The Other Sistine Chapel Frescoes

Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Ceiling frescoes are among the most famous paintings in the world.  However the entire Sistine Chapel is covered in fresco paintings, the walls were painted nearly thirty years earlier by some of the most famous artists of the late 15th century.  

Pope Sixtus IV commissioned the frescoes for the walls in 1481 and asked that the Chapel be completed within a year (named the "Sistine" Chapel in his honor).  He chose to hire several successful fresco painters from Tuscany and Umbria.  The Florentines included: Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli and Cosimo Rosselli (assisted by Piero di Cosimo).  From Perugia came Pietro Perugino (who was assisted by Pinturicchio) and Luca Signorelli who worked in both regions.

 The Calling of the Apostles Peter and Matthew, Domenico Ghirlandaio,

The Calling of the Apostles moves away from the stylization of his Last Supper and towards the later style he would become known for.  Look at the two halves of the painting, the figures on the right side are painted in a rather stylized way, mostly in profile while the figures in the center and on the left side are more naturalistic.  This fresco is filled with details and uses atmospheric perspective so that the objects in the background are painted in blues and grays.  The painting is also rich in color, no expense was spared in the use of pigments.

Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter, Pietro Perugino (with Pinturicchio)
Sistine Chapel, 1481-82

Pietro Perugino was a key figure in the Italian Renaissance and a painter who emphasized beauty and harmony in his work.  Pinturicchio was his student and his assistant and worked closely with him.  The style of Pinturicchio (and also of the early Raphael) was very similar to their master Perugino who brought a new sense of gracefulness to the High Renaissance.  Here he shows Christ handing the keys of the church to St. Peter, which was an appropriate theme for the chapel attached to St. Peter's Basilica.

This is both a very famous work of art and also was a very influential work of art for later painters.  Unlike some other paintings and frescoes done at this time which were in private villas or small chapels, St. Peter's and the Sistine Chapel received thousands of visitors from all over Europe and beyond.  Perugino's graceful handling of human figures, use of one-point perspective and inclusion of harmonious 15th century Italianate architecture within a Biblical story would influence a wide variety of future artists.

Temptation of Christ, Sandro Botticelli
Sistine Chapel, 1481-82 

The Pope requested ten frescoes from the Old Testament (painted on the south wall) and New Testament (painted on the north wall) as well as many papal portraits near the clerestory windows.  Botticelli painted three of the large frescoes and around seven portraits.  Some of the frescoes on the altar wall were removed in the early 1530's to make way for Michelangelo's famous Last Judgement fresco which now covers the entire wall.

The Testament and Death of Moses, Luca Signorelli
Sistine Chapel, 1481-82

Luca Signorelli is perhaps most famous for his fresco of the Antichrist in the Cathedral of Orvieto, but that wasn't painted until 1499.  This is a much earlier work from this artist who was active in Tuscany, Umbria and Rome.  This fresco uses continuous narrative to show several scenes from the life of Moses including: Moses teaching the law to the Israelites, being shown the Promised Land from Mount Nebo and the descent of Moses from the mountain.

This was not the first time that several of these painters had met each other, both Ghirlandaio and Perugino were students in the workshop of Florentine Andrea Verrocchio along with Leonardo da Vinci.  Ghirlandaio as mentioned earlier would go on to train Michelangelo and Perugio would become the teacher of Raphael.  Botticelli may also have studied with Verrocchio (both painters studied under Fra Fillipo Lippi).  These artists would collaborate with one another in the future as well: Perugino, Ghirlandaio and Botticelli all worked on another fresco cycle together in a villa of Lorenzo di Medici in the mid-1480's.

The Italian "High Renaissance" is often said to have lasted from 1480-1520 and certainly these frescoes were painted in a style that had an enormous influence.  I have often thought that this interesting fresco cycle truly marked the start of the Italian High Renaissance.

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