“Even in a fast-paced world of rapid change and technological marvels, the Ceiling causes us to pause, awestruck at the creative imagination and stupendous accomplishment of one human being. No one forgets the experience of stepping through the small doorway into the vast expanse of the chapel and having one’s eyes drawn inexorably to the heavens,” suggests Dr. E William Wallace eloquently.
Having been to the Sistine Chapel myself, I can second this subjective experience. One has to look up to the heavens when taking in the subject matter of this unforgettable work of art. In Part II of this series on Michelangelo, we will explore the divinely inspired subjects that Michelangelo painted in the Sistine Chapel.
Initially, Pope Julius II wanted Michelangelo to paint the twelve apostles. According to Ross King, in his book Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, Michelangelo wanted to continue to do more with the human form:
“[The Pope] gave [Michelangelo] instructions to paint the Twelve Apostles… Michelangelo was clearly still not satisfied with his efforts. His main problem with the proposed scheme was that, apart from the Twelve Apostles, there was very little scope for him to explore his interest in the human form.” (King 58, 59).
The human form presented the unparalleled potential to express the divine. Michelangelo, with an interest in exploring the full scope of the human being’s relationship with the divine, became more and more ambitious with his design for the Sistine Ceiling. There was a problem, however: anyone who created anything for the Sistine Chapel would have needed their designs approved by the Pope’s official theologian.
Michelangelo decided to discuss these matters with the pope himself. King states: “Audaciously outspoken as ever, [Michelangelo] complained that the design proposed by His Holiness would prove a cosa povera (poor thing). Julius appears, for once, to have acquiesced without much argument. He merely shrugged his shoulders and then, according to Michelangelo, gave him free rein to design his own program. ‘He gave me a new commission.’ the artist later wrote, ‘to do what I liked.’” (King 60).
During our interview, Dr. Wallace told me:
“This is the great question that no one has been able to resolve in 500 years: to what degree did Michelangelo have freedom, and how much was he told to do? I think it did start out [with] the Pope [saying], “Okay, let’s do twelve apostles.” Our early drawings show that Michelangelo was… thinking a much simpler design [with] more geometry and a few figures… Once he got started, he became more ambitious, and this is… typical of Michelangelo. Once he starts and reconciles himself to a project, he tends to increase the ambition. And so at what point did the design become much more complicated? We don’t know exactly… I think… Michelangelo comes to [the pope] and says, “I think we can do something more spectacular,” and the pope’s going to say, “Yes, go ahead, do it.” I don’t think Michelangelo was being told what to do.”
All evidence seems to point to Michelangelo having the freedom to create the design he wanted. He wanted to explore the expressive divinity of the human form. He completely transformed the pope’s initial desire for twelve apostles into “[o]ne of the largest assemblies of images ever planned… [which] would ultimately involve more than 150 separate pictorial units and include more than three hundred individual figures.” (King 65).
What changes did Michelangelo make? What were his ambitious ideas for the Sistine Chapel? According to King, “[T]he apostles were replaced… by seven prophets from the Old Testament and five sibyls from Pagan mythology. Above these figures, in the rectangular panels running along the spine of the vault, would be nine episodes from the Book of Genesis. The spandrels and lunettes, meanwhile, would feature portraits of the ancestors of Christ — a rather uncommon subject — and the pendentives four more scenes from the Old Testament” (King 64).
I asked Dr. Wallace, “Why did Michelangelo make these changes? For instance, why did he include the five sibyls from pagan mythology in a Christian Chapel?”
Dr. Wallace responded:
“The Sistine is… not just nine stories of Genesis… It’s the whole cornucopia of creation. It’s everything. It’s not a separation between Christianity and paganism. It’s God’s creation [, and] he created pagan antiquity before he created Christianity… He created the world. The sibyls are the counterpart to the prophets: they are the pagan world before Christianity came. So in the same way we have pagan sibyls [on the Sistine], we also have Jewish stories on the Sistine. The Sistine is not Christian, Jewish, [or] pagan, it’s all of creation.”
One of the most iconic images in the world is The Creation of Adam. Michelangelo depicted Adam in his moment of awakening whereupon he meets his maker. A reclined Adam looks longingly into the eyes of God and reaches out to touch God. God — along with future, biblical figures that surround him — moves with great energy toward Adam. Pleased with his creation, God reaches out to touch Adam.
The space between the fingers of Adam and God is so close yet so far away: “The few centimeters that separate their fingertips are the greatest suspension of time and narrative in the history of art,” says Dr. Wallace (103). If only Adam would put forth a little more energy, if he would reach out a little more, it seems like he would touch God, and the separation between them would cease to exist.
But why does Michelangelo paint God? Jesus is often painted in Western art, but God is rarely painted. Dr. Wallace told me:
“This is God and the beginning of God’s creation, and he deserves to be painted. Now, it is true in earlier Christian art that God isn’t represented or it’s just his hand or something. So it’s very bold to imagine what God looks like… Michelangelo has given us an image of God that has become the canonical idea of what God looks like for many people in the world.”
Michelangelo paints God not once but multiple times along the central spine of the Sistine Ceiling. The central spine contains nine separate scenes of Genesis that depict the creation of heaven and earth, the creation of human beings, expulsion from the garden of evil, and Noah and the great flood. Michelangelo wanted us “to enter the chapel under the scene of the Drunkenness of Noah and proceed in reverse chronological order toward the creation and, by analogy, from our present sinful state to a renewal of faith at the altar.” (Williams 102).
Flanking the spine on either side of the ceiling’s spine are pagan sibyls and Jewish prophets. The sibyls and prophets are thought to have prophesied the coming of a Messiah. These twelve figures are depicted writing, reading, and thinking and are accompanied by assistants “like visible thoughts” who help them with their tasks (Wallace 103).
The four corners contain “four scenes of triumph over oppression, serving as Old Testament prefigurations of the triumph of Christ.” (Wallace 105). These four corners are a little more violent than the rest of the ceiling and depict the trials and tribulations of a people on their path to freedom.
The Last Judgment
Twenty-five years after painting the Sistine ceiling, Michelangelo tackles painting The Last Judgment. Historically, The Last Judgment would have been one of the first images seen when one walked into the chapel, a reminder that all actions have consequences.
Michelangelo depicts Christ surrounded by saints and relics in the upper portion of the composition. Below are demons who pull the sinful to hell. Michelangelo seemed to have included his own features in the flesh that Saint Bartholomew holds:
“Just below Christ, Saint Bartholomew holds the signs of his horrific torture: a knife and his flayed skin. In a strange form of signature, Michelangelo has represented his own distorted features in the limp folds of Bartholomew’s epidermis. Perhaps conscious of the incredible hubris of representing eschatological things, Michelangelo portrays himself as a discardable bit of flesh, tenuously held over hell, but in saintly hands.” (Wallace 186).
Michelangelo didn’t only paint his likeness, however, but also may have painted the portrait of the Biagio de Cesena, the papal secretary, in hell. Dr. Wallace told me why Michelangelo painted the papal secretary in this way:
“[Biagio de Cesena] complains that Michelangelo put all of these nudes in The Last Judgment. So, Michelangelo paints him in the far corner in hell [as King Minos, judge of the dead in the underworld]. [Cesena goes] to the Pope and [complains] ‘Michelangelo painted my portrait in the Last Judgment.’ The pope says, ‘Though I have some jurisdiction over heaven, I have no jurisdiction over hell.’ This is one of these stories that I would say… if it’s not true, it should be true. It’s so wonderful. And it’s a story we repeat nonetheless, whether it’s true or not, we like it so much, we treat it so. Let’s keep repeating it.”
In over 300 figures, Michelangelo depicts the ascension of the righteous and the judgment of evil on the altar wall. 500 hundred years later, the Sistine Chapel reminds us of what it means to create with divine inspiration.
Michelangelo was the painter who was not a painter. He didn’t know how to fresco, but that didn’t stop him from ambitiously redesigning the Sistine ceiling. I think his ambition was not necessarily solely directed toward his own gain but was directed by way of his respect for art and of the divine subject matter.
Michelangelo’s need to make great works of divinely inspired art reveals aspects of his mastery. This is why he is and will be an artist from whom we new masters can learn. As Vasari says:
“This is for our art the exemplar and grand manner of painting sent down to men on earth by God, to the end that they may see how Destiny works when intellects descend from the heights of Heaven to earth and have infused in them divine grace and knowledge.”
- King, Ross. Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling. Penguin Books, 2003.
- Vasari, Giorgio. “Michelangelo.” The Great Masters. Trans by Gaston de Vere, Park Lane, 1988.
- Wallace, William. “Completing the Ceiling.” “The Last Judgment.” Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man, and His Times. Cambridge University Press, 2010.