The Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Palace is best known for the ceiling painted by Michelangelo (1475–1564) between 1508 and 1512. Covering the walls of the room are frescoes by Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), Pietro Perugino (1450–1523), Luca Signorelli (1445–1523), and other early Renaissance masters.

The area beneath these paintings was once covered by a set of tapestries designed by Raphael (1483–1520). The word Sistine stems from the name of the original patron of the chapel, Pope Sixtus IV. The building itself was built between 1475 and 1483, according to the dimensions of Solomon’s Temple as described in the Old Testament.

In 1507, Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to redo the ceiling, the vaults of which had originally been covered with a painting of a starry sky by Pier Matteo d’Amelia. Michelangelo was initially reluctant to take on the task since he had little experience painting.

All the same, he succeeded in creating a vast pictorial program with more than 300 figures depicting the creation, fall, and redemption of humankind. Although he claimed to have designed and painted the ceiling entirely by himself, it is more than likely that he was provided with a theological advisor and assistants. His poems describe how difficult it was to paint in a reclining position on top of a scaffold.

Nine scenes from Genesis run down the center of the ceiling. The first three are devoted to the Creation, the next three to the story of Adam and Eve, and the final three to the story of Noah. Michelangelo painted them in reverse order, hesitating to represent God until he had gained more experience with the brush. Seated on the architectural framework dividing the scenes are male nudes known as ignudi. Smaller nudes carrying biblical texts appear in the painted bronze medallions arranged regularly over the entire ceiling. The four vaults at the corners of the room show scenes of the Israelites’ salvation. Seven huge Old Testament prophets and five pagan sibyls (female seers from Roman mythology later absorbed into Christian tradition) are seated along the base of the ceiling. Beneath them are sixteen lunettes portraying Christ’s ancestors. Michelangelo was careful to depict God over the part of the chapel reserved for the cardinals.

A complete restoration of the frescoes, funded by Fuji Film, was carried out between 1981 and 1994. The cleaning disclosed that Michelangelo had used extremely vibrant colors, a revelation that shocked many modern art historians.

The eighteenth-century German scholar Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, admiring the ceiling on his tour of Italy, noted that, “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel, one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.

 
 
 

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