1500 – 1600
End of the Renaissance and the Reformation

Michelangelo's Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel


Michelangelo, Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, fresco, 1508-1512 (Vatican City, Rome)
Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker


Sistine Chapel Ceiling (center only)
Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel Ceiling (center only), 1508-12 (Vatican, Rome)
 
Sistine Chapel, photo: Patrick LandyVisiting the Chapel
To any visitor of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, two features become immediately and undeniably apparent: 1) the ceiling is really high up, and 2) there are a lot of paintings up there.
 
Because of this, the centuries have handed down to us an image of Michelangelo lying on his back, wiping sweat and plaster from his eyes as he toiled away year after year, suspended hundreds of feet in the air, begrudgingly completing a commission that he never wanted to accept in the first place.
 
Fortunately for Michelangelo, this is probably not true. But that does nothing to lessen the fact that the frescoes, which take up the entirety of the vault, are among the most important paintings in the world.

A reconstruction of the appearance of the chapel in the 1480s, prior to the painting of the ceiling.For Pope Julius II
Michelangelo began to work on the frescoes for Pope Julius II in 1508, replacing a blue ceiling dotted with stars. Originally, the pope asked Michelangelo to paint the ceiling with a geometric ornament, and place the twelve apostles in spandrels around the decoration.
 
Right: reconstruction of the chapel prior Michelangelo's frescos
 
Michelangelo proposed instead to paint the Old Testament scenes now found on the vault, divided by the fictive architecture that he uses to organize the composition.  
 
Diagram of Sistine Chapel 
The subject of the frescoes
The narrative begins at the altar and is divided into three sections. In the first three paintings, Michelangelo tells the story of The Creation of the Heavens and Earth; this is followed by The Creation of Adam and Eve and the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden; finally is the story of Noah and the Great Flood.
 
Ignudi, or nude youths, sit in fictive architecture around these frescoes, and they are accompanied by prophets and sibyls (ancient seers who, according to tradition, foretold the coming of Christ) in the spandrels. In the four corners of the room, in the pendentives, one finds scenes depicting the Salvation of Israel.
  
Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1508-12
Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1508-12
 
The Deluge 
Although the most famous of these frescoes is without a doubt, The Creation of Adam, reproductions of which have become ubiquitous in modern culture for its dramatic positioning of the two monumental figures reaching towards each other, not all of the frescoes are painted in this style. In fact, the first frescoes Michelangelo painted contain multiple figures, much smaller in size, engaged in complex narratives. This can best be exemplified by his painting of The Deluge.
 Michelangelo, The Deluge, c. 1508-9Michelangelo, The Deluge, Sistine Chapelceiling, c. 1508-09
 
Michelangelo, Deluge (detail), Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1508-12In this fresco, Michelangelo has used the physical space of the water and the sky to separate four distinct parts of the narrative. On the right side of the painting, a cluster of people seeks sanctuary from the rain under a makeshift shelter. On the left, even more people climb up the side of a mountain to escape the rising water. Centrally, a small boat is about to capsize because of the unending downpour. And in the background, a team of men work on building the arc—the only hope of salvation.

Up close, this painting confronts the viewer with the desperation of those about to perish in the flood and makes one question God’s justice in wiping out the entire population of the earth, save Noah and his family, because of the sins of the wicked. Unfortunately, from the floor of the chapel, the use of small, tightly grouped figures undermines the emotional content and makes the story harder to follow. 
 
Michelangelo, Sistine Ceiling (detail), photo: Dennis JarvisMichelangelo, Sistine Chapel ceiling, 1508-12, creation scenes, photo: Dennis Jarvis 

A shift in style
In 1510, Michelangelo took a yearlong break from painting the Sistine Chapel. The frescoes painted after this break are characteristically different from the ones he painted before it, and are emblematic of what we think of when we envision the Sistine Chapel paintings. These are the paintings, like The Creation of Adam, where the narratives have been paired down to only the essential figures depicted on a monumental scale. Because of these changes, Michelangelo is able to convey a strong sense of emotionality that can be perceived from the floor of the chapel. Indeed, the imposing figure of God in the three frescoes illustrating the separation of darkness from light and the creation of the heavens and the earth radiates power throughout his body, and his dramatic gesticulations help to tell the story of Genesis without the addition of extraneous detail.
 
Michelangelo, The Delphic Sibyl, Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1508-12 The Sibyls
This new monumentality can also be felt in the figures of the sibyls and prophets in the spandrels surrounding the vault, which some believe are all based on the Belvedere Torso, an ancient sculpture that was then, and remains, in the Vatican’s collection. One of the most celebrated of these figures is the Delphic Sibyl (right).
 
The overall circular composition of the body, which echoes the contours of her fictive architectural setting, adds to the sense of the sculptural weight of the figure.
 
Her arms are powerful, the heft of her body imposing, and both her left elbow and knee come into the viewer’s space. At the same time, Michelangelo imbued the Delphic Sibyl with grace and harmony of proportion, and her watchful expression, as well as the position of the left arm and right hand, is reminiscent of the artist’s David.
 
Michelangelo, Libyan Sibyl, ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, 1508-12The Libyan Sibyl (right) is also exemplary. Although she is in a contorted position that would be nearly impossible for an actual person to hold, Michelangelo nonetheless executes her with a sprezzatura (a deceptive ease) that will become typical of the Mannerists who closely modelled their work on his.
 
Raphael, School of Athens, 1509-11 (detail of Heraclitus, based on Michelangelo)It is no wonder that Raphael, struck by the genius of the Sistine Chapel, rushed back to his School of Athens in the Vatican Stanze and inserted Michelangelo’s weighty, monumental likeness sitting at the bottom of the steps of the school.
 
Raphael, School of Athens, 1509-11, Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican (detail of Heraclitus, whose features are based on Michelangelo's, and whose complex seated pose is based on the prophets and sibyls from Michelangelo's frescos on the Sistine Chapel ceiling) 
 
Legacy 
Michelangelo completed the Sistine Chapel in 1512. Its importance in the history of art cannot be overstated. It turned into a veritable academy for young painters, a position that was cemented when Michelangelo returned to the chapel twenty years later to execute the Last Judgment fresco on the altar wall.
 
The chapel recently underwent a controversial cleaning, which has once again brought to light Michelangelo’s jewel-like palette, his mastery of chiaroscuro, and additional iconological details which continue to captivate modern viewers even five hundred years after the frescoes’ original completion. Not bad for an artist who insisted he was not a painter.
 
Essay by Christine Zappella

View of Sistine Chapel, photo: Patrick Landy

Your Comments (4)

Previous Comments

Ann Albritton wrote on Wednesday, February 03, 2010

I'm loving using some of your 'talks' in my survey class this semester... Will you be attending CAA? Would love to chat.

Beth Harris wrote on Sunday, April 25, 2010

Thanks Ann! Will drop you an email - would love to hear how you are using Smarthistory in teaching.

Dana Howard wrote on Friday, August 06, 2010

Am loving the second life! I am building an online AP Art History class and using Smarthistory and Voice Threads to take it off the page. Thanks for the great work!

Debbie Graham wrote on Saturday, January 01, 2011

The image is a reference to the Gospel of John--remember the church and the followers of the Christian faith would except the concept of the logos existing next to God before Creation (John:1). We cannot interpret the symbolism with the eyes of 20th/ 21st century secularism that has discarded the religion and theology. One must also remember the religious influences that have acted directly and indirectly on Michelangelo. Savonarola was a firery evangelist who preached in Florence while Michelangelo was there. His burning of the art and speeches against the humanism of the ancient Greeks left an impression on the young Michelangello that we see reflected in his late Pieta and the Last Judgement. And while he wins the discussion for the design of the ceiling he is also given a Cardinal to assist him theologically. If you review his notebooks he discusses these things in letters to his father.

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