The Sistine Chapel
latin: Cappella Sistina
Was it divine intervention that compelled Michelangelo (1475 -1564) to climb up a scaffold in 1508 to begin the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling? Perhaps Pope Julius II (pontificate 1503 -1513) did think of himself as divine? No Pope before or since has enjoyed such a fearsome reputation and it was he, who ordered the ill-tempered sculptor from Florence to return to his studio in Rome and prepare studies for a painting!! At thirty-three years of age Michelangelo was the most gifted and sought after sculptor in all of Europe. It was Julius II who upon seeing the Michelangelo's Pieta in St. Peters early in 1505, ordered that the young sculptor come to Rome and work for his holiness. It was agreed that Michelangelo would create a tomb for his Pope that would rival anything created in antiquity for any king or Cesar!
It was Bramante (1444 –1514), who convinced Julius II to engage Michelangelo as a painter and to have him repair and decorate the vault of the Sistine Chapel. The chapel was dear to Julius II, built by his uncle Pope Sixtus IV in 1477 from whom it took its name. Since its construction the Sistine Chapel has played an important part in the life of the Vatican. Known as the Capella Papalis (or Papal Chapel) the world knows it even today as the location where the cardinal’s conclave meet to elect a new pope. At the time, the vault (or ceiling) was simply decorated with a deep ultramarine blue sky, sprinkled with gold leafed stars, as was common for the day.
By 1504 however, a series of worrying cracks appeared in the Sistine Chapel ceiling caused by the subsidence of the underlying soil. Michelangelo the great sculptor was about to become a painter! “On this day, May 10, 1508, I Michelangelo, sculptor, have received on account from our Holy Lord Pope Julius II five-hundred papal ducats toward the painting of ceiling of the papal Sistine Chapel, on which I am beginning work today.” In truth the Sistine ceiling had to be repaired and prepared with a new layer of plaster adding another delay to the project. A crew headed by Piero Rosselli worked for several months to prepare the surface. When this work was finished, Michelangelo had a ‘canvas’ that measured 12,000 square feet (1,100 m2), being 40.23 m in length and 13.30 m in width (134 x 43 ft)! It took from 1508 until it was finished in 1512.
His design is spectacular, giving people the opportunity to see the stories from the Old Testament. The main panels running down the centre of the Sistine Chapel ceiling portray the nine episodes from the Book of Genesis, including the famous scene of the Creation of Adam (1511) located towards the alter. At either end and beneath the scenes are the figures of twelve men and women who prophesied the birth of Jesus. On the crescent-shaped areas, or "lunettes", above each of the chapel's windows are the Ancestors of Christ, identified by name. In the triangular spandrels above them are a further eight groups of figures.
Today millions of visitor’s come to Rome and rush to the Vatican Museums, for the most part to make their way to the Sistine Chapel to stand in awe, necks strained to see the work of a genius. No artist since has come close to the scale, technical skill and majestic composition and design of this masterpiece. His Last Judgement (1535) painted on the alter wall completes the most powerful cycle of painting in the western world. In the Sistine Chapel the great sculptor became a great painter.
The famous Sistine chapel ceiling frescoed by Michelangelo with scenes from Genesis (1508-12), and the altar wall with the Last Judgement (1534-41)
Michelangelo's 'Creation of Adam', Sistine ceiling in Vatican Museums.
'The Last Judgement' by Michelangelo, Cappella Sistina in Vaticani, Rome.