Works by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel in Rome is certainly one of the most famous monuments of the Italian high Renaissance. The images which adorn the altar wall of this chapel are so engrained into our culture, all thanks to Michelangelo Buonarroti.

Michelangelo’s best-known paintings are on the chapel ceiling, and depict biblical events from the book of Genesis. From God’s separating light and darkness to Noah and the Great Flood. However, one of the ceiling’s nine central panels stands out in fame from all the others. One would be hard-pressed to find someone in the western world that has not seen or heard of Michelangelo’s, The Creation of Adam, in which God reaches out to give the gift of life to the first man. One could imagine what it would have been like when this was unveiled in 1512, after Michelangelo had worked on it for years. How different, how revolutionary Michelangelo’s figures seemed.

However, it almost did not happen. Initially, Michelangelo did not want to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and refused when Pope Julius II ordered him to stop work on the Pope’s own tomb which Michelangelo was then designing – to do this new project instead. Michelangelo argued that he was a sculptor, not a painter. Julius insisted, though, and four years later the world was presented with a breathtaking masterpiece, that not even the Pope himself had expected.

Commissioned to be built in 1473, it was completed ten years later in 1483. It was designed and still functions as the Pope’s chapel, and is the site of all papal elections. However, it is the interior frescos that have made it the focus of so much attention in the art world for over five hundred years.

The ceiling was slated for a makeover in 1508 – originally painted as a night sky with golden stars. Michelangelo was to reinterpret the space with what might be called divine inspiration. As mentioned earlier, at first, he resisted vehemently. Even at one point suggesting that one of his rivals do the work instead, the young Raphael. However, Pope Julius would not be denied and finally the world’s greatest living sculptor agreed to paint.

Again, perhaps the most important is the series of nine scenes that move across the central panels. These are framed by a painted architectural framework that looks real, rather than paint.

It starts with the creation of the world, which is that scene of God separating the light from the darkness. It shows the viewer this primordial God, light on one side of His body, and the darkness of night on the other – this initial separation and division to create order in the universe.

Then, the viewer can move through to the creation of Adam, the creation of Eve, and the creation of God’s most perfect creature – human beings. From there, the viewer can see the fall of mankind. In a sense, the separation of good and evil. It is a scene of man and woman disobeying God, causing the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Then, the far end by the entrance we see the scenes of Noah.

These are all scenes from the first book of the Bible, the book of Genesis, and it is so interesting because this is a Catholic church, and yet we do not see images of Christ, but these Old Testament scenes lay the foundation for the coming of Christ.

The figures on either side of those central scenes carry with them so much power in their bodies. Especially the Libyan sibyl. The elegance with which she twists and turns is incredible. Also, there is that sense of potential in the way that her toe reaches down and touches the ground that seems as if she is in the act of moving. There is the presence and drama to these figures, to the Libyan sibyl especially. She twists her body in an almost impossible way, and we can see Michelangelo has articulated every muscle in the back.

She, of course, is reaching back and presumably holding a book of prophecy, and there is a look of confidence and knowing on her face. The absolute clarity with which she knows that Christ will come.

Sitting on the architectural framework on the four corners of all of the central scenes, are male nude figures that express that Michelangelo is not painting simply separate paintings. Instead, he is creating this enormously complex stage set with which to create levels of reality. For example, the Libyan sibyl seems as if she is seated amongst the architecture and then set next to her are bronze figures, and then in the spandrels, other scenes that seem to recede into a kind of illusionistic distance. Then, one can see the relief sculptures on the architecture on either side of her, and then seated above those are the nude male figures, and it is so clear that we are at this moment at the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture.

This is the high Renaissance. It is so interesting to compare the optimism, the elegance, the nobility, of the figures on the ceiling with the far darker and more pessimistic view that Michelangelo will paint decades later on the back wall, The Last Judgment. There is a big difference between 1512 when Michelangelo completes the ceiling and when he begins The Last Judgment. The Protestant Reformation has begun and the church is under attack.

Michelangelo’s world had been shattered, but when one may look at the ceiling, they would see, instead, all of the optimism, all of the intellectual and emotional power that characterizes the high Renaissance in all of its new found appreciation for the ancient world. This was a moment of incredible promise, and all of that comes shining through these figures.

The Creation of Adam has significance for people in the 21st century. It symbolizes a belief in a higher power, however one may choose to characterize that power, from God made in man’s image, to a mystical embodiment of the source of life. Adam is in every man, representing all of humankind. Adam’s hand reaching out and God’s hand offering forth very simply distills the relationship between creation and the Creator.

Seen in this way, the universal gesture might be interpreted as a prayer of thanks for the gift of life. But perhaps, there may be something else expressed here. There is an adage of faith that says, “Let go and let God.” That, unforeseen great things can happen when you give up your ego and accept guidance from a power greater than yourself.

This can be hypothesized because it is not just from the interaction of the two principal figures God and Adam, but from the artist’s own life experience. Michelangelo, by indulging his ego and resisting the Pope’s order to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling was actually placing limits on his creative abilities. He was fearful that he would be giving up his chance for art immortality by letting go of the Pope’s tomb project. For that was to be his great monument for posterity. Yes, for a sculptor, it was a once-in-a-lifetime project. However, acting through Pope Julius, God was actually inviting Michelangelo to stretch his creative limits, and to give expression to his full artistic abilities, and prove his faith. When he finally did “let go and let God,” he was inspired to create what has become one of the greatest artistic achievements of all time.

Originally, the Pope commissioned Michelangelo to only paint Christ’s twelve apostles. However, he wound up painting over three hundred figures. Michelangelo completely reconfigured the original concept once he fully committed himself to the project. The Pope wisely let him do what he wanted to do, and that was nothing less than pictorially interpreting the biblical history of mankind’s beginnings.

As symbolized in his famous painting, Michelangelo figuratively reached out to God and received the touch of divine inspiration. 

07 July 2022
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