Sistine Ceiling, Sistine Chapel, Rome

(1508-1512)
   During the late 15th century decorative campaign of the Sistine Chapel, initiated by Sixtus IV, the ceiling was painted blue and dotted with stars to symbolize the heavens. In 1504, a large crack appeared on the ceiling and its repair left a dreadful mark. This gave Pope Julius II, Sixtus' nephew, the impetus to have it redecorated with a pictorial program that would complement the earlier wall frescoes and thus provide a visual continuum of the two della Rovere papal reigns. Julius gave the commission to Michelangelo. At first, he asked the artist to render no more than the 12 apostles surrounded by ornamental motifs, but the scheme was soon modified when Michelangelo objected to the program's simplicity. We are told that the pope gave Michelangelo complete freedom to do as he wished, though he may have used a theological consultant for the task—perhaps the Franciscan Cardinal Vigerio della Rovere, the pope's cousin.
   In the final design, Michelangelo chose multiple scenes organized in three coherent bands, the outer ones occupied by the sibyls and prophets who foretold the coming of Christ. Above each sit two ignudi (nude men), between them a fictive bronze medallion and in their hands oak leaves and acorns, references to the della Rovere family (rovere is oak in English). The lunettes above the chapel's windows and the spandrels between the seers are occupied by Christ's ancestors, while the corner spandrels feature scenes that prefigure Christ's sacrifice, specifically David Slaying Goliath, Judith and Holofernes, The Brazen Serpent, and The Death of Haman. In the central band are nine scenes from the Book of Genesis. Of these, three show God the Father creating the world, three portray scenes from the story of Adam and Eve, and three more are from the story of Noah. In rendering the ceiling, Michelangelo is known to have used about a dozen assistants, but mainly for the preparation stages. After that, he painted the frescoes almost entirely on his own, a gargantuan task considering that he included about 380 figures on a pictorial field that measures approximately 13,000 square feet.
   The first scenes Michelangelo executed in the central band show some hesitation. The Deluge lacks unity, its figures scattered across the pictorial surface. Then, Michelangelo realized the importance of clarity and simplicity as these biblical episodes would be viewed from great distance. Therefore, in subsequent scenes he reduced the number of figures, monumentalized them, and brought them closer to the foreground. He also included only enough of the background details to convey effectively the story while creating little distraction from the main theme. The Creation of Adam shows these adjustments. It places all focus on the story's most important moment: God's index finger about to touch that of Adam to transmit the spark of life. Overall, Michelangelo's figures are robust and sculptural, constructed of bold areas of color that imitate the surface of marble, bronze, and other sculpture materials. His keen observation of the human form in movement is reflected in his work. As figures pivot their skin creases, a foot tucked behind the opposite leg pushes the calf muscle forward, and no pose is ever repeated. Michelangelo has been criticized heavily in current scholarship for rendering masculine women. In this case, however, the choice would seem appropriate as the women depicted on the ceiling bear tremendous responsibility and therefore their exceedingly muscular makeup is justified. Eve, for instance, is the mother of humankind and the sibyls are the women who informed the world of the coming of Christ.
   Many interpretations have been offered on the ceiling's program. For some, Michelangelo's work speaks of the history of humankind from a time before religion, to paganism, and finally the Christian era. In this reading, the move from blindness to enlightenment corresponds to the Neoplatonic tenet of the soul's trajectory from the mundane to the spiritual through contemplation in order to achieve union with God. Others have related the ceiling to Dominican, Franciscan, and Augustinian theology. Pentecostal and apocalyptic interpretations have also been offered.
   In 1511, Raphael had the opportunity to view the Sistine ceiling when the scaffolding was temporarily removed. The impact of what he saw was so tremendous that he returned to his Stanza della Segnatura frescoes (1510-1511) and added Michelangelo to the School of Athens. He depicted the man dressed in the smock and soft boots of a stonecutter at the very front, isolated from all others so he could be spotted immediately. His brooding demeanor is that of Melancholia, the temperament of genius. By placing Michelangelo among the greatest minds of the ancient era, and depicting him as the personification of genius, Raphael paid homage to a man who had just achieved the inconceivable. Perhaps Michelangelo's stonecutter's attire expresses Raphael's frustration, consciously or otherwise, over the fact that a man who professed to be primarily a sculptor had just surpassed him in his own field.

Historical dictionary of Renaissance art. . 2008.

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