He was not a painter. At least that’s what he thought. Michelangelo always thought of himself as a sculptor, but in this case he didn’t have a choice. Pope Julius II decided that the little chapel needed improvement and he assigned Michelangelo to the task. Though he accepted the duty grudgingly, he decided to make the most of it.
As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:
Michelangelo used the extensive canvas of that ceiling to create an unforgettable study of Old Testament stories that foreshadowed the coming of Christ. It contains a total of three hundred figures, and these figures—beautiful, strong, dignified—provide ample evidence of his skill as a sculptor. They look like sculptures chiseled out of paint. The work is centered on biblical episodes that deal with the big issues of life: innocence, sin, judgment, and reconciliation. Three biblical stories, highlighting important episodes from the origin of the universe, the creation and fall of man, and the tale of Noah are each rendered on three “panels.” In particular, the image of God creating Adam is so familiar to us that it is in danger of being dismissed as a cliché—until you actually look at it closely and take in all its grandeur and majesty. There is a good reason why it is one of the most popular images in all of art.
Around these three central stories are arrayed seven Old Testament prophets and five Greek sibyls, all of whom are credited with predicting the coming of Christ. The effect of the whole unified work on most viewers is to be awestruck and overwhelmed. But not everyone loved Michelangelo’s masterpiece. One later pope referred to it dismissively as a “bathroom of nudes.”1 Most, however, have recognized the genius and skill of its execution and the creativity with which the biblical motifs are revealed. Clearly Michelangelo had great knowledge of the Scriptures, but he read and interpreted them through his own unique lens. He once prayed, “Lord, make me see Thy glory in every place.” Michelangelo’s art was clearly a vessel through which that glory was revealed.
Has God ever done a beautiful work in your life through difficult circumstances?
John 1: 1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
D I G D E E P E R
The Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel
The principal chapel of the Vatican Palace, so called because it was built for Pope Sixtus IV (1471–84). It is used for the principal Papal ceremonies and also by the cardinals for the election of a new Pope when there is a vacancy. The chapel is celebrated for the frescoes by Michelangelo and other artists on its walls and ceiling, chief among them being Michelangelo’s Last Judgement covering the altar wall. The decorations of the chapel also included a set of tapestries commissioned from Raphael by Pope Leo X illustrating scenes from the lives of St Peter and St Paul (now elsewhere in the Vatican Palace).
In 1488 Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni became apprenticed to the great Ghirlandaio in Florence, but in 1496, at the age of twenty-one, he moved to Rome. The story is told that Michelangelo had sculpted a statue of St John the Baptist for Lorenzo de’ Medici, who had asked him to create the impression that the work was an ancient original in order that Lorenzo might pocket a greater sum when selling it. When the eventual buyer, a certain Cardinal Raffaele Riario, discovered the ruse, he was so taken by the quality of the forgery that he invited Michelangelo to Rome himself.
It was in Rome that Michelangelo set to work on ‘The Giant’, an unwieldy block of marble over five metres high from Carrara in northern Tuscany. Michelangelo turned the Giant, the size of which had deterred other sculptors from working on it, into the most iconic sculpture of the high Roman Renaissance, and perhaps the most recognised sculpture in Western history. David (1501–4, Figure 4.7) stands over four metres high, completely nude, and bears a look of intense energetic defiance, a statement of confidence in the limitless potential of Renaissance humanity. It was perhaps Michelangelo’s Neoplatonist convictions that enabled him to take the commission where others, including Leonardo, had refused. He believed that the form of beauty was contained within the stone, and that to sculpt was merely to liberate the form in a process that he likened to religious salvation.
In 1508 Michelangelo reluctantly accepted a commission from Pope Julius II to fresco the more than 1,000 square metres of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, a task that was to take him until 1512. It is characteristic of the high Renaissance, and especially of the work of Michelangelo, that the characters he depicted in the Chapel are presented in almost superhumanly muscular proportions. This is true not only of gods and heroes, whom one might expect to cut a heroic dash, but also of fishermen and labourers. It should not surprise us however, for the Neoplatonist Michelangelo considered bodily perfection to be a sign spiritual beauty.
None of his characters, however, is depicted in more colossal proportions than the Jesus who forms the focal point of the Last Judgment on the altar wall of the chapel (Figure 4.8). David and Jesus provide a powerful contrast with Michelangelo’s own Pietà (Pity, 1499), depicting a seated Mary with her dead son Jesus lying limply in her arms, and sculpted when the artist was only twenty-four years old. In contrast to the invincibility of David and Jesus, the Pietà remains one of the most tender evocations of the fragility of human life in the history of Western art. In 1546 Michelangelo was commissioned as architect of the new St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The cupola, a huge 42.3 metres in diameter, remains to this day the world’s tallest dome.
Christopher Watkin, From Plato to Postmodernism: The Story of Western Culture through Philosophy, Literature and Art (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2011), 88–90.
E. Steinmann, Die Sixtinische Kapelle (2 vols., 1901–5), with plates (2 vols., 1901–5). C. de Tolnay, Michelangelo, 2: The Sistine Ceiling (Princeton, NJ, 1945). L. D. Ettlinger, The Sistine Chapel before Michelangelo (Oxford, 1965). M. Giacometi (ed.), The Sistine Chapel: Michelangelo Rediscovered (1986). F. Hartt and others, The Sistine Chapel (2 vols., 1991). P. de Vecchi (ed.), The Sistine Chapel: A Glorious Restoration (New York ). E. Wind, The Religious Symbolism of Michelangelo: The Sistine Ceiling (posthumously ed. E. Sears, Oxford, 2000). J. Shearman, Raphael’s Cartoons … and the Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel 
F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1517.
Buonarrotti, Michaelangelo. The Poems. Translated by Christopher Ryan. London: Dent, 1996.
Graham-Dixon, Andrew. Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel. New York: Skyhorse, 2009.
Gromling, Alexandra. Michelangelo Buonarroti: Life and Work. Konigswater: Konemann, 2005.
Neret, Giles. Michelangelo. Köln: Taschen, 2000.
Richmond, Robin. Michelangelo and the Creation of the Sistine Chapel. New York: Crescent Books, 1995.
I’m really looking forward to discussing my book, “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know,” with the members of Literary Life Book Club. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and perspectives on some of the art, music, and literature you’ll discover in the book. I’m interested in how it speaks to you in your life and the ways it inspires, challenges, or maybe even annoys you! I’ll try to share some “deleted scenes” stuff I had to leave out and will tell a few stories about what I experienced while doing the writing and research. Hope that many of you can join us as we look at he stories behind some truly wonderful art.
Let’s explore together!
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Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.
He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.
He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.
Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.
He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.
Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.
Dig Deeper at TerryGlaspey.com
Some of the greatest painters, musicians, architects, writers, filmmakers, and poets have taken their inspiration from their faith and impacted millions of people with their stunning creations. Now readers can discover the stories behind seventy-five of these masterpieces and the artists who created them. From the art of the Roman catacombs to Rembrandt to Makoto Fujimura; from Gregorian Chant to Bach to U2; from John Bunyan and John Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; this book unveils the rich and varied artistic heritage left by believers who were masters at their craft.
Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).
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