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Michelangelo & the Painting of Sistine Chapel

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  • 0:04 Michelangelo & The…
  • 0:44 Commissioning Michelangelo
  • 2:03 Ceiling
  • 4:27 The Altar Wall
  • 5:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erica Cummings

Erica teaches college Humanities, Literature, and Writing classes and has a Master's degree in Humanities.

Michelangelo initially wanted nothing to do with the Sistine Chapel. But he eventually took on the task of painting its altar wall and ceiling, and his incredible work there helped establish him as one of the foremost painters of all time.

Michelangelo & the Sistine Chapel

The Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo Buonarroti never considered himself much of a painter, but from 1508-1512 and then again from 1535-1541, he painted a series of incredibly detailed and beautiful frescoes in Rome.

The Sistine Chapel is a church in Vatican City and a very popular tourist destination because of its artistic and religious significance. As a whole, the artwork of the Sistine Chapel depicts important biblical stories and Church doctrine. Michelangelo's incredible contributions to the Sistine Chapel's ceiling and altar wall would make both him and the chapel legends in Western art.

Commissioning Michelangelo

By 1508, other Renaissance painters had painted some of the walls of the Sistine Chapel. However, Pope Julius II still wanted Michelangelo to apply his artistic genius there. Michelangelo initially refused because he wanted to devote his time to sculpture instead of painting. But a request from the Pope is hard to turn down, so Michelangelo eventually gave in. In his thirties, Michelangelo would work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel from 1508-1512.

Painting the ceiling was a grueling and complicated task, especially considering that Michelangelo had to construct scaffolds to reach the ceiling, 65 feet off the ground. He encountered his fair share of challenges, from the fresco plaster becoming infected with mold to his body aching from the hours upon hours he devoted to the work. He initially thought he was not up for the challenge, but he realized that this task was something that God, not just the Pope, wanted him to do. He would even come back later (1535-1541) to paint the altar wall of the Chapel, at the request of Pope Clement VII and then Pope Paul III. He used intense colors, incredible detail, and idealized human forms to convey the spiritual meaning as well as his artistic skill in these works.

Ceiling

Let's examine the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in detail. The center of the ceiling depicts nine prominent scenes from the book of Genesis:

  1. God separating light and darkness during Creation
  2. God creating the solar system
  3. God dividing water from land
  4. God creating Adam
  5. God creating Eve
  6. Adam and Eve falling into sin and being expelled from Eden
  7. Noah's family sacrificing to God
  8. The Great Flood
  9. The Drunkenness of Noah

These scenes show both the honor and the sinfulness of mankind; they show both the ups and downs of humanity's relationship to God. We see God delighting in his creations, and we see Noah and his family honoring God with their sacrifice. However, we also see Adam, Eve, and Noah sinning.

In the corners of the ceiling, Michelangelo painted four other stories from ancient Christian history. The first is of Moses holds up a bronze serpent. God uses Moses and the serpent to punish the Israelites that had given up faith and save those who repented. The second is of David, empowered by God, slaying Goliath, which in turn saves the Israelites from the Philistines. The third is of Judith, empowered by God, beheading the evil Holofernes, thus saving the Israelites, and the fourth shows Haman being slain because his plot to kill the Israelites was thwarted by good Queen Esther. These scenes once again depict both the good and evil in humanity. They also share the theme of God working through people to punish evil-doers and save the innocent.

Surrounding these scenes, Michelangelo painted figures from both the Bible and ancient mythology. These figures include the ancestors of Jesus, biblical prophets, and sibyls, which are ancient secular prophets. The genealogy of Jesus literally encircles the entire ceiling.

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