top of page

The Sistine Ceiling

Within the vast complex of Vatican City, which is an independent city-state with its own governing body as well as the seat of the Pope in the Roman Catholic faith, is the famed Sistine Chapel (also known as the Venue of the Papal Conclave).

The chapel is named after Pope Sixtus IV, who commissioned its restoration in the late 15th century. Originally, it was defined as the chapel of the Vatican fort, known as Cappella Magna. The chapel serves various important functions, from celebrating papal acts to ceremonies of the Catholic rite, but its major religious role is that of the site where cardinals meet to elect the next pope. The Sistine Chapel is also the home of 2 magnificent frescoes painted by the famed Michelangelo, the Sistine Ceiling (as it is known by) and later, The Last Judgement. There are also works from other notable Renaissance artists, from the likes of Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Pinturicchio, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Cosimo Rosselli, and Luca Signorelli.

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was originally painted blue and covered with golden stars (think of the ceiling of Sainte-Chapelle’s lower chapel). In 1508, Pope Julius II (1503–1513) commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the chapel, instead of leaving it as it was. The pope wanted the ceiling done in a “ geometric ornament with the 12 apostles placed on spandrels around the decoration”. However, Michelangelo suggested that instead of doing ornamentation, he would do a painting of scenes from the Old Testament. Although, at the time, Michelangelo had been known more for his work in sculpture (as he had recently completed his famous sculpture of the Pietá as well as his statue of David, both of which reside in the Vatican) rather than painting. But, never one to be daunted, Michelangelo rose to the challenge and went on to create one of the most famous fresco masterpieces in Western art!

The ceiling of the chapel is made up of 33 separate areas, each space containing a different scene. Each scene is divided using a technique called trompe-l’oeil (visual deception, especially in paintings, in which objects are rendered in extremely fine detail emphasizing the illusion of tactile and spatial qualities), giving the impression that each painting is divided by physical molding within the vault. They are painted in monochromatic colors, creating a spatial effect between each panel.

In the center of the ceiling is a series of nine narrative paintings, depicting scenes from the book of Genesis. There are five smaller scenes, each framed and supported by four naked youths or Ignudi. The scenes start with the Creation of the World (Gen. 1) and end with Noah and the Flood (Gen 6:9). The subject matter was, more than likely, laid out with the help of a cleric from the Vatican (and seeing how this was the home of the pope, he wanted to be sure to get it right!) The entire project took Michelangelo 4 years to complete and took a grave toll on his health. He penned this poem, describing how his work was taxing both his body and mind:

I’ve grown a goitre by dwelling in this den–

As cats from stagnant streams in Lombardy,

Or in what other land they hap to be–

Which drives the belly close beneath the chin:

My beard turns up to heaven; my nape falls in,

Fixed on my spine: my breast-bone visibly

Grows like a harp: a rich embroidery

Bedews my face from brush-drops thick and thin.

My loins into my paunch like levers grind:

My buttock like a crupper bears my weight;

My feet unguided wander to and fro;

In front my skin grows loose and long; behind,

By bending it becomes more taut and strait;

Crosswise I strain me like a Syrian bow:

Whence false and quaint, I know,

Must be the fruit of squinting brain and eye;

For ill can aim the gun that bends awry.

Come then, Giovanni, try

To succor my dead pictures and my fame;

Since foul I fare and painting is my shame.

The main theme of the frescoes is that of the connection between humans and God, and nowhere is this more evident than in the panel, The Creation of Adam. We are given a breathtaking vision of the spirit of God embodied as a human form, reaching across the heavens, just out of reach of Adam, who lazily reclines on a barren earth. This contact point has previously been described as a spark or current, an electrical metaphor which would be unknown to those in the sixteenth century.

Nonetheless, it seems quite a fitting description, considering that the lifeblood which is about to flow into the awaiting Adam is similar to the flow of electric current produced when a wire is connected to a power source. In this case, the power source being God. This particular piece is world-famous and has been reproduced hundreds of thousands of times. And we can see why. It is such a powerful image.

At either end of the ceiling, and beneath the scenes are Prophets and Sibyls (a female prophet or witch, a nod to the pagan beginnings of old religions) seated on grandiose thrones that alternate along the long sides, while the shorter sides are taken over by the figures of Zechariah and Jonah (situated above the altar) who has a distinguished position in so much as he is the adumbration of Christ. The crescent-shaped areas, or lunettes, above each of the chapel windows, are tablets listing the forerunners of Christ and their accompanying figures. Above them, in the spandrels (the space between the shoulders of adjoining arches and the ceiling or moulding above), eight groups of figures are displayed (however, they have not been identified with specific biblical characters). The entire narrative is finished off by four large corner pendentives (a curved triangle of vaulting formed by the intersection of a dome with its supporting arches) each one portraying a dramatic Biblical story.

In 1510, Michelangelo decided that he needed a well-deserved break from this arduous assignment. Upon his return a year later, his style of painting had undergone a noticeable change. Rather than jumbled and multiple images within a scene, as previously done, Michelangelo had decided to minimise details and focus on essential figures, but on a grand scale. Also, he added a strong sense of emotion to the figures as well as dramatic gestures (as in The Creation of Adam). This would enable the viewer on the floor below to have a clear understanding of exactly what the scene was trying to convey. Further, when we look at the commanding figure of God in three of the frescoes, it clearly illustrates the separation of darkness from light, the creation of the heavens and the earth, all radiating its power through God’s body.

The influence of these works cannot be emphasized enough. The complexity of design in the individual figures, both clothed and nude, displays Michelangelo’s skill in creating a variety of poses for the human figure. His stupendous works have turned the Sistine Chapel into a veritable academy for future artists!


bottom of page