Michelangelo, Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

Michelangelo, Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, 1508-12, fresco (Vatican, Rome)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, which has tremendous importance to Catholicism. This is were the pope will lead mass, but perhaps most famously, this is the room that the College of Cardinals uses to decide the next pope.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:19] Every surface of this space is decorated, from the beautiful mosaics on the floor, the walls are painted with frescoes by early Renaissance artists, the wall behind the altar was painted by Michelangelo later in his life, and then of course, the ceiling.

Dr. Zucker: [0:36] Everybody is looking up. Their necks are craned, and of course, it’s magnificent. We’re here in the late afternoon on a day in early July. The light is diffuse, and it makes those frescoed figures feel so dimensional, they feel like sculpture.

Dr. Harris: [0:53] You can imagine what it was like when this was unveiled in 1512 after Michelangelo had worked on it for years. How different, how revolutionary Michelangelo’s figures seemed.

Dr. Zucker: [1:04] He was, first and foremost, a sculptor, and it wasn’t actually until a relatively recent cleaning that we knew his brilliance as a colorist. For him, line and drawing and the act of carving figures out of paint was primary and you have this extraordinary ability to render both strength and elegance simultaneously.

Dr. Harris: [1:28] They have a massiveness and a presence that is charismatic, but there’s also a sense of elegance and ideal beauty. Let’s describe what we’re looking at.

Dr. Zucker: [1:40] Probably the most important are the series of nine scenes that move across the central panels.

Dr. Harris: [1:47] Those are framed by a painted architectural framework that looks real. It doesn’t look like paint. We start with the creation of the world. God separating light from darkness.

Dr. Zucker: [2:00] I love that scene. This primordial God, light on one side of His body and the darkness of night on the other. This initial separation and division to create order in the universe.

Dr. Harris: [2:11] Then we move through to the creation of Adam, the creation of Eve…

Dr. Zucker: [2:15] Or the separation of the sexes.

Dr. Harris: [2:17] …and the creation of God’s most perfect creature, human beings, and then the fall of human beings.

Dr. Zucker: [2:23] In a sense, the separation of good and evil.

Dr. Harris: [2:26] Man and woman disobeying God, causing the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Then, [at] the far end by the entrance, we see the scenes of Noah.

Dr. Zucker: [2:37] These are all scenes from the first book of the Bible, from the Book of Genesis. It’s so interesting because, of course, this is a Catholic church, and yet we don’t see images of Christ, but these Old Testament scenes lay the foundation for the coming of Christ.

Dr. Harris: [2:53] Christ is present in other ways. Not only does the disobedience of Adam and Eve make the coming of Christ necessary, but when we look on either side of those central scenes, we see the prophets and the sibyls who predicted the coming of a savior for mankind.

Dr. Zucker: [3:12] The image of the Libyan sibyl that we’re sitting directly across from is spectacularly beautiful. Sibyls are these ancient pagan soothsayers who can foresee the future, and according to the Catholic tradition foretell the coming of Christ. Look at the Libyan sibyl, look at the power of her body, and look at the elegance with which she twists and turns.

[3:36] There is that sense of potential in the way that her toe just reaches down and touches the ground, but seems as if she is in the act of moving and possibly of standing.

Dr. Harris: [3:47] There’s a presence and drama to these figures, to the Libyan sibyl especially. She twists her body in an almost impossible way. We can see Michelangelo has articulated every muscle in the back, and in fact we know that he used a male model for that figure.

Dr. Zucker: [4:04] I’m so taken with the color here. When I first studied Michelangelo, we spoke only of line, of sculptural form, but of course after the dramatic cleaning of the Sistine Chapel, those original colors, their brilliance, their delicacy, came out.

Dr. Harris: [4:19] We see purples and golds and oranges and blues and greens.

Dr. Zucker: [4:24] She, of course, is reaching back, and presumably that’s a book of prophecy that she holds, and there’s a look of confidence and knowing on her face. The absolute clarity with which she knows that Christ will come.

Dr. Harris: [4:37] Sitting on the architecture framework on the four corners of all of the central scenes are male nude figures that we refer to as “ignudi.”

Dr. Zucker: [4:47] I think this is really important because Michelangelo is not painting simply sacred paintings, but is creating this enormously complex stage set, with which to create levels of reality. For example, the Libyan sibyl seems as if she is seated amongst the architecture.

[5:06] Then set next to her are bronze figures, and then in the spandrels, as you mentioned, other scenes that seem to recede into a illusionistic distance.

Dr. Harris: [5:14] Then relief sculptures on the architecture on either side of her, and then seated above those, the ignudi. It’s so clear that we’re at this moment at the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture. Michelangelo is in Rome, he’s in the Vatican.

Dr. Zucker: [5:31] This is the High Renaissance. It’s so interesting to compare the optimism, the elegance, the nobility of the figures on the ceiling with the far darker and more pessimistic view that Michelangelo will paint decades later on the back wall, the “Last Judgment”.

Dr. Harris: [5:48] That’s right. There’s a big difference between 1512 when Michelangelo completes the ceiling and when he begins the “Last Judgment.” The Protestant Reformation has begun and the church is under attack.

Dr. Zucker: [6:01] Michelangelo’s world had been shattered, but when you look at the ceiling you see instead all of the optimism, all of the intellectual and emotional power that characterizes the High Renaissance in all of its newfound appreciation for the ancient world. This was a moment of incredible promise, and all of that comes shining through these figures.

Dr. Harris: [6:25] Let’s not forget that just a few doors away, simultaneously, Raphael is painting the frescoes in the Papal Palace. What a moment in Rome.

[6:35] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Michelangelo, Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel," in Smarthistory, December 10, 2015, accessed April 17, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/michelangelo-ceiling-of-the-sistine-chapel-2/.