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Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Ceiling

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In 1508 CE the Pope commissioned the celebrated Florentine sculptor and painter Michelangelo (1475-1564 CE) to paint scenes on the ceiling of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel. The walls of the chapel had already received decoration from some of the greatest of Renaissance artists, but in four years of toil, Michelangelo would outshine them all with his ambition and technical skill, producing one of the defining works of Western art of any century. The multi-panelled ceiling shows the story of Genesis from the Creation to Noah and the Great Flood. Essentially, the scenes show the creation of humanity, its fall from grace, and ultimate redemption.

The Commission

The Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Palace complex in Rome was commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV (r. 1474-1481 CE). The building was only completed c. 1481 CE but the development of a massive crack in the ceiling in 1504 CE required a repair job that also offered an opportunity to add yet more artwork to an already impressive art-packed interior. What was required was a work to match the excellence of the wall frescoes showing scenes from the lives of Jesus Christ and Moses, which had been created by such masters as Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510 CE) and Pietro Perugino (c. 1450-1523 CE). One man then stood above all others in the art world, an artist already celebrated for his paintings and sculpture, especially for his massive 1504 CE statue of David, which now stood in the open air of his hometown Florence. This man was Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti, and Pope Julius II (r. 1503-1513 CE) was determined to get him for the job.

While the work was ongoing, Michelangelo let no one see its progress, not even the Pope who was impatient to see the job finished.

Design & Technique

Julius II and Michelangelo had already joined forces when the artist had been commissioned to produce the Pope's tomb. This project, begun in March 1505 CE, had not been a smooth-running one. Patron and artist had quarrelled over the grandiose design that once included 40 marble statues. Contracts were rewritten several times, the design made less and less ambitious, and the work dragged on far beyond the timescale originally envisaged. At one point, Michelangelo described the project as 'the tragedy of the tomb' and he eventually left Rome; his pupils would later finish the job.

In this context, it is easy to see why Michelangelo was far from keen on another project with the Pope, but he finally accepted the most challenging commission of his illustrious career. The contract was signed in May 1508 CE with the commission being to replace the current Sistine Chapel ceiling, which had a painted blue sky and stars. Instead, the project was now to paint figures of the 12 apostles at the sides of the ceiling and fill in the interior with architectural motifs. Michelangelo, however, soon scrapped these plans and went for something much more ambitious, entirely covering a ceiling that measures 39 x 13.7 metres (128 x 45 ft.) and offers an area of nearly 800 square metres.

Over the next four years, the master would work largely alone and very often in an uncomfortable position on top of a bridge-like scaffolding he himself had designed to realise his vision in paint. As the artist progressed, so he moved along the scaffolding from the entrance to his final destination, the altar wall. While the work was ongoing, the artist would let no one see its progress, not even the Pope who was impatient to see the job finished.

In comparison to other similar works of the period, the ceiling was completed remarkably quickly. The frescoes are painted in very bright colours, sometimes in quite large patches. Further, to aid the viewer who must stand several metres below, Michelangelo used the technique of contrasting colours next to each other. This makes some colours appear even brighter than they are and creates a shadow effect, reducing the need for darker and lighter shades of the same colour, a technique that would not be appreciated when viewed from the chapel floor. The artist also uses foreshortening and perspective techniques, fully aware that the intended audience for his work would be looking at the scenes from far below.

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The Story of Genesis

The ceiling is an almost overwhelming assembly of Christian imagery. Along the sides of the ceiling are seven prophets and five sibyls, which alternate. According to the Christian tradition, both these groups foretold the coming of Jesus Christ. The five sibyls are representations of those from Delphi, Cumae, Libya, Persia, and Erythrae. The seven prophets are Jonah, Daniel, Isaiah, Zechariah, Joel, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Jonah is worth a special mention, as, appearing above the altar and seen with the big fish that swallowed him, Michelangelo has shown the figure seemingly falling backwards, an effect only accentuated by the fact that this particular area of the ceiling bulges forward. Such tricks of perspective can be seen in multiple figures across the ceiling.

Also around the edges, above the windows in the semicircular lunettes, are depictions of the traditional ancestors of Christ. The four larger corner panels contain scenes showing David and Goliath, and Judith and Holofernes at the entrance end, with the Death of Haman, and Moses and the Brazen Serpent at the altar end. The outer edges of the ceiling have slim sections of painted sky to create the illusion that the ceiling contains openings to the outside.

There are nine main central panels running the length of the ceiling. The panels themselves are created by an architectural framework and alternate in two sizes. These panels show a cycle of episodes from the Bible's book of Genesis, narrating the Creation to the time of Noah. Interestingly, the creation of Eve is the central panel, not the creation of Adam, although this may simply be because the scenes are chronological, starting from the altar wall. However, a more convincing argument for Eve's presence in the centre in a work so obviously well-thought-out by the creator is that Eve is being presented as the equivalent or archetype of the Virgin Mary, to whom the Sistine Chapel is dedicated.

Although the chronology of the biblical story begins at the altar wall, in order to view the scenes the right way up, one must face the altar. Consequently, when one enters the room and walks towards the altar, one is actually seeing the story happen in reverse, an intentional rewind effect that returns the viewer back to the point of Creation. At the corners of each of the main panels are four ignudi figures, nudes which have nothing whatsoever to do with the religious narrative but which show Michelangelo's love of boldly rendered figures in dramatic poses. In order, as viewed first from the chapel entrance, the panels are:

  • The Drunkenness of Noah
  • The Great Flood
  • The Sacrifice of Noah
  • Adam & Eve's Temptation and Expulsion from Paradise
  • The Creation of Eve
  • The Creation of Adam
  • God's Separation of Land from Water
  • The Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Planets
  • God Separates Light from Darkness

There is still some discussion amongst experts regarding the precise identification of some figures. For example, the sacrifice of Noah may in fact be the sacrifice of Abel. The latter interpretation would better fit the chronology of the ceiling as a whole and match the commentaries of Michelangelo's early biographers. At the same time, the relation between Noah and Adam is recognised and reinforced by the artist. The two men have parallel stories as progenitors of humanity and as having fallen from grace. This duplication in events is reflected in Michelangelo's choice to represent Adam and Noah with strikingly similar reclining poses in the panels the Creation of Adam and the Drunkenness of Noah.

The sheer energy of the Creation panels is impressive. The determined face of God, his bent knees, and his swirling robes give ample sign of the force required to create the Sun and planets, which he seems to be hurling into their orbits with his outstretched arms. The Sun is an interesting detail when seen close-up and would easily fit into any impressionist painting. The Creation of Adam panel again has God as a vibrant powerful figure at ease in his element while Adam, in contrast, is shown in a languid pose awaiting a life-giving energy from his maker. The crucial moment when the two fingers touch, just about to happen next in the scene, is given yet more force by the total absence of background features, a veritable chasm between two worlds.

The scale gets bigger and the figures given more space within the panel as one moves from Noah to those panels with God alone, giving another sense of growth and energy to the viewer's experience. By the time we get to the final panel, which is, of course, the first, God has been rendered with much less precision and, almost featureless, he has become a writhing figure of pure energy.


The work was an immediate success with almost everyone who saw it but there were some rumblings of discontent. The main objection was the amount of nudity and particularly the depiction of genitalia in a handful of figures. This did not stop Michelangelo later being commissioned to paint the entirety of one wall of the chapel with his version of the Last Judgement. Worked on from 1536 to 1541 CE, this fresco was even more controversial than the ceiling. That Jesus did not have his conventional beard and looked a bit younger than usual as well as the appearance of yet more nudity particularly angered some members of the clergy.

In terms of artistic technique, Michelangelo's work in the Sistine Chapel was an important step forward in the development of Western art and was studied by artists throughout the 16th century CE. In the longer measure of subsequent centuries, Michelangelo's work has been appreciated for what it is, the masterpiece of a great artist at the very peak of his powers. The ceiling's central vision of God amongst the clouds reaching out to touch the finger of Adam has become one of the most reproduced images of all time, and the chapel remains one of Italy's most visited attractions.

In the late 20th century CE the ceiling was given a thorough cleaning to remove centuries of smoke residue and dust, which had obscured the fresco behind a thick black mist. A solution was delicately applied using cotton swabs and, little by little, Michelangelo's once-vibrant colouring was returned to its former shining glory.

Visiting the Chapel

Figure 2. The interior of the Sistine Chapel showing the ceiling in relation to the other frescoes.

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.

Michelangelo, Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel

This is it. The moment all Christians await with both hope and dread. This is the end of time, the beginning of eternity when the mortal becomes immortal, when the elect join Christ in his heavenly kingdom and the damned are cast into the unending torments of hell. What a daunting task: to visualize the endgame of earthly existence – and furthermore, to do so in the Sistine Chapel, the private chapel of the papal court, where the leaders of the Church gathered to celebrate feast day liturgies, where the pope’s body was laid in state before his funeral, and where—to this day—the College of Cardinals meets to elect the next pope.

Historical & pictorial contexts

Titian, Portrait of Pope Paul III, c. 1543, oil on canvas, 113.3 x 88.8 cm (Museo di Capodimonte, Naples)

The composition

Michelangelo, Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel, altar wall, fresco, 1534-1541 (Vatican City, Rome)

Christ, Mary, and Saints (detail), Michelangelo, Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel, altar wall, fresco, 1534-1541 (Vatican City, Rome)

Angels (detail), Michelangelo, Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel, altar wall, fresco, 1534-1541 (Vatican City, Rome)

The elect (those going to heaven)

The dead rise from their graves and float to heaven, some assisted by angels. In the upper right, a couple is pulled to heaven on rosary beads, and just below that a risen body is caught in violent tug of war (detail), Michelangelo, Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel, altar wall, fresco, 1534-1541 (Vatican City, Rome) fresco, 1534-1541 (Vatican City, Rome)

The damned (those going to hell)

Demons drag the damned to hell, while angels beat down those who struggle to escape their fate (detail), Michelangelo, Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel, altar wall, fresco, 1534-1541 (Vatican City, Rome)

Charon drives the damned onto hell’s shores and in the lower right corner stands the ass-eared Minos (detail), Michelangelo, Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel, altar wall, fresco, 1534-1541 (Vatican City, Rome)

In the company of Christ

Left: St. John the Baptist right: St. Peter (detail), Michelangelo, Last Judgment, altar wall, Sistine Chapel, fresco, 1534-1541 (Vatican City, Rome)

While such details were meant to provoke terror in the viewer, Michelangelo’s painting is primarily about the triumph of Christ. The realm of heaven dominates. The elect encircle Christ they loom large in the foreground and extend far into the depth of the painting, dissolving the boundary of the picture plane. Some hold the instruments of their martyrdom: Andrew the X-shaped cross, Lawrence the gridiron, St. Sebastian a bundle of arrows, to name only a few.

Especially prominent are St. John Baptist and St. Peter who flank Christ to the left and right and share his massive proportions (above). John, the last prophet, is identifiable by the camel pelt that covers his groin and dangles behind his legs and, Peter, the first pope, is identified by the keys he returns to Christ. His role as the keeper of the keys to the kingdom of heaven has ended. This gesture was a vivid reminder to the pope that his reign as Christ’s vicar was temporary—in the end, he too will to answer to Christ.

In the lunettes (semi-circular spaces) at the top right and left, angels display the instruments of Christ’s Passion , thus connecting this triumphal moment to Christ’s sacrificial death. This portion of the wall projects one foot forward, making it visible to the priest at the altar below as he commemorates Christ’s sacrifice in the liturgy of the Eucharist.

Lunette with angels carrying the instruments of the Passion of Christ, (detail), Michelangelo, Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel, fresco, 1534-1541 (Vatican City, Rome)

Critical response: masterpiece or scandal?

Shortly after its unveiling in 1541, the Roman agent of Cardinal Gonzaga of Mantua reported: “The work is of such beauty that your excellency can imagine that there is no lack of those who condemn it. . . . [T]o my mind it is a work unlike any other to be seen anywhere.” Many praised the work as a masterpiece. They saw Michelangelo’s distinct figural style, with its complex poses, extreme foreshortening, and powerful (some might say excessive) musculature, as worthy of both the subject matter and the location. The sheer physicality of these muscular nudes affirmed the Catholic doctrine of bodily resurrection (that on the day of judgment, the dead would rise in their bodies, not as incorporeal souls).

Left: Apollo Belvedere, Right: Christ (detail), Michelangelo, Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel, fresco, 1534-1541 (Vatican City, Rome)

A self-portrait

St. Bartholomew (detail), Michelangelo, Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel, fresco, 1534-1541 (Vatican City, Rome)

An epic painting

Like Dante in his great epic poem, The Divine Comedy , Michelangelo sought to create an epic painting, worthy of the grandeur of the moment. He used metaphor and allusion to ornament his subject. His educated audience would delight in his visual and literary references.

Clockwise: Saint Blaise, Saint Catherine and Saint Sebastian (detail), Michelangelo, Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel, fresco, 1534-1541 (Vatican City, Rome)


It was Pope Julius II who chose Michelangelo Buonarroti to decorate the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Michelangelo completed the decoration of the ceilings in just 4 years.

Initially it should have only realized the figures of the 12 Apostles, but at the end of the work there were more than 300 figures painted by the artist.

The beginning of the works was very slow because Michelangelo had never painted frescoes before the Sistine Chapel. The difficulties were even greater because the surface was curved and he had to learn the "secrets" of perspective.

Some believe that Michelangelo painted lying on his back but it is not true because he had devised a scaffolding system to make work easier.

In addition to the frescoes of the ceiling, the work of Michelangelo's most famous and appreciated Sistine Chapel is the Last Judgment, painted between 1535 and 1541.

In the last years of Michelangelo's life the scandal broke out in the Vatican for his paintings of completely naked men and women.
In 1564, the year in which he died, the censorship law was approved for his frescoes.

The artist Daniele da Volterra was commissioned to cover nudity with some clothes. Today it is possible to admire the original fresco because after some restorations the censures were removed.

Sistine Chapel

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Sistine Chapel, papal chapel in the Vatican Palace that was erected in 1473–81 by the architect Giovanni dei Dolci for Pope Sixtus IV (hence its name). It is famous for its Renaissance frescoes by Michelangelo.

The Sistine Chapel is a rectangular brick building with six arched windows on each of the two main (or side) walls and a barrel-vaulted ceiling. The chapel’s exterior is drab and unadorned, but its interior walls and ceiling are decorated with frescoes by many Florentine Renaissance masters. The frescoes on the side walls of the chapel were painted from 1481 to 1483. On the north wall are six frescoes depicting events from the life of Christ as painted by Perugino, Pinturicchio, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Cosimo Rosselli. On the south wall are six other frescoes depicting events from the life of Moses by Perugino, Pinturicchio, Botticelli, Domenico and Benedetto Ghirlandaio, Rosselli, Luca Signorelli, and Bartolomeo della Gatta. Above these works, smaller frescoes between the windows depict various popes. For great ceremonial occasions the lowest portions of the side walls were covered with a series of tapestries depicting events from the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. These were designed by Raphael and woven in 1515–19 at Brussels.

The most important artworks in the chapel are the frescoes by Michelangelo on the ceiling and on the west wall behind the altar. The frescoes on the ceiling, collectively known as the Sistine Ceiling, were commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1508 and were painted by Michelangelo in the years from 1508 to 1512. They depict incidents and personages from the Old Testament. The Last Judgment fresco on the west wall was painted by Michelangelo for Pope Paul III in the period from 1534 to 1541. These two gigantic frescoes are among the greatest achievements of Western painting. A 10-year-long cleaning and restoration of the Sistine Ceiling completed in 1989 removed several centuries’ accumulation of dirt, smoke, and varnish. Cleaning and restoration of the Last Judgment was completed in 1994.

As the pope’s own chapel, the Sistine Chapel is the site of the principal papal ceremonies and is used by the Sacred College of Cardinals for their election of a new pope when there is a vacancy.

Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel is one of the most famous and ornate churches in all of Europe. The masterpiece of Renaissance art, known as the Cappella Sistina in Italian, is a part of the Apostolic Palace, the Pope's official residence in Vatican City. Over the years, the expansive space has been the site of Papal Conclaves, Masses, and tours.

This resplendent chapel in the Vatican, part of the Vatican Museums, is open to visit most days, provided it's not a holiday. One ticket allows access over the course of five days to the Sistine Chapel as well as to the Historical Museum and the Papal Apartments. Special rates are available for children and students.

Along with self-directed tours, you can book guided tours that combine a visit to the chapel along with the Tapestry Gallery, Pio Clementino Museum, Gallery of the Candelabras, Gallery of the Geographical Maps, and the Raphael Rooms. Separate garden and art tours are offered along with those detailing the history of the Sistine Chapel.

Rome Map

It's perfectly fine to secure tickets once you've arrived at the Sistine Chapel in Rome, because plenty are available. Whether you plan to explore on your own or with a guide, you'll have the chance to see one of the world's treasures. The history of Sistine Chapel stretches back to the fifteenth century when Pope Sixtus IV oversaw a team of painters who restored a medieval hall called the Cappella Magna. Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Pietro Perugino created frescoes depicting the lives of Moses and Christ.

The most famous chapter in the history of the Sistine Chapel began a few decades later when Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to repaint the vault. Originally painted as stars on a blue sky, the Sistine Chapel ceiling was transformed into a work of art through the vision and hard work of the master.

The Sistine Chapel in Rome, thanks to Michelangelo, is one of the finest and grandest examples of Renaissance art, along with Raphael's portraits and the Mona Lisa. The enigmatic masterpiece from Leonardo da Vinci is now the Louvre Museum in France. Several of Michelangelo's scenes were inspired by the book of Genesis, including the iconic "Creation of Adam," in which the man reaches out for the hand of God. Other paintings depict the prophets of the Bible and Rome, the genealogy of Jesus, and a host of other small details that are worthy of your attention.

The "Last Judgment," another signature work of art at the Sistine Chapel in Rome, was painted on the altar wall. Michelangelo's massive fresco was completed in 1541, nearly 30 years after the ceiling.

A vital chapter in the history of the Sistine Chapel is much more recent. Restoration of the Sistine Chapel, completed nearly 500 years after Michelangelo transformed the space, has restored the paintings to their original splendor. Centuries of dullness were carefully stripped away, revealing the bright colors the painter knew well. The ceilings and the frescoes, including "The Last Judgment" became even more brilliant.

In addition to the Sistine Chapel, there is much for the faithful, history buffs, and art lovers to experience in the Vatican and surrounding Rome. Saint Peter's Square, the Basilica of St. Peter, and liturgical events draw many to sovereign enclave. The list of Rome's cultural attractions includes sites that have been important for millennia. The Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, Roman roads, and countless museums are just a few places to begin.

Summons by the Pope

In 1503 a new pope was appointed: the very worldly Pope Julius II, a self-declared lover of power, war, and art. Under his rule, Rome came to resemble a magnificent salon with a host of artists and architects at work on different projects. The precocity of the young Michelangelo—who, at Julius’s accession was sculpting the astonishing 17-foot-high “David” in Florence—reached the ears of the pontiff. In 1505 Julius summoned him to Rome to work on his future tomb, a commission that soon extended into a remodeling of St. Peter’s Basilica itself.

Conspiracy Theory

Michelangelo wrote: “All the discords that arose between Pope Julius and me were owing to the envy of Bramante [Pope Julius’s chief architect] and of [the painter] Raphael.” Ascanio Condivi, Michelangelo’s first biographer, had a different theory: Bramante put forward Michelangelo’s name to paint the Sistine ceiling, but did so out of spite, calculating that when Michelangelo began to paint, his lack of expertise would be exposed and his career ended. Giorgio Vasari, in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, also follows this argument. Michelangelo was dubious of his abilities as a painter, so the theory may not be far-fetched. History has shown, however, that Bramante’s tactic spectacularly backfired.

The papal tomb, which Michelangelo biographer Andrew Graham-Dixon has called “a megalomaniac fantasy, an obscene monument to ego, pride, and power,” was nonetheless a plum commission. After a run-in with the pope over non-payment for materials, however, Michelangelo left Rome in disgust. Julius, realizing his mistake, insisted that the artist continue working for him and ordered him back to work on an enticing new project: the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

When Michelangelo returned to Rome in 1508, Donato Bramante, the pope’s chief architect, and a sworn enemy of Michelangelo, was busy working on the new Basilica of St. Peter. In 1546, when he was an old man, Michelangelo would be appointed chief architect of the new St. Peter’s—which was finally completed in 1615—but this lay far in the future. Raphael, another rival, was starting work on frescoes in the pope’s private chambers, and next to such grand projects, the Sistine Chapel, with its plain exterior, might have seemed a lesser project.

Its outer appearance was deceptive, for it was a special building inside: Restored a few decades before by Pope Sixtus IV (for whom it is named) it was the place of worship for the Papal Chapel, the part of the Vatican dedicated to assisting the pontiff in his spiritual functions. Today it is the setting of the conclave, where the cardinals choose a new pope. Pope Julius was adamant that he wanted only one artist to complete its decoration, and despite their previous altercation, he gave Michelangelo the job.

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.

Exhibit Featuring Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Ceiling Coming to the Albany Capital Center

A display from the 'Michelangelo - A Different View' exhibit, which will be coming to the Albany Capital Center at the end of July.

No need to spend $1,700 on airfare and travel 13 hours by plane to visit the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican. The Albany Capital Center (ACC) will have the world-famous fresco on display at the ACC this summer from July 29–August 23—or rather, a licensed version of it—when they host the exhibit, Michelangelo – A Different View.

Michelangelo spent four years on scaffolding under the 70-foot-high vaulted ceiling of the chapel painting his interpretation of the history of creation. Basically, what a ticket-holder is seeing is a high-resolution image of the fresco, licensed from the Vatican, that has been transferred to fabric webs. In other words, audiences can see the intricacies they might miss looking at the work in an art history book or even at the chapel itself, which one is usually ushered into for only a set amount of time. One also has to crane his or her neck upward in order to see it in the chapel itself. For the exhibit, the artwork is positioned on walls and flooring, so that it’s much more easily viewed.

“The format of this event is ideal for our facility given our expansive space,” says Doug McClaine, general manager of the ACC. “We can accommodate large numbers comfortably and safely so guests can enjoy the artwork while maintaining social distance. The pieces that will be on display are incredible and will be a must-see for all art lovers.”

Following the restoration of the chapel between 1982-1994, a Japanese team of photographers received permission to film the newly resplendent ceiling. Photo slides were made of the frescoes in a 200x250mm format, which since have been guarded by the Vatican Museums under lock and key.

Tickets to Michelangelo – A Different View will be available for purchase on June 1 at 10am and are priced from $8-$17, with group discounts and family packs available. Tickets will be sold in sessions to allow for staggered entrance and to maintain social distance. For more information on ticket prices and session times, click here.

Watch the video: 03. Artistic Ambassadors: The Sistine Chapel before Michelangelo (May 2022).