1st November 1512 - Pope Julius II celebrated his first mass in the Sistine Chapel for four years on All Saints’ Day 1512 due to, what might be called in modern parlance, a “makeover”. The scaffolding was down and the ceiling was exposed for all to see. What had taken that long to create was to astound those lucky enough to see it for the first time. The artist Giorgio Vasari, writing 40 years later, said “It was such as to make everyone astonished and dumb. The whole world came running when the vault was revealed, and the sight of it was enough to reduce them to stunned silence”
Originally the Pope had approached Michelangelo to paint the 12 Apostles on the ceiling. He was very reluctant to take on the project at all – he felt he was a sculptor not a painter and had never done a fresco. Anyway he was currently working on another project for the Pope – his marbled tomb. After much discussion a compromise was reached where Michelangelo was able to chose his own Biblical themes.
The paintings on the ceiling complement others on the walls including one by Botticelli and tapestries by Raphael. It was to be pained over the top of Piermatteo d’Amelia’s solid blue painting with gold stars. Michelangelo’s massive works are centred on nine scenes from the book of Genesis. Included are the creation of the Heavens and the earth, the creation of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the Fall, and the story of Noah and the Flood. On the lowest part of the ceiling are the ancestors of Christ and then higher up are alternate male and female prophets and Sibyls who foretold the coming of the Messiah. Jonah is shown over the altar. Michelangelo painted the whole ceiling himself although he had many helpers who mixed the paint and brought it up to the platform on which he was working. He also would not have seen the whole ceiling until its unveiling due to all the various platforms and scaffolding.
In the bible the forbidden fruit is an apple but Michelangelo paints a fig tree and Satan is not depicted as a man but a figure with a woman’s head. In total there are over 300 figures. Perhaps one of the most iconic pictures shows the hands of Adam and God almost touching in the creation of Adam. The characterisation of God with a white beard and long white hair was very unusual for the time and was to be much copied in the future. He left the painting of God to the very end when he claimed he would be at his very best, as his understanding of fresco work would have improved. Also in this scene many scholars see an outline of the human brain formed by the robes of God and the angels surrounding him. Frank Lynn Meshberger, whose idea this was, considered that this evoked God’s bestowal of intelligence on the first human.
Despite the portrayal of the painter by Charlton Heston in the 1961 film, “The Agony and the Ecstasy” as lying down while he was painting this is not correct. He designed and built a system of platforms that allowed him to stand., albeit in very cramped and tight conditions. Despite this his health suffered enormously and he claimed that by the end he had aged so much his friends could not recognise him.
Twenty years later Pope Paul III asked him to paint another fresco behind the chapel’s altar – this was the Last Judgement and became another of his masterpieces. In this St Bartholomew, one of the apostles, is seen holding a skin. Michelangelo is believed to have made references to the ways that martyrs were killed and Bartholomew was skinned alive. There is a figure depicted in the folds of the skin and many believe this is a self-portrait of the artist himself. In this same scene, bottom right, there appears to be a figure that bears a striking resemblance to Biagio of Cesena, the Pope’s assistant and Master of Ceremonies who was very disparaging about the frescos. He claimed they would be better suited to a bathhouse rather than a chapel. Michelangelo depicts him horned and amongst the devils. Many of the other figures are shown with acorns. Pope Julius’ family name was Rovere, meaning oak. This was the painter’s way of showing loyalty to his patron.
In total over 5000 square feet are covered and the work was to change art forever. It demonstrated Michelangelo’s mastery of anatomy, invention and perspective. Despite all this Pope Pious IV decided at the Council of Trent, in 1564, that all the nudes were in poor taste and paid Daniele da Volterra to paint fig leaves, draped robes, plants and animals over offending areas. This was removed in the 1980s and 90s when major renovation work was undertaken to remove the additions as well as all the grime, soot and other deposits that had built up over the centuries.
The Sistine chapel had been redesigned in the 1470s and is outwardly a very plain structure. It has no external entrances and was, and still is, the private chapel of the Pontiff. It takes its name from Pope Sixtus IV; his name in Latin is Sisto. It has the same dimensions as those described in the Old Testament as the Temple of Solomon built on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. Michelangelo’s patron, Pope Julius II, was the nephew of Sixtus IV and it was quite common practice at the time to promote a relative to take your place. Indeed the word nepotism comes from the Latin Nipote, which means nephew. It has now become the place where a conclave of Cardinals elect a new Pope when it is then fitted with a special chimney that sends out smoke to the outside world to inform them of what is going on inside. When a vote is taken that proves inconclusive black smoke appears to those waiting in St Peter’s Square. When white smoke emerges a new Pope has been selected.
Over five million people visit the chapel every year. At 16 Euros a person this brings in annual revenues of 80 million Euros per annum. The ceiling has stood up well though to the rigours of everyday life. The cleansing work undertaken has brought back to life the stunning colours and life that would have been there when it opened nearly 500 years earlier. Only one piece of plaster has fallen off and this was in 1797 when an explosion in a nearby gunpowder depot caused part of the ceiling depicting the Flood to collapse to the floor.
The Sistine Chapel became an academy for young painters to follow and changed the course of art and painting in particular. It is among the greatest works and one of the most recognisable in the world. It is probably the finest piece of High Renaissance art. Neil Simon, the author, playwright and screenwriter once said, “If no-one ever took risks, Michelangelo would have painted the Sistine floor.” Vasari, whose words started this piece, summed up the importance of the paintings. “The work as proved a veritable beacon to our art, of inestimable benefit to all painters, restoring light to a world that for centuries had been plunged into darkness. Indeed painters no longer need to seek for new inventions, novel attitudes, fresh ways of expression or sublime subjects, for this work contains every perfection possible under those headings.”