Most people know about the great Renaissance artist Michelangelo. Even people who are not really interested in the arts can usually name at least one of his artworks. However, the statute of David is most probably the best known.
But as a painter, he had done monumental work in the Sistine Chapel. Pope Julius commissioned him to paint the frescoes on the Chapel’s ceiling. Famous Michelangelo paintings such as “The Creation of Adam,” “The Separation of Light from Darkness,” and “The Great Flood” are actually frescoes on the ceiling of the Chapel.
In this article, we’ll have a look at how Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel.
Before we discuss Michelangelo’s artworks at the Sistine Chapel, let’s first learn about Michelangelo artist and take a brief look at the broader background story of his famous works. He was an Italian sculptor, painter, architect, and poet and is today regarded as the typical “Renaissance man.”
According to one definition, a “Renaissance man” is “a man who can do all things if he will.” Thus, Renaissance artists embraced knowledge and developed their capacities and skills as fully as possible. Michelangelo was an excellent example of this with his sculpture, painting, architecture, and poetry accomplishments.
The “Pieta” and “David,” regarded as two of his most famous sculptures, were created before the age of thirty. He saw himself primarily as a sculptor and did not have a high opinion of painting. Despite this, he created two of the most famous frescoes in Western art history. He painted the scenes from the Bible book Genesis on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and “The Last Judgment” on its altar wall.
As an architect, he designed the Laurentian Library, and when he was 71 years old, he succeeded Antonio da Sangallo the Younger as the architect of St. Peter’s Basilica. He changed the architectural drawings so that the western end and the dome were completed according to his design.
By the early 1500s, Michelangelo was a very famous artist, and their works by Michelangelo were well-known throughout Italy. Because of this fame, Pope Julius commissioned Michelangelo to decorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Frescoes by other well-known artists of the time, such as Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and Perugino, were already on the walls of the Chapel. Pope Julius’ idea for the ceiling was that the theme should revolve around the 12 apostles.
However, Michelangelo had other plans. He wanted to paint several scenes from the Scriptures featuring over 300 figures. In the end, the nine central themes depicted different aspects described in the book of Genesis. The first panel deals with the separation of light from darkness and captures the moment God created day and night. In the next panel, the creation of the sun, moon, and vegetation is depicted. Finally, in “The Separation of Land and Water,” God is framed by four Ignudi (youthful, athletic male figures) while He separates the elements.
“The Creation of Adam” is one of his very famous frescoes. The fresco depicts the moment when God bestows life on Adam. God is surrounded by angels and flying through the air. However, the panel “The Creation of Eve,” where God is creating Eve, is not so famous. In the sixth panel, the fall of man and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden are shown. In this panel, Adam and Eve are in the same scene. It depicts on the left-hand side the moment when Adam and Eve have taken the forbidden fruit from the Serpent, and on the right-hand side where an angel expels them from Eden.
The last three panels depict the story of Noah and the Great Flood. In “The Sacrifice of Noah,” the family sacrifices a sheep to protect them from the Great Flood. In “The Great Flood,” Michelangelo painted a group of people stranded on land with Noah’s ark floating in the background. The last panel deals with Noah’s drunkenness and his scolding afterward of his son Ham.
Apart from the Genesis scenes on the ceiling, Michelangelo also created portraits of 12 people who had prophesied a Messiah. “The Prophet Daniel” is a painting of one of the seven male prophets. The other five prophets are Sibyls. Sibyls were women residing in Classical temples. And although not biblical characters, they were included by Michelangelo because of his interest in Ancient Rome and Greece.
The eight lunette windows of the Chapel are decorated with paintings of Jesus’ ancestors Jesse, David, and Solomon. There are also 20 images of athletic male nudes scattered across the ceiling. They are primarily decorative and are called Ignudi.
The overall theme of the Sistine Chapel paintings is God’s relationship with man. Art historians do not know what inspired Michelangelo to paint the ceiling. According to some old documents, he was not keen in the beginning to take on the task. However, Pope Julius practically forced him to do it. So, to a certain extent, was the Pope his inspiration?
During the five years it took Michelangelo to paint the 343 figures on the ceiling, he encountered many challenges. The fresco plaster, for instance, became infected with mold. And his body was continuously aching due to all the hours he devoted to the work. In his notes, he wrote he initially thought he was not up for it, but then he realized that this task was given to him by God and not just the Pope.
Many assume that Michelangelo was lying down when painting the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. But he and his assistants used wooden scaffolds, allowing them to stand upright and reach above their heads.
Since he was a famous artist, Michelangelo earned a lot of money with this task. In fact, he was paid 3000 ducats, which would amount to approximately $78000 in today’s terms.
Michelangelo’s frescoes and paintings in the Sistine Chapel are monumental examples of his painting skills. The ceiling panels are always included in any list of Michelangelo’s works.