The Sistine Chapel ceiling (Italian: Soffitto della Cappella Sistina), painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512, is a cornerstone work of High Renaissance art. The ceiling is that of the Sistine Chapel, the large papal chapel built within the Vatican between 1477 and 1480 by Pope Sixtus IV, for whom the chapel is named. It was painted at the commission of Pope Julius II. The chapel is the location for papal conclaves and many other important services.
The ceiling's various painted elements form part of a larger scheme of decoration within the Chapel, which includes the large fresco The Last Judgment on the sanctuary wall, also by Michelangelo, wall paintings by several leading painters of the late 15th century including Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Pietro Perugino, and a set of large tapestries by Raphael, the whole illustrating much of the doctrine of the Catholic Church.
Central to the ceiling decoration are nine scenes from the Book of Genesis, including the famous Creation of Adam. The complex design includes several sets of individual figures, both clothed and nude, which allowed Michelangelo to fully demonstrate his skill in creating a huge variety of poses for the human figure and which have provided an enormously influential pattern book of models for other artists ever since. The ceiling has been restored multiple times, most recently in the late 20th century.
The walls of the Sistine Chapel had been decorated 20 years before Michelangelo's work on the ceiling. 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: Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Pietro Perugino, Pinturicchio, Luca Signorelli and Cosimo Rosselli. The upper level of the walls contains the windows, between which are painted pairs of illusionistic niches with representations of the first 32 popes.
The original ceiling painting was by Pier Matteo d'Amelia, and had depicted stars over a blue background like the ceiling of the Arena Chapel decorated by Giotto at Padua. For six months in 1504, a diagonal crack in the chapel's vault had made the chapel unusable, and Pope Julius II (Giuliano della Rovere) had the damaged painting removed by Piero Roselli, a friend of Michelangelo's. Julius II was a "warrior pope" who in his papacy undertook an aggressive campaign for political control to unite and empower Italy under the leadership of the Catholic Church. He invested in symbolism to display his temporal power, such as his procession, in which he (in the Classical manner) rode a chariot through a triumphal arch after one of his many military victories. Julius II's project to rebuild St. Peter's Basilica would distinguish it as the most potent symbol of the source of papal power; he ultimately demolished and replaced the original basilica with a grander one intended to house his own tomb. The pope summoned Michelangelo to Rome in early 1505 and commissioned him to design his tomb, forcing the artist to leave Florence with his planned Battle of Cascina painting unfinished. By this time, Michelangelo was established as an artist;[a] both he and Julius II had hot tempers and soon argued. On 17 April 1506, Michelangelo left Rome in secret for Florence, remaining there until the Florentine government pressed him to return to the pope.
In 1506, the same year the foundation stone was laid for the new St. Peter's,[b] Julius II conceived a programme to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. 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 Julius II's intention and expectation that the iconography of the ceiling was to be read with many layers of meaning. The scheme proposed by the pope was for twelve large figures of the Apostles to occupy the pendentives. Michelangelo negotiated for a grander, much more complex scheme and was finally permitted, in his own words, "to do as I liked".[c] It has been suggested that Augustinian friar and cardinal Giles of Viterbo could have influenced the ceiling's theological layout. 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 Michelangelo biographer Ascanio Condivi's statement that the artist 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.
On 10 May 1506, Piero Roselli wrote to Michelangelo on behalf of the pope. In this letter, Roselli mentions that papal court architect Donato Bramante doubted that Michelangelo could take on such a large fresco project, as he had limited experience in the medium.[d] According to Bramante, Michelangelo stated his refusal. In November 1506 Michelangelo went to Bologna, where he received a commission from the pope to construct a colossal bronze statue of him conquering the Bolognese.[e] After he completed this in early 1508, Michelangelo returned to Rome expecting to resume work on the papal tomb, but this had been quietly set aside.[f] Michelangelo was instead commissioned for a cycle of frescoes on the vault and upper walls of the Sistine Chapel. 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. The pope was persistent; according to Giorgio Vasari, he was provoked by Bramante to insist that Michelangelo take on the project, leaving him little choice but to accept. The contract was signed on 8 May 1508, with a promised fee of 3,000 ducats (approximately US$600,000 in gold in 2021). At the pope's behest, Bramante built the initial scaffolding, hung via ropes from holes in the ceiling. This method displeased Michelangelo as it would force him to paint around the holes, and he had freestanding scaffolding constructed instead. This was built by Piero Roselli, who subsequently roughcasted the ceiling. Michelangelo initially sought to engage assistants who were more well-versed in fresco-painting, but he was unable to find suitable candidates and determined to paint the whole ceiling alone. Among the Florentine artists whom Michelangelo brought to Rome in the hope of assisting in the fresco, Vasari names Francesco Granacci, Giuliano Bugiardini, Jacopo di Sandro, l'Indaco the Elder, Agnolo di Domenico, and Aristotile.
Michelangelo soon began his work, starting at the 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, finished in September 1510. The first half of the ceiling was unveiled with a preliminary showing on 14 August 1511 and an official viewing the next day. A long hiatus in painting occurred as new scaffolding was made ready. The second half of the ceiling's frescoes were done swiftly, and the finished work was revealed on 31 October 1512, All Hallows' Eve, being shown to the public by the next day, All Saints' Day. Michelangelo's final scheme for the ceiling includes over 300 figures.[g] Vasari states that "When the chapel was uncovered, people from everywhere [rushed] to see it, and the sight of it alone was sufficient to leave them amazed and speechless." At the age of 37, Michelangelo's reputation rose such that he was called il divino, and he was henceforth regarded 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. The ceiling was immediately considered one of the greatest masterpieces of all time, a distinction which continues to endure.
Michelangelo's frescoes form the backstory to the 15th-century narrative cycles of the lives of Moses and Jesus Christ by Perugino and Botticelli on the chapel's walls. While the main central scenes depict incidents in the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, much debate exists on the multitudes of figures' exact interpretation. The Sistine Chapel's ceiling is a shallow barrel vault around 35 metres (118 feet) long and around 14 m (46 ft) broad. The chapel's windows cut into the vault's curve, producing a row of lunettes alternating with spandrels.
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 Florence Baptistery, 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.
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.
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. Furthest from the altar, the Drunkenness of Noah represents the sinful nature of man.
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. Close to the sacred scenes in the uppermost register and unlike the figures of the lower register shown in perspective, they are not foreshortened. 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. Kenneth Clark wrote that "their physical beauty is an image of divine perfection; their alert and vigorous movements an expression of divine energy".
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. The figures are drastically foreshortened and are at larger scale than the figures in the central scenes, which according to Harold Osborne and Hugh Brigstocke creates "a sense of spatial disequilibrium".
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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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."
The main scheme of the ceiling illustrates God creating the perfect world prior to creating humanity, which causes its own fall into disgrace and is punished by being made mortal; humanity then sinks further into sin and disgrace, and is punished by the Great Flood. The ceiling's creation narrative ends with Noah's drunkenness, which Jesuit theologian John W. O'Malley says could be interpreted as focusing on the separation of Gentiles from Jews as the chosen people. Then, through a lineage of ancestors – from Abraham to Joseph – God sends the saviour of humanity, Jesus, whose coming is claimed in the New Testament to have been prophesied by prophets of Israel (to whom Michelangelo adds sibyls of the Classical world) and whose second coming the same artist returned to paint on the altar wall in his Last Judgment. The prophet Jonah, recognizable over the altar by the great fish beside him,[Fig 1] is cited by Jesus in the gospels as being related to his own coming death and resurrection,[Src 1] which Staale Sinding-Larsen says "activates the Passion motif". In the Gospel of John, moreover, Jesus compares his being raised (i.e. his crucifixion) to Moses lifting the Brazen Serpent[Src 2] to heal Israelites from fiery serpent bites;[Src 3] the latter is painted on the pendentive above the altar to the left, opposite the Punishment of Haman, depicted as a crucifixion instead of a hanging.
Of the three Twelve Minor Prophets depicted on the ceiling, O'Malley discusses Jonah and Zechariah as carrying a particular significance. In addition to Jonah's connection to Jesus, O'Malley points out that he is a spokesman to the Gentiles. Zechariah prophesied that the Messiah would arrive on a donkey.[Src 4] His place in the chapel is directly above the doorway across from the altar, through which the pope is carried in procession on Palm Sunday, the day on which Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem.
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. 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. The humanist view of spirituality was that it is rooted in human nature and independent from intermediaries such as the Church, which emphasized humanity as essentially sinful and flawed. A synthesis, with man dignified and created in God's image, was epitomised by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man, which was referenced in sermons given at the papal court.
The iconography of the ceiling has had various interpretations in the past, some elements of which have been contradicted by modern scholarship.[h] Others, such as the identity of the figures in the lunettes and spandrels, continue to defy interpretation. 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 Michelangelo, who was both an avid reader of the Bible and is considered to be a genius. Art historian Anthony Bertram argues that the artist expressed his inner turmoil in the work, saying: "The principal opposed forces in this conflict were his passionate admiration for classical beauty and his profound, almost mystical Catholicism, his [presumed] homosexuality, and his horror of carnal sin combined with a lofty Platonic concept of love."
Edgar Wind postulated that the ten medallions represented violations of the Ten Commandments, with the obscured one above the Persian Sibyl standing for adultery. O'Malley points out that, if this is the case, the infractions of the commandments are arranged out of order.
Michelangelo probably began working on the plans and sketches for the design from April 1508. The preparatory work on the ceiling was complete in late July the same year and on 4 February 1510, Francesco Albertini recorded that Michelangelo had "decorated the upper, arched part with very beautiful pictures and gold". The main design was largely finished in August 1510, as Michelangelo's texts suggest. 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, Julius held a papal mass in the chapel and saw the progress of the work so far for the first time. This was the vigil for Assumption Day on 15 August, the Sistine Chapel's patronal feast. The whole design was revealed to visitors on 31 October 1512 with a formal papal mass the following day, the feast of All Saints. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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 place in 1511. The lunettes above the windows were painted last, using a small movable scaffold. 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. After the central vault the main scaffold was replaced by a smaller contraption that allowed the painting of the lunettes, window vaults, and pendentives. 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.
Another theory is that the scaffolding must have spanned the entire chapel for years at a time. 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. 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. 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. 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 yearlong second phase, compared with 300 painted in the first two years, which is scarcely possible. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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. Though some sunlight 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.
Restoration overseer Fabrizio Mancinelli speculates that Michelangelo may have only installed scaffolding platforms in one half of the room at a time to cut the cost of timber and to allow light to pass through the uncovered windows. According to 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.[page needed] The areas of the wall covered by the scaffolding still appear as unpainted areas at the base of the lunettes.
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. 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. At the outset, the plaster, intonaco, began to grow mildew or mould because it was too wet. When Michelangelo despaired of continuing, the pope sent Giuliano da Sangallo, who explained how to remove the fungus. Because Michelangelo 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.
The work commenced at the end of the building furthest from the altar with the last chronological part of the narrative and progressed towards the altar with the scenes of the Creation. The first three scenes, from The Drunkenness of Noah, contain crowded compositions of smaller figures than other panels, evidently because Michelangelo misjudged the ceiling's size. Also painted in the early stages was the Slaying of Goliath. After painting the Creation of Eve adjacent to the marble screen which divided the chapel,[i] 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. 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.
According to Vasari, the ceiling was unveiled before it could be reworked with a secco and gold to give it "a finer appearance" as had been done with the chapel's wall frescoes. Both Michelangelo and Pope Julius II wanted these details to be added, but this never took place, in part because Michelangelo did not want to rebuild the scaffolding; he also argued that "in those days men did not wear gold, and those who are painted ... were holy men who despised wealth." Julius II died only months after the ceiling's completion, in February 1513.
According to Vasari and Condivi, Michelangelo painted in a standing position, not lying on his back, as another biographer, Paolo Giovio, imagined. Vasari wrote: "These frescos were done with the greatest discomfort, for he had to stand there working with his head tilted backwards." 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. 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 Judgment but cautions that there is no certainty the sketch represents the process of painting the chapel ceiling. 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:
I’ ho già fatto un gozzo in questo stento,
I've grown a goitre by dwelling in this den–
|—№ 5. "A Giovanni quel propio da Pistoia"||—№ 5: To Giovanni a Pistoia – On the Painting of the Sistine Chapel,|
trans. John Addington Symonds, 1878
The Sistine Chapel is 40.9 m (134 ft) long and 14 m (46 ft) wide. The ceiling rises to 13.4 m (44 ft) above the main floor of the chapel. The vault is of quite a complex design and it is unlikely that it was originally intended to have such elaborate decoration.
The chapel walls have three horizontal tiers with six windows in the upper tier down each side. There were also two windows at each end, but these have been closed up above the altar when Michelangelo's Last Judgment was painted, obliterating two lunettes. Between the windows are large pendentives which support the vault. Between the pendentives are triangularly shaped arches or spandrels cut into the vault above each window. Above the height of the pendentives, the ceiling slopes gently without much deviation from the horizontal.
The first element in the scheme of painted architecture is a definition of the real architectural elements by accentuating the lines where spandrels and pendentives intersect with the curving vault. Michelangelo painted these as decorative courses that look like sculpted stone mouldings.[j] These have two repeating motifs, a formula common in Classical architecture.[k] Here, one motif is the acorn, the symbol of the family of both Pope Sixtus IV, who built the chapel, and Pope Julius II, who commissioned Michelangelo's work.[l] The other motif is the scallop shell, one of the symbols of the Madonna, to whose Assumption the chapel was dedicated in 1483.[m] The crown of the wall then rises above the spandrels, to a strongly projecting painted cornice that runs right around the ceiling, separating the pictorial areas of the biblical scenes from the figures of prophets, sibyls, and ancestors, who literally and figuratively support the narratives. Ten broad painted cross-ribs of travertine cross the ceiling and divide it into alternately wide and narrow pictorial spaces, a grid that gives all the figures their defined place.
A great number of small figures are integrated with the painted architecture, their purpose apparently purely decorative. These include pilasters with capitals supported by pairs of infant telamones, rams' skulls are placed at the apex of each spandrel like bucrania; bronze nude figures in varying poses, hiding in the shadows, propped between the spandrels and the ribs like animated bookends; and more putti, both clothed and unclothed, strike a variety of poses as they support the nameplates of the Prophets and Sibyls. Above the cornice and to either side of the smaller scenes are an array of medallions, or round shields. They are framed by a total of 20 more figures, the so-called ignudi, which are not part of the architecture but sit on plinths, their feet planted convincingly on the fictive cornice. Pictorially, the ignudi appear to occupy a space between the narrative spaces and the space of the chapel itself.
See also: Gallery of Sistine Chapel ceiling
Along the central section of the ceiling, Michelangelo depicted nine scenes from the Book of Genesis, organized into three groups of three related scenes. The scenes alternate between smaller and larger pictures, with the former framed by two pairs of ignudi flanking a medallion. The first group depicts God creating the Heavens and the Earth. The second group shows God creating the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, and their disobedience of God and consequent expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The third group shows the plight of humanity and in particular the family of Noah.
The pictures within the three groups link to one another, in the same way as was usual in Mediaeval paintings and stained glass.[n] The nine scenes are oriented to be viewed while facing the altar, chronologically unfolding towards the chapel entrance (except for the second and third scenes, and the seventh and eighth, which are each transposed).[Src 5] John T. Paoletti and Gary M. Radke suggest that this reversed progression symbolises a return to a state of grace. The scenes, from the altar towards the main door, are as follows:
The three creation pictures show scenes from the first chapter of Genesis, which relates that God created the Earth and its inhabitants in six days, resting on the seventh day. In the first scene, the First Day of Creation, God creates light and separates light from darkness.[Fig 2] Chronologically, the next scene takes place in the third panel, in which, on the Second Day, God divides the waters from the heavens.[Fig 3] In the central scene, the largest of the three, there are two representations of God: on the Third Day, God creates the Earth and makes it sprout plants; on the Fourth Day, God puts the Sun and the Moon in place to govern the night and the day, the time and the seasons of the year.[Fig 4][o]
These three scenes, completed in the third stage of painting, are the most broadly conceived, the most broadly painted and the most dynamic of all the pictures. Of the first scene Vasari says, "Michelangelo depicted God dividing the light from the darkness ... where He is seen in all His majesty as He sustains Himself alone with open arms in a demonstration of love and creative energy."
Further information: The Creation of Adam
For the central section of the ceiling, Michelangelo took four episodes from the story of Adam and Eve as told in the first, second and third chapters of Genesis. In this sequence of three, two of the panels are large and one small.
In the first of the pictures, one of the most widely recognized images in the history of painting, Michelangelo shows God reaching out to touch Adam. Vasari describes Adam as "a figure whose beauty, pose, and contours are of such a quality that he seems newly created by his Supreme and First Creator rather than by the brush and design of a mere mortal." From beneath the sheltering arm of God, Eve looks out somewhat apprehensively. Correspondingly, Adam reaches out to the creator, who Walter Pater states "comes with the forms of things to be, woman and her progeny, in the fold of his garment". Pater wrote of the depiction of Adam in the Creation:
Fair as the young men of the Elgin marbles, the Adam of the Sistine Chapel is unlike them in a total absence of that balance and completeness which express so well the sentiment of a self-contained, independent life. In that languid figure there is something rude and satyr-like, something akin to the rugged hillside on which it lies. His whole form is gathered into an expression of mere expectation and reception; he has hardly strength enough to lift his finger to touch the finger of the creator; yet a touch of the finger-tips will suffice.
The central scene, of God creating Eve from the side of the sleeping Adam[Fig 5] has been taken in its composition directly from another creation sequence, the relief panels that surround the door of the Basilica of San Petronio, Bologna, by Jacopo della Quercia, whose work Michelangelo had studied in his youth. In the final panel of this sequence, Michelangelo combines two contrasting scenes into one panel,[Fig 6] that of Adam and Eve taking fruit from the forbidden tree (a fig and not an apple tree as commonly depicted in Western Christian art), Eve trustingly taking it from the hand of the Serpent (depicted as Lilith) and Adam eagerly picking it for himself, as well as their banishment from the Garden of Eden, where they have lived in the company of God, to the world outside where they have to fend for themselves and experience death.[Src 7]
As with the first sequence of pictures, the three panels concerning Noah, taken from the sixth to ninth chapters of Genesis are thematic rather than chronological. In the first scene is shown the sacrifice of a sheep.[Fig 7] Both Vasari and Condivi mistake this scene for the sacrifices by Cain and Abel, in which Abel's sacrifice was acceptable to God and Cain's was not. What this image almost certainly depicts is the sacrifice made by the family of Noah, after their safe deliverance from the Great Flood which destroyed the rest of humanity.
The central, larger, scene shows the Great Flood.[Fig 8] The Ark in which Noah's family escaped floats at the rear of the picture while the rest of humanity tries frantically to scramble to some point of safety. citation needed][
The final scene is the story of Noah's drunkenness.[Fig 9] After the Flood, Noah tills the soil and grows vines. He is shown doing so in the background of the picture. He becomes drunk and inadvertently exposes himself. His youngest son, Ham, brings his two brothers Shem and Japheth to see the sight but they discreetly cover their father with a cloak. Ham is later cursed by Noah and told that the descendants of Ham's son Canaan will serve Shem and Japheth's descendants forever.[Src 8]
Since Michelangelo executed the nine Biblical scenes in reverse chronological order, some analyses of the frescoes of the vault commence with the Drunkenness of Noah. Tolnay's Neoplatonic interpretation sees the story of Noah at the beginning and the act of creation by God as the conclusion of the process of deificatio and the return from physical to spiritual being.
Adjacent to the smaller Biblical scenes in the first register and supported by the paired ignudi are ten medallions. Each is decorated with a picture drawn from the Old Testament.
Michelangelo's obscure Old Testament themes were adapted from the wood-cut illustrations of the 1490 Malermi Bible, the first Italian-language Bible named after its translator Nicolò Malermi. In four of the five most highly finished medallions the space is crowded with figures in violent action, similar to Michelangelo's cartoon for the Battle of Cascina.
The medallions represent:
Section references[page needed]
On the five pendentives along each side and the two at either end, Michelangelo painted the largest figures on the ceiling: twelve people who prophesied a Messiah. These twelve are seven male prophets of Israel and five Sibyls, prophetesses of classical mythology. The Prophet Jonah is placed above the altar and the Zechariah at the further end. The other male and female figures alternate down each long side, each being identified by an inscription on a painted marble tablet supported by a putto.
Seven prophets of Israel are depicted on the ceiling, including the four so-called major prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel – and three of the Twelve Minor Prophets: Joel, Zechariah, and Jonah. The Book of Joel prophesies the triumph of Judah over its enemies, and includes the words, "Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams [and] your young men shall see visions."[Src 9] Zechariah was the first Prophet to be painted.
In Vasari's description of the Prophets and Sibyls he is particularly high in his praise of Isaiah:[Fig 19] "... anyone who examines this figure will see details taken from Nature herself, the true mother of the art of painting, and will see a figure that with close study can in broad terms teach all the precepts of good painting."
The Sibyls were prophetic women who were resident at shrines or temples throughout the Classical world. The papal court generally regarded antiquity as setting the stage for Christianity. For example, the Cumaean Sibyl is quoted by 1st-century BC Roman poet Virgil in his Fourth Eclogue as declaring that "a new progeny of Heaven" would bring about a return of the "Golden Age". Many people during the Renaissance interpreted this as foretelling the birth of Jesus.
There was an increasing interest in the remains of Rome's pagan past within the Catholic Church; scholars had turned from reading Mediaeval ecclesiastical Latin texts to classical Latin and the philosophies of the Classical world were studied along with the writings of St Augustine. Thus, the presence of five pagan prophets in the Sistine Chapel is not surprising.
It is not known why Michelangelo selected the five particular Sibyls that were depicted, given that there were ten possibilities. O'Malley suggests that the four besides the Cumaean Sibyl were selected for a wide geographic coverage, as they come from Africa, Asia, Greece and Ionia.
Vasari says of the Erythraean Sibyl:[Fig 15] "This figure is extraordinarily beautiful owing to the expression of its face, the arrangement of its hair, and the style of its garments, not to mention its bare arms, which are as beautiful as the rest of the body."
In each corner of the chapel is a triangular pendentive filling the space between the walls and the arch of the vault and forming a doubled spandrel above the windows nearest the corners. On these curving shapes Michelangelo has painted four scenes from Biblical stories that are associated with the salvation of Israel by four great male and female heroes of the Jews: Moses, Esther, David and Judith. The first two stories were both seen in Mediaeval and Renaissance theology as prefiguring the Crucifixion of Jesus. The other two stories, those of David and Judith, were often linked in Renaissance art, particularly by Florentine artists as they demonstrated the overthrow of tyrants, a popular subject in the Republic.
In the Book of Esther, it is related that Haman, a public servant, plots to get Esther's husband, the king of Persia, to slay all the Jewish people in his land. The king, who is going over his books during a sleepless night, realizes something is amiss. Esther, discovering the plot, denounces Haman, and her husband orders his execution on a scaffold he has built. The king's eunuchs promptly carry this out.[Src 10] Michelangelo shows Haman crucified (instead of hung as in the original story) with Esther looking at him from a doorway and the king giving orders in the background.[Fig 23] The composition shows Haman at the table with Esther, as well as being crucified. Mordechai sits on the steps, linking the scenes.
In the story of the Brazen Serpent, the people of Israel become dissatisfied and grumble at God. As punishment, they receive a plague of venomous snakes. God offers the people relief by instructing Moses to make a snake of brass and set it up on a pole, the sight of which gives miraculous healing.[Src 3] The composition is crowded with figures and separate incidents as the various individuals who have been attacked by snakes struggle and die or turn toward the icon that will save them. This is the most Mannerist of Michelangelo's earlier compositions at the chapel, citation needed][
Writing in the 19th century, English art critic John Ruskin compares The Brazen Serpent[Fig 24] favourably to the canonical classical statue group Laocoön and His Sons, which Michelangelo saw upon its discovery in 1506. Both works are crowded compositions of figures attacked by supernatural reptiles: the "fiery serpents" of the book of Numbers and the sea monsters of Virgil's Aeneid. Ruskin states that he prefers the sublimity expressed by Michelangelo's "gigantic intellect" in "the grandeur of the plague itself, in its multitudinous grasp, and its mystical salvation" and his "awfulness and quietness" to the "meagre lines and contemptible tortures of the Laocoön" and argued that "the grandeur of this treatment results, not merely from choice, but from a greater knowledge and more faithful rendering of truth". Attacking the sculpture's unnaturalistic snakes as "pieces of tape with heads to them" and criticizing the unrealistic struggle, he praises the painting
in the rendering of these circumstances; the binding of the arms to the body, and the knotting of the whole mass of agony together, until we hear the crashing of the bones beneath the grisly sliding of the engine folds. Note also the expression in all the figures of another circumstance, the torpor and cold numbness of the limbs induced by the serpent venom, which, though justifiably over-looked by the sculptor of the Laocoön, as well as by Virgil – in consideration of the rapidity of the death by crushing, adds infinitely to the power of the Florentine's conception.
Judith and Holofernes depicts the episode in the Book of Judith. As Judith loads the enemy's head onto a basket carried by her maid and covers it with a cloth, she looks towards the tent, apparently distracted by the limbs of the decapitated corpse flailing about.[Fig 25] The composition is vertically split, not unlike the Punishment of Haman at the opposite corner of the chapel.
In David and Goliath, the shepherd boy, David, has brought down the towering Goliath with his sling, but the giant is alive and is trying to rise as David forces his head down to chop it off.[Fig 26] David and Goliath is a relatively simple composition, with the two protagonists centrally placed and the only other figures being background observers.
Either side of the chapel has six windows, as well as two closed windows at the rear, and two above the altar which were covered by The Last Judgment. Above each window is an arched shape, referred to as a lunette. Above each of the eight most central side lunettes is a triangular spandrel (topped by symmetrical pairs of bronze nudes); the other six lunettes are below the corner pendentives. These regions link the walls and the ceiling; the figures painted on them are intermediate in size (approximately 2 m tall), between the very large prophets on the ceiling and the much smaller papal portraits which had been painted on either side of each window in the 15th century. Michelangelo chose the ancestors of Christ as the subject of these images, thus juxtaposing Jesus' physical lineage with the popes, his spiritual successors according to the Church.
Centrally placed above each window is a faux marble tablet with a decorative frame. On each is painted the names of the male line by which Jesus, through his earthly father, Joseph, is descended from Abraham, according to the Gospel of Matthew.[Src 11][q] However, the genealogy is now incomplete, since the two lunettes of the windows in the altar wall were destroyed by Michelangelo when he returned to the chapel in 1537 to paint The Last Judgment. Only engravings, based on a drawing that has since been lost, remain of them.[Fig 27] The sequence of tablets seems somewhat erratic as one plaque has four names, most have three or two, and two plaques have only one. Moreover, the progression moves from one side of the building to the other, but not consistently, and the figures the lunettes contain do not coincide closely with the listed names. These figures vaguely suggest various family relationships; most lunettes contain one or more infants, and many depict a man and a woman, often sitting on opposing sides of the painted plaque that separates them. O'Malley describes them as "simply representative figures, almost ciphers".
Because of the constraints of the triangular shape, in each spandrel the figures are seated on the ground. citation needed] Of the two remaining, one shows a woman with shears trimming the neck of a garment she is making while her toddler looks on.[Fig 28] The Biblical woman who is recorded as making a new garment for her child is Hannah, the mother of Samuel, whose child went to live in the temple; the male figure in the background is wearing a distinctive hat that might suggest that of a priest.[Src 12] [Fig 29][
Michelangelo's depiction of the genealogy of Jesus departs from an artistic tradition for this topic that was common in the Middle Ages, especially in stained-glass windows. This so-called Tree of Jesse shows Jesse lying prone and a tree growing from his side with the ancestors on each branch, in a visual treatment of a biblical verse.[Src 13]
The figures in the lunettes appear to be families, but in every case they are families that are divided. The figures in them are physically divided by the name tablet but they are also divided by a range of human emotions that turn them outward or in on themselves and sometimes towards their partner with jealousy, suspicion, rage or simply boredom. In them Michelangelo has portrayed the anger and unhappiness of the human condition, painting, in Andrew Graham-Dixon's words, "the daily round of merely domestic life as if it were a curse". In their constraining niches, Gabriele Bartz and Eberhard König say, the ancestors "sit, squat and wait". Of the 14 lunettes, the two that were probably painted first, the families of Eleazar and Mathan and of Jacob and his son Joseph are the most detailed. They become progressively broader towards the altar end, one of the last being painted in only two days.[r]
The Eleazar and Mathan lunette contains two figures with a wealth of costume detail that is not present in any other lunette.[Fig 30] citation needed] in contrast to the similarly executed ignudi.[
Prior to restoration, of all the paintings in the chapel, the lunettes and spandrels were the dirtiest. Added to this, there has always been a problem of poor daytime visibility of the panels nearest the windows because of halination, the effect of bright areas blurring over less bright ones. citation needed][
The ignudi[s] are the 20 athletic, nude males that Michelangelo painted as supporting figures at each corner of the five smaller creation scenes on the ceiling, each pair enclosing a medallion supported by ribands above the Prophets and Sibyls. The figures hold or are draped with or lean on a variety of items which include ribbons, pillows, and enormous garlands of acorns.[l]
The ignudi are seated in greatly varying postures and are mostly decorate, giving Michelangelo room to express himself at will. O'Malley compares them to sculptures of Atlas or Michelangelo's Slaves from Julius II's tomb. citation needed][
Some have suggested that the ignudi could represent angels, similar to cherubs; Michelangelo later included over forty angels in The Last Judgment, which it has been claimed resemble the ignudi.
citation needed] In their reflection of classical antiquity they resonate with Pope Julius's aspirations to lead Italy towards a new 'age of gold'; at the same time, they staked Michelangelo's claim to greatness. Contrarily, a number of critics were angered by their presence and nudity, including Pope Adrian VI, who wanted the ceiling stripped.[
The poses of the ignudi were copied by other Renaissance artists, including Bartolommeo Bandinelli and the workshop of Raphael (for The Baptism of Constantine).
Michelangelo was the artistic heir to the great 15th-century sculptors and painters of Florence. He learned his trade first under the direction of a masterly fresco painter, Domenico Ghirlandaio, known for two great fresco cycles in the Sassetti Chapel and Tornabuoni Chapel, and for his contribution to the cycle of paintings on the walls of the Sistine Chapel. As a student Michelangelo studied and drew from the works of the some of the most renowned Florentine fresco painters of the early Renaissance, including Giotto and perhaps Masaccio. Masaccio's figures of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden had a profound effect on the depiction of the nude in general, and in particular on the use of the nude figure to convey human emotion.[Fig 31] Helen Gardner says that in the hands of Michelangelo, "the body is simply the manifestation of the soul, or of a state of mind and character."
Michelangelo was also almost certainly influenced by the paintings of Luca Signorelli, whose paintings, particularly the Death and Resurrection Cycle in Orvieto Cathedral, contain a great number of nudes and inventive figurative compositions.[Fig 32] In Bologna, Michelangelo saw the relief sculptures of Jacopo della Quercia around the Porta Magna of the minor basilica. In Michelangelo's depiction of the Creation of Eve the whole composition, the form of the figures and the relatively conservative concept of the relationship between Eve and her Creator adheres closely to Jacopo's design.[page needed] Other panels on the ceiling, most particularly the iconic Creation of Adam show "... unprecedented invention".[page needed]
Older depictions of the creation scenes had depicted God as mostly immobile, a static, enthroned image whose activity was indicated by a gesture of the hand, as in the creation scenes of the mediaeval Byzantine-style mosaics of Monreale Cathedral. Michelangelo, influenced by the Paradiso of Dante Alighieri, shows God in full-bodied movement, an innovation Giovanni di Paolo had made in his Creation and Expulsion from Paradise. Paolo Uccello also had shown some movement in his scene of the creation of Adam and Eve in the cloister of Santa Maria Novella. In di Paolo's painting, as in Michelangelo's fresco, God is accompanied and apparently carried aloft by attendant putti. Raphael employed movement somewhat more in his contemporary The Prime Mover, next door to the Sistine Chapel in the stanza della segnatura and painted 1509–11; Perugino's slightly earlier Creator in fresco, in the room named for Raphael's Incendio del Borgo, shows a seated, static divinity.
The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was to have a profound effect upon other artists, even before it was completed. Vasari, in his "Life of Raphael", tells us that Bramante, who had the keys to the chapel, let Raphael in to examine the paintings in Michelangelo's absence; on seeing Michelangelo's prophets, Raphael went back to the picture of Isaiah that he was painting on a column in the Church of Sant'Agostino and, although it was finished, he scraped it off the wall and repainted it in a much more powerful manner in imitation of Michelangelo. O'Malley points out that even earlier than the Isaiah is Raphael's inclusion of the figure of Heraclitus in the School of Athens, a brooding figure similar to Michelangelo's Jeremiah, but with the countenance of Michelangelo himself, and leaning on a block of marble.[Fig 33]
citation needed] Bartz and König have said of the ignudi, "There is no image that has had a more lasting effect on following generations than this. Henceforth similar figures disported themselves in innumerable decorative works, be they painted, formed in stucco or even sculpted."[
In January 2007, it was claimed that as many as 10,000 visitors passed through the Vatican Museums in a day, double the quantity of the previous decade.
Main article: Restoration of the Sistine Chapel frescoes
The main panels of the ceiling had been so aged by candle smoke as to make their colors significantly muted. After preliminary tests taking place in 1979, the ceiling was restored between 1980 and 1992. The first stage of restoration, the work upon Michelangelo's lunettes, was performed between June 1980 October 1984. The work then proceeded to the ceiling, completed on 31 December 1989, and from there to The Last Judgment. The restoration was unveiled by Pope John Paul II on 8 April 1994.
The restoration of the ceiling was directed by Fabrizio Mancinelli and performed by Gianluigi Colalucci, Maurizio Rossi, Pier Giorgio Bonetti, and Bruno Baratti. The restoration has removed the filter of grime to reveal colours closer to the paintings at the time of their completion. The ceiling now appears to depict daytime scenes and a springlike atmosphere with bright saturated colours.[t] The restoration was met with both praise and criticism. Critics assert that much original work by Michelangelo – in particular pentimenti, highlights and shadows, and other detailing painted a secco – was lost in the removal of various accretions.[Fig 29]
In 2007, the Vatican, anxious at the possibility that the newly restored frescoes would suffer damage, announced plans to reduce visiting hours and raise the price in an attempt to discourage visitors.
This work has been and truly is the beacon of our art, and it has brought such benefit and enlightenment to the art of painting that it was sufficient to illuminate a world which for so many hundreds of years had remained in the state of darkness. And, to tell the truth, anyone who is a painter no longer needs to concern himself about seeing innovations and inventions, new ways of painting poses, clothing on figures, and various awe-inspiring details, for Michelangelo gave to this work all the perfection that can be given to such details.— Vasari, "Life of Michelangelo"
Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.
It seems that Michelangelo, in his own way, allowed himself to be guided by the evocative words of the Book of Genesis which, as regards the creation of the human being, male and female, reveals: "The man and his wife were both naked, yet they felt no shame". The Sistine Chapel is precisely – if one may say so – the sanctuary of the theology of the human body. In witnessing to the beauty of man created by God as male and female, it also expresses in a certain way, the hope of a world transfigured, the world inaugurated by the Risen Christ.— Pope John Paul II
In a world where all experience was based in the glorious lost past of Antiquity, he made a new beginning. Michelangelo, more even than Raphael or Leonardo, embodies a standard of artistic genius which reveals a radically changed image of human beings and their potential ...[page needed]— Gabriele Bartz and Eberhard König
The art critic and television producer Waldemar Januszczak wrote that when the Sistine Chapel ceiling was recently cleaned, he "was able to persuade the man at the Vatican who was in charge of Japanese TV access to let me climb the scaffold while the cleaning was in progress."
I sneaked up there a few times. And under the bright, unforgiving lights of television, I was able to encounter the real Michelangelo. I was so close to him I could see the bristles from his brushes caught in the paint; and the mucky thumbprints he'd left along his margins. The first thing that impressed me was his speed. Michelangelo worked at Schumacher pace. ... I also enjoyed his sense of humour, which, from close up, turned out to be refreshingly puerile. If you look closely at the angels who attend the scary prophetess on the Sistine ceiling known as the Cumaean Sibyl, you will see that one of them has stuck his thumb between his fingers in that mysteriously obscene gesture that visiting fans are still treated to today at Italian football matches.
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