The famous image of two men touching each other’s finger, The Creation of Adam, has become an icon in popular culture. It is the heart of one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of art: the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This image is just one of one hundred and seventy-five picture units comprising nine scenes from Genesis, four Old Testament histories, seven prophets, and five sibyls framed with a multitude of nude figures forming a fictive architectural structure.
To help me explore the mastery of Michelangelo’s frescos of the Sistine Chapel, I had the honor of interviewing Dr. William E. Wallace, Professor of Art History at Washington University in St. Louis, author of multiple books on Michelangelo including the biography Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man, and His Times, and his latest book Michelangelo, God’s Architect: The Story of His Final Years and Greatest Masterpiece. He has written over 80 essays on Renaissance art.
Dr. Wallace was one of the experts invited to the Vatican for a consultation about the conservation of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Dr. Wallace was very generous with his time and information, and I’m grateful that he was so willing to share his insights on Michelangelo’s working process in the Sistine Chapel (1).
Across three articles, I will use the insights provided to me by Dr. Wallace, alongside some of Michelangelo’s other biographers, to explore how Michelangelo’s fresco work in the Sistine Chapel might inform us about mastery. These three articles will cover Michelangelo’s biography in relation to the Sistine Chapel (Part I), the subject matter chosen for the Sistine Chapel (Part II), and the techniques and technical issues Michelangelo came across completing such a large scale fresco (Part III).
Our story begins in 1508 in Rome, which was quickly becoming the cultural center of the western world. At 33 years old, Michelangelo was summoned by Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Dr. Wallace provided insight into Michelangelo’s attitude during this time: “I think at the time of Sistine, he’s still trying to be the greatest artist of all time. [Here,] he’s acting more like the artist that carved the David: ‘I’m the best sculptor. Now, I’m going to be the best painter. I’m going to be the best artist of all time.’ He’s still suffering the hubris of youth.”
Michelangelo had recently become famous in Florence for sculpting the Pieta and the David. It was only several months after the completion of the David, in 1505, that Pope Julius II requested that Michelangelo sculpt the pope’s tomb. Michelangelo was excited about this project and had ambitious ideas for Pope Julius II’s tomb. Designs were created and marble was transported to the worksite, but something changed. Pope Julius II seemed to have lost interest in having his tomb completed and refused to pay for any more marble. When the Pope refused to pay Michelangelo back for materials it angered Michelangelo and he decided to leave Rome for Florence (2).
Pope Julius II, however, wasn’t letting Michelangelo off that easy. He had five of his couriers follow Michelangelo into Florence where Michelangelo refused to return to Rome with them. The Pope wanted Michelangelo to return so he could work on frescoing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (2)(3). According to one of Michelangelo’s biographer’s, Giorgio Vasari, Michelangelo suspected that Bramante, a highly respected architect who worked for Pope Julius II, wanted to ruin his reputation by having him paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: “In this manner it seemed possible to Bramante and other rivals of [Michelangelo] to draw him away from sculpture, in which they saw him to be perfect, and to plunge him into despair, thinking that if they compelled him to paint, he would do work less worthy of praise, since he had no experience of colors in fresco, and that he would prove inferior to [Raphael], and, even if he did succeed in the work, in any case, it would make him angry against the Pope; so that in either event they would achieve their objective of getting rid of him.” (4)
Michelangelo was a sculptor and not a painter. When he was asked to paint the ceiling, he replied “painting is not my art.” Michelangelo only wanted to sculpt and was hoping to return to work on Pope Julius II’s tomb. He did not want to return to Rome, however, because he was afraid for his life; he thought that both Bramante and the Pope wanted him dead. According to Ross King, “Whether [Michelangelo] actually feared for his life at the hands of Bramante is doubtful, but he did have good reason to fear the wrath of Julius.” Michelangelo wanted to finish the Pope’s tomb from Florence instead of Rome to ensure his safety since the Pope had no jurisdiction in Florence (2).
One does not simply refuse a pope, however, and it wasn’t long before Michelangelo was ordered to return to Rome. Michelangelo, afraid of the consequences of disobeying Pope Julius II again, returned and begged for forgiveness, which the pope granted. Several years later, after completing a great bronze statue of Pope Julius II, Michelangelo was summoned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (2)(3).
But Michelangelo did not know how to fresco. So, he brought on more experienced people to help him with the large project. Vasari, however, suggests that Michelangelo, “perceiving that [the assistants’] works were very far from what he desired, and not being satisfied with them, he resolved one morning to throw to the ground everything they had done…” and later “made arrangements to paint the whole work by himself, carried it well on the way to completion with the utmost solitude, labor, and study.” (4)
Dr. Wallace told me that this claim about completing the ceiling “with the utmost solitude,” like most stories about Michelangelo’s life, is slightly embellished: “There were 13 assistants there, and he dismissed most of them… He didn’t really know much about fresco and brought about five [assistants] from Florence who knew a lot about fresco. He got rid of them after a little bit of work [painting] the flood and realized, ‘I can do this.’ But the fact is that he retained a whole bunch of people…” Most of the assistants Michelangelo kept did manual labor or the less important work. Wallace continued, “so when he says he painted it all by himself, that’s his way of celebrating the fact that really he did. He directed the entire operation and painted the most important figures.”
For the next four years, Michelangelo would take what he learned about fresco and paint the ceiling tirelessly. He was not a painter, but he was up to the task of completing one of the largest and most phenomenal fresco paintings completed in our known history. This was not an easy task. He had to deal with family issues, rivalries, technical mishaps, and politics (2)(3)(4). Michelangelo repeatedly told of his troubles while painting the ceiling: “I live here surrounded by the greatest anxieties, suffering the greatest bodily fatigues: I have not a friend of any sort, and I do not want one; I have not so much time as suffices for me to eat the necessary food.” (5)
One of Michelangelo’s poems about painting the ceiling hauntingly relays the pain of daily painting while looking up at the ceiling:
I’ve grown a goiter by dwelling in this den— As cats from stagnant streams in Lombardy, Or in what other land they hap to be— Which drives the belly close beneath the chin: My beard turns up to heaven; my nape falls in, Fixed on my spine: my breast-bone visibly Grows like a harp: a rich embroidery Bedews my face from brush-drops thick and thin. My loins into my paunch like levers grind: My buttock like a crupper bears my weight; My feet unguided wander to and fro; In front my skin grows loose and long; behind, By bending it becomes more taut and straight; Crosswise I strain me like a Syrian bow: Whence false and quaint, I know, Must be the fruit of squinting brain and eye; For ill can aim the gun that bends awry. Come then, Giovanni, try To succor my dead pictures and my fame; Since foul, I fare and painting is my shame. (5)
Despite his many hardships, Michelangelo completed the ceiling to the satisfaction of Pope Julius II, and it was unveiled on All Saints Day, November 1st, 1512.
Michelangelo’s persistence through a lifetime of creating is something to be admired. Dr. Wallace suggested: “It’s quite admirable and remarkable that he persisted given what he confronted. The very fact of painting a ceiling is in itself astonishing… There were all kinds of problems… We have to admire that he persisted under incredible duress, facing challenges that are unimaginable and many other people would’ve given up, but he did not.” Only through persistence, in perseverance, is mastery achievable.
Interestingly enough, twenty-five years and four popes later, Pope Paul III commissioned Michelangelo to paint The Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. At this point, Michelangelo was already considered the greatest artist to ever live. His only competition left was himself. Dr. Wallace asks, “What thoughts passed through the mind of the artist painting his first fresco in nearly twenty-five years?” (2). Did he look at his previous work on the ceiling and look to outdo himself? Or did he approach it with calmer confidence this time, having gained the necessary experience and subdued the ‘hubris of youth’? Did he remember the hardships he endured while painting the ceiling, or was he proud of his accomplishment?
For me, here lies the potential apogee of Michelangelo’s mastery: he is made to confront himself. In entering the Sistine Chapel to paint The Last Judgment, he is made to confront and reflect upon the young man he was when he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He’s made to see who he was and who he’s become. Mastery is not only about technique, but it’s also about confronting and enduring the very things that may make us uncomfortable; it’s about reflecting on the people we are and persevering to become the people we are to become; it’s about becoming the painter who is not a painter.
- “Professor William E. Wallace, Ph.D.” Professor Bio Page, The Great Courses. The Teaching Company, https://www.thegreatcourses.com/professors/william-e-wallace/ .
- King, Ross. Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling. Penguin Books, 2003.
- Wallace, William. “Completing the Ceiling.” “The Last Judgment.” Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man, and His Times. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
- Vasari, Giorgio. “Michelangelo.” The Great Masters. Trans by Gaston de Vere, Park Lane, 1988.
- “A Ceiling and a Tomb.” Michelangelo’s Notebooks: The Poetry, Letters, and Art of the Great Master. Ed by Carolyn Vaughan, Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, 2016.