1 November 2017

Sistine Chapel ceiling revealed

All Saints’ Day chosen to show off Michelangelo’s work

The Creation of Adam, centrepiece of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, is among the most famous images in the world
The Creation of Adam, centrepiece of Michelangelo's Sistine
Chapel ceiling, is among the most famous images in the world 
Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel were unveiled for public viewing for the first time on this day in 1512.

The date of All Saints’ Day was chosen by Pope Julius II, who had commissioned Michelangelo, because he felt it appropriate to show off the frescoes on a significant festival in the Catholic Church year.

The frescoes, the central nine panels of which depict stories from the Book of Genesis, has become one of the most famous works of art in the world, the image of The Creation of Adam rivalled only perhaps by Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa for iconic status.

Yet Michelangelo was reluctant initially to take on the project, which was first mooted in 1506 as part of a general programme of rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica being undertaken by Julius II, who felt that the Sistine Chapel, which had restored by his uncle, Pope Sixtus IV, ought to have a ceiling that carried more meaningful decoration than the gold stars on a blue background of his uncle’s design.

The ceiling in all its glory
The ceiling in all its glory
Michelangelo, only 31 or 32 at the time, regarded himself as a sculptor rather than a painter. Already famous for his Pietà in St Peter’s Basilica and for his David in Florence, he was busy working on Julius II’s marble tomb, which would include a third great sculptured figure, that of Moses. 

When Julius became distracted by a war against the French, Michelangelo took the opportunity to make himself scarce, taking refuge away from Rome in the hope that the pope would somehow forget his ideas for the chapel and allow him to continue uninterrupted on the tomb.

However, in 1508 Julius summoned Michelangelo to begin work on the ceiling as discussed.  Feeling he had little choice, he signed the contract, although only on condition that he had a free hand over the content of his frescoes, rather than follow the pope’s idea for depictions of the Twelve Apostles, which Michelangelo felt lacked imagination.

For four years, Michelangelo and his assistants were engaged on the project, working from a unique system of platforms, balanced on a wooden scaffold and attached to the walls by brackets.  Contrary to the idea that was suggested in a movie made about his life in which Charlton Heston took the part of the artist, Michelangelo did not paint lying on his back but standing up, although craning his neck to paint above his head took its toll on his physical health.

He felt the damage to his spine turned him into an old man prematurely and that he had paid a high price but the end result was an extraordinary work, including more than 300 figures in a story in which he set out to depict the Creation, the Fall of Man, the promise of salvation through the prophets and the geneology of Christ.

The Fall and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden - another section of Michelangelo's ceiling fresco
The Fall and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden - another
section of Michelangelo's ceiling frescoes
The famous Creation of Adam, in which the index finger of God’s outstretched right arm is almost touching the left index finger of a languid, reclining Adam, is generally thought to depict Genesis 1:27, which contains the words: “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him.”

The picture shows a totally naked Adam and portrays God, who is clothed, as a muscular figure with human form, with long, white hair and a white beard.  It was the first time a painter had represented God as such a dynamic figure; in other works, God was often depicted as a hand reaching down through clouds.

The other interesting feature is that behind God and the figures surrounding him is what looks like a swirling cloak that forms an anatomically accurate outline of the human brain, although others have hypothesised that it is meant to represent a human uterus and the scarf hanging from the cloak an umbilical cord, supporting the theory that the picture symbolises birth.

Michelangelo is said to have wanted more time to perfect the work but, under some pressure from Julius II, he revealed it on November 1, 1512 to general acclaim, before returning to work on Julius’s tomb, which can nowadays be found in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli.

Today, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, situated within the Apostolic Palace, which is the official residence of the popes, is visited by some five million people each year at a rate of about 25,000 every day.

The chapel is a significant building in the Vatican in that it is the place in which the cardinals meet in papal conclave to elect a new pope. For a while, because of the grime and dirt that had collected on its surface, the detail of the frescoes were almost invisible.  But, between 1980 and 1999, teams of experts successfully removed the soot deposits left behind by burning candles and restored the colours to their original vividness (although some critics said the colours were too bright).

Michelangelo is said to have been paid 3,000 ducats for his work on the project, the equivalent of about $78,000, or €67,000 today.

The rather plain exterior of the Cistine Chapel, deep within the Vatican complex
The rather plain exterior of the Cistine Chapel, deep
within the Vatican complex
Travel tip:

The Sistine Chapel is in the Apostolic Palace, where the Pope lives, in Vatican City. The chapel takes its name from Pope Sixtus IV, the uncle of Pope Julius II, who had it restored during his papacy. Michelangelo’s contribution also includes The Last Judgment, which is painted on the altar wall of the chapel and was not finished until 25 years after he completed work on the ceiling. The work was controversial for its depiction of nudity, some of which the Council of Trent, the ecumenical council that took place in Trento between 1545 and 1563, declared to be obscene and ordered Mannerist painted Daniele da Volterra to cover up.

Michelangelo's Moses, part of the tomb of Pope Julius II
Michelangelo's Moses, part of the tomb
of Pope Julius II
Travel tip:

The church of San Pietro in Vincoli, situated less than 1km from the Colosseum, is a minor basilica originally built during the fifth century to house the relics of the chains that bound St Peter when he was in prison in Jerusalem.  The church contains the mausoleum of Pope Julius II, made up by Michelangelo’s striking statue of Moses, which was completed by 1515 after 10 years. The mausoleum today is dimly lit until one of the visitors makes a donation and it lights up.

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