If there were a list of the wonders of the art world, the ceiling at the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel would surely be found at the top. You may have joined the five million eager pundits that visit the iconic room each year, and you may even have sneaked a prohibited photo of its legendary paintings. But how much do you really know about the history, meaning, and significance of the art within? Read on to find out all the facts, interpretations, and controversies that surround this era-defining masterpiece.
The Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings have come to epitomize the art of the High Renaissance, a period generally considered to have spanned the decades between 1490 and 1530. During these years, the Italian masters produced a wealth of stunning masterpieces in the form of paintings, drawings, sculptures, buildings, and writings. Informed by the aesthetic ideals of the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, the artists of the High Renaissance developed the linear perspective, naturalistic forms, and use of light that had been introduced by their forerunners. At the heart of their work was beauty. More specifically, the heavenly beauty associated with the divine. In this way, artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael created harmonious, transcendent, and emotive masterpieces that epitomize the human endeavor to ascend to new spiritual heights.
Some of the finest products of the High Renaissance were the result of a fierce rivalry that developed between two of its leading artists: Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Competing for both commissions and prestige, the two Florentines constantly strove to outdo one another, creating ever more innovative and extravagant artwork in the attempt. These masterpieces would go on to influence another highly important artist, Raphael, who would copy the work of Michelangelo and Leonardo to improve his own skills.
Another key player in the High Renaissance was Pope Julius II, an art enthusiast whose private collection became the foundation of the Vatican museums. Although a questionable religious leader, Julius was an international tour de force, who systematically expanded the Papacy’s sphere of influence with a range of ruthless military and economic strategies. Like many notable leaders, from Napoleon to Hitler, Julius wanted to redefine European culture and make his own city its centre. He therefore invited many of the great Florentine masters to move to Rome, where he set about transforming the Vatican into a paradigm of artistic achievement.
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Housed within the large complex of buildings that make up the Vatican City, the Sistine Chapel is not only the state’s most popular tourist attraction, but also an important place for ecclesiastical affairs. Built in the 1470s and named after Pope Sixtus IV (link to authoritative source), the chapel is where the cardinals gather to elect a new pope after the death, or abdication, of the previous leader. Every day during their deliberations, black smoke is emitted from a chimney in the chapel roof, until they decide upon a new pope, at which point white smoke is sent up.
The chapel was supposedly built using the same dimensions as Solomon’s temple, an ancient place of worship built in Jerusalem over 10,000 years ago. It is just over 40m by 13m, with its vaulted ceiling reaching 20.7m in height. Tall windows let in streams of light to illuminate the splendid decorations, which were originally far simpler than the current paintings. Painted by no less impressive artists, among whom were Botticelli and Rosselli, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was originally designed to reflect the night sky, painted dark blue and studded with gilt stars. Although no doubt attractive, the original paintings were completely replaced when Michelangelo came to create his magnum opus.
Painting the Ceiling
Michelangelo had first come to Rome to work on the Pope’s tomb and when Julius asked him to change projects to decorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the artist was far from happy. He had invested much time and effort in the tomb, and what’s more, he had no experience at all working with frescoes. He was a sculptor, not a painter, and Michelangelo felt his talents would be wasted working on a ceiling rather than the Pope’s monumental tomb. Finally, he begrudgingly agreed to take on the commission.
Over the following years, the artist did not become any more optimistic about his new project. He frequently complained to his friends about the physical discomfort he endured, craning his neck to look up at his work, and having paint constantly dripping onto his face. Contrary to popular belief, Michelangelo did not paint lying down but instead by standing upright on a scaffold and reaching his paintbrush above his head. The artist had designed and built the structure himself, after another architect attempted to install a support suspended from ropes. Michelangelo immediately put an end to this plan, outraged at the thought that holes would have to be drilled into his ceiling.
Sistine Chapel Ceiling Layout
Michelangelo’s original commission was simply to paint the twelve apostles on the pendentives in the corners of the chapel. Unhappy first with being sidetracked from his preferred project, and now with having his work prescribed to him, the artist demanded complete artistic control. He designed a series of paintings that went far beyond his initial brief.
Running along the centre of the ceiling would be nine paintings showing stories from Genesis: the creation of the world; the creation of mankind; man’s fall from grace and subsequent suffering. The pendentives would show not the twelve apostles, but twelve prophetic figures, each of whom had foretold the arrival of the saviour. They were to be accompanied by four important biblical scenes featuring Moses, Esther, David and Judith.
Michelangelo also decorated much of the wall space, often depicting human figures who were not sufficiently holy to warrant a spot on the ceiling itself, but who still played a crucial role in the religious narrative he wanted to tell. Among these are the ancestors of Christ and the past popes. Most famous of all is his epic The Last Judgement, a later addition to the Sistine Chapel which stands behind the altar to remind (or warn) worshippers of what awaits. All in all, within the confines of a single room, Michelangelo painted a staggering 5000 square feet of frescoes.
The paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are not only a significant milestone in the history of art, but also mark a turning point within Michelangelo’s own oeuvre. The artist’s style developed during the years he spent working on the frescoes. His earlier paintings show the influence of his work with marble, their more formal structures and sculptural figures, whereas by his later works, Michelangelo had adopted the Mannerist feature of less lifelike, more experimental forms. The Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings thus help to illustrate the many competing and coalescing styles of the Renaissance.
Without a doubt the most iconic image in Michelangelo’s masterpiece is The Creation of Adam, which shows God reaching out to touch the hand of Adam, capturing the very beginnings of humanity. Such scenes had been portrayed countless times by other artists, and scholars have shown that much of the design was based on Jacopo della Quercia’s reliefs at the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna. Unlike previous depictions, however, which had portrayed God as a detached, static and inaccessible entity, Michelangelo chose to present a vivid, dynamic and powerful figure physically engaged in the creation of the world.
In contrast to The Creation of Adam is The Flood, another one of the central panels on the ceiling. While the former painting focuses almost exclusively on the two monumental characters of Adam and God, the latter is packed with lots of smaller characters, engaged in a range of complex narratives. Using the plains of water, land and sky, Michelangelo separates the different elements of the flood story, showing humans building shelter, climbing a mountain, being drowned and, more hopefully, building the ark. The painting literally works on two levels, as up close the viewer can ‘read’ the story and work out the meaning behind the catastrophic deluge, while from far down on the ground, all we can really see is the chaos and confusion of the disaster.
In between The Creation of Adam and The Flood is a depiction of The Original Sin, showing Adam and Eve indulging in the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge, tempted by a monstrous serpentine creature. The nude, muscular figures of the two humans, and the twisting coils of the snake are reminiscent of the important classical statue, Laocoön and His Sons, which was owned by Julius II himself. Michelangelo had seen the statue shortly after it was discovered in 1506, and it may have influenced his depiction of the original sin.
Among the other scriptural stories told on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are the near-sacrifice of Isaac, the massacre of the Prophets of Baal, Nathan delivering his famous parable to King David and Elijah’s ascension to heaven. Beside these scenes, the alternating figures of the biblical prophets and classical sybils sit in a variety of poses, identified by an inscription on a marble tablet. Michelangelo makes each one utterly unique, with the minor figures and structures in the background creating a powerful sense of depth and movement. The artist ensured that his paintings would have an impact, even at a distance of 20m, by using bold colours, clear forms and dramatic shading.
Meaning and Interpretations
The transcendent atmosphere and sense of awe inspired by Michelangelo’s epic frescoes immediately informs the viewer that we are dealing with a truly profound theme, one that demands the deepest reverence and contemplation. So great is the wealth of detail to be found in the paintings on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, however, that art historians and scholars have come up with dozens of different arguments and interpretations about what they all could mean.
One interesting feature of the central frescoes is that their scenes seem to be arranged in reverse chronological order, beginning with the flood and culminating in the creation of the world. Scholars have proposed a range of solutions to this problem, suggesting that the panels are ordered in this way to illustrate the idea of redemption, showing how mankind can win back God’s grace once more. A more convincing argument, however, simply states that the paintings were designed to be viewed from the altar rather than from the entrance, in which case they fall back into the expected sequence.
The stories and figures shown in Michelangelo’s ceiling paintings are taken exclusively from the Old Testament, mainly its seminal book. But around the walls of the Sistine Chapel, there were a great number of additional frescoes painted by other Renaissance luminaries, such as Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Raphael. Lots of these depicted scenes from the New Testament, including the life of Christ. And so, taken as a whole, the art in the Sistine Chapel has been understood to bring together the entirety of Christian scripture.
Another speculation that has been made about the paintings involves the figures of the Sibyls who, unlike the Prophets they accompany, are not from the Bible but from classical mythology. Even though the women are pagan icons, Michelangelo included them because they were said to have foretold the birth of a saviour, which Christians interpret as ancient predictions of the coming of Jesus. Moreover, Michelangelo depicts five particular Sibyls out of the many more he might have chosen. It is hypothesised that he chose to paint those from Africa, Asia, Greece and Ionia in order to cover a wide geographical area, mirroring how the word of God spreads across the entire world. The paintings of the Sybils may therefore have been designed to convey the universal scope of Christianity, demonstrating how faith transcends time and space.
An interpretation that has attracted support and scepticism in equal measure is the proposal made in 1990 that The Creation of Adam contains the hidden image of a human brain. The theory was put forward by an American doctor, who believed that Michelangelo’s depiction of God was modelled on the outline of a brain, in order to reflect the divine gift of intelligence. Michelangelo had certainly studied the body intensely as part of his training as a sculptor, and may even have come ‘face to face’ with a real brain, but there are no contemporary records that mention this as an inspiration for his painting. Alternatively, others have claimed that the panel contains some more risqué imagery, identifying certain shapes and allusions prominently found in Renaissance sexual symbolism.
A further source of contention are the nude male figures, the ignudi, which frame some of the central scenes. Although at first they appear completely unrelated to the theological images, art historians have still managed to find a spiritual meaning, claiming that their nudity represents the essence of humankind. Just as Adam and Eve frolicked happily around the Garden of Eden without clothes before realising their shameful nakedness, the ignudi are similarly stripped of all external coverings. According to some critics, this reflects how God judges based on the nature of one’s soul, not one’s outward bearing. Not everyone was happy with this explanation, however, with Pope Pius IV launching the famous ‘fig-leaf campaign’ to censor Michelangelo’s paintings.
In the five hundred years that have lapsed since Michelangelo completed the paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the art has experienced some wear and tear. Partial loss was sustained to the panel showing The Flood when an explosion at a nearby gunpowder warehouse sent a section of the fresco falling to the ground in 1797. Conservations also warn that similar accidents could be caused by the footfall of the thousands of visitors that enter the Vatican Museums each day. On the whole, however, the paintings have been preserved remarkably well, and yet it is no surprise that they continue to need a bit of help to stay looking their best.
Between 1980 and 1999, therefore, expert restorers worked meticulously to remove centuries’ worth of dirt, dust and debris from the surface of the frescoes, returning the colours to their original brightness and, even more excitingly, removing Pius IV’s fig leaves. Some people criticised the restoration project, however, claiming that some of Michelangelo’s nuances, shading and finer hues were lost in the process.
As soon as it was unveiled, Michelangelo’s masterpiece won unparalleled praise, with almost every element emulated and imitated by the subsequent generations of artists. From the controversial ignudi to the deceptively two-dimensional architectural backgrounds, later painters, sculptors, and architects looked to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for inspiration.
One of the earliest visitors to admire Michelangelo’s work was the young Raphael. According to Giorgio Vasari, the Vatican architect secretly let Raphael into the chapel so he could examine the paintings. This inspired him to improve the paintings of the prophets that he was working on at the time. Art historians have also noted similarities between some of the figures found in the Sistine Chapel and those that appear in Raphael’s masterpiece, The School of Athens, also in the Vatican.
The waves of praise for the frescoes have never lulled, with some of the world’s most influential and important figures commenting on its splendour. In 1787, German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe famously claimed that ‘without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving’, while Gianni Versace took a more realistic approach. When asked about why his creations were so expensive, he replied that ‘even Michelangelo got paid for doing the Sistine Chapel’. Indeed he did; 3000 ducats, in fact. But Michelangelo’s greatest reward was the immortal legacy that his masterpiece earned him, as he is now remembered as one of the greatest Old Masters.
Now that you’ve learned all the facts about the paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, why not explore the frescoes in greater detail? You can currently take a virtual tour on the Vatican Museums website.