Hands of God and Adam (Wikipedia file photo)
The Pope Orders a Miracle
Pope Julius II believed Michelangelo could do anything and ordered him to decorate the ceiling of the chapel. “But I’m not a painter,” Michelangelo protested, “I’m a sculptor. I’ve hardly done anything with a brush and you want me to paint 2000 square feet on a curved ceiling!”
“You’ll do a great job,” said Julius. “I’ll have my architect Bramante set up the scaffolding for you.” He was a very tough man, more like a military commander than a pope, and he didn’t want to hear objections. Once he actually struck Michelangelo with his staff for impertinence.
A medallion with the bust of Pope Julius II (Wikipedia file photo)
Michelangelo went home in despair. He was ambitious but the Pope was asking him to work a miracle. If he failed, all his errors would be on perpetual display. Yet how was he going to paint better than the painters?
The Great Design
Michelangelo considered his options. Though he had never painted in fresco, he would have to learn the technique, and his first design was simple: the twelve Apostles and some filler decoration. But soon he thought the ceiling was not going to look magnificent enough and he obtained permission for a more ambitious plan.
What Michelangelo then came up with was a vast painting of three hundred figures illustrating the pre-history of salvation—Man’s time on earth before the coming of Christ.
Diagram of the paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Rome (Wikipedia file photo)
What is fresco painting?
To paint on a wall old-time artists used a technique called fresco. They mixed sand and lime and spread the mix over the wall. Next they applied their colors but had to do it fast, while the wall was still wet or fresh. When it dried, the colors fused chemically with the lime and became permanent.
The fresco technique is old and dates back at least to the Egyptians.
It is not easy to learn. The spectacular portrait below representing Sappho, the Greek poetess, is Roman and was found under the volcanic ashes that destroyed Herculaneum, Italy.
Sappho, a fresco from Pompeii (Wikipedia file photo)
A Little Help from His Friends
For his frescoes Michelangelo made sketches called cartoons painted on canvas with watercolor. He knew about cartoons because he had made some for a fresco project in Florence. But he hadn’t actually copied them onto the wall, and he needed some expert advice. He wrote to his painter friends back in Florence and asked them to come to Rome and show him how to get started. They came very willingly and painted part of his first panel on the ceiling while he watched. But after only a week or two he realized he couldn’t do things their way and he sent them away.
He locked himself in the chapel and started, all alone, to copy his cartoons on the enormous vault of the Sistine Chapel. Trial and error. It was unbelievably hard.
The Physical Effort
Fresco painting requires real physical effort. Every day the artist has to mix up a batch of plaster and trowel it on the wall, then hurry to finish his painting before the plaster dries. And painting a ceiling is doubly hard because everything has to be lifted, scribed, and painted above your head.
He stood on the wooden plank of the scaffolding sixty feet in the air and worked looking up. He rubbed and rubbed his neck, it ached so.
In a letter Michelangelo drew a little caricature, reproduced below, of himself painting a saint on the ceiling, his head bent back as far as it would go.
Michelangelo’s caricature of himself while painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling (Wikipedia file photo)
He drove himself to the limit. He practically lived in the chapel, eating onions and stale bread. “I have no friends and don’t want any,” he wrote his father.
The Great Setback
One day when he had completed about a third of the ceiling he noticed that a mold was forming on his paintings. That was the last straw. He ran to the Pope, asking to be allowed to quit the job. “I told you I wasn’t a painter,” he said. “Everything I’ve done is ruined.”
The Pope sent an expert to see what could be done and he showed Michelangelo how to remove the mold and told him to go on.
A Barrel Vault
The ceiling is a barrel vault with eight triangular indentations above the windows.
On those and the four corner triangles, called spandrels, Michelangelo continued his depictions of the ancestors of Christ and even covered the spaces farther down on the wall, the so-called lunettes, above the windows.
In the middle of the ceiling were illustrations of nine Bible stories. The segment showing God creating Adam is one of the most famous images ever painted.
Other famous parts are The Flood and The Temptation and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The huge Jonah above the front wall is especially admired for its foreshortening, which had to contradict the curve of the ceiling to look right.
The nude youths framing those scenes, twisting and flexing with no apparent task, perhaps were meant to show Man’s futile struggle before Christ came.
God Creates Adam (Wikipedia file photo)
The Forbidden Fruit (Wikipedia file photo)
The Impatient Pope
Pope Julius was so curious to see what Michelangelo was doing in the chapel that he would often drop in for a preview. He was awed by what he saw and he burned to show the paintings to his friends. Finally he became too restless to wait any longer for Michelangelo to finish. Besides, he was short-tempered and had never taken no for an answer.
Though only half the ceiling was covered, the Pope ordered Michelangelo to take down the scaffolding and open the chapel to the public. “I can’t,” said Michelangelo, “I’m not finished yet.”
He had been working for almost two years — from 1508 to 1510.
“If you don’t take down the scaffold I’ll have you thrown off,” said the Pope. It wasn’t meant as a joke. Michelangelo had to obey.
The Awestruck Public
The public crowded into the chapel and spread the news that the paintings were the greatest thing they had ever seen. The figures showed a new kind of beauty and power. Each of them was a masterpiece in its conception and colors. Michelangelo’s vision was overwhelming.
The Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings by Michelangelo (Wikipedia file photo)
Michelangelo set up the scaffolding again in January 1511. In a final surge of titanic energy he managed to complete the other half of the ceiling by August 14 and Pope Julius proudly celebrated the first Mass in his uncle Sixtus’ chapel.
There were still the spandrels and lunettes to be painted and Michelangelo didn’t finish those until October 1512. Altogether the ceiling was the work of fifty-four months.
Forty years later another Pope would order him to paint the front wall of the same chapel.
Why is the Chapel called the Sistine?
The pope who hired Michelangelo was Julius II, famous as a warrior, a schemer, and a patron of Renaissance art. The chapel was built by Julius’ uncle, who was also a pope and was called Sixtus IV. In modern English the adjective became Sistine.
At the time the papacy was a top job reserved for the most influential, ambitious and clever members of the aristocracy.
Location of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican
See this SPECTACULAR VIRTUAL VISIT to the Sistine Chapel. It is as good or better than a real visit (no crowds, you can get as close to the pictures as you want).
Most of what is known about Michelangelo comes from his letters, of which nearly 500 have survived, and from Giorgio Vasari and Ascanio Condivi, who wrote biographies while he was alive.
Both were friends of his and he read and commented on what they had to say about him. The two biographers knew and disliked each other.
The book by Ludwig Goldscheider is a prime source of authoritative information and a marvel of black-and-white photography.
This article was about the ceiling frescoes.Twenty-five years later Michelangelo painted the Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. Read about it here.