The Sistine Chapel’s ceiling is likely the most well-known of the artworks housed by the Vatican Museums. The chapel itself was named after Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere (whose name should be familiar from the painting Sixtus IV appoints Bartolomeo Platina Prefect of the Vatican Library mentioned in “The Vatican’s Picture Gallery“), who built the Chapel in 1483. The architecture of Chapel hints at the violence of the fifteenth century: the walls are extraordinarily thick, the windows are narrow slits (presumably to drop boiling oil on invaders without exposing the defenders to counter-attack), and the building itself has battlements. Pope Sixtus commissioned the greatest artists of his day, including, Perugino, Pinturicchio, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and Piero di Cosimo, to fresco the walls of the Chapel with scenes from the life of Moses and of Christ.
Pope Sixtus’ nephew, Pope Julius II, il papa terribile, however, was the one who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the now-famous ceiling. Michelangelo actually tried to get out of the commission because he identified as a sculptor, not a painter. Pope Julius II, however, was not known as il papa terribile for nothing; he forced Michelangelo to take up the commission despite all of Michelangelo’s protests.
To complement the already frescoed walls, Michelangelo looked to St. Paul’s division of history, which divided the whole of human existence into three stages: (1) The Book of Genesis, which represented the history of man ante lege (i.e. before law); (2) Moses, who represented the history of man sub lege (i.e. under law); and (3) Christ, who represented the history of man sub gratia (i.e. under the disposition of grace).
Because Numbers Two and Three of St. Paul’s Division of History were already represented on the walls, Michelangelo determined to fresco the ceiling with the Book of Genesis. The design includes nine stories from Genesis that run down the middle of the ceiling.
The central panel of Old Testament stories is bordered by alternating lunettes and human figures. The lunettes (which look like small triangles) contain pictures of Christ’s ancestral lineage as recounted in the New Testament.
The figures that are placed in between each lunette alternate between Sibyls and Prophets. (Sibyls were popularized in ancient Greece, and they were believed to be oracles that spoke prophecies imparted to them by the Gods.) Below each figure is a plaque identifying whom the figure represents.
Now that we have been oriented, let’s look at the work in more detail, starting with the central panel. The central panel is divided into nine episodes found in the Old Testament Book of Genesis. These nine are subdivided into three groups of three, each group telling an origin story. Starting from left to right: The Drunkenness of Noah, The Flood, and The Sacrifice of Noah relate to the origin of evil; The Fall of Adam and Eve and the Expulsion from Paradise, The Creation of Eve, and The Creation of Adam relate to the origin of man; and the Separation of Land from Sea, The Creation of the Heavenly Bodies, and The Separation of Light from Darkness relate to the origin of the universe. Although at first glance, it seems that Michelangelo scheme is backwards because he starts with Noah and ends with the origin of the universe. The reverse order, however, is intentional. The Drunkenness of Noah is the imperfection of man, but as the viewer moves towards the alter towards the Eucharist, he/she moves closer to purity of spirit and so too the figures depicted on the ceiling. Moreover, each scene holds the promise of redemption: The Drunkenness of Noah is the mirror image of the Eucharistic wine that becomes Christ’s blood. The mocking of Noah by his sons reflects the mocking of Christ during his Passion. The Flood reminds the viewers of the Covenant with God, which is fulfilled with the birth of Christ. The Birth of Eve from the rib bone of Adam echoes Christ’s fatal wound beneath his rib.
The first section that Michelangelo painted was the Flood (the second panel from the left), which is evidenced by the overwhelming amount of action within that piece as compared to the more figure-focused scenes that were created later. To depict the Flood, Michelangelo shows figures in the bottom corner of the scene struggling to get to dry land, hampered by their worldly possessions. Meanwhile, Noah and his family are not the central figures, but are physically and emotionally in the background. As I said, the scenes telling the story of Noah relate to the origin of evil and therefore the focus is on evil.
Compare the movement and drama depicted in The Flood with the, arguably, most famous of the Sistine Chapel’s panels, The Creation of Adam.
Notice the muscular figures depicted in these works? Well as Michelangelo was working, the Romans discovered the Laocoön, an ancient sculpture of the Trojan priest fighting the snakes sent by Athena, as well as the Belvedere Torso. These sculptures informed Michelangelo’s portrayal of the human form while painting the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, especially those figures known as the Ignudi. The Ignudi sit in the four corners of each episode, symbolizing antiquity to link the Church with the illustrious Roman past.
The contorted, stressed muscles of the figures are a staple of Michelangelo’s depiction of the human body. The external tension of the figures hint at the inner turmoil of man, who is constantly at war with himself in an effort to shed his earthly flesh and desires.
As mentioned above, the central panel is surrounded by alternating Hebrew Prophets and Greek Prophetesses (known as Sibyls). If you are wondering why Michelangelo painted pagan oracles on the ceiling of the most famous Roman Catholic Chapel, you aren’t alone. Some historians argue that early Jews and Christians appropriated the tradition of sibylline prophecies because such had a storied and ancient reputation. Through the appropriation of this tradition, historians argue, early Jews and Christians were able to give their nascence religions legitimacy and authority within the pagan world in which they operated. It is also believed that the sibyls predicted the coming of Jesus. Again, connecting the Church to the ancient past.
Michelangelo also painted the fresco known as The Last Judgment (1541) on the wall behind the altar decades after he finished the ceiling and, perhaps more significantly, after Emperor Charles V sacked the city of Rome in 1527. The fall of Europe’s “eternal city” proved to be traumatic for most of Christianity, and this trauma was clearly expressed in the art commissioned and produced after the city’s fall. Comparing The Last Judgment with the ceiling, the figures appear more frenzied and confused, demonstrating real turmoil felt amongst Christendom.
Although the overall composition seems disoriented, the groupings of figures are placed intentionally; the scene is meant to be read rising from the bottom left and descending on the right, mimicking the scales believed to be used to weigh souls with Christ acting as the fulcrum.
The Resurrection is depicted on the lower left of the work, where skeletons ascend to join those above in Heaven. Michelangelo’s depiction of those in Heaven, however, is completely unconventional. St. John the Baptist, on Christ’s right, is depicted as almost Herculean, not the traditional emaciated hermit while St. Peter, on Christ’s left is shown in similar proportions. Moreover, Christ himself is depicted as though a Greek God, and although Michelangelo is in keeping with tradition that Christ’s right hand is raised and his left hand is lowered (raising the righteous and felling the damned), he positions the palms so as to allude that the opposite is occurring. Slightly beneath Christ, Michelangelo included self-portrait in a rather grotesque manner: his visage is perceptible in the face of the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew, dangling over Hell. This depiction recalls his belief that one must shed his outer skin to reach the truth that lays beneath.
Under this main group, Michelangelo places the angels who raise the dead with their trumpets. One of these angels is holding the book of the damned, pointedly showing the damned their misdeeds written in the book.
In response to the nontraditional depiction, one of the Pope’s secretaries reportedly complained that the scene was more appropriate for a bathhouse than a chapel. Michelangelo had his revenge by painting the complainant’s face onto the figure of Minos, the judge of the dead in Virgil’s and Dante’s epic poems.
Michelangelo changed the physical architecture of the chapel to create the illusion that the scene was taking place within the room rather than the traditional belief, espoused by Leon Battista Alberti, that a painting should be a “window” so that viewers are seeing the scene play out beyond their own space.
So much more could be said about this room; in fact, many articles and books have been written on the topic. What is in this post is merely the tip of the iceberg, but I hope that I have at least piqued your interest in some of this art.