The Sistine Chapel is one of the most visited monuments in the world. Almost twenty thousand people a day and five million every year go to the Vatican to admire Michelangelo’s masterpiece.
The Sistine Chapel Before Michelangelo’s Intervention
The work began on May 10th, 1508, as Michelangelo himself noted in his diary. The chapel in which the artist entered was the same as it was when Sixtus IV consecrated it. It has a splendid Cosmatesque floor, a finely sculpted marble barrier and is frescoed by the greatest masters of the late fifteenth century.
On the right are the Stories of Christ and on the left the Stories of Moses. Together, they tell the story of salvation as described in the Old and New Testament. Three panels are painted by the Florentine master, Sandro Botticelli, The Delivery of the Keys by Perugino, central subject of the whole cycle, representation of the primacy of Peter and therefore of all his successors. Do not miss Ghirlandaio’s fresco, who was the teacher of the adolescent Michelangelo in Florence, The Calling of the Apostles, and those done by Pinturicchio and Cosimo Rosselli. Each panel is placed side by side following precise references between one story and another. It was Perugino who skillfully led the group of painters, bringing together artistic personalities with very different styles, imparting a series of common characteristics to be followed: the horizon line, the size of the figures and the pigments to be used.
Under the Stories, there is a fake curtain with the coat of arms of Sixtus IV and above is a series of popes arranged in pairs in niches on the sides of the windows. On the altar wall, where the Last Judgment now stands, there was a fresco by Perugino known as the Assumption of the Virgin. The vault was also frescoed with a sky of lapis lazuli and gold. However, due to a subsidence, the chapel had a large crack on the ceiling, so beyond the decoration, Michelangelo had also been called to solve a structural problem.
At that time, Michelangelo was a young man of 33 who had already won the attention of his contemporaries. At the age of 24, he had sculpted the Pietà located in Saint Peter’s and a few years before frescoing the Sistine, he had made David, which Vasari defined as the first modern statue, placed in Piazza della Signoria in Florence.
In 1505, Michelangelo arrived in Rome from Florence and lived in the home of Antonio da Sangallo, who was 30 years older than him and who acted as his protector. Sangallo presented him to Julius II, the pontiff under whom Rome became the great capital of the arts, following the example of his uncle, Sixtus IV, who had built new churches, a bridge and who had called artists from all over Italy to fresco his chapel.
The Fresco on the Vault
Julius II thought of entrusting the fresco of the Sistine vault to Michelangelo as early as 1506, but the assignment was officially given to him in 1508. Michelangelo accepted the challenge, receiving 3000 ducats as a reward, and he studied the works of his predecessors and prepared to paint what would be his first fresco. He hired Pietro Rosselli to demolish the starry sky of the vault and prepare it for the new fresco. Even before starting to work, he had already thought of five assistants, as evidenced by one of his notes. Among these were Francesco Granacci, a well-known and established painter, long-time friend of Michelangelo, and Giuliano Bugiardini, a contemporary and friend of Michelangelo; all three had trained in Ghirlandaio’s workshop. But the relationship with assistance, despite the friendship, would be troubled.
Since the vault was twenty meters high, the first thing to do was to mount the scaffolding. The pope asked him to paint the 12 apostles on all four sides with a geometric ornament in the center (at the time the artists were required to scrupulously follow the wishes of the patrons). With a thousand square meters available, Michelangelo expressed his perplexity to paint only twelve figures and then the pope granted him permission to do what he wanted. Michelangelo started from the framework and turned that space into an architectural structure marked by frames and sails, plumes and lunettes, then moved on to the stories to be represented and those thousand meters are populated by about three hundred figures.
Michelangelo decorated sixteen lunettes (two of which were later destroyed to make room for the Judgment) that frame the upper part of the windows, above the figures of the first popes on the sides. The actual vault is made up of eight sails that are located above the lunettes of the major side walls and two pendentives at the corners of the two minor walls. Both the lunettes and the sails represent the ancestors of Christ, the 48 generations that precede his coming to earth, as the Gospel of Matthew describes them. On the sides of the sails are thrones with great seers, the Sibyls of the classical tradition and the Prophets of the Old Testament who announced the advent of Christ and anticipated the history of salvation.
In the plumes are the stories of God’s intervention in the history of his chosen people: when David overthrew the giant Goliath, when Judith beheaded the wicked Holofernes, when Moses lifted the bronze serpent and stopped the plague that was affecting the people of Exodus and when he made sure Haman was punished.
At the center of the vault there are nine stories taken from Genesis, framed by the architectural elements that continue from the thrones. Starting from the altar wall, we find: The Separation of Light from Darkness; The Creation of the Sun, Moon and Plants; The Separation of Land and Water; The Creation of Adam; The Creation of Eve; The Original Sin and Expulsion from Paradise; The Sacrifice of Noah; The Flood; and The Drunkenness of Noah.
Michelangelo began to paint on the opposite side of the altar wall and the first panel he worked on was The Flood, which has very small figures, almost like a picture and for which he took twenty-eight days to complete. Here, his five assistants intervened, but certainly, he had personally painted the figure of the old man dragging his dead son and had also changed part of the scene painted by his colleagues. Then gradually, from The Original Sin onwards, the figures got bigger and bigger and the execution faster, so much so that The Expulsion from Paradise took only 4 days.
On the frames, occupying the corners of the smaller Genesis scenes, there are young people with beautiful bodies, a glorification of the nude male body, who are facing towards monochrome bronze medallions representing scenes from the Old Testament.
Soon Michelangelo had a crisis, he did not want to continue, and he wanted to free himself from the commitment, he seemed to be unable to work adequately and wrote a letter to his father in which he confessed that painting was not his profession. Actually, Michelangelo painted with great difficulty; the light from the windows was dim, he could barely see where he put his feet on the scaffolding and he had to stand with his arm raised for hours as the paint ran down his face. His health began to suffer from that effort, especially when he got to the center of the vault. Michelangelo worked from six to eight hours a day on the scaffolding, but before the work of painting there was that of preparatory drawings and sketches, drafts and illustrations of which only a hundred remain, around Europe and in the United States.
In the summer of 1510, Michelangelo advanced to where the first scaffolding started. Now he had to take it apart and reassemble it to finish the second part of the vault, but in reality, a year of involuntary break would begin for him. Julius II was in Bologna due to the conflict with the French, which was becoming increasingly bitter, and had left Michelangelo without instructions or means to continue. Having lost Bologna which had fallen into the hands of the French, Julius II returned to Rome and in August 1511, he went to see the Sistine Chapel and the half-finished fresco. In October, the scaffolding was reassembled and the work resumed from the Creation of Adam, the most famous panel, a solemn moment in which the contact between the Creator and the creature entered the history of art.
Michelangelo had now acquired enough experience to abandon the dusting technique for that of indirect engraving, which was much faster. This way, the painter could work directly on the wall.
Although the artist worked faster, the pope hurried him, which caused him despair. Finally, in October 1512, he took down the stage and showed the pope and his followers the vault of the chapel and Julius II was very satisfied. A few months later, the pope died and Michelangelo returned 25 years later, when he was already sixty years old, to paint the Last Judgment.
The Last Judgment
Now mature, Michelangelo returned to the Sistine Chapel on commission from Pope Clement VII and for five years, from 1536 to 1541, he frescoed the 180 square meters of the wall behind the altar with four hundred figures.
The work triggered the debate among theologians who saw a latent heresy, moreover in the most sacred place, where popes were elected. Accusations of obscenity, immorality, invectives and even the possibility of covering the painting was circulated.
The fresco certainly presented many innovative elements with respect to tradition, because the Judgment had always been represented as a celestial court where the ultimate destiny of humanity was decided, between Heaven and Hell, with Christ presiding and the saints as judges, the angelic hosts and figure of St. Michael the Archangel who weighed the souls with the scales, all arranged on horizontal lines.
There is none of this tradition in Michelangelo’s work. There are the blessed and the damned, but their distinction doesn’t even seem clear-cut and the narrative is arranged on vertical lines. The action is almost a vortex that originates on the left where the blessed rise to the sky and ends on the right where the damned fall.
The gesture of Christ, young and powerful, seems to be a gesture of curse rather than of balanced judgment and gives rise to the movement making the damned fall and the blessed ascend. He has an angry expression, and the Virgin is represented turned away, almost fearful, as if she did not dare to look at her son. At the center and at the sides of Christ, the action is suspended: the blessed are turned towards him, anxious, frightened, waiting for the final verdict to be pronounced.
The saints are easily recognized because they hold the symbols of their history or their martyrdom in their hands: St. Peter to the right of Jesus is ready to return the keys, St. Lawrence carries the ladder on his shoulder and St. Sebastian holds the arrows in his hand with which he was martyred. One of the most striking images is that of St. Bartholomew, skinned alive, who has the face of Pietro Aretino, the poet who had criticized the nudity of the Judgment, while the skin in his hand has the face of Michelangelo himself, signifying the torture caused by such insistent criticism.
The representation suggests the great bustle and deafening noise of the trumpets blown by the angels of the apocalypse that announce the end of time and awaken the dead and the screams of the damned dropped by merciless angels and demons. The bodies, especially those of the damned, are far from the harmony of the figures on the vault, they are clumsy, almost caricatured. In the lower part is Charon carrying the damned and striking some of them with an oar pushing them towards Minos, the infernal judge with donkey ears, wrapped in a snake that bites his genitals. The figure of Minos, as well as the master of ceremonies of Pope Biagio da Cesena who had strongly criticized Michelangelo’s nudes, was also identified with Pierluigi Farnese, son of Pope Paul III, famous in Rome for violent acts and sodomy. On the left, the risen in the flesh ascend to heaven recovering their bodies, some grotesquely attached to a rosary. In the upper part, outside the circular movement, the angels carry the cross, almost with a threatening movement. Even in the Last Judgment, similar to the vault, the figures do not have the same perspective, they come together in groups or move away, leaving large spaces of blue and each portion of the fresco is painted with extreme attention to detail.
This chaotic and distressed vision is due to the historical events that marked that era. The Sack of Rome in 1527 during which 20,000 citizens were killed, but also the Council of Trent, reunited by Julius III Farnese (the pope who confirmed the assignment of Michelangelo after the death of Clement VII), at a time when, in Europe, the word that circulated the most was heresy, an accusation that also affected people close to the artist. The universal judgment therefore appeared to be a huge court of the Inquisition.
In 1564, a year before Michelangelo’s death, the Congregation of the Council of Trent decreed the covering of the obscenities of the fresco and instructed a scholar of Michelangelo, Daniele da Volterra, later known as Braghettone (the breeches-maker), to put the nudes in breeches. The moralizing interventions and criticisms did not end there and over time, there were other censorship interventions, later removed by the long and careful restoration completed in 1994.