I already talked to you about Michelangelo’s frescos in the Cortile Ottagono when we were at the Museo Pio Clementino. It would be impossible to provide information in the Sistine Chapel because of how crowded it is over there. I would recommend that you sit down on one of the benches as quickly as possible and just take it all in. You will definitely need a small pair of binoculars to properly see all of the ceiling’s details. The rear wall that Michelangelo painted when he was already quite old you can see quite well without binoculars.
Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel between 1508 and 1512. The contract has not survived. The letters that Buonarroti wrote and many other contemporary sources provide much information on how the frescos were created. A letter written by Bramante in 1506 tells us that Michelangelo absolutely did not want this auential architect, urged Julius II to commission Michelangelo to do the frescos. The architect secretly hoped that Michelangelo would fail.
Two years earlier, Julius II revoked the order for his tomb. The pope changed his mind following a proposal by Bramante. This architect proposed to construct a new St. Peters. Angered, Michelangelo fled Rome. He ventured to Florence on horseback while being pursued by the Pope’s cavalry.
In the nick of time, Michelangelo arrived in Rome, where the Papacy held no sway. This was only to be expected considering the odd dimensions of the chapel and the shape of its ceiling. The dimensions of this chapel are based on the temple of Solomon as described in the Old Testament. The length is three times the width and twice the height. When you are standing in the chapel, you will notice how impossibly high this chapel is. Also, Michelangelo had little to no experience in painting frescos. He had studied under Ghirlandaio as a twelve-year-old boy and gained some experience in painting frescos, but had never used the technique since. Bramante hoped his clever scheme would lead to his young friend Raphael receiving all the important assignments.
1. Perugino ‘Moses Leaving to Egypt’
2. Sandro Botticelli, ‘Scenes from the life of Moses’
3. Cosimo Rosselli, ‘The Crossing of the Red Sea’
4. Cosimo Rosselli ‘Descent from Mount Sinai’
5. Sandro Botticelli, ‘Korah’s conspiracy’
6. Luca Signorelli, ‘Testament and Death of Moses’
Wall north Jesus and ground plan
1. Perugino ‘Baptism of Christ’
2. Botticelli ‘Temptations of Christ’
3. Ghirlandaio “Calling of Peter and Andrew’
4. Rosselli ‘Sermon on the mount’
5. Perugino ‘Surrender of the keys’
6. Rosselli ‘Last supper’
The subject of the frescoes
“The narrative begins at the altar and is divided into three sections. In the first three paintings, Michelangelo tells the story of The Creation of the Heavens and Earth; this is followed by The Creation of Adam and Eve and the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden; finally is the story of Noah and the Great Flood.
Ignudi, or nude youths, sit in fictive architecture around these frescoes, and they are accompanied by prophets and sibyls (ancient seers who, according to tradition, foretold the coming of Christ) in the spandrels. In the four corners of the room, in the pendentives, one finds scenes depicting the Salvation of Israel.” Cited from: Christine Zappella, ‘Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel’ Khan Academy
As Michelangelo was about to start work in May, he immediately fell out with Bramante. Vasari, a friend and contemporary of Michelangelo’s, described the dispute between the two artists as follows:
“[…] Bramante installed a scaffold suspended from ropes, to which end he made holes in he vault. When Michelangelo saw this he asked Bramante how he was to fill up these holes once he was done painting, to which Bramante replied: “We will worry about that when the time comes”, and that there was no other way.”
Giorgio Vasari, ‘The Life of Michelangelo’ pdf 36. p. 448
Buonarroti flew into a rage and went to see the pope to obtain permission to design his own scaffolding. A rough sketch (drawing Uffizi) lof the scaffolding has survived. The carpenter who built the new scaffolding (reconstruction) was allowed to keep the large quantities of rope that had been used for the initial scaffolding. He sold it and used the proceeds as a dowry for his daughter.
Ceiling (see diagram):
1.The Separation of Light and Darkness 2. The Creation of the Sun, Moon and Earth 3. The Separation of Land and Water 4. The Creation of Adam 5. The Creation of Eve 6. The Temptation and Expulsion 7. The Sacrifice of Noah 8. The Great Flood 9. The Drunkenness of Noah 10. Judith and Holofernes 11. David and Goliath 12. The Brazen Serpent 13. The Punishment of Haman
14. Jeremiah 15. Persian Sibyl 16. Ezekiel 17. Erythraean Sibyl 18. Joel 19. Zechariah
Ceiling (see diagram):
20. Delphic Sibyl 21. Isaiah 22. Cumaean 23. Daniel 24. Libyan Sibyl 25 Jonah 26. Aminadab 27. Salmon, Booz, Obed 28. Roboam, Abias 29. Ozias, Joatham, Achaz 30. Zorobabel, Abiud, Eliachim
31. Achim, Eliud 32. Jacob and Joseph 33. Eleazar, Mathan
34. Azor, Sadoc 35. Josias, Jechonias, Salathiel 36. Ezekias, Manasses, Amon 37. Asa, Josaphat, Joram 38. Jesse, David, Solomon 39. Naason
“[…] the Libyan Sibyl [Study and THE MET], who, having written a great volume drawn from many books, is in an attitude of womanly grace, as if about to rise to her feet; and in one and the same movement she makes as if to rise and to close the book – a thing most difficult, not to say impossible, for any another but the master of the work.” Giorgio Vasari, ‘The Life of Michelangelo’ pdf 36. p. 448
Read more about the Libyan Sibyl? Dr. Alexis Culotta ‘Studies for the Libyan Sibyl’ Khan Academy
Pope Julius II had instructed Michelangelo to depict the twelve apostles on the ceiling, but Michelangelo thought this a bit meagre. If he had to paint instead of carve, he might as well paint a great narrative cycle. Julius II was enthusiastic about the idea. It is fact that the Biblical stories, the sibyls and the figures from the Old Testament were conceived in close consultation with the theologists. Michelangelo initially had a number of painters come down from Florence but was not pleased with their work. He soon decided to do as much work as he could himself. The first scenes to be painted, The Great Flood and The Drunkenness of Noah, were made by several painters. Michelangelo worked with a number of painters, but preferred to do everything himself. And yet Michelangelo consistently had help with preparing the plaster, mixing the paint, making the cartoons, drawings (Web Gallery of Art) and painting some of the less important details.
Ascanio Condivi wrote in his biography of Michelangelo about The Flood:
“In the eight [scene] is the Deluge, when the ark of Noah is seen in the distance in the midst of the waters; some men attempt to cling to it for safety. Nearer, in the same abyss of waters, is a boat laden with many people, which, both by the excessive weight she has to carry and by the many and tumultuous lashings of the waves, loses her sail, and, deprived of every aid and human control, she is already filling with water and going to the bottom. It is an admirable thing to see the human race so wretchedly perishing in the waves. Likewise, nearer to the eye, there still appears above the waters the summit of a mountain, like unto an island, on which, fleeing from the rising waters, collect a multitude of men and women, who exhibit different expressions, but all wretched and all terrified, dragging themselves beneath a curtain stretched over a tree to shelter them from the unusual rains; and above them is represented with great art the anger of God, which overwhelms them with water, with lightnings, and with thunderbolts. There is also another mountain-top on the right, much nearer the eye, and a multitude labouring under the same disasters, of which it would be long to write all the details; it shall suffice me to say that they are all very natural and tremendous, just as one would imagine them in such a convulsion.” Author (and translation) Charles Holroyd ‘Michael Angelo Buonarroti’, Chapter VI pp. 44 – 45
Despite Ascanio Condivi’s apt description, the scene below is hard to see for the viewer. The figures are too small for the great distance (height: 20.7 meters).
The complete cycle on the walls, the ceiling and later the rear wall (The Last Judgement) can be read as one big story with a clear message. Central to the ceiling are the creation and fall of man. Next comes the newly chosen man: Noah. The ceiling is limited to the period before the laws of Moses. The period surrounding the laws of Moses and the life of Christ who came to earth to save mankind is depicted on the walls. On the rear wall we see the final chapter of this story: the Last Judgement.