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Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Rome

Overview

Sistine Chapel Ceiling - section
Sistine Chapel Ceiling - section

Photo by Jean-Christophe BENOIST on Wikimedia Commons

The Sistine Chapel is one of the most famous and widely-visited chapels in the world, and its fame largely comes from the breathtaking frescoes painted on its ceiling by Michelangelo Buonarotti. While all the walls of the chapels are covered in magnificent frescoes, its world-famous fresco on the ceiling stands above the rest, impressive in its absolute splendor.

Description

In the center of the ceiling are the nine scenes from the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, starting from the altar towards the entrance. They are organized in three groups of three alternating large and small panels:

Sistine Chapel ceiling

The nine scenes from the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. The first three depict God creating the Heavens and the Earth, the next three show God creating the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, and their expulsion from Heaven, and the last three show scenes around the family of Noah.

Sistine Chapel ceiling

Photo by Amandajm on Wikimedia Commons

The first group, painted last and appearing the most dynamic and broad of all the panels, depicts scenes from the first chapter of Genesis, showing God creating the Heavens and the Earth with all that is in it in six days, resting on the seventh day:
Separation of Light from Darkness
Separation of Light from Darkness

Photo by Ahiyajorge on Wikimedia Commons

Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Plants
Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Plants

Photo by Kameraad Pjotr on Wikimedia Commons

Separation of Land and Water
Separation of Land and Water

Photo by TTaylor on Wikimedia Commons

Not shown are the Fifth Day, when God created the birds of the air and fish and creatures of the deep, and the Sixth Day, when God created the creatures of the Earth. The second group shows God creating the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, and their disobedience of God and consequent expulsion from the Garden of Eden where they have lived and where they walked with God:
Creation of Adam
Creation of Adam

Photo on Wikimedia Commons

Creation of Eve
Creation of Eve

Photo by Sailko on Wikimedia Commons

The Fall and Expulsion from Paradise
The Temptation and Expulsion from Paradise

Photo by Nakinn on Wikimedia Commons

The third group of three pictures depicts scenes from the sixth to ninth chapters of Genesis, showing scenes around the family of Noah:
Sacrifice of Noah
Sacrifice of Noah

Photo by Sailko on Wikimedia Commons

The Great Flood
The Great Flood

Photo by Nakinn on Wikimedia Commons

The Drunkenness of Noah
The Drunkenness of Noah

Photo by Sailko on Wikimedia Commons

Sistine Chapel ceiling - design
Sistine Chapel ceiling - design

Photo by Begoon on Wikimedia Commons

On each side of the five small panes from the Book of Genesis there are two "Ignudi" (meaning "naked" in Italian), athletic, nude males, each being painted sitting in a different position, thought to represent angels overseeing the events depicted in the Bible scenes and holding a circular bronze medallion. The ten medallions represent scenes from the Book of Kings from the Old Testament:
Medallion - Death of Uriah
Medallion - Death of Uriah

Photo by TTaylor on Wikimedia Commons

Medallion - destruction of the idol of Baal
Medallion - destruction of the idol of Baal

Photo by Sailko on Wikimedia Commons

The panels with the Prophets, shown seated on monumental thrones, are to the sides of each of the five small panes from the Book of Genesis and two at the ends of the ceiling, a total of twelve. Seven of the figures were Prophets of Israel and were male, and five are Sibyls, female prophetesses from classical antiquity who were said to have prophesied the birth of Christ. The twelve figures are: Jonah (above the altar), Jeremiah, Persian Sibyl, Ezekiel, Erythraean Sibyl, Joel, Zechariah (above the main door of the chapel), Delphic Sibyl, Isaiah, Cumaean Sibyl, Daniel, Libyan Sibyl.
Libyan Sibyl
Libyan Sibyl

Photo by Lily15 on Wikimedia Commons

Prophet Ezekiel
Prophet Ezekiel

Photo by Sailko on Wikimedia Commons

Persian Sibyl
Persian Sibyl

Photo by Lily15 on Wikimedia Commons

Delphic Sibyl
Delphic Sibyl

Photo by Mattes on Wikimedia Commons

Prophet Zechariah
Prophet Zechariah

Photo by Sailko on Wikimedia Commons

Prophet Daniel
Prophet Daniel

Photo by TTaylor on Wikimedia Commons

In each corner of the ceiling there is a triangular panel representing scenes from the Bible containing episodes of the miraculous salvation of the people of Israel by Moses, Esther, David and Judith:
The Brazen Serpent
The Brazen Serpent

Photo by Nakinn on Wikimedia Commons

The Punishment of Haman
The Punishment of Haman

Photo by Nakinn on Wikimedia Commons

David and Goliath
David and Goliath

Photo by Nakinn on Wikimedia Commons

Judith and Holofernes
Judith and Holofernes

Photo by Jörg Bittner Unna on Wikimedia Commons

Michelangelo was also commissioned to paint the lunettes above the windows, six on each side plus two at the end of the chapel opposite to the Altar, the last two being now blocked. Michelangelo decided to paint the Ancestors of Christ in these lunettes. The size of the figures represented here, being midway between the very large figures on the ceiling and much smaller figures of Popes painted on the frescoes on the walls, are thought as a bridge between them. In the center of each lunette can be read the names of the male line by which Jesus, through Joseph, his Earthly father, descended from Abraham, according to the Gospel of Matthew. However, the genealogy is now incomplete, as two more windows were on the wall with the Altar and were destroyed by Michelangelo when he painted "The Last Judgment" in 1537.
Lunette - Jacob and Joseph
Lunette - Jacob and Joseph

Photo by Sailko on Wikimedia Commons

Lunette - Hezekiah, Manasseh, Amon
Lunette - Hezekiah, Manasseh, Amon

Photo by Mattes on Wikimedia Commons

Lunette - Eleazar and Mathan
Lunette - Eleazar and Mathan

Photo by Mattes on Wikimedia Commons

Lunette - Asa, Jehoshaphat and Joram
Lunette - Asa, Jehoshaphat and Joram

Photo by Mattes on Wikimedia Commons

Lunette - Azor and Zadok
Lunette - Azor and Zadok

Photo by Sailko on Wikimedia Commons

Lunette - Amminadab
Lunette - Amminadab

Photo by Sailko on Wikimedia Commons

History

Pope Julius II commissioned the repainting of the chapel's ceiling to Michelangelo in 1508, and the work was completed between 1508 and 1512. Michelangelo was intimidated by the scale of the project and initially refused it, as he saw himself more of a sculptor than a painter. He was suspicious that the project was offered to him at the suggestion of his enemies to set up his failure. He was originally commissioned to paint the 12 Apostles, but after he refused, the Pope offered him a compromise, to paint biblical scenes of his own choice. The project turned out to change the course of Western art, being regarded as one of the major artistic accomplishments of human civilization, and to include more that 300 figures, on 5,000 square feet (460 sq meters) of frescoes. The initial scaffold was built by Bramante, the chapel architect, suspended with ropes from the ceiling. Michelangelo didn't agree with it, as he said that will leave unpainted holes in his work. The Pope then asked Michelangelo to build his own scaffold, and Michelangelo did so by building a flat wooden platform set up on brackets installed high up on the walls, above the top of the windows. Underneath the platform, a screen made from cloth was hang to catch plaster drips, dust and paint drops. The scaffolding covered only half of the building at a time and the platform was moved as the painting was done in stages. The areas of the wall covered by the scaffolding still appear on the walls as unpainted areas across the bottom of the lunettes, and the holes were re-used to hold scaffolding in the ceiling's restorations. Michelangelo worked standing on this platform. For four years he worked on his scaffolding, his brush above him, looking upwards, and he grew so uncomfortable that he made a little personal sketch of himself painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and in 1509 wrote a poem to one of his friends, Giovanni da Pistoia, here translated in English:

Ceiling detail - God in the first day of Creation.
Ceiling detail - God in the first day of Creation, represented in the first of the nine scenes from the Book of Genesis.

Photo by TTaylor on Wikimedia Commons

Michelangelo's sketch representing him standing and painting the chapel ceiling
Michelangelo's sketch representing him standing and painting the chapel ceiling

Photo by TTaylor on Wikimedia Commons

"I've already grown a goiter from this torture, hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy (or anywhere else where the stagnant water's poison). My stomach's squashed under my chin, my beard's pointing at heaven, my brain's crushed in a casket, my breast twists like a harpy's. My brush, above me all the time, dribbles paint so my face makes a fine floor for droppings! My haunches are grinding into my guts, my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight, every gesture I make is blind and aimless. My skin hangs loose below me, my spine's all knotted from folding over itself. I'm bent taut as a Syrian bow. Because I'm stuck like this, my thoughts are crazy, perfidious tripe: anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe. My painting is dead. Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor. I am not in the right place - I am not a painter." Michelangelo painted affresco, meaning the plaster was laid fresh in sections every day. He decided not to use a full-sized drawing, but to draw directly on the ceiling. He drew a grid to enlarge directly on the ceiling the image from his small-scale drawings, and then made the outlines on the ceiling. While the plaster was still damp, he applied the color in large areas, then later he revisited the areas and added the details and shades with a variety of brushes. His expertise evolved with the project. The earlier scenes contain smaller figures, visible in the first three painted "The Drunkenness of Noah", "The Slaying of Goliath" and "The Creation of Eve". Later his scale became larger and style broader. The final image of God in the act of Creation was painted in a single day, the scene also reflecting Michelangelo himself in the act of creating the ceiling. Michelangelo used bright colors, easily visible from the floor, and cleanly defined outlines. The proportions of his figures are so great, that when standing beneath it, "it appears as if the viewer could simply raise a finger and meet those of God and Adam". Vasari considered the ceiling "unfinished". According to the biography of Michelangelo by Ascanio Condivi, one of his students, the Pope was very impatient to see the work completed, and kept asking when the work would be finished, even thought Michelangelo executed the entire work without any help, without even someone to grind his colors for him. Michelangelo responded "When I can", which angered the Pope who, enraged, retorted, "You want me to have you thrown off the scaffolding." Michelangelo grew so upset that he removed the scaffolding and, on All Saints' Day, November 1, 1512, he revealed the work as it was, without adding gold leaf and vivid blue lapis lazuli as was customary with frescoes, which would have also linked the ceiling with the walls, highlighted with a great deal of gold. It seems Michelangelo's original plan was not to add the additional gold and lapis lazuli, as the intense colors would have distracted from his painted composition. This, plus the trouble of assembling the scaffolding again, were deciding factors for Michelangelo leaving out the gold. According to the biography of Condivi, when the pope asked him to add gold, Michelangelo responded that "I do not see that men wear gold". The pope then said, "It will look poor", and Michelangelo replied: "Those who are depicted there, they were poor, too", so thus the work remained untouched.