Sistine Chapel Paintings Revealed, 1512

by on March 5th, 2011
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When Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the artist was not a happy man. He had done some work with frescoes, certainly, but he considered himself to be more of a sculptor than a painter. In fact, he suspected that his enemies had conspired to get him the post, hoping that he would fail and disgrace himself.

It sounds a little paranoid, but there may well have been some truth to the idea. Michelangelo was recommended for the job by Donato Bramante, the chief architect of St. Peter’s Bascilica. Bramante was a friend of the painter Raphael — or at any rate, he liked him better than he did Michelangelo — and Raphael was Michelangelo’s chief rival in the artistic community of Rome.

Michelangelo tried to refuse the commission, but the Pope wouldn’t allow it. Michelangelo had been commissioned to create the sculptures for Pope Julius’s tomb, and that’s what he was really eager to get back to. But the Pope kept dragging him away from it for other projects, the ceiling gig being just one of them. In the end, Michelangelo kept working on the tomb project for 40 years — off and on, of course — and it ended up being a much smaller tomb than had been originally proposed. Even so, it one of Michelangelo’s best sculptures, his Moses, was a part of the project.

But if Michelangelo ever wanted to get back to his sculpture, he needed to do this ceiling first, so he got the project underway. He had a lot to learn; he wasn’t all that familiar with frescoes, after all, and he had to figure out some interesting questions regarding perspective. After all, the paintings would be painted on a curved ceiling, and viewed from 65 feet below.

He also needed to figure out how to get up there. Bramante the architect designed a scaffold suspended by ropes that descended from holes in the ceiling. Michelangelo laughed when it saw it, and asked what the painter was supposed to do with the holes in the ceiling. Bramante didn’t have an answer.

When Michelangelo complained to the Pope, he told him to figure it out himself, so he built a flat wooden platform held up by brackets. If you look carefully at the picture above, you can see an unpainted area (under the figures’ feet) where the scaffolding was located.
The Pope’s plan was for Michelangelo to paint 12 figures — the apostles — against a dark blue sky filled with golden stars. Michelangelo didn’t think that was very interesting, and campaigned for a more ambitious project. The Pope finally told him to “do as [he] liked.” When it was finished, the ceiling incorporated more than 300 figures. It took him four years to finish.

We tend to think of Michelangelo as alone on that scaffold, lying on his back to paint the ceiling. Actually, he did have assistants, who at least prepared the plaster for the day’s painting and mixed the paint. How much more they did is not really known, for Michelangelo tried to promote the image of himself as a solitary painter. To be fair, he didn’t really work well with others. A lot of his assistants got fired.

He didn’t lie down to paint either. He stood upright, with his head bent back and paint dripping in his face. It was most uncomfortable, and he drew a sketch and wrote a little comic verse that goes, in part, like this:

“I’ve grown a goitre by dwelling in this den —
As cats from stagnant streams in Lombardy,
Or in what other land they hap to be —
Which drives the belly close beneath the chin.

My beard turns up to heaven; my nape falls in,
Fixed on my spine: my breast-bone visibly
Grows like a harp: a rich embroidery
Bedews my face from brush-strokes thick and thin…”

The Sistine Chapel itself is a rather plain building, architecturally. Its interior measures 40.9 meters by 13.4 meters — the exact dimensions of the Temple of Solomon as described in the Old Testament. It had been built between 1473 and 1481, and had already been decorated with frescoes of the lives of Moses and Christ, as well as papal portraits and other decoration. The ceiling, before Michelangelo started work, was a plain dark blue with gold stars.

The ceiling was in the shape of a somewhat flattened barrel vault. On the lowest part of the ceiling Michelangelo painted the ancestors of Christ. On the next level above that, he displayed alternating male and female prophets (the sybils). Jonah had the place of honor over the altar. In each corner there are four scenes of Biblical stories. Elsewhere, there are 20 portraits of nude males, possibly angels.

The central portion of the ceiling was divided into nine panels, depicting nine scenes from the Book of Genesis. The first three depict God’s creation of the world. The middle three depict the creation and fall of Adam and Eve. The third three tell the story of Noah.

Even before it was completed, Michelangelo’s paintings on the Sistine Chapel began to influence other painters. Bramante, it seems, used his key to let his friend Raphael in to see the paintings before the work was finished. Raphael, who was working on a picture of the Prophet Isaiah at another church, went back and scraped it off the wall to repaint it in a much bolder style — much like Michaelangelo’s. (See picture above.)

The Pope was another visitor who chose to sneak a peek before the work was finished, even climbing up onto the scaffolding to do so. As it neared completion, he hurried Michelangelo to finish. As a result, Michelangelo uncovered it before he considered it finished. It was first made public on November 1, 1512.

Apparently, all that was lacking were a few final touches with ultramarine and gold. Later on, the Pope reconsidered, and wanted Michelangelo to add them, but Michelangelo, who really had no desire to assemble the scaffolding again, managed to talk him out of it. Richness and gold, he argued, were not appropriate to the lives of the people depicted.

For the work, Michelangelo received 3,000 ducats, out of which he spent about 20 to 25 ducats for materials. He signed his work, as “Michelangelo the sculptor.” He also left a self-portrait. On one of the corner pendetives is a depiction of the story of Judith and Holofernes. The severed head of Holofernes is in the likeness of Michelangelo.

Sources: Chase’s Calendar of Events, 2011 Edition: The Ultimate Go-To Guide for Special Days, Weeks, and Months, Editors of Chase’s Calendar of Events; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/November_1; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sistine_Chapel_ceiling; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sistine_Chapel; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michelangelo;
http://www.rome.info/michelangelo/sistine-chapel/; http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/michelangelo.htm; http://www.sacred-destinations.com/italy/rome-sistine-chapel; http://www.svcc.edu/academics/classes/murray/Ezine/sistine.html; http://www.reidsitaly.com/destinations/lazio/rome/sights/vatican_sistine.html; http://www.michelangelo-gallery.com/the-sistine-chapel-ceiling.aspx.


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