Saint Bartholomew&rsquos flayed skin.

Anyone who has had the opportunity to see the chapel's ceiling up close must have noticed two things. One, that ceiling is high, and it is certainly filled with a lot of paintings. It is hard to imagine that one artist was able to do all that in under five years, and in a way, this knowledge brings the picture of Michelangelo to mind as he lay on his back and toiled away from one year to the next. There is little doubt that he knew his ceiling would become one of the most important in history, but then again Michelangelo was an extremely talented artist.

At first, the painter was instructed to paint a sort of geometric symbol to replace the then blue Chapel ceiling that was dotted with stars. This was back in 1508 when Michelangelo was under the commission of Pope Julius II. Instead, the artist chose to decorate the ceiling with the Old Testament scenes that the world knows and appreciates today.

Description of the Frescos

The frescoes are more than just mere decorations meant to impress the eye. These scenes tell a story – the story of mankind right from the very start. They tell the story that existed before all other stories came along – the story of creation. Divided into three sections, the scenes are arranged in chronological order with the first part of the narrative painted over the altar. Here, one will find three paintings – The Creation of Heavens and Earth, The Creation of Adam and Eve, and lastly The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Michelangelo then effortlessly follows up with a painting of Noah and the Great Flood.

He tells the same old story to the world, but the painter captures more in his frescos that anyone could ever imagine. By using ignudi (nude youth) to represent his message, Michelangelo preaches the message of the birth of Christ and finds a way to relate it to the creation of man.

The Techniques Used

Most of his paintings have narrative details as they show multiple figures all painted in small sizes. This makes one particular fresco stand out from all the rest – The Creation of Adam. In this fresco, the figures are monumental as they stretch out to meet each other across a void. The fact that it differs from the rest could be what makes the painting stand out from the rest, but despite the fact that it lacks narrative, the detail in this picture is still outstanding. Michelangelo's painting of The Deluge includes much more detail. Here, he paints the sky and the waters and uses the space available to him to portray four narratives.

The painting shows a cluster of people trying to avoid the rain by taking shelter under a makeshift object. On the left side are more people who are running up a mountain to try and get away from the rising waters. At the centre of the picture is a boat that seems to be overcome by the combined power of the rain and the raging sea. In the background of this picture, however, is salvation as a small team works to complete the building of the Ark. This picture shows tragedy, but there is a single ray of hope for the future of man. Those about to die are desperate and call for an observer's sympathy.

The picture makes one rethink the justice of God as he resorted to wiping out the entire world so that it could start all over again. But in saving Noah and his family, Michelangelo paints the salvation of God in its true form. There is another detail that is clear when the Sistine Chapel ceiling is observed up close. It is like there are two different sections that were painted by two different artists. This is probably because, during his labour, Michelangelo took a one year break in 1510. In images like The Deluge, we can see that the people are perishing in flood, but it is hard for one to make out their emotional state. By painting a cluster of people in a tight space, Michelangelo sacrificed any connection that might have been forged between an observer and those characters in his painting.

His later work uses more monumental figures that have clear faces and clear features, making it easier for people to connect with the paintings. Taking the Creation of Adam, for instance, we find that we can make out Adam's face to be lazy and relaxed with a slight sense of yearning. We can also make out the face of God to be serious as if he is hard at work in making his creation. One can perceive this even from the floor of the chapel. There is a little detail, but really, the superiority of Michelangelo's work after he took his break lies in the simplicity that he came to employ.

Nine Scenes from the Book of Genesis
Twelve Prophets and Sibyls
Ancestors of Christ

The Connection Observable in His Paintings

The paintings focus on the story that has been told in the book of Genesis, but there are forms that have been interpreted to portray the image of the Christ child. In the Creation of Adam, this child figure has been included to mean that even if man is created in the image and likeness of God, there is still room for sin and that God foresaw this sin. The frescos connect the Old Testament to the New Testament in a way that had never been done before. Michelangelo found a way to put this connection into art. He found a whole new way of presenting the scenes from the Bible, including the idea that Adam was brought to life through the simple touch of God's finger.

In an attentive order, the painter silently narrates the tale of Adam from the perfection that he was during creation to the sinner that his children became after the fall of mankind. There are nine narrative paintings on this ceiling, but the perspective used on the subjects is on a point that if one looks closely enough, they can almost see the figure rearing out of the ceiling wall. The characters used are ancient, yes, but after viewing these images, observers go out into the real world with vivid imaginations of what was and what is.

Michelangelo breached the gap between the past innocence, the present sinfulness, and the future redemption of mankind, making it all seem like one continuous story when it was in fact realised in centuries. It is possible that the painter's mind did not quite extrapolate this far when he was toiling away at the ceiling, but the idea just seems to fit so much that one cannot help but imagine what Michelangelo was thinking – imagine how the world would interpret his final masterpiece.

What was Michelangelo's Motivation?

It is not clear what inspired him to paint the ceiling, in fact, one might say that Michelangelo was anything but inspired when he started decorating the Sistine Chapel. Pope Julius II practically forced him to do it, so in a way, the Pope was his inspiration. The country during that time had been broken by war, and in an attempt to unite the people once again, the Pope saw it fit to have the chapel ceiling and walls repainted. The ceiling was meant to inspire divine servitude, so by using the power granted to the church, the Pope commissioned Michelangelo to paint 12 frescos that showed images of the 12 apostles of Christ.

These apostles were supposed to be painted in a geometric fashion. The painter was not inspired by this original commission, so he proposed that the scenes from the Old Testament story of creation be painted instead. He knew that the apostles of Christ had led poor lives and, therefore, hesitated to paint them in the glories of the world. This painter liked a challenge, and to him, painting 12 figures over such a big space didn't present much of a challenge. He instead opted to paint the 300 or so complex figures that now dominate the chapel ceiling.

It is said that a number of people, including the Pope's cousin Marco Vigerio Della Rovere inspired the design of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but this is just a theory. As one enters the chapel, the images of the rise of mankind are painted in reverse. This has been interpreted to mean that as one moves closer to the altar, they are moving closer to the glory of God – moving closer to his salvation.

At the entrance, one can see Noah in his drunkenness, and at the altar, one can see God as he separates the light from the dark. As an observer walks down to the altar, the story tells itself in reverse, and the very centre of the ceiling one can see God as he gives life to the first man, Adam. Painting these frescoes permanently damaged Michelangelo's spine, and while it might have been easy for him to paint the figures, it must have been difficult for him to give these figures the voice that they still pose even to this day.

The reversed order in which the frescoes are painted is, in a way, symbolic. Going towards the altar is going towards God and the rise of mankind, but going away from the altar and back into the outside world represents a walk that leads to the sinfulness and eventual fall of mankind.

The Style Used

The high-key colours used by the painter are extremely helpful to anyone who hopes to decipher the contents of the Sistine Chapel from 60 feet below. The colours are now brash and bright as compared to how they were before the ceiling was restored. There is a general white backdrop that brings out the yellows, the pinks, and the greens that the painter used to paint his characters to life. The use of old prophets and ancient sibyls has been interpreted in different ways over the years.

Sibyls foretold the birth of a saviour in the ancient times, but for the modern Christian, the birth of Christ was foretold by ancient prophets in the Old Testament. Michelangelo used sibyls and prophets to point to the same salvation that would be afforded to the entire human race. He paints one particular Sibyl in an interesting fashion, Libyan Sibyl. She is made to appear in the form of sculpture, much like all the characters that this artist portrayed. This sibyl's body is somewhat twisted as she sits on a garment looking over her shoulder towards the direction of the altar. Her image seems to fit perfectly in the environment that it has been placed.

There are triangular panels that are placed to the side of the central chapel panels. Within these triangular panels are figures that represent the ancestors of Christ. Separating these panels are representations of five sibyls and the seven prophets. The four corners of the chapel show four scenes inspired by the Old Testament. After he had finished painting Noah's drunkenness, Michelangelo looked at the images again, and after realising that they were not as imposing as he had intended, he opted to make them grander. So, as one walks towards the altar, the images become larger and larger. His work is religious in all fronts. The paintings, especially the deep sense of emotion evident in some of the character's faces, are a proof of Michelangelo's piety.

Finally came the Last Judgement that Michelangelo created 20 years after he had finished all the other paintings on the ceiling. This last image is located on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, and comparing how it was made versus how all the other images were made to appear, one can begin to understand why not much thought is given to it by observers. The talent employed in this picture is just as outstanding, but the Last Judgement carries around a concept of bleakness. This painting shows the second coming of Christ, and although the inspiration comes from the Bible, the artist used his vivid imagination to create the radiant picture filled with saints and angels. This painting shows the ultimate end of the human race after centuries of sin and disobedience.

The reason that most observers have deemed it to be a show of hopelessness is that Christ is seen to be plunging a majority of people into the damned fires of hell, it is only a few that are rising into heaven. Some figures are cowering before the son of God as he passes his final judgement. The images are somewhat disturbing and very realistic as the Saint Bartholomew holds out his skin and the Saint Andrew holding the cross that he was crucified on.

Michelangelo was to art what Shakespeare was to literature. These two characters in history represented new ideas. The painter tried to push forth a new idea of what was meant to be. Through these images, the religious world view he had becomes clear to the world. Michelangelo painted not to blind us to his perspective, but to give us a glimpse into his mind – into the world that he imagined. He painted and left his work free of interpretation, giving any observer the chance to drink in this marvellous creation and make their conclusions.

Right from the entrance of the chapel, the painter shows us a vision of what it was like for a man to meet the touch of God during creation. He shows us this in a bold and energetic way, using images of ancient prophets and seers to include the concept of the future. Looking at the Sistine Chapel ceiling is looking directly at the divine not through the eyes of Michelangelo, but through those of every human being ever created. These paintings are not limited by what has been preached, and they go beyond the rules that have been set about religion and fully express an idea of God that most people could not dare imagine.

More than 500 years down the line and the modern world is still in awe each time we look at Michelangelo's creation. After the chapel was cleaned, the real complexity of the artist's palette was exposed, and since then, the Sistine Chapel has become some school and inspiration for everyone around the world. At 33, this artist unwillingly started out on this commission to paint the pope's private chapel only for it to become the best thing he ever created. For a sculptor who insisted that he was not a painter, the work he did on the Sistine Chapel ceiling comes awfully close to perfect.

The period of 1508-1512 represented a key time in the career of Michelangelo as he set about constructing an array of frescos across the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

This monumental task was to be completed with such immense creativity and technique that the artist himself was to become a household name from then on.

Certain specific elements of the overall piece are considered masterpieces in their own right, and to see them all together is truly extraordinary.

The popularity of Michelangelo's work is also shown in the fact that he was invited back some years later to complete The Last Judgement painting which sat on the altar wall, close to his previous work.

Michelangelo was an artist with huge confidence as well as technical ability which was necessary in order to take on such a challenging request, which had come from Pope Julius II.

The complex combinations of figures across the ceiling has helped many budding artists to understand the true skills of the artist in capturing the human body in a manner of different ways. His understanding of anatomy was impressive and necessary to produce such lifelike and believable portraits.

All of Michelangelo's work on the ceiling is now over 500 years old and so it has been very necessary to continuously protect the frescos and plaster work from all natural elements as well as enthuastic tourists who have been flocking to the Chapel for centuries.

There have also been restorative work in recent generations to remove darkening effects from natural elements that can never be entirely guarded against. The nature of this large artwork also means that it is harder to look after than a normal sized standard painting or sculpture.

The art within the Sistine Chapel, which also includes work by many other notable Italian artists, underlines the wealth and status of the Pope and Christianity itself at that time. Quite simply, it could attract and afford commissions with the finest artists of that time and Michelangelo was clearly around the top of that list.

Where It All Began

The Sistine Chapel is a part of a building complex in Rome within the Vatican City, a place which many people call the center of Christianity in the world, which dates all the way back to Ancient Roman times. The construction of the building was finished in 1481 CE, but just twenty years later, in 1504 CE, a huge crack appeared in the ceiling.

The building had already been built in a truly magnificent and impressive way and contained a ton of artistic additions and carvings. However, repairing the crack that appeared was a chance to take this one step further.

How Long Did It Take Michelangelo To Paint the Sistine Chapel?

The walls of the Sistine Chapel were already covered in beautiful Christian artwork, depicting characters like Jesus and Moses, which had been added to the building by legendary artists like Pietro Perugino and Sandro Botticelli. The pope wanted something different.

At the time, Michelangelo was already having his praising sung across the country of Italy, and indeed most of Europe. His famous piece, the massive Statue of David, was already displayed and out in the public eye in his hometown of Florence, and everyone loved what he did.

The Pope at the time, Pope Julius II, was adamant that Michelangelo was the right man for the job. We’re sure you’ll agree that what he’s achieved is like nothing else on the planet.

Michelangelo Hated Painting the Sistine Chapel

Being talented comes with a price. Michaelangelo learned what he didn't like to do the hard way, all while creating one of the most important painted structures in human history.

So, way back in the day, Pope Julius II ordered Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Michelangelo, being the world-renowned artist that he was, reluctantly obliged, since these were orders, not suggestions. In addition to that, this gig offered no payment, no signage, and no further opportunities to seek paid work through the Catholic church.

If you're thinking that this was a raw deal, and Michelangelo got exploited for his talents, then you're right on the money.

In fact, Michelangelo did not want to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel whatsoever. Michelangelo hated painting, despite being the unbelievably legendary artist that he was.

During the long period of time that Michelangelo took painting the chapel, he wrote multiple passages and poems relating to his work.

In fact, one of these poems was distinctly about how much the artist despised the task at hand.


The original ceiling painting was by Pier Matteo d'Amelia, and had depicted stars over a blue background [5] like the ceiling of the Arena Chapel decorated by Giotto at Padua. [6] For six months in 1504, a diagonal crack in the Sistine Chapel's vault had made the chapel unusable, and Pope Julius II (Giuliano della Rovere) had the damaged painting removed. [5]

Pope Julius II was a "warrior pope" [7] who in his papacy undertook an aggressive campaign for political control to unite and empower Italy under the leadership of the Church. He invested in symbolism to display his temporal power, such as his procession (in the Classical manner), in which he rode a chariot through a triumphal arch after one of his many military victories. It was Julius who began the rebuilding of St Peter's Basilica in 1506, as the most potent symbol of the source of papal power. [8]

Michelangelo left the Battle of Cascina unfinished when Pope Julius II summoned him to Rome in spring 1505 and commissioned him to make his tomb in St Peter's Basilica. [11] [12] [13] Michelangelo and Pope Julius both had hot tempers and soon argued. [12] [13] As Walter Pater wrote, "Michelangelo was now thirty years old, and his reputation was established. Three great works fill the remainder of his life—three works often interrupted, carried on through a thousand hesitations, a thousand disappointments, quarrels with his patrons, quarrels with his family, quarrels perhaps most of all with himself—the Sistine Chapel, the Mausoleum of Julius the Second, and the Sacristy of San Lorenzo". [14] On 17 April 1506 Michelangelo left Rome in secret for Florence, remaining there until the Florentine government pressed him to return to the Pope. [13] In November 1506 he went instead to Bologna and constructed a colossal bronze statue of the Pope conquering the Bolognese. [13] (The Bolognese destroyed the bronze in 1511.) [13] The project of the papal tomb was quietly set aside, [9] to be reinvigorated by the Della Rovere family after his death. [12] [13]

In 1506 Julius II began rebuilding St Peter's Basilica, which engaged his attention and by February 1513, when he died, little work had been done on his tomb. [15] [11] [12] It had been a grand commission, with 40 large figures to be carved. [12] Its original design was never begun. [13] Ultimately Michelangelo finished only three figures for the completed monument of 1545, reduced successively to a series of more modest designs, and built finally in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, including the c.1515 statue of Moses. [15] [12] [11] Two Slaves, the Bearded Slave and the Young Slave, c.1513, are in the Louvre. [15] [11] [12] The tomb commission lasted decades, and Michelangelo lamented, "I have wasted all my youth chained to this tomb." [15] [11] Ascanio Condivi described the affair as the "Tragedy of the Tomb". [13]

In 1506 Pope Julius conceived a programme to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. [16] [ page needed ] The walls of the chapel had been decorated 20 years earlier. The lowest of three levels is painted to resemble draped hangings and was (and sometimes still is) hung on special occasions with a set of tapestries designed by Raphael. The middle level contains a complex scheme of frescoes illustrating the Life of Christ on the right side and the Life of Moses on the left side. It was carried out by some of the most renowned Renaissance painters: Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Pinturicchio, Signorelli and Cosimo Rosselli. [17] The upper level of the walls contains the windows, between which are painted pairs of illusionistic niches with representations of the first 32 popes. [18] It is probable that, because the chapel was the site of regular meetings and Masses of an elite body of officials known as the Papal Chapel (who would observe the decorations and interpret their theological and temporal significance), it was Pope Julius' intention and expectation that the iconography of the ceiling was to be read with many layers of meaning. [19]

The scheme proposed by the pope was for twelve large figures of the Apostles to occupy the pendentives. [20] [21] However, Michelangelo negotiated for a grander, much more complex scheme and was finally permitted, in his own words, "to do as I liked". [22] [a] It has been suggested that the Augustinian friar and cardinal, Giles of Viterbo, was a consultant for the theological aspect of the work. [23] [ page needed ] Many writers consider that Michelangelo had the intellect, the biblical knowledge, and the powers of invention to have devised the scheme himself. This is supported by Ascanio Condivi's statement that Michelangelo read and reread the Old Testament while he was painting the ceiling, drawing his inspiration from the words of the scripture, rather than from the established traditions of sacral art. [24]

In spring 1508, Michelangelo returned to Rome to work on a cycle of frescoes on the vault and upper walls of the Sistine Chapel. [12] [13] Michelangelo, who was not primarily a painter but a sculptor, was reluctant to take on the work he suggested that his young rival Raphael take it on instead. [25] [26] The pope was adamant, leaving Michelangelo no choice but to accept. [27] [ page needed ] The contract was signed on 8 May 1508, with a promised fee of 3,000 ducats. [28] Michelangelo initially sought to engage assistants to speed along the onerous and unwelcome work as quickly as he could, but he was unable to find suitable candidates and painted nearly the whole ceiling alone. [13] Among the Florentine artists whom Michelangelo brought to Rome in the hope of assisting in the fresco, Giorgio Vasari named Francesco Granacci, Giuliano Bugiardini, Jacopo di Sandro, l'Indaco the Elder, Agnolo di Domenico, and Aristotile. [29]

Michelangelo began work in spring 1508, beginning at west end with the Drunkenness of Noah and the Prophet Zechariah and working backwards through the narrative to the Creation of Eve, in the vault's fifth bay and finished in September 1510. [13] The first half of the ceiling was unveiled officially on 15 August 1511 a long hiatus in painting occurred as new scaffolding was made ready. [13] Subsequently the second half of the ceiling's frescoes were done swiftly, and after a preliminary showing and papal Mass on 14 August 1511, [16] [27] the finished work was revealed on 31 October 1512, All Hallows' Eve, [13] [12] being shown to the public by the next day, All Saints' Day. Michelangelo's final scheme for the ceiling included some three hundred figures. [ citation needed ]

After the revelation of the finished Sistine Chapel ceiling at the age of 37, Michelangelo's reputation rose such that was called Michelangelo il divino. [12] [13] From then on, Michelangelo was recognized as the greatest artist of his time, who had elevated the status of the arts themselves, a recognition that lasted the rest of his long life, and his Sistine ceiling has always thereafter counted among the "supreme masterpieces of pictorial art". [11] [13] [15]

Michelangelo's frescoes form the back-story to the 15th century narrative cycles of the lives of Moses and Christ by Perugio and Botticelli on the Chapel's walls. [11] [15] While the main central scenes depict incidents in the Book of Genesis, much debate exists on the multitudes of figures' exact interpretation. [15] [11] The Sistine Chapel's ceiling is a shallow barrel vault around 35 m (118 ft) long and around 14 m (46 ft) broad. [13] The Chapel's windows cut into the vault's curve, producing a row of lunettes alternating with spandrels. [13]

Though Michelangelo claimed he eventually had a free hand in the artistic scheme, this claim was also made by Lorenzo Ghiberti about his monumental bronze doors for the Baptistery of Florence, for which it is known Ghiberti was constrained by stipulations on how the Old Testament scenes should appear and was able to decide merely the forms and number of the picture fields. It is likely that Michelangelo was free to choose forms and presentation of the design, but that the subjects and themes themselves were decided by the patron. [20]

The central, almost flat field of the ceiling is delineated by a fictive architectural cornice and divided into four large rectangles and five smaller ones by five pairs of painted ribs which cut laterally across the central rectangular field. These rectangles, which appear open to the sky, Michelangelo painted with scenes from the Old Testament. [13]

The narrative begins at the Chapel's east end, with the first scene above the altar, focus of the Eucharistic ceremonies performed by the clergy. The small rectangular field directly above the altar depicts the Primal Act of Creation. The last of the nine central fields, at the west end, shows the Drunkenness of Noah below this scene is the door used by the laity. [13] Furthest from the altar, the Drunkenness of Noah represents the sinful nature of man. [13]

Above the cornice, at the four corners of each of the five smaller central fields, are nude male youths, called ignudi, whose precise significance is unknown. [13] [15] [11] Close to the sacred scenes in the uppermost register and unlike the figures of the lower register shown in perspective, they are not foreshortened. [13] They probably represent the Florentine Neoplatonists' view of humanity's ideal Platonic form, without the mar of Original Sin, to which the lower figures are all subject. [13] Kenneth Clark wrote that "their physical beauty is an image of divine perfection their alert and vigorous movements an expression of divine energy". [31]

Below the painted cornice around the central rectangular area is a lower register depicting a continuation of the Chapel's walls as a trompe-l'œil architectural framework against which figures press, with powerful modelling. [13] The figures are drastically foreshortened and are at larger scale than the figures in the central scenes, "creating a sense of spatial disequilibrium". [13]

The ceiling at the Chapel's four corners forms a doubled spandrel painted with salvific scenes from the Old Testament: The Brazen Serpent, The Crucifixion of Haman, Judith and Holofernes, and David and Goliath. [13]

Each of the Chapel's window arches cuts into the curved vault, creating above each a triangular area of vaulting. The arch of each window is separated from the next by these triangular spandrels, in each of which are enthroned Prophets alternating with the Sibyls. [13] [15] [11] These figures, seven Old Testament prophets and five of the Graeco-Roman sibyls, were notable in Christian tradition for their prophesies of the Messiah or the Nativity of Jesus. [13] The lunettes above the windows are themselves painted with scenes of the "purely human" Ancestors of Christ, as are the spaces either side of each window. Their position is both the lowest in the vault and the darkest, in contrast with the airy upper vault. [13]

Interpretation Edit

The overt subject matter of the ceiling is the Christian doctrine of humanity's need for Salvation as offered by God through Jesus. It is a visual metaphor of humankind's need for a covenant with God. The Old Covenant of the Children of Israel through Moses and the New Covenant through Christ had already been represented around the walls of the chapel. [3] Some experts, including Benjamin Blech and Vatican art historian Enrico Bruschini, have also noted less overt subject matter, which they describe as being "concealed" and "forbidden." [32] [ page needed ] [33] [ page needed ]

On the crescent-shaped areas, or lunettes, above each of the chapel's windows are tablets listing the ancestors of Christ and accompanying figures. Above them, in the triangular spandrels, a further eight groups of figures are shown, but these have not been identified with specific biblical characters. The scheme is completed by four large corner pendentives, each illustrating a dramatic Biblical story. [34]

The narrative elements of the ceiling illustrate that God made the World as a perfect creation and put humanity into it, that humanity fell into disgrace and was punished by death and separation from God. Humanity then sank further into sin and disgrace, and was punished by the Great Flood. Through a lineage of ancestors – from Abraham to Joseph – God sent the saviour of humanity, Jesus Christ. The coming of the Saviour was prophesied by Prophets of Israel and Sibyls of the Classical world. The various components of the ceiling are linked to this Christian doctrine. [34] Traditionally, the Old Testament was perceived as a prefiguring of the New Testament. Many incidents and characters of the Old Testament were commonly understood as having a direct symbolic link to some particular aspect of the life of Jesus or to an important element of Christian doctrine or to a sacrament such as Baptism or the Eucharist. Jonah, for example, recognisable by his attribute of a great fish, was commonly seen to symbolize Jesus' death and resurrection. [4] [ page needed ]

Much of the symbolism of the ceiling dates from the early church, but the ceiling also has elements that express the specifically Renaissance thinking that sought to reconcile Christian theology with the philosophy of Renaissance humanism. [35] During the 15th century in Italy, and in Florence in particular, there was a strong interest in Classical literature and the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle and other Classical writers. Michelangelo, as a young man, had spent time at the Platonic Academy established by the Medici family in Florence. He was familiar with early Humanist-inspired sculptural works such as Donatello's bronze David and had himself responded by carving the enormous nude marble David, which was placed in the Piazza della Signoria near the Palazzo Vecchio, the home of Florence's council. [36] The Humanist vision of humanity was one in which people responded to other people, to social responsibility, and to God in a direct way, not through intermediaries, such as the Church. [37] This conflicted with the Church's emphasis. While the Church emphasized humanity as essentially sinful and flawed, Humanism emphasized humanity as potentially noble and beautiful. [ citation needed ] [b] These two views were not necessarily irreconcilable to the Church, but only through a recognition that the unique way to achieve this "elevation of spirit, mind and body" was through the Church as the agent of God. To be outside the Church was to be beyond Salvation. In the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo presented both Catholic and Humanist elements in a way that does not appear visually conflicting. The inclusion of "non-biblical" figures such as the Sibyls or Ignudi is consistent with the rationalising of Humanist and Christian thought of the Renaissance. This rationalisation was to become a target of the Counter Reformation. [ citation needed ]

The iconography of the ceiling has had various interpretations in the past, some elements of which have been contradicted by modern scholarship. [c] Others, such as the identity of the figures in the lunettes and spandrels, continue to defy interpretation. [38] Modern scholars have sought, as yet unsuccessfully, to determine a written source of the theological program of the ceiling and have questioned whether or not it was entirely devised by the artist himself, who was both an avid reader of the Bible and a genius. [39] Also of interest to some modern scholars is the question of how Michelangelo's own spiritual and psychological state is reflected in the iconography and the expression of the ceiling. One such speculation is that Michelangelo was tormented by conflict between his homosexuality and "his profound, almost mystical Catholicism." [ citation needed ] [d]

Michelangelo probably began working on the plans and cartoons for the design from April 1508. [40] The preparatory work on the ceiling was complete in late July the same year and on 4 February 1510 Francesco Albertini recorded Michelangelo had "decorated the upper, arched part with very beautiful pictures and gold". [40] The main design was largely finished in August 1510, as Michelangelo's texts suggest. [40] From September 1510 until February, June, or September 1511 Michelangelo did no work on the ceiling on account of a dispute over payments for work done in August 1510 the Pope left Rome for the Papal States' campaign to reconquer Bologna and despite two visits there by Michelangelo resolution only came months after the Pope's return to Rome in June 1511. On 14 August 1511, Pope Julius held a papal mass in the Chapel and saw the progress of the work so far for the first time. [40] This was the vigil for Assumption Day on 15 August, the patronal feast on the Sistine Chapel. [40] The whole design was revealed to visitors on 31 October 1512 with a formal papal mass the following day, the feast of All Saints. [41] Clerical use of the Chapel continued throughout, exempting when the work on the scaffolding necessitated its closure, and disruption to the rites was minimized by beginning the work at the west end, furthest from the liturgical centre around the altar at the east wall. [40] Debate exists on what sequence the parts of the ceiling were painted in and over how the scaffold that allowed the artists to reach the ceiling was arranged. There are two main proposals.

The majority theory is that the ceiling's main frescoes were applied and painted in phases, with the scaffolding each time dismantled and moved to another part of the room, beginning at the Chapel's west end. [41] The first phase, including the central life of Noah, was completed in September 1509 and the scaffolding removed – only then were the scenes visible from the floor level. [41] The next phase, in the middle of the Chapel, completed the Creation of Eve and the Fall and Expulsion from Paradise. The Cumaean Sibyl and Ezekiel were also painted in this phase. [41] Michelangelo painted the figures at a larger scale than in the previous section this is attributed to the artist's ability to effectively judge the foreshortening and composition from ground level for the first time. [41] The figures of the third phase, at the east end, were at still grander scale than the second the Creation of Adam and the other Creation panels were finished at this stage, which took take place in 1511. [41] The lunettes above the windows were painted last, using a small movable scaffold. [41] In this scheme, proposed by Johannes Wilde, the vault's first and second registers, above and below the fictive architectural cornice, were painted together in stages as the scaffolding moved eastwards, with a stylistic and chronological break westwards and eastwards of the Creation of Eve. [40] After the central vault the main scaffold was replaced by a smaller contraction that allowed the painting of the lunettes, window vaults, and pendentives. [41] This view supplanted an older view that the central vault formed the first part of the work and was completed before work began on the other parts of Michelangelo's plan. [40]

Another theory is that the scaffolding must have spanned the entire Chapel for years at a time. [40] To remove the existing decoration of the ceiling, the entire area had to be accessible for workmen to chisel away the starry sky fresco before any new work was done. [40] On 10 June 1508 the cardinals complained of the intolerable dust and noise generated by the work by 27 July 1508 the process was complete and the corner spandrels of the Chapel had been converted into the doubled-spandrel triangular pendentives of the finished design. [40] Then the frame of the new designs had to be marked out on the surface when frescoeing began this too demanded access to the whole ceiling. [40] This thesis is supported by the discovery during the modern restoration of the exact numbers of the giornate employed in the frescoes if the ceiling was painted in two stages, the first spanning two years and extending to the Creation of Eve and the second lasting just one year, then Michelangelo would have to have painted 270 giornate in the one-year second phase, compared with 300 painted in the first two years, which is scarcely possible. [40] By contrast, if the ceiling's first register – with the nine scenes on rectangular fields, the medallions, and the ignudi – was painted in the first two years, and in the second phase Michelangelo painted only their border in the second register, with the Prophets and Sibyls, then the giornate finished in each year are divided almost equally. [40] Ulrich Pfisterer, advancing this theory, interprets Albertini's remark on "the upper, arched part with very beautiful pictures and gold" in February 1510 as referring only to upper part of the vault – the first register with its nine picture fields, its ignudi, and its medallions embellished with gold – and not to the vault as a whole, since the fictive architectural attic with its prophets and prophetesses were yet to be started. [40]

The scaffolding needed to protect the Chapel's existing wall frescoes and other decorations from falling debris and allow the religious services to continue below, but also to allow in air and some light from the windows below. [40] The Chapel's cornice, running around the room below the lunettes at the springing of the window arches themselves, supported the structure's oblique beams, while the carrying beams were set into the wall above the cornice using putlog holes. [40] This open structure supported catwalks and the movable working platform itself, whose likely stepped design followed the contour of the vault. Beneath was a false-ceiling that protected the Chapel. [40] Though some sun light would have entered the work space between the ceiling and the scaffolding, artificial light would have been required for painting, candlelight possibly influencing the appearance of the vivid colours used. [40]

Michelangelo designed his own scaffold, a flat wooden platform on brackets built out from holes in the wall near the top of the windows, rather than being built up from the floor. Mancinelli speculates that this was in order to cut the cost of timber. [42] According to Michelangelo's pupil and biographer Ascanio Condivi, the brackets and frame that supported the steps and flooring were all put in place at the beginning of the work and a lightweight screen, possibly cloth, was suspended beneath them to catch plaster drips, dust, and splashes of paint. [43] [ page needed ] Only half the room was scaffolded at a time and the platform was moved as the painting was done in stages. [42] The areas of the wall covered by the scaffolding still appear as unpainted areas across the bottom of the lunettes. The holes were re-used to hold scaffolding in the latest restoration. [ citation needed ]

The entire ceiling is a fresco, which is an ancient method for painting murals that relies upon a chemical reaction between damp lime plaster and water-based pigments to permanently fuse the work into the wall. [44] Michelangelo had been an apprentice in the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio, one of the most competent and prolific of Florentine fresco painters, at the time that the latter was employed on a fresco cycle at Santa Maria Novella and whose work was represented on the walls of the Sistine Chapel. [45] [ page needed ] At the outset, the plaster, intonaco, began to grow mould because it was too wet. Michelangelo had to remove it and start again. He then tried a new formula created by one of his assistants, Jacopo l'Indaco, which resisted mould and entered the Italian building and fresco tradition. [43] [ page needed ]

Because he was painting affresco, the plaster was laid in a new section every day, called a giornata. At the beginning of each session, the edges would be scraped away and a new area laid down. [42] The edges between giornate remain slightly visible thus, they give a good idea of how the work progressed. It was customary for fresco painters to use a full-sized detailed drawing, a cartoon, to transfer a design onto a plaster surface—many frescoes show little holes made with a stiletto, outlining the figures. Here Michelangelo broke with convention once confident the intonaco had been well applied, he drew directly onto the ceiling. His energetic sweeping outlines can be seen scraped into some of the surfaces [ citation needed ] , [e] while on others a grid is evident, indicating that he enlarged directly onto the ceiling from a small drawing. [ citation needed ]

Michelangelo painted onto the damp plaster using a wash technique to apply broad areas of colour, then as the surface became drier, he revisited these areas with a more linear approach, adding shade and detail with a variety of brushes. For some textured surfaces, such as facial hair and wood-grain, he used a broad brush with bristles as sparse as a comb. He employed all the finest workshop methods and best innovations, combining them with a diversity of brushwork and breadth of skill far exceeding that of the meticulous Ghirlandaio [ citation needed ] . [f]

The work commenced at the end of the building furthest from the altar, with the latest of the narrative scenes, and progressed towards the altar with the scenes of the Creation. [23] [ page needed ] The first three scenes, from The Drunkenness of Noah, contain smaller figures than the later panels. This is partly because of the subject matter, which deals with the fate of Humanity, but also because Michelangelo underestimated the ceiling's scale. [34] [46] Also painted in the early stages was the Slaying of Goliath. [47] After painting the Creation of Eve adjacent to the marble screen which divided the chapel, [g] Michelangelo paused in his work to move the scaffolding to the other side. After having seen his completed work so far, he returned to work with the Temptation and Fall, followed by the Creation of Adam. [48] [46] As the scale of the work got larger, Michelangelo's style became broader the final narrative scene of God in the act of creation was painted in a single day. [49]

The bright colours and broad, cleanly defined outlines make each subject easily visible from the floor. Despite the height of the ceiling, the proportions of the Creation of Adam are such that when standing beneath it, "it appears as if the viewer could simply raise a finger and meet those of God and Adam". [ citation needed ] Vasari tells us that the ceiling is "unfinished", that its unveiling occurred before it could be reworked with gold leaf and vivid blue lapis lazuli as was customary with frescoes and in order to better link the ceiling with the walls below, which were highlighted with a great deal of gold. But this never took place, in part because Michelangelo was reluctant to set up the scaffolding again, and probably also because the gold and particularly the intense blue would have distracted from his painterly conception. [27] [ page needed ] Michelangelo's patron and the ceiling's commissioner, Pope Julius II, died only months after the ceiling's completion, in February 1513. [41]

According to Vasari and Condivi, Michelangelo painted in a standing position, not lying on his back, as another biographer Paolo Giovio imagined. [50] Vasari wrote: "The work was carried out in extremely uncomfortable conditions, from his having to work with his head tilted upwards". [27] Michelangelo may have described his physical discomfort in a poem, accompanied by a sketch in the margin, which was probably addressed to the humanist academician Giovanni di Benedetto da Pistoia, a friend with whom Michelangelo corresponded. [50] Leonard Barkan compared the posture of Michelangelo's marginalia self-portrait to the Roman sculptures of Marsyas Bound in the Uffizi Gallery Barkan further connects the flayed Marsyas with Michelangelo's purported self-portrait decades later on the flayed skin of St Bartholomew in his Last Judgement but cautions that there is no certainty the sketch represents the process of painting the Chapel ceiling. [51] Michelangelo wrote his poem "I' ho già fatto un gozzo" describing the arduous conditions under which he worked the manuscript is illustrated with a sketch – likely of the poet painting the ceiling:


By the early 16th century, Michelangelo was an esteemed artist known throughout Italy. He was particularly praised for his ability to render&mdashboth in painting and sculpture&mdashfigures with lifelike anatomical features, as evident in his famous David statue from 1504. Given the artist's reputation, it is no surprise that Pope Julius commissioned him to decorate the ceiling of Sistine Chapel, whose walls were already adorned with frescoes by Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Perugino, and other famed artists.

While the pope's plans for the ceiling revolved around a depiction of the 12 apostles, Michelangelo had bigger plans: he would paint several scenes from scripture featuring over 300 figures.

Answer:They give expression to the theme that love helps human beings in their difficult effort to ascend to the divine. In 1534 Michelangelo returned after a quarter century to fresco painting, executing for the new pope, Paul III, the huge Last Judgment for the end wall of the Sistine Chapel.

The model, Lisa del Giocondo, was a member of the Gherardini family of Florence and Tuscany, and the wife of wealthy Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo. The painting is thought to have been commissioned for their new home, and to celebrate the birth of their second son, Andrea.