Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel

Matthew Deak

The Sistine Chapel ceiling was painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512, it is one of the most renowned artworks in the High Renaissance period. The painted ceiling is located inside the Sistine Chapel which was built within the Vatican by Pope Sixtus IV, construction of the chapel began in 1477 and was finished in 1480. I chose to write about the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, because it is a widely known landmark located in the Apostolic Palace, which is the official residence of the Pope in Vatican City. I was born into a Catholic family and practice the Catholic faith, so I thought it would be fitting to learn more about this magnificent structure, the artist who painted the ceiling, and the ceiling itself. I will begin with some brief information concerning Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, then will move onto more detailed information about the chapel’s ceiling.

Michelangelo's full name is Michelangelo Buonarroti, he was born on March 6th, 1475 in Caprese, a small village close to Florence, Italy. His parents were far from poor, when Michelangelo was in his early teens he became the apprentice of a Florentine painter known as Domenico Ghirlandajo. Michelangelo lived in Rome for five years, between the years of 1496 and 1501, Michelangelo was only twenty three when he sculpted the Pieta. This statue was commissioned in 1497, it was made with blue marble and depicts Mary holding the body of Jesus on her lap after His crucifixion. This was the only work Michelangelo signed. Also when Michelangelo returned to Florence in 1501, he worked with Leonardo da Vinci (who forty nine years old at the time) to paint the walls of the new Council Hall.

The Sistine Chapel, as I mentioned was constructed between 1477 and 1480. In 1506, Pope Julius II devised a program to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Around the central area of the walls of the chapel there already existed a complex scheme of paintings illustrating the Life of Christ and the Life of Moses. These were painted by renowned artists such as Perugino, Botticelli and Ghirlandaio. The Sistine Chapel is a key structure in the workings of Vatican City, since the time of pope Sixtus IV, the Sistine Chapel has served as a place of both religious ceremonies and papal activity that is instrumental to the workings of Catholic Church. The chapel is used today as the site of the Papal conclave, which is the ceremony by which a new Pope is selected.

The Sistine Chapel ceiling is truly a site to behold. In 1508, Pope Julius II was searching for the right artist to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The story goes that when the Pope asked Michelangelo for proof of his talent, he replied by drawing a perfect circle, free-hand. Thus Michelangelo began his work on the ceiling of the chapel. Michelangelo, was not primarily a painter but specialized as a sculptor, he was reluctant to take on the work since he was occupied with a very large sculpting commission for the Pope's own tomb. The pope chose Michelangelo for this project though, and it has been proven throughout his lifetime that what Pope Julius II wanted, he got. The contract for Michelangelo to paint the chapel’s ceiling was signed on May 10th, 1508. The layout for the ceiling originally consisted of twelve large figures of the Apostles, but Michelangelo changed the this layout for something much more complex, which eventually consisted of three hundred figures and would take four years to complete, the project would be completed by 1512. Contrary to popular belief, Michelangelo painted in a standing position, not lying on his back. This was quoted from an observer of Michelangelo’s form: "The work was carried out in extremely uncomfortable conditions, from his having to work with his head tilted upwards". Michelangelo described his physical discomfort in a humorous sonnet, he wrote, “Here like a cat in a Lombardy sewer! Swelter and toil! With my neck puffed out like a pigeon, belly hanging like an empty sack, beard pointing at the ceiling, and my brain fallen backwards in my head! Breastbone bulging like a harpy’s and my face, from drips and droplets, patterned like a marble pavement. Ribs are poking in my guts; the only way to counterweight my shoulders is to stick my butt out. Don’t know where my feet are, they’re just dancing by themselves! In front I’ve sagged and stretched; behind, my back is tauter than an archer’s bow!” The painted ceiling depicts scenes from the Book of Genesis, from the creation of man, to the fall of man, to Noah's Ark. Across from these scenes, on either side, are vast portraits of prophets who foretold the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Also along the bottom portion of the ceiling are port raits containing the ancestors of Jesus and stories of tragedy in ancient Israel. The rest of the noteworthy pictures are smaller figures and cherubs, these are scattered throughout the ceiling in non-descript places. There are more than 300 painted figures on the ceiling.


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Esaak, Shelley. "Michelangelo - The Sistine Chapel Ceiling." Art History Resources for Students, Enthusiasts, Artists and Educators - Artist Biographies - Art Timelines - Images and Picture Galleries. 5 Feb. 2009, arthistory.about.com/od/famous_paintings/a/sischap_ceiling.htm

Kren, Emil, and Danial Marx. "Web Gallery of Art, image collection, virtual museum, searchable database of European fine arts (1100-1850). Web Gallery of Art, image collection, virtual museum, searchable database of European fine arts (1100-1850)." 5 Feb. 2009, www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/bio/m/michelan/biograph.html