Michelangelo Sistine chapel I

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.

Exterior of the Sistine Chapel      From above      Original exterior

photos: Sailko; above Maus-Trauden

Sistine Chapel      Altar wall


Daniele da Volterra ‘Michelangelo’

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.

Horace Vernet ‘Julius II asks Bramante to built a new 
St. Peters’ 1827

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.

Horace Vernet ‘Julius II asks Bramante to built a new  
St. Peters’
Raphael 'Self-portrait' Uffizi

Raphael ‘Self-portrait’
J. C. Riepenhausen ‘Bramante introduces Raphael to Julius II’ 1836 

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. Ground plan walls with artists and titles of the frescos: before Michelangelo.
2. Wikipedia Fresco’s Southern, Northern and Eastern wall.

Wall entrance Moses and Christ  and ground plan
1. G. Matteo da Lecce, ‘Disputation over Moses’ Body’   
2. H. Van den Broeck, ‘Resurrection of Christ’ 

Perugino ‘Christ hands over the keys to Peter’    The keys    Portrait of Perugino

Perugino ‘Christ hands over the keys to Peter’ fresco Sistine chapel wall

Sistine chapel ceiling       Ceiling and part of the walls       Diagram of the ceiling

Michelangelo Ceiling Sistine chapel frescos
Wikipedia and Wikipedia

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. 

Delphic Sibyl

photo: Richard Mortel

Part of the ceiling

photo: Khan Academy

“[…] 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

Diego Velázquez ‘Pope Julius II’ 1511 – 1512I

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.

The Flood        In situ      Noah’s Arch      Ashore

Michelangelo 'The flood' Sistine chapel
photo: Richard Mortel

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.

Michelangelo 'Zechariah' Sistine Chapel


As the pope enters the Sistine Chapel, Zechariah looks down on him from above. (diagram number 19) and, naturally, Julius II’s coat of arms is on prominent display here. Zechariah predicts Christ’s riding into Jerusalem.

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
Righteous and victorious;
Lowly and riding on a donkey
He will proclaim peace
to the nations,
His rule will extend
From sea to sea
From the river to the ends of
The earth

Zechariah 9: 9-10

The Sistine Chapel was primarily used by the Pope on Palm Sunday, when he would enter the chapel as the vicar of Christ and handed out palm fronds to the faithful.

Jonah above the Cross

photo: Richard Mortel

Jonah is depicted on the ceiling above the altar (diagram number 25). Jonah refers to the consecration (host and wine turn into the body and blood of Christ). This in turn refers to the death of Christ on the cross and his resurrection. The Jonah from the Old Testament was eaten by a whale and spewed out after three days and nights, and behold, he lived. After his death, Christ lay in his tomb for three days and nights before his resurrection. This may seem a bit farfetched to us, but can be read in St Matthew 12: 38-40.

The vertical and symbolical line between the Cross and Jonah

photo: vertical line Francisco Anzola

The snake on the stake      The pendentive
“A scene like that of the Bronze Serpent is also associated with the crucifixion. The episode tells of a plague of snakes that struck the nation of Israel. By watching a bronze snake mounted on a stake, the Israelites were protected from the snake venom. The healing effect of the object on a stake was compared to the redemption that Christ brought on the cross.” Quoted and translated from Bram de Klerck NRC  12 september 2008

photo: Richard Mortel

Above the altar bronzen serpent right pendentive

photo: Richard Mortel

The choir screen is no longer where it used to be. Originally, it was exactly in the spot where the story on the ceiling takes an unfortunate turn. Only clergy were allowed back of the choir screen. Looking up, they would see the fall of man and all the misery that ensued. The senior prelates would look at the creation and paradise, in short, a more cheerful view.

Fall and expulsion from paradise      Adam and Eve       Fall        Expulsion

Michelangelo 'Fall and expulsion from paradise' fresco 
Wikipedia and photos Richard Mortel

Creation of Adam          Hands   

Michelangelo 'Creation of Adam' Sistine chapel
photos: Richard Mortel and Frans Vanderwalle

Adam      Study      British Museum      Adam

Julius II wanted to know what progress was being made with the work on the ceiling. He also felt that it was taking far too long. Both Vasari and Condivi report that this was sometimes the cause of great tension between the two men. One time when Michelangelo absolutely did not want to be disturbed, he threw some planks at the pope. Julius II, not the most easy-going of men, was big enough to accept this. He realised that this artist was capable of great work. Michelangelo was also the only one allowed to keep his hat on when talking to Julius II, something the pope never would have accepted from anybody else. And yet, the pope forced him to remove the scaffolding in July or August of 1510. At that moment, Michelangelo had completed half of the enormous ceiling: from Zechariah to the creation of Adam.  

Ascanio Condivi describes how the pope and all of Rome came to look at Michelangelo’s work. People were impressed, even though the secco-part had not even been painted yet. That is to say that some elements of the frescos were only painted after the layer of plaster had dried. The colour blue must always be painted on a dry surface or the paint will not take, while other colours have to be painted on a wet layer of plaster to take well. Julius II was very satisfied, but asked Buonarroti to enrich the frescos with gold and bright colours. According to Condivi, the conversation between Michelangelo and the pope went as follows:

Ascanio Condivi wrote in his biography of Michelangelo about uncovering of the ceiling:
[…] he [Michelangelo] had the scaffolding taken down and uncovered his work upon All Saints Day. It was seen with great satisfaction by the Pope (who that very day visited the chapel), and all Rome crowded to admire it. It lacked the retouches “a secco” of ultramarine and of gold in certain places, which would have made it appear more rich. Julius, his fervour having abated, wished that Michael Angelo should supply them; but he considering the business it would be to reerect the scaffolding, replied that there was nothing important wanting. “It should be touched with gold,” replied the Pope. Michael Angelo said to him familiarly, as he had a way of doing with his Holiness: “I do not see that men wear gold.” The Pope again said: “It will seem poor.” “Those who are painted here were poor also,” Michael Angelo replied. This he threw out in jest; but so the vault has remained.” Author (and translation) Charles Holroyd ‘Michael Angelo Buonarroti’, Chapter VI pp. 48 – 49

In situ      Buttocks      God


When you look closely, the difference between the two sections of the ceiling is clearly visible. For the first time Michelangelo saw his frescos from the ground. To his alarm, some of the details were not visible from below, particularly in The Flood and the Sacrifice of Noah. He would never make that mistake such as the separation of darkness and lights and the creation of the sun, moon and plants again in any of his later paintings.

The Flood in situ     

photo: Richard Mortel

The Cumaean Sibyl

You don’t really need binoculars for that section of the ceiling. Michelangelo made many sketches (Web Gallery of Art). Buonarroti sometimes purposefully used the distance to the ceiling to hide a joke, as is the case in the Cumaean Sibyl. There is a malicious detail in the background, more specifically in the little hand of one of the children. He makes the fig. That means he gives someone the finger. You definitely need binoculars to see this.

Michelangelo 'Cumaean Sibyl'  

Judith and Holofernes      In situ

Michelangelo himself is also depicted on the ceiling. In the eastern pendant we see Judith with a servant and Holofernes. The head of the commander-in-chief, Holofernes, is on a platter and is a self-portrait of the artist. In the lunettes, the figure of Zadoch is also a self-portrait of Michelangelo.

“[…] Michelangelo depicted in the story of Judith, at the opposite corner, in which may be seen the trunk of Holofernes, robbed of life but still quivering, while Judith is placing the lifeless head in a basket on the head of her old serving-woman, who, being tall in stature, is stooping to the end that Judith may be able to reach up to her and adjust the weight well; and the servant, while upholding the burden with her hands, seeks to conceal it, and, turning her head towards the trunk, which, although dead, draws up an arm and a leg and makes a noise in the tent, she shows in her expression fear of the camp and terror of the dead body – a picture truly full of thought.” Giorgio Vasari, ‘The life of Michelangelo’ pdf 36 p. 448

Torso       Zoom in      Torso Rear     Torso with pedestal

As you have already read, the Belvedere Torso greatly influenced his Ignudi. These are the male nudes (Web Gallery of Art) around the nine central themes in the middle of the ceiling. They are holding gold medallions and when you look at them closely, you can see how Michelangelo completed the Belvedere Torso with heads, lower legs and arms, each time painting it from a different angle.

Belvedere Torso  Vatican
photos: João Máximo and torso pedestal: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT


Michelangelo 'Ignudi' Sistine chapel
photo: Frans Vandewalle

Early Ignudi      Later Ignudi      In situ

During the more than three years that Michelangelo worked on the ceiling, he clearly grew as an artist. This becomes clear when, for example, you look at the Ignudis. If you compare the first Ignudi near the entrance with the later Ignudi near the altar, you will see huge differences.

Another surviving letter that Michelangelo wrote to Giovanni da Pistoia includes a sonnet and a drawing. In it, he complains about the position with his head held back in which he is forced to paint. As a result, Buonarroti was unable to read for months. Michelangelo’s letter to his friend:

Michelangelo painting      Sketch of painting

“I’ve grown a goitre by dwelling in this den–
As cats from stagnant streams in Lombardy,
Or in what other land they hap to be–
Which drives the belly close beneath the chin:
My beard turns up to heaven; my nape falls in,
Fixed on my spine: my breast-bone visibly
Grows like a harp: a rich embroidery
Bedews my face from brush-drops thick and thin.
My loins into my paunch like levers grind:
My buttock like a crupper bears my weight;
My feet unguided wander to and fro;
In front my skin grows loose and long; behind,
By bending it becomes more taut and strait;
Crosswise I strain me like a Syrian bow:
Whence false and quaint, I know,
Must be the fruit of squinting brain and eye;
For ill can aim the gun that bends awry.
Come then, Giovanni, try
To succour my dead pictures and my fame;
Since foul I fare and painting is my shame.”
Buonarroti, Michelangelo (1878). The Sonnets of Michael Angelo Buonarroti and Tommaso Campanella. London: Smith, Elder, & Co. p. 35.

Continuation Rome day 5: Michelangelo Sistine chapel II