essay on Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Sistine Chapel Ceiling

The Sistine Chapel Ceiling The Sistine Chapel ceiling is perhaps the most amazing painting of all time. It was finished by Michelangelo Buonarroti in 1512. (he started it in 1508.) He worked on the painting every day for a four-year period. It was grueling work. He would have to climb scaffolding and lay flat on his back 65 feet above the floor with paint dripping down on him. All of the scenes were based on stories from The Bible. The centerpiece, “The Creation Of Adam” shows God infusing life into Adam, the first man.

The triangular areas along the two long sides of the ceiling are called spandrels. The moldings which outline them are the only aspects of the architectural design of the Ceiling that are truly part of the architecture. The moldings were in the ceiling before Michelangelo began his project. All other architectural details on the Ceiling were painted by Michelangelo. The figures painted inside the spandrels represent the ancestors of Christ. (These figures are also continued into the lunettes below the Ceiling.)

The prophets and sibyls could be seen as mediating between the Old and New Testaments in a spiritual or prophetic way. The ancestors mediate between the two in a concrete or biological way. Michelangelo was first assigned to paint the ceiling when he received a letter from the Pope. This letter reveals that the idea of completing the Chapel begun by Sixtus IV had been broached while Michelangelo was previously in Rome. Michelangelo told him that the didn’t want to paint the Chapel doubting he had the ability to paint foreshortened figures.

On May 10, 1508, Michelangelo contracted to paint the ceiling for 3,000 ducats1 and began work that very day. The ceiling is divided into three zones, the highest showing scenes from Genesis. Below are prophets and sibyls. In the lunettes and spandrels are figures identified as ancestors of Jesus or the Virgin. His awesome Last Judgment is on the altar wall. The sequence of the Old Testament and New Testament scenes was arranged to emphasize the authority of the Pope. Between the windows above are painted images, pre-Constantian sainted Popes.

To the left and right of the altar, wall were the findings of Moses and the birth of Christ. Above them, on the level of the Popes was the beginning of the Papal series and in the center, possibly an image of Christ flanked by Peter and Paul. Michelangelo was first commissioned to paint the twelve apostles on the twelve pendentive-like2 areas. In place of the twelve Apostles who followed Christ, Michelangelo painted the Hebrew Prophets and pagan Sibyls who foresaw the coming of a Messiah. Here, for the first time in the Chapel, Greco-Roman culture is joined to the Hebrew word.

These Prophets and Sibyls inhabit the curved lower part of the vault, sitting on thrones. By this method, Michelangelo created an imaginary architecture: the bands across the vault are united by the cornice above with its projecting segments. The Prophets and Sibyls are clearly to be understood as sitting in front of the Ancestors of Christ, painted in spandrels and lunettes3. These are pictorial versions of the mere list of names that begins the Gospel of Matthew, the generations linking Christ with the tribe of David, as was necessary according to the Old Testament prophecy.

Thus the Hebrew and pagan seers who foretold the coming of the Messiah alternate with representations of Christ’s own ancestors. This part of the vault is closely connected with the scenes below that show Christ’s life and work on earth as the counterpart and fulfillment of the prophetic example of Moses. Some of the scenes of Genesis are obviously related to Christian events, others are less obviously relevant. Michelangelo’s decoration of the Sistine ceiling is the most pictorial ensemble in all of Western art, and for that reason, it has to be approached from different points of view.

Michelangelo began painting in the winter of 1508-9, not the earliest scenes of creation over the sanctuary, but the Noah episodes over the entrance. At first, he had trouble with the mold and had to paint some of the ceilings over. He used watercolor painted into newly applied plaster, a technique he learned but had never before practiced independently. He transferred his design to the wet plaster by holding it up and following the lines with a stylus, making grooves that can be seen.

He was at first conscientious in following these lines but later became much freer, sometimes improvising around the drawing on the ceiling. He had trouble with assistants. He then dismissed the assistants (among them, one of his friends) and painted the rest almost all by himself, although he surely had help with the preparation of the plaster and other such menial tasks. On January 27, 1509, Michelangelo wrote to his father: I do not ask anything of the Pope because my work does not seem to me to go ahead in a way to merit it. This is due to the difficulty of the work and also because it is not my profession.

In consequence, I lose my time fruitlessly. May God help me. In June he wrote again: I am attending to work as much as I can…I don’t have a penny. So I cannot be robbed… I am unhappy and not in too good health staying here, and with a great deal of work, no instructions, and no money.

But I have good hopes God will help me. The coloration of the Sistine ceiling has suffered from age, dirt, and restoration. Nevertheless, it is still a subtle harmony of contrasting warm and cool tones: green shot with gold; rose; blue; and gold. Never before has such an amazing project been carried out with so complex a program, with such thorough planning, and with life-like a cast of figures and scenes.

The Sistine ceiling, as was immediately realized upon its unveiling, is one of man’s greatest achievements. Never again was such a project to be conceived. Over time the ceiling has become rusted and has lost its colors, but was recently cleaned and now you can finally see this amazing piece of art in its original colors. In conclusion, I think the work Michelangelo has done was ahead of its time and definitely deserves more recognition. I admire his hard work.