The Sistine Chapel Ceiling
During the pontificate of Julius II the basilica of St Peter’s, which had been built on marshland, began to crumble alarmingly. Julius had been planning his own magnificent tomb but set aside these plans to focus on building a new basilica.
This was a dreadful development for Michelangelo Buonarroti who had been commissioned to build the tomb and who had transported marble from Ferrara at a cost of 140 ducats, which the Pope now refused to reimburse. But, apart from St Peter’s, Julius also wanted to refurbish a small chapel which had been built by his uncle, Sixtus IV (from whom the chapel took its name). The Chapel served as a place of worship for the Pope and about 200 senior officials who celebrated Mass there every 2-3 weeks. It was also the place where the Conclave of Cardinals met to elect a new Pope.
The Chapel was finished in 1480 and a team of painters, including Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Signorelli, was assembled to fresco the walls. The vault was decorated with a motif of gold stars on a bright blue field – a common decoration in Christian churches at the time.
In 1504 a series of ominous cracks appeared in the vault caused by subsidenceo, and repairs that were plastered over left an all too apparent jagged white scar. Julius decided to ask Michelangelo to fresco the ceiling, but the latter was still smarting from the rejection of his expenses claim and replied that he was only interested in working on the papal tomb. Moreover, Michelangelo had little experience as a painter even though he had initially trained in this discipline. Nevertheless he had established a reputation based on a preliminary cartoon for a fresco in the Palazzo delle Signorie in Florence. This had never been completed as Michelangelo was distracted by the tomb project. The cartoon of the Battle of Cascina featured what would become his trademark – muscular nudes in frantic but graceful gyrations.
Michelangelo was eventually bullied by the Pope into accepting the ceiling commission. The obvious challenge was how to arrange a scaffold that would enable the artist and his assistants to work on the ceiling at an angle that was tolerably comfortable and safe. Previously vaults had been decorated using scaffolds built up from the floor, but the Pope specified that he wanted to be able to continue using the Chapel while the work was being carried out. So Michelangelo designed a series of stepped arches, built to the same profile as the ceiling, that were supported by brackets drilled 15 inches into the masonry over the uppermost cornice. The scaffold extended over half the length of the Chapel, across the first three bays between the windows, and canvas was spread out beneath the scaffold to prevent paint and other materials from splashing on to the marble floor below. So the bridges meant that the workforce could stand, albeit sometimes at uncomfortable angles. The notion that Michelangelo painted on his back is a myth.
First the existing fresco had to be removed then a new hard plaster was applied – the arriccio. Depending on the weather it would be several months before this dried, enabling the intonaco to be laid on top of it. The intonaco was the material on which paint was applied while it was still wet – fresco means ‘fresh’ in Italian. Michelangelo used the time waiting for the drying process to be completed by sketching out a plan for meeting Julius’ requirements. The Pope wanted 12 apostles above the windows and the remainder of the ceiling to be covered in an interlocking geometric pattern of squares and circles. Michelangelo wanted to explore his interest in the human form and found the Pope’s ideas dull and restrictive and, surprisingly because Julius was not normally someone to be crossed, he was allowed to develop his own scheme, subject to the approval of the Master of the Sacred Palace, a Dominican friar named Giovanni Rafanelli. Michelangelo came up with a plan called a ‘quadratura’ which incorporated the awkward pendentives (the curved triangular spaces at the corners of the Chapel), the spandrels (the triangular spaces between one side of the outer curve of an arch, a wall, and the ceiling) and lunettes (intersecting vaults produce half-moon shapes on the wall surfaces above a cornice).
The Apostles were quickly abandoned, being replaced by seven Old Testament prophets 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, and the spandrel and lunettes would feature portraits of Christ’s ancestors, while the pendentives would feature four more Old Testament scenes.
The first scene to be frescoed was Noah’s flood and either it did not go to plan or Michelangelo changed his mind. About four weeks’ work was chiselled off and the painstaking work of painting a multitude of figures started again. Fresco was, for Michelangelo, a relatively unfamiliar medium and he had to cope with problems created by salt efflorescence, mildew and damp.
After good progress on the ancestors of Christ Michelangelo and his assistants started on a larger and more difficult scene – ‘The Drunkeness of Noah’ and the time taken on this led to violent rages from Julius who was not a patient man. In the background Raphael was working on other frescoes within the Vatican (which were technically simpler because he was working on flat walls), and his star was in the ascendant. Michelangelo and Raphael did not get on. Julius was not just impatient, he was also very keen to see what had so far been completed. But Michelangelo refused to allow this. His secrecy was in sharp contrast to Raphael who was working in the Stanza della Segnatura, just two rooms from the Pope’s bedchamber, where Julius had unlimited and convenient access.
‘The Drunkeness of Noah’ was not one of Michelangelo’s best compositions. It draws heavily on Ghiberti’s version on the doors of the baptistery in Florence and it shows Michelangelo was still thinking in terms of sculpture rather than graphic composition. The four figures lack the grace and suppleness of figures depicted by Raphael in the ‘Disputà’ or of Leonardo in his ‘Last Supper’. Noah and his sons are all shown naked, which was unusual in contemporary fresco. Michelangelo employed nude models even when the subjects were to appear clothed. Only by doing so could the artist convincingly portray the nuanced shapes and motions of the human body. Michelangelo designed the robes himself and dipped a length of cloth in wet plaster, arranging the folds over a bench. As the fabric dried the folds would freeze in place, enabling the artist to use them as models for tumbling draperies and robes. Michelangelo’s models were without exception male, no matter the sex of the character portrayed.
The triptych of the life of Noah was completed in the autumn of 1509 and by the end of the first year some 4000 square feet of the vault had been frescoed, including three prophets, eight ignudi (nude figures), a pair of spandrels, four lunettes and two of the pendentives.
Michelangelo complained in a letter to his brother that he was suffering ‘the greatest physical fatigue’. He was forced to work, he said, with his head tipped back, his body bent like a bow, his beard and paintbrush pointing to heaven and his face splattered wth paint. His eyesight was suffering and he was very downcast.
The first sibyl Michelangelo painted was Delphica – famous for informing Oedipus that he was to kill his father and marry his mother. Four further sibyls followed. They were included because of the fascination with prophecy that was so pervasive in Rome at the time. The strangest of the sibyls portrayed was Cumaea who had supposedly foretold the birth of Christ. She is represented as a grotesque behemoth with a daunting physique – long legs, huge biceps and Atlas-like shoulders.
Michelangelo did not attend the funeral of his brother Lionardo who died in April 1510 in Florence. Instead he quickly frescoed ‘The Temptation and Expulsion’ close to the centre of the vault. Controversially he depicted Adam, rather than Eve, reaching for the forbidden fruit. The panel depicting ‘The Creation of Eve’ includes the first representation of God, but it is perhaps more notable for the way the Garden of Eden is depicted – a barren patch of land distinguished only by a dead tree and a few outcrops of rock – Michelangelo had no interest in landscape painting.
The artist was prepared to unveil his work when he reached the half-way point nearly two years after he had started. But there was a problem. Julius was away fighting against the allied forces of the King of France, Louis XII, and the Duke of Ferrara. That meant that Michelangelo could not be paid the 500 ducats due to him at this stage. Angry and frustrated, Michelangelo left Rome to attend to another brother, who was seriously ill in Florence. He returned to Rome when his debt had been paid but now the Pope himself was indisposed, suffering from a number of ailments including syphilis and piles. Work on the ceiling could not re-start until he had examined the work completed so far. The frustrating hiatus lasted several months during which time Michelangelo prepared sketches and cartoons (including the famous muscular drawing of Adam).
Unveiling the first half was finally possible in August 1511. Raphael was one of those who saw the work for the first time from the floor of the Chapel. He was so impressed that he made a bid to take over the second half (which failed). But shortly afterwards he returned to his masterpiece, ‘The School of Athens’, to add an additional character, ‘The Philosopher’, which some have argued is actually a portrait of Michelangelo.
Work on the ceiling resumed in October. The iconic central scene, ‘The Creation of Adam’, took just over a fortnight to complete. Adam is an idealised man described by Vasari as ‘a figure of such a kind in its beauty, in its attitude and in its outlines, that it appears as if newly fashioned by the first and supreme Creator, rather than by the brush and design of mortal man.’ The idea of fingers touching being the spark of creation was not entirely original, but the more common representation was either God fashioning Adam from clay or God breathing life into a newly created figure.
The next creation scene contained fewer figures but took significantly longer to complete. Michelangelo was experimenting with foreshortening the figure of God in order to arrange the perspectives so that the viewer on the floor had the impression of real-life figures rising overhead in a convincing three-dimensional space. This was a technique that Michelangelo had to learn on the job. The effect in the scene is of God seeming to tumble towards the earth at a 45 degree angle, from the floor almost completely upside down.
Meanwhile the papal forces had suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the French at Ravenna and Louis’ forces were expected to march on Rome to install a new Pope. Julius elected to stay in the Vatican. Michelangelo was understandably nervous that his unfinished ceiling might be destroyed by the invading forces. In fact no invasion took place. The previously unreliable Swiss descended from the Alps to threaten the French. When the German Emperor withdrew his troops the French had little option but to retreat from Italy and Rome was safe.
The final Genesis scene, ‘God separating Light from Darkness’ was astonishingly completed in a single day. Michelangelo abandoned the cartoon he had prepared and painted the figure of God spinning through a cloudy vortex in just one day. That he should have done so freehand shows the degree to which his technical ability and self-belief had increased since he started the work.
Michelangelo was gloomy and irritable as he neared the end of his labours and this is reflected in one one of his final figures, Jeremiah, who is shown slumping motionless on his throne in a pose that influenced Rodin’s famous sculpture. The figure may well have been a self-portrait.
Another striking figure from this final phase was Haman, whose crucifixion is portrayed in one of the pendentives on the western wall. Vasari wrote that this was the most beautiful and impressive figure on the vault.
The ceiling was finally completed towards the end of October 1512 – four years and four months after it had been started. The Pope was delighted.
Michelangelo resumed work on the tomb he had abandoned in 1508 – just in time, as Julius died the following February. Michelangelo lived another 51 years, creating many more masterpieces in paint and marble.
The Sistine Chapel Ceiling