The Sistine Chapel Ceiling

When I visited Rome in the summer, one of the most amazing experiences was walking into the Sistine Chapel and just looking up. Despite the fact that the chapel was rammed with people and the scary security guards kept yelling at people to be quiet, seeing the beautiful frescoes by Michelangelo was just mind blowing, and an experience I will never forget.

The frescoes by Michelangelo tell the story of God’s creation of the world as can be read in the book of Genesis, and the panel’s show God’s creation of man, their fall from grace and the story of the Great Flood as man’s punishment for their sins. It should be noted however that not all the panels are in the correct order; and Michelangelo also brings in other figures from elsewhere in the bible.

In 1505, Michelangelo was called to Rome. He was already an incredibly famous artist thanks to his brilliant sculptures. But he wasn’t actually called to Rome to begin painting the ceiling. He was actually commissioned by Pope Julius II to build him a magnificent tomb. And Michelangelo took to the task with gusto and huge enthusiasm, spending over 8 months in the quarries of Carrara to chose the best blocks of marble.

Michelangelo became obsessed with the tomb, and for a long time it was all he thought about. The plans for the tomb became more and more grand and Michelangelo’s obsession probably started to annoy the Pope who was concentrating more on the rebuilding of St Peters Basilica. And as Julius became more obsessed with the church, he refused to give Michelangelo any more money for the tomb and dismissed the artist from the papal court. He was back in Florence in May 1506, and though bitterly disappointed never lost his enthusiasm for Julius’ tomb and it was eventually built many years after Julius’ death though it was much, much smaller than the original plan.

It was Julius II who came up with the idea of painting the Sistine chapel ceiling, as the original was rather outdated and didn’t fit in with the other paintings on the chapel walls. And in 1508, Michelangelo was the man chosen to repaint the ceiling. There are stories that Michelangelo’s rival Bramante suggested Michelangelo as a suitable candidate for the task, hoping to embarrass him. After all, Michelangelo was first and foremost a sculptor and had never proven himself as a fresco painter. In the end it would be Bramante who would be the one with the red face. On the 10th May 1508, Michelangelo wrote in his diary:

“I record that today, May 10 1508, I, Michelangelo sculptor, have received on account from our Holy Lord Pope Julius II five hundred papal ducats counted by Messer Carlino (of the chamber) and Messer Carlo degli Albrizzi, towards the painting of the vault of Pope Sixtus on which I am beginning to work today, upon the conditions and agreements that appear in thee writings of the most reverend Monsignor of Pavia (Francesco Alidosi), and signed in my own hand”

Michelangelo was original contracted to paint the twelve apostles, who were to be seated on thrones. There were to be five on each side of the chapel and one at each end. The rest of the ceiling would be painting geometrically and conventionally. But Michelangelo scrapped this idea and said that “they would turn our poorly”. He decided that Julius’ plan was too simple, too boring and it wouldn’t use enough of his talents (especially his talent of showing the human form unclothed). Instead he began a much more complicated idea which ended up with him painting over 300 human figures and it allowed him a huge artistic outlet that reflected his own deep religious feelings.

The ceiling is made up of nine panels, depicting the stories from Genesis. The first three panels near the altar show the creation of the world by God, the next three show the creation of Adam and Eve and their fall from Grace and the last three show the story of Noah. The Noah panels are painted in reverse order, starting with the drunkenness of Noah and moving backwards. Surrounding the main panels are an assortment of complicated stories, all taken from the bible. Below are pictures of each of the panels:

The Division of Light from Darkness

The Creation of the Sun and Moon
The Separation of the Sky and the Water
The Creation of Adam
The Creation of Eve
The Fall and the Expulsion
The Flood
Noah’s Sacrifice
The Drunkenness of Noah

Dotted around the panels are other panels showing other stories from the bible such as David and Goliath and The Prophet Jonah. With David and Goliath, Michelangelo shows the story at its end, when David is beheading the giant; and with Jonah you can see the Prophet about to be eaten by the whale (or fish as the bible states). An interesting point about the painting of Jonah is that Michelangelo painted it from a vantage point less than a metre away from the wall when he was up on his scaffold; and when you look at the painting one wonders how on earth he did it.

David and Goliath
The Prophet Jonah
The Prophet Daniel
The Prophet Isaiah
The ceiling was finished in 1512, four years after it was started; and was unveiled at the vigil of All Saints Day on 31st October. Michelangelo once more entered the Sistine Chapel in 1536 and painted the famous Last Judgement (quite possibly my favourite of his works of art). 
Michelangelo died on 18th February 1564 at the age of nearly 90. Originally buried in Rome, his body was smuggled out of Rome by his nephew and taken to Florence and buried in the church of Santa Croce. His paintings in the Sistine chapel had already become the stuff of legend, and the genius workmanship would be appreciated for many hundreds of years to come. Of course, the work is still the stuff of legend; and thousands upon thousands of people walk through the Sistine Chapel every day just to glimpse these remarkable frescoes..
Further Reading

This entry was posted in michelangelo, pope julius ii, renaissance italy, sistine chapel. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Sistine Chapel Ceiling

  1. Anonymous says:

    Lovely! I've always wanted to visit. But plane tickets are so horribly expensive from the states. Thanks for sharing your travel adventures and photos. When I was looking at the pic of the panel for the sun and moon, I didn't at first see the moon off to the side. I just saw the man's butt. I was thinking what a sense of humor Michelangelo had. Silly me for not looking more. Oops!

  2. Mat Rees says:

    Very nice article

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