A Brief Look at the Sistine Chapel

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“). Sixtus restored the Sistine Chapel, but it was his nephew, Pope Julius II, il papa terribile, 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.

Michelangelo decided to decorate the ceiling with images from the Old Testament to link with the images of the New Testament that decorated the walls of the chapel. The design includes nine stories from the Old Testament 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.

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.

The Flood

Compare the movement and drama depicted in The Flood with the, arguably, most famous of the Sistine Chapel’s panels, The Creation of Adam.

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.

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.

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.