Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Ceiling

We were never supposed to remember Michelangelo when we think of the Sistine Chapel.  In the early Renaissance an artist was little more than a tradesman or artisan.  Art wasn’t created as self-expression but was typically commissioned by a wealthy patron.  Even the best and most highly sought after artists were not considered to be in the same social class as their patrons.  

In the case of the Sistine Chapel the patron was the pope.  Do many people in the 21st century know of Pope Julius II (1443-1513) who commissioned the ceiling frescoes or his uncle Pope Sixtus IV (1414-1484) who remodeled the original chapel?  Both were from the extremely wealthy and influential della Rovere family in Urbino.

 Sistine Chapel Ceiling frescoes, Michelangelo, 1508-12, Vatican

When the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes were commissioned the public was meant to remember these two popes from the della Rovere family instead.  It would have seemed unthinkable before their creation that 500 years later instead the ceiling would be forever linked with the artist rather than the patron.

I have been to the Sistine Chapel more than once, and I am also struck by the fact that it is not just the ceiling which is covered in frescoes by Michelangelo.  The entire chapel is covered in frescoes painted by some of the leading artists of the time including Luca Signorelli and then another three who all trained with Leonardo’s teacher Andrea del Verrocchio: Botticelli, Perugino (Raphael’s teacher) and Ghirlandaio (Michelangelo’s first teacher).  It is as if the entire Italian High Renaissance is indebted to the work in the Sistine Chapel.

 Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter, Pietro Perugino, 1481-82, Vatican

Michelangelo started his artistic training in the fresco workshop of Ghirlandaio in Florence.  He participated in the fresco cycles at Santa Maria Novella in Florence, but he didn’t enjoy the medium.  Shortly thereafter he received training in sculpting and from that point forward considered himself a sculptor.  Later he went to Rome, where he attracted the attention of the Pope with his sculpture of the Pieta.

Pope Julius II saw in the ceiling a blank canvas to express the greatness of the Catholic Church and therefore the implied greatness of the della Rovere family within the church.  However Michelangelo wasn’t interested in the commission at all, he was more interested in the Pope’s original idea of building himself an enormous marble tomb.  When Julius II changed his mind and asked to have the huge and oddly curved Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoed, Michelangelo left and went home to Florence.  The Pope had him followed and asked that he return and the civic leaders made him return so as not to start a war by disobeying the Pope.

 The Deluge, Michelangeo, Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Vatican, 1508-12

Michelangelo returned with a team of assistants, unlike painting on a canvas a fresco was an incredibly difficult process which involved plastering a wall and immediately painting on the wet plaster.  The painting was permanent and had to be removed to fix errors, it took days of four men working together to paint even a small area.

The role of the artist had slowly been changing in the late 15th century and the three great artists of the High Renaissance (Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael) played a large role in that.  It is not entirely known what part Michelangelo played in the layout of the ceiling and the depiction of the Biblical stories shown there.  As Ross King writes in his informative book Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling (p. 60):

     "For a pope to hand over to a mere artist - even to an artist of Michelangelo's reputation - the
     complete pictorial program for the decoration of the most important chapel in Christendom 
     would have been, to say the least, highly unusual."

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

It is much more likely that there were advisers to the Pope who helped suggest the design and choose the stories to show.  The scenes are all from the Old Testament and relate to rebirth and new beginnings (God creating the World, God creating Adam and Eve, Garden of Eden and Noah's Ark) and therefore indirectly relate to how the della Rovere family helped achieve it's own rebirth of the church.

However Michelangelo visited many churches in Florence and drew on earlier depictions and sources for these (this will be discussed at length in a future blog post).  His new realism and use of the figure to tell stories had an immediate impact when the first half of the ceiling was unveiled to the public in 1510.

 The Creation of Adam, Michelangeo, Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Vatican, 1508-12

The stories were painted in backwards chronological order,  note how much his style was changed and simplified from the first scene showing Noah and the Flood.  In that early painting the scene is crowded with figures.  His work becomes much more effective when he simplifies his style.

He uses the human figure to represent the entire story, leaving out many of the symbols, landscape and backgrounds that other artists were using.  His studies in human anatomy are evident and this key work shaped the direction of the Renaissance.

 God Separating Darkness and Light, Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Vatican, 1508-12

Pope Julius II recognized the extraordinary skill level of Michelangelo, but it was through his Sistine Chapel Ceiling frescoes that everyone recognized his genius and his status as a "mere artist" was transcended. 
Note: For more on this topic my next blog post  Sistine Chapel Ceiling Part II: Earlier Influences, discusses some of the earlier art that inspired Michelangelo.

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