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The Story of The Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes (c. 1508 – 1512)

The Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes are some of Michelangelo’s most impressive works, featuring 343 figures painted over 500 square metres. Today, it remains one of the most iconic works of the Italian Renaissance. In this article, Singulart discusses the life of Michelangelo and his masterpiece The Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes.

Who was Michelangelo? 

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475 – 1564) was an Italian sculptor, painter and architect considered to be one of the most influential artists to come out of the Renaissance period. He was born in Caprese near Arezzo in Tuscany and raised in Florence where he studied grammar under the Humanist Francesco da Urbin. At the age of 13, he became artist Domenico Ghirlandaio’s apprentice. Ghirlandaio had one of the largest workshops in Florence and in 1489 he recommended Michelangelo to Lorenzo de Medici after being asked for his two best pupils. From 1490 to 1492, he studied at the Medici’s Humanist Academy, founded on their Neoplatonic beliefs. However, after Lorenzo de Medici’s death in 1492, Michelangelo left and returned to his father’s home.

After stints in Venice and Bologna, he returned to Florence but didn’t receive any work from the Savonarola who had taken control of the city. He accepted an invitation by Cardinal Raffaele Riario to move to Rome in 1496 and wouldn’t return to Florence until 1499 when he was commissioned by the Guild of Wool to complete an unfinished carrara marble statue. It was here that Michelangelo created one of his most famous works, David, which was completed in 1504.

michelangelo portrait
Michelangelo (1475 – 1564)

The following year he returned to Rome to build Pope Julius II’s tomb and was also commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, on which he worked from 1508-1512. The Sistine Chapel commission includes some of his most famous paintings and depicts nine episodes from the Book of Genesis, split into three sections: The Creation of Earth, The Creation of Humankind and The Fall from God’s Grace.

In 1520, the Medici’s commissioned Michelangelo to design a family funerary chapel in the Basilica of San Lorenzo. He would continue to be a highly sought out figure, with him being appointed in 1546 as architect of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Michelangelo continued to work tirelessly up until his death, with the incomplete Rondanini Pieta being sculpted six days before his death in 1564. As the prolific artist that he was, he is perhaps the best documented artist of the 16th century and the only artist to have had his biography (by Giorgio Vasari) published during his lifetime. 

What Are The Sistine Chapel Ceiling Frescos?

The Sistine Chapel ceiling frescos are not only one of Michelangelo’s most iconic achievements but also icons of High Renaissance Art. The Sistine Chapel was built within the Vatican between 1477 and 1480 by Pope Sixtus IV, the chapel’s namesake. Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the ceilings by Pope Julius II, with other artists including Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio (Michelangelo’s teacher) also contributing. The Sistine Chapel was designed to illustrate the doctrine of the Catholic Church and thus the ceiling is decorated to depict nine passages from the Book of Genesis. Originally, Michelangelo was commissioned to paint only the twelve apostles, however he negotiated a much grander composition on a much larger scale, which ended up taking him four years to complete and includes a total of 343 figures. 

creation of adam
Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam

Michelangeo’s Technique at the Sistine Chapel

In order to be able to paint The Sistine Chapel ceiling frescos, Michelangelo designed a specific scaffolding that suspended from holes near the ceiling, rather than being built up from the floor. He divided the ceiling into two in order to make the composition easier to paint. He used the common fresco technique, which relies on the reaction between damp lime plaster and water based pigments to fix the image to the wall. He proceeded in daily sections, called giornata, laying fresh plaster to the respective section that he was working on that day. 

The Composition 

The Sistine Chapel ceiling frescos are made up of nine scenes from the Book of Genesis and five smaller scenes which are supported by four naked youths, known as the Ignudi. Between the scenes are twelve men and women who are said to have predicted the birth of Jesus. Above each window are lists of Christ’s ancestors and their portraits. In the spandrels are eight more groups of biblical figures and the entire ceiling is contained by four corner pendentives which illustrate four different biblical stories.

The overarching story of The Sistine Chapel ceiling frescos depicts God’s creation of the world and of man, humanity’s fall from grace and punishment up until the birth of Jesus, the savior of humanity. In the composition, Michalengelo combines symbolism from the church with Renaissance thinking and Humanist philosophy in a remarkably non-conflicting manner. The Ignudi are the most obviously non-biblical figures. The nine main scenes depicted are: The Separation of Light and Darkness; The Creation of the Sun, Moon and Earth; The Separation of Land and Water; The Creation of Adam; The Creation of Eve; The Temptation and Expulsion; The Sacrifice of Noah; The Great Flood; and The Drunkenness of Noah. 

Describing The Sistine Chapel ceiling frescos, Renaissance art historian Giorgio Vasari stated, “The work has proved a veritable beacon to our art, of inestimable benefit to all painters, restoring light to a world that for centuries had been plunged into darkness. Indeed, painters no longer need to seek for new inventions, novel attitudes, clothed figures, fresh ways of expression, different arrangements, or sublime subjects, for this work contains every perfection possible under those headings.” 

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