Vatican Museum the Sistine chapel ceiling (Michelangelo)

I already talked to you about Michelangelo’s frescos in the Cortile Ottagono (foto: Sebastian Niedlich) when we were at the Museo Pio Clementino. It would be impossible to provide information in the Sistine Chapel because of how crowded it is over there. I would recommend that you sit down on one of the benches as quickly as possible and just take it all in. You will definitely need a small pair of binoculars to properly see all of the ceiling’s details. The rear wall that Michelangelo painted when he was already quite old you can see quite well without binoculars.

The following websites provide quality images of the frescos of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling and rear wall: Christus Rex and Web Gallery of Art. Another beautiful way of taking a virtual look at the chapel from all angles can be found here.

Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel between 1508 and 1512. The contract has survived. The letters that Buonarroti wrote and many other contemporary sources provide much information on how the frescos were created. A letter written by Bramante in 1506 tells us that Michelangelo absolutely did not want this assignment. He considered himself a sculptor not a painter.

Emile Jean Horace Vernet Pope Julius II ordering Bramante and Raphael to build a new St. Peter’s 1827 detail
Emile Jean Horace Vernet Pope Julius II ordering Bramante and Raphael to build a new St. Peter's   1827

Bramante, an influential architect, urged Julius II to commission Michelangelo to do the frescos. The architect secretly hoped that Michelangelo would fail. Two years earlier, Julius II revoked the order for his tomb. The pope changed his mind following a proposal by Bramante. This architect proposed to construct a new St. Peters. Angered, Michelangelo fled Rome. He ventured to Florence on horseback while being pursued by the Pope’s cavalry. In the nick of time, Michelangelo arrived in Rome, where the Papacy held no sway.  This was only to be expected considering the odd dimensions of the chapel and the shape of its ceiling. The dimensions of this chapel are based on the temple of Solomon as described in the Old Testament. The length is three times the width and twice the height. When you are standing in the chapel, you will notice how impossibly high this chapel is. Also, Michelangelo had little to no experience in painting frescos. He had studied under Ghirlandaio as a twelve-year-old boy and gained some experience in painting frescos, but had never used the technique since. Bramante hoped his clever scheme would lead to his young friend Raphael receiving all the important assignments. The original exterior of the Sistine Chapel and the present-day chapel.

Interior Sistine Chapel
view of the altar and the Last Judgement

Sistine chapel (ceiling and rear wall)
1. Youtube Sistine chapel ceiling and the rear wall Khan Academy (14.48 minutes)

Sixtine chapel ceiling:
1. Youtube Khan Academy (6.46 minutes)
2. Youtube  ceiling (starts at 24.35 minutes)
3. Youtube (starts at 8.09 minutes)

Meaning and restoration:
4. Youtube lecture Michelangelo, Copernicus and the Sistine Chapel  Dr Valerie Shrimplin  (48.57 minutes)
5. Youtube restoration  of the  Sistine chapel (49.42 minutes)
6. Youtube scaffold construction William E. Wallace (9.08-11.15 minutes)

Diagram of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s frescos. The chapel walls feature a number of frescos by various artists.

big format    diagram
Visual/Interactive Ceiling, upper walls, with identifications and detail images

Perugino and Pinturicchio, ‘Moses Leaving to Egypt’ B. Sandro Botticelli, ‘Scenes from the life of Moses’  C. Cosimo Rosselli, ‘The Crossing of the Red Sea’ D. Cosimo Rosselli or Piero di Cosimo, ‘Descent from Mount Sinai’ E. Sandro Botticelli, ‘Punishment of the Rebels’ F. Luca Signorelli, ‘Testament and Death of Moses’ G. Matteo da Lecce, ‘Disputation over Moses’ Body’ H. Van den Broeck, ‘Resurrection of Christ’  Cosimo Rosselli, ‘Last Supper’ K. Perugino, ‘Delivery of the Keys’ L. Cosimo Rosselli and Piero di Cosimo, ‘Prayer on the mountain and imprisonment of Christ two details from Last Supper’ M. Domenico Ghirlandaio, ‘Vocation of the Apostles N. Sandro Botticelli, ‘Temptation of Christ and the Healing of the Leper’ O. Perugino and Pinturicchio, ‘Baptism of  Christ’

Sistine chapel wall  north
 wall south
Sistine chapel wall  north frescos

Ceiling (see diagram):

1.The Separation of Light and Darkness 2. The Creation of the Sun, Moon and Earth 3. The Separation of Land and Water 4. The Creation of Adam 5. The Creation of Eve 6. The Temptation and Expulsion 7. The Sacrifice of Noah 8. The Great Flood 9. The Drunkenness of Noah 10. Judith and Holofernes 11. David and Goliath 12. The Brazen Serpent 13. The Punishment of Haman 14. Jeremiah 15. Persian Sibyl 16. Ezekiel 17. Erythraean Sibyl 18. Joel 19. Zechariah 20. Delphic Sibyl 21. Isaiah 22. Cumaean Sibyl 23. Daniel 24. Libyan Sibyl 25. Jonah 26. Aminadab 27. Salmon, Booz, Obed 28. Roboam, Abias 29. Ozias, Joatham, Achaz 30. Zorobabel, Abiud, Eliachim 31. Achim, Eliud 32. Jacob and Joseph 33. Eleazar, Mathan 34. Azor, Sadoc 35. Josias, Jechonias, Salathiel 36. Ezekias, Manasses, Amon 37. Asa, Josaphat, Joram 38. Jesse, David, Solomon 39. Naason 40. The Last Judgement (see also) the ceiling itself:

Sistine chapel ceiling

As Michelangelo was about to start work in May, he immediately fell out with Bramante. Vasari, a friend and contemporary of Michelangelo’s, described the dispute between the two artists as follows:

[…] Bramante installed a scaffold suspended from ropes, to which end he made holes in the vault. When Michelangelo saw this he asked Bramante how he was to fill up these holes once he was done painting, to which Bramante replied: “We will worry about that when the time comes”, and that there was no other way..

Giorgio Vasari, page 218.

Buonarroti flew into a rage and went to see the pope to obtain permission to design his own scaffolding. A rough sketch of the scaffolding has survived. The carpenter who built the new scaffolding was allowed to keep the large quantities of rope that had been used for the initial scaffolding. He sold it and used the proceeds as a dowry for his daughter.  Youtube scaffold construction William E. Wallace (9.08-11.15 minutes)

Pope Julius II had instructed Michelangelo to depict the twelve apostles on the ceiling, but Michelangelo thought this a bit meagre. If he had to paint instead of carve, he might as well paint a great narrative cycle. Julius II was enthusiastic about the idea. It is fact that the Biblical stories, the sibyls and the figures from the Old Testament were conceived in close consultation with the theologists. Michelangelo initially had a number of painters come down from Florence but was not pleased with their work. He soon decided to do as much work as he could himself. The first scenes to be painted, The Great Flood and The Drunkenness of Noah, were made by several painters. Michelangelo worked with a number of painters, but preferred to do everything himself. And yet Michelangelo consistently had help with preparing the plaster, mixing the paint, making the cartoons and painting some of the less important details.

Michelanglelo painting the ceiling of the sistine chapel

The complete cycle on the walls, the ceiling and later the rear wall (The Last Judgement) can be read as one big story with a clear message. Central to the ceiling are the creation and fall of man. Next comes the newly chosen man: Noah. The ceiling is limited to the period before the laws of Moses. The period surrounding the laws of Moses and the life of Christ who came to earth to save mankind is depicted on the walls. On the rear wall we see the final chapter of this story: the Last Judgement.

As the pope enters the Sistine Chapel, Zechariah looks down on him from above. (diagram number 19) and, naturally, Julius II’s coat of arms is on prominent display here. Zechariah predicts Christ’s riding into Jerusalem.

 Zechariah Michelangelo Sistine chapel

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
Righteous and victorious;
Lowly and riding on a donkey
[…] He will proclaim peace
to the nations,
His rule will extend
From sea to sea
From the river to the ends of
The earth

Zechariah 9: 9-10

The Sistine Chapel was primarily used by the Pope on Palm Sunday, when he would enter the chapel as the vicar of Christ and handed out palm fronds to the faithful.

Jonah is depicted on the ceiling above the altar (diagram number 25). Jonah refers to the consecration (host and wine turn into the body and blood of Christ). This in turn refers to the death of Christ on the cross and his resurrection. The Jonah from the Old Testament was eaten by a whale and spewed out after three days and nights, and behold, he lived. After his death, Christ lay in his tomb for three days and nights before his resurrection. This may seem a bit farfetched to us, but can be read in St Matthew 12: 38-40.

The choir screen is no longer where it used to be. Originally, it was exactly in the spot where the story on the ceiling takes an unfortunate turn.

Sistine Chapel before Michelangelo frescos
Ceiling Sistine Chapel before Michelangelo frescos rear wall

Only clergy were allowed back of the choir screen. Looking up, they would see the fall of man and all the misery that ensued. The senior prelates would look at the creation and paradise, in short, a more cheerful view.

Michelangelo ‘Fall and expulsion from paradise and   Creation of Adam’ large size
Michelangelo at work
Michelangelo Sixtijnse kapel Zondeval en verdrijving uit het Paradijs

Julius II wanted to know what progress was being made with the work on the ceiling. He also felt that it was taking far too long. Both Vasari and Condivi report that this was sometimes the cause of great tension between the two men. One time when Michelangelo absolutely did not want to be disturbed, he threw some planks at the pope. Julius II, not the most easy-going of men, was big enough to accept this. He realised that this artist was capable of great work. Michelangelo was also the only one allowed to keep his hat on when talking to Julius II, something the pope never would have accepted from anybody else. And yet, the pope forced him to remove the scaffolding in July or August of 1510. At that moment, Michelangelo had completed half of the enormous ceiling: from Zechariah to the creation of Adam. Ascanio Condivi describes how the pope and all of Rome came to look at Michelangelo’s work. People were impressed, even though the secco-part had not even been painted yet. That is to say that some elements of the frescos were only painted after the layer of plaster had dried. The colour blue must always be painted on a dry surface or the paint will not take, while other colours have to be painted on a wet layer of plaster to take well. Julius II was very satisfied, but asked Buonarroti to enrich the frescos with gold and bright colours. According to Condivi, the conversation between Michelangelo and the pope went as follows:

“I don’t see these people wearing gold”. To which the pope replied: “but it looks so shabby”. Michelangelo reacted by saying in a mocking tone of voice that: “the people that he depicted here were poor”. And the paintings remained as they were.

Ascanio Condivi, ‘The Life of Michelangelo’, Phaidon, Oxford 1976, page 58 (original edition 1553)

When you look closely, the difference between the two sections of the ceiling is clearly visible. For the first time Michelangelo saw his frescos from the ground. To his alarm, some of the details were not visible from below, particularly in Noah’s Ark. He would never make that mistake again in any of his later paintings. You don’t really need binoculars for that section of the ceiling. Michelangelo made many sketches. Buonarroti sometimes purposefully used the distance to the ceiling to hide a joke, as is the case in the Cumaean Sibyl.

Michelangelo ‘Cumaean Sibyl’ large size
Sistine Chapel ceiling Michelangelo Cumaean Sibyl

There is a malicious detail in the background, more specifically in the little hand of one of the children. You definitely need binoculars to see this. Ross King writes the following about the Cumaean Sibyl in his book: The Pope’s Heaven, Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel.

The Cumaean sibyl on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel looked odd for a figure that was supposed to represent the prophetess of a golden era heralded by Julius II’s deeds.  Michelangelo depicted her as a grotesque colossus, with one of the most terrifying bodies of the whole ceiling, including long arms, huge biceps and forearms, Atlas-like shoulders of such proportions that her head was dwarfed by them. This rather contemptuous portrait also suggests she is farsighted because she has to hold her book at arms-length to read in it. […] However this may be, his [Teg: Michelangelo] attitude toward this ugly old hag and her prophecies is expressed in the gesture made by one of the two naked children standing beside her: this boy is ‘making the fig’ at her, an obscene gesture (already described by Dante and still used by Italians today) in which the thumbs are inserted between the index and middle finger – the Italian equivalent of the gesture with the raised middle finger.

From: Ross King, The Pope’s Heaven, Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam 2003 page 202-203.

Michelangelo himself is also depicted on the ceiling. In the eastern pendant we see Judith with a servant and Holofernes. The head of the commander-in-chief, Holofernes, is on a platter and is a self-portrait of the artist. In the lunettes, the figure of Zadoch is also a self-portrait of Michelangelo.

‘Judith, servant and Holofernes’ head on a platter
Judith, servant and Holofernes’ head on a platter Michelangelo Sistine chapel
Michelangelo ceiling Sistine Chapel Zadoch

As you have already read, the Belvedere Torso greatly influenced his Ignudi. These are the male nudes around the nine central themes in the middle of the ceiling. They are holding gold medallions and when you look at them closely, you can see how Michelangelo completed the Belvedere Torso with heads, lower legs and arms, each time painting it from a different angle.

Michelangelo ‘Creation of Adam’ and  E.T. Extra Terrestrial
two hands   sketch of Michelangelo   Hand of God among figures
creation of Adam Sistine chapel Michelangelo

Creation of Adam Michelangelo Sistine Chapel

During the more than three years that Michelangelo worked on the ceiling, he clearly grew as an artist. This becomes clear when, for example, you look at the Ignudis. If you compare the first Ignudi near the entrance with the later Ignudi near the altar, you will see huge differences.


picture: Frans Vandewalle

Near the entrance Painted first Ignudi Near the entrance Painted later
Michelangelo Sixtijnse kapel Ignudi   Michelangelo Sixtijnse kapel Ignudi
 Ignudi  sketch
Michelangelo Sistine Chapel Ignudi sketch

Another surviving letter that Michelangelo wrote to Giovanni da Pistoia includes a sonnet and a drawing. In it, he complains about the position with his head held back in which he is forced to paint. As a result, Buonarroti was unable to read for months. Michelangelo’s letter to his friend:

I’ve grown a goitre from this trap I’m in,

as cats do from foul water in Lombardy,
or some such place, wherever it may be.
My stomach’s almost up against my chin,

My beard points skyward, at my nape the store
of memory dangles, I’ve grown a harpy’s breast,
and from above, my dripping brush, for jest,
transforms my face into a mosaic floor.

And while my haunches press into my gut,
my ass serves as a steady counterweight.
My feet tread blindly somewhere down below.

In front I feel my skin stretched lengthwise, but
in back it crimps and folds. This is my state:
arched and indented like a Syrian bow.

Not to be trusted, though,
are the strange thoughts that through my mind now run,
for who can shoot straight through a crooked gun?

My painting’s dead. I’m done.
Giovanni, friend, remove my honour’s taint,
I’m not in a good place, I cannot paint.

Michelangelo’s sonnet drawing painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

From: Nico van Suchtelen, ‘Collected Works I’, Wereldbibliotheek, Amsterdam/Antwerp, 1948 (letter dated July 1510)

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