Sistine Chapel Ceiling Part II: Earlier Influences

My blog post earlier in the week has inspired me to write even more on Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes.  Honestly I could probably write on this topic weekly and still find new things to say, its impact on art was so significant.


At the same time though, while Michelangelo’s frescoes have provided inspiration for hundreds of other artists and artworks, it appears that he also drew on a wide variety of earlier images.  During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance there were certain visual traditions that were used in art to let the viewer instantly recognize the subject.


Michelangelo was from Florence, the city known as the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance where many examples of art could be found.  Michelangelo greatly respected the master painters and sculptors that came before him and drew on their art for his own inspiration.

Temptation, Masolino and Expulsion, Masaccio, Brancacci Chapel, 
S. Maria del Carmine, Florence, 1424-27

One example can be found in Michelangelo's Temptation and Expulsion fresco, he was influenced by the frescoes in Santa Maria del Carmine, the Carmelite church in Florence.  The frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel by Masolino and Masaccio with the same subject matter were works of art that he was known to regularly visit and sketch from.


Let's compare and contrast the subjects.  From Masolino, Michelangelo borrowed the idea of the serpent in the Garden of Eden having the head of a woman rather than that of a snake.  Both artists also focused on the figures rather than the garden setting.  From Masaccio Michelangelo used the idea of an angel with a sword and showing Adam and Eve as having become haggard and miserable as they were forced to leave, both sets of figures appear to be in agony.


Michelangelo's fresco was painted more than 80 years later than the earlier two.  When comparing and contrasting both sets of figures we can see that he spent quite a lot of time studying anatomy.  Drawing from the nude life model was now a more acceptable practice, and while it was still unacceptable to dissect cadavers, his study of bones and muscles has paid off in a depicting very accurate and realistic bodies.

Temptation and Expulsion from Eden, Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Vatican, 1508-12

Another example can be found in the cloisters at Santa Maria Novella.  The frescoes done outside in the cloister by Paolo Uccello are known as the Chiostro Verde (Green Cloisters) because they have faded after being exposed to the elements and have a greenish appearance.

Interestingly enough they cover the same subject matter as the Sistine Chapel ceiling: The stories from Genesis (Creation of Adam, Creation of Eve, Temptation, Expulsion) and scenes of the Deluge and Noah's Ark.

Santa Maria Novella is the same church that Ghirlandaio and his workshop painted two enormous fresco cycles.  At the time those were being painted, Michelangelo was studying under Ghirlandaio.  He was participating in the fresco painting and would have become very familiar with Uccello's work.

Again Uccello's Temptation scene shows the serpent with the head of a woman, however he takes great care to paint a landscape and foliage in his fresco.  
 Creation of the Animals, Creation of Adam, Creation of Eve, Temptation in the Garden of Eden, Paolo Uccello, Chiostro Verde, St. Maria Novella, Florence, c-1430-1450

Compare and contrast Uccello's Creation of Adam with Michelangelo's Creation of Eve (left hand scene shown below).  Both show God as an old robed man who is helping up the newly created human.  There is something of Uccello's Adam in Michelangelo's Creation of Adam as well, the pose that Adam takes with one straight leg and one bent knee.
I imagine that when they were first done the Uccello frescoes looked much different and would have been quite impressive.  However when compared side by side (done years later) it is easy to see why Michelangelo became such an influence on later artists.  His realism is stunning.

Look at the interesting view of the ceiling below, the combination of large scenes combined with smaller scenes and the painted illusion of sculpture and a cornice is incredible.  Everything you see below is painted and creates both a striking illusion and a powerful narrative.



Last but not least we should remember the influence of the ancient sculpture, the Laocoon, which was unearthed while Michelangelo was painting this in Rome (more information can be found in an earlier blog post I wrote on the Laocoon in July of 2011).  The sculpture can be seen in the left hand column of this blog.

The struggle taking place and the twisting torso influenced those figures known as "ignudi" on the ceiling.  They were the mysterious athletic male figures who frame the corners of each main scene, no two have the same pose.

In a later post I want to highlight some of the later artists that Michelangelo influenced, I already mentioned this in my writing on Caravaggio.  There are many, many other artists that drew on Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes as a source.  I think that may be a very long blog post indeed.

Until then here are my book recommendations-
Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling by Ross King- I know I just listed it in my last post but this book is really informative and well written.  It is non fiction but feels like a fast paced novel and puts every aspect of this work in a new light.
Michelangelo Biography of a Genius by Bruno Nardini- this is a very good biography.
The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo by Irving Stone- one of my favorite books, telling the story of Michelangelo through a novel.  This is based on history and research but as a novel isn't 100% accurate, still it is a very good story and will give anyone a new appreciation for this great master.


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