- Curious Peoples
- The Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel
A Haven of Renaissance Art
Constructed in the 1470s by architect Giovanni dei Dolci, the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City was named after Pope Sixtus IV, its commissioner. It bears the exact dimensions of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, destroyed in 70 CE. Despite its simple and unassuming exterior, the interior boasts splendid decorations. Pope Sixtus IV enlisted Florentine Renaissance masters such as Botticelli and Rosselli to adorn the chapel. Initially, artists painted the chapel’s ceiling as a simple blue sky dotted with stars.
The north wall of the Sistine Chapel features six frescoes illustrating the life of Christ, while the south wall presents six frescoes depicting Moses’ life. Smaller frescoes between the windows above these works portray various popes. During significant ceremonial events, the lower sections of the side walls are adorned with a series of tapestries that depict scenes from the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, all designed by Raphael.
The interior of the Sistine Chapel
In 1508, Michelangelo, a 33-year-old Italian Renaissance artist, was deeply engaged in sculpting Pope Julius II’s marble tomb. This project was interrupted when Pope Julius II requested Michelangelo to decorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Initially resistant, as he identified more as a sculptor and had no experience with fresco painting, Michelangelo accepted the task with reluctance. Abandoning the tomb project, which suffered from dwindling funds, he dedicated four intense years to the frescos, a task so physically demanding it impaired his eyesight.
The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo, 1508-1512
Contrary to popular belief, Michelangelo and his assistants worked standing up, reaching overhead, not lying down. Michelangelo designed a unique system of wooden platforms attached to the walls with brackets to facilitate this work. During this period, he allowed no one, including the Pope, to view the work in progress.
About a year after he started, Michelangelo expressed the physical and emotional strain of the project in a poem to his friend. He complained, “I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,” and detailed further discomforts, like his “stomach’s squashed under my chin” and his “spine’s all knotted from folding myself over.” He concluded, reaffirming his sculptor’s identity, “I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.”
Illustration by Michelangelo accompanying his poetic description of the Sistine Chapel’s painting process, December 1508
Compared to similar works of its time, the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling was completed in a notably short period. Michelangelo employed vibrant colors, often in large patches, to accommodate the distance between the frescoes and viewers. He strategically placed contrasting colors side by side to enhance brightness and create a shadowing effect. With the knowledge that viewers would be looking up from below, he skillfully used foreshortening and perspective techniques to make the images more impactful.
The narrative of the ceiling unfolds in three sections, starting at the altar. The first part depicts The Creation of the Heavens and Earth, followed by the stories of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Eden, and culminating with Noah and the Great Flood. Over two decades later, Pope Clement VII tasked Michelangelo with creating The Last Judgment fresco behind the altar. In his 60s then, the artist dedicated five years to this monumental work.
The Last Judgment by Michelangelo, 1536–1541
The frescoed ceiling of the Sistine Chapel has impressively endured over five centuries, with only a small section of the sky in the Noah’s flood panel missing due to an 18th-century explosion at a nearby gunpowder depot.
Beyond being Vatican City’s top tourist spot, the Sistine Chapel plays a vital religious role. Since 1492, it has been the setting for papal conclaves, where cardinals vote for a new pope. The outcome is famously signaled by smoke from a special chimney on the chapel’s roof, with white smoke announcing a pope’s election and black smoke indicating no decision.
Michelangelo’s techniques in the Sistine Chapel represented a significant leap in Western art’s evolution, profoundly influencing artists for centuries. The image of God reaching out to touch Adam’s finger stands as one of the most replicated artworks ever.
The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, c. 1512
In the late 20th century, the ceiling underwent a meticulous cleaning to erase the grime of smoke and dust accumulated over the years, which had veiled the fresco in darkness. Carefully using cotton swabs, restorers applied a special solution, gradually unveiling Michelangelo’s original, vivid colors and restoring the artwork’s radiant beauty.
Words of wisdom
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” —George Orwell, 1984
“A good friend will always stab you in the front.” —Oscar Wilde
“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” —Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
“If you expect nothing from somebody you are never disappointed.” —Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
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