Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Today's photos:


1. The Laocoon.  This statue and the Belvedere Torso below were a major influence on Michelangelo as he painted the figures on the Sistine ceiling.

2. The Belvedere Torso.

3. An overall view of the ceiling.

4. The Creation of Adam is perhaps the most famous part of the fresco.

5. The Flood was the first scene painted, mostly by Michelangelo's assistants.

6. The Pendentives are at the four corners of the ceiling.

7. The Drunkenness of Noah where we can see a damaged section of the fresco.

8. The Coat of Arms of Julius II.




Even someone with no appreciation of art, and perhaps even a distaste for it, will gaze in amazement at the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.  The sight is all the more awe-inspiring when one thinks that the surface covered by the frescoes is 12,000 square feet and that it contains over 300 human figures. So how did this incredible work of art come to be?  The answer to this question is perhaps just as amazing as the end result.


It was Julius II Della Rovere (1503-1513) who called a reluctant Michelangelo Buonarotti back to Rome from Florence in 1508 and literally ordered him to fresco the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. (For the story of the building of the Chapel, see Rome: Sights and Insights, Chapter 25, The Sistine Chapel).  A "reluctant" Michelangelo because the artist considered himself a sculptor, not a painter. He wanted to continue work on a previous commission from Julius: the sculpting of the Pope's tomb. For this reason he tried to refuse the commission of the fresco, but the strong-willed Julius would not take no for an answer.


A curiosity


There is a fascinating story about why the Pope chose Michelangelo, a sculptor with almost no experience in fresco painting, to tackle such a demanding task. The Pope's architect at this time was Donato Bramante, a man who harbored a deep resentment of Michelangelo, probably a case of professional jealousy.  Bramante is believed to have urged Julius to give the commission to Michelangelo. His motivation, however, was anything but altruistic.  Knowing that Michelangelo had little experience in fresco painting, Bramante expected him to fail in his attempt to fresco the ceiling. At that point he planned to convince Julius to give the commission to his twenty-five year old friend and fellow townsman from Urbino, Raphael Sanzio.


Michelangelo, however, succeeded beyond all expectations, perhaps even his own. Even Bramante and Raphael would eventually acknowledge the genius of this Herculean task.


Once Michelangelo had accepted the job, Julius pressed upon him the subject matter he wanted on the ceiling:  giant portraits of the twelve apostles.  Such a static topic however, left the artist cold and unenthusiastic.  He delighted in creating the human body, usually naked, and usually twisting into seemingly impossible contortions. He therefore came up with his own daring and ambitious idea of a subject matter and presented it to the pontiff with great enthusiasm.  Recognizing the genius in Michelangelo's proposal, Julius abandoned his own suggestion of the portraits and gave Michelangelo a free hand to follow his own instincts.


The primary subject matter of the fresco are biblical scenes from the Book of Genesis: the Creation and events in the life of Noah.  This cycle begins on the side of the chapel nearest the altar, and continues down the center of the ceiling in the direction of the entrance door in the following order:


1.     The Separation of Light from Darkness

2.     The Creation of the Sun, the Moon and Plant Life

3.     The Separation of the Land from the Sea

4.     The Creation of Adam

5.     The Creation of Eve

6.     The Original Sin and the Banishment from the Garden of Eden

7.     The Sacrifice of Noah

8.     The Universal Flood

9.     The Drunkenness of Noah.


This is the order of the end result, but Michelangelo did not paint the scenes in the order in which we see them today.  He began with the scene of The Flood.  The reason for this may be that although he lacked confidence in fresco painting, he felt very secure in his ability to paint  the naked human body, and this scene was to have dozens of nudes – men, women and children, all struggling in one way or another to save themselves from the deluge.


A curiosity


It will surprise some people to learn that Michelangelo did not fresco the ceiling by himself. He recognized his own limitations in this medium, so he hired the best fresco painters he could find in Florence to assist him. The scene of The Flood is certainly a proof of this.  Most of it was painted by the assistants.  The only part of this scene which can be attributed to the hand of Michelangelo are the two figures on the edge of a rock on the right side of the painting.  It shows an elderly man carrying the lifeless body of a younger man.


It is true, however, that Michelangelo dismissed some of his assistants as the work progressed and as his confidence in fresco painting increased. More and more he used his assistants to mix his paints and to prepare the ceiling for the actual application of the paint by himself.



There is, of course, a great deal more to the fresco than just the center cycle of the Creation and the Life of Noah, too much by far for all of it to be included in this post.  Take, for example, the four pendentives (large triangular spherical spaces) at the four corners of the ceiling. Many art historians say that these show Michelangelo at the height of his powers. They depict four dramatic episodes from the Old Testament.  If you read the accounts of these events in the biblical passages sited, you will better appreciate Michelangelo's depiction of the scene.


1.     The Punishment of Haman (Esther 7)

2.     The Bronze Serpent (Numbers 21, 4-9)

3.     David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17, 31-51)

4.     Judith and Holofernes (Judith 13, 1-10)


Michelangelo could have stopped at this point and the fresco would still have been considered a great masterpiece, but he wasn't nearly finished. Along both sides of the Creation cycle you will see four rectangular spaces which contain figures representing the Ancestors of Christ.  Alternating with these rectangles are figures which depict five Old Testament Prophets on one side and five Sybils (pagan prophets) on the other side.


But the artist didn't stop here, either.  Five of The Creation scenes along the center of the ceiling are "framed" by four six-foot-high muscular male nudes in a variety of poses intended to highlight their muscularity.  Michelangelo himself named these twenty figures simply Ignudi (nudes). Each one is sitting on what appears to be a small platform extending out from the ceiling. In reality, these are part of the architectural illusion created by Michelangelo; they are actually painted on a flat surface. The poses of the Ignudi were suggested to Michelangelo by two ancient statues, both of which had a tremendous influence on his style: The Laocoon and The Belvedere Torso, both in the Vatican Museums. (For more on the Laocoon see The Sights of Rome, Chapter 12, Laocoon).  As if this were not enough, there are gold medallions between each pair of Ignudi, a total of ten medallions, five of them illustrated with scenes from the Book of Maccabees.  These medallions were painted almost exclusively by the assistants working from sketches provided by Michelangelo, another example showing that he did not work alone on the ceiling.


A curiosity


We have been using the term "fresco" throughout this article, as the entire ceiling is one giant fresco.  But what exactly is fresco painting, and why is it such a difficult art form?  The term itself is an Italian word which means "fresh", so a fresco is a painting in which the artist has applied the paint on a fresh (wet) plaster surface. The difficulty is that the surface remains wet for only twenty to twenty-four hours. The frescoist therefore, must work on a surface small enough for him to finish it while it is still wet. Hence the artist is constantly working against time. Furthermore, he cannot make changes or correct mistakes, as can be done when painting on canvas or wood.  A mistake would require the chipping away of all the plaster and starting the whole process over again.  More reason to be in awe of what Michelangelo did.


Obviously this blog post is not a complete treatise  of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  Volumes have been written on this one work of art by people far more knowledgeable than I am. Hopefully what has been presented here is enough to whet your appetites for further reading and study.  And, hopefully, a visit to see it with your own eyes.  I want to close this post with a few more curious and perhaps little-known facts about the ceiling.


1.     Another popular myth needing to be debunked, like the one that Michelangelo worked alone, is that he painted lying flat on his back.  That was Charlton Heston in the movie The Agony and the Ecstasy which unfortunately left this indelible and mistaken image in people's minds! Michelangelo constructed his scaffolding in such a way that he could paint over his head while standing upright. This required that his head be turned back as he gazed up at the ceiling just above him. He himself wrote a poem in which he speaks of the difficulties involved, and he included a sketch of himself painting the ceiling while standing upright. In fact, after five years of painting in this position Michelangelo could only read if he held the paper above his head, the position he had taken for so many years in painting the ceiling.


2.     Scattered here and there on the ceiling, especially around the Ignudi, you can see leaves of an oak tree and acorns, the fruit of the oak. This is Michelangelo's tribute to his patron, Julius II whose coat of arms features the oak tree and acorns. His family name, Della Rovere, means "of the oak tree". The full coat of arms can be seen above the entrance door of the chapel.


3.     The ceiling fresco was given a comprehensive cleaning between 1980 and 1989 which brought out the original, bright colors used by Michelangelo.  This has led to another misconception by many people, namely that the painting was "touched up" by the restorers.  In fact, no paint was applied during the restoration.  What the restorers did was to remove the dirt, dust and grime which had accumulated over the centuries, thus revealing the fresco as Michelangelo painted it five hundred years ago.  The restorers purposely left a few small patches untouched so the viewer can clearly see the difference between before and after the restoration. (See examples of this in the two pendentives on the left side of photo #6).


4.     Although the frescoes are in remarkably good shape for their age, especially after the cleaning described above, they have not completely escaped damage.  In the scene of the Drunkenness of Noah you can see that a rather large section, which includes one of the Ignudi, is missing.  This is the result of an explosion which occurred in 1797 in the nearby Castel Sant'Angelo which caused that piece of the fresco to fall from the ceiling. Fortunately, the damage was limited to that one section.


5.     Michelangelo was very protective of his work and did not want anyone to see the ceiling until it was completely finished.  He had even constructed the scaffolding in such a way that he and his assistants were not visible from the floor as they worked on the ceiling. The Pope, however, continually pressed Michelangelo to reveal what had been painted a little more than half way through the work.  The headstrong pontiff finally got his way from the equally headstrong artist and the scaffolding was removed.  The grand unveiling was set for August 15, 1510, the feast of the Assumption.  Among the people invited to this dramatic sneak preview was Michelangelo's rival, Raphael, who at that time was frescoing the Pope's apartment just a few yards away from the Sistine Chapel.  When Raphael entered the chapel he was stunned beyond words by what he saw.  Neither he nor anyone else had ever seen such a bold style of painting, such powerful figures pulsing with vitality.  Sensing that the ceiling would completely overshadow his own work, Raphael tried to "steal" the commission from Michelangelo.  He even asked his friend Bramante to intercede on his behalf with Julius, but the Pope would have none of it. The ceiling belonged to Michelangelo and Michelangelo alone!  What Raphael saw that day had a tremendous influence on his own painting as he began to copy the bold style of the figures painted by Michelangelo.  In a tribute to his rival, Raphael even added a portrait of him in his already finished The School of Athens in the Stanza della Segnatura.


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