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.
The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was exhibited to the public for the first time on this day, November 1st in 1512.
D I G D E E P E R
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 meters 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 recognized sculpture in Western history. David (1501–4, Figure 4.7) stands over four meters 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 meters 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 laborers. It should not surprise us however, for the Neoplatonist Michelangelo considered bodily perfection to be a sign of 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 the architect of the new St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The cupola, a huge 42.3 meters in diameter, remains to this day the world’s tallest dome.
Sources & Resources
Christopher Watkin, From Plato to Postmodernism: The Story of Western Culture through Philosophy, Literature and Art (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2011), 88–90.
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.