Sistine Chapel Cieling

The Sistine Chapel Ceiling
The Sistine Chapel ceiling is perhaps the most amazing painting of all time. It was
finished by Michealangelo Buonarroti in 1512.(he started it in 1508.) He worked on the painting
every day in the four year period. It was grueling work. He would have to climb a scaffolding
and lay flat on his back 65 feet above the floor with paint dripping down on him. All of the
scenes were based on stories of The Bible. The centerpiece, ?The Creation Of Adam? shows
God infusing life into Adam, the first man.
The triangular areas along the two long sides of the ceiling are called spandrels. The
moldings which outline them are the only aspects of the architectural design of the Ceiling that
are truly part of the architecture. The moldings were in the ceiling before Michelangelo began
his project. All other architectural details on the Ceiling were painted by Michelangelo.
The figures painted inside the spandrels represent ancestors of Christ. (These figures are
also continued into the lunettes below the Ceiling.) The prophets and sibyls could be seen as
mediating between the Old and New Testaments in a spiritual or prophetic way. The ancestors
mediate between the two in a concrete or biological way.
Michelangelo was first assigned to paint the ceiling when he received a letter from the
Pope. This letter reveals that the idea of completing the Chapel begun by Sixtus IV had been
broached while Michelangelo was previously in Rome. Michelangelo told him that the didn?t
want to paint the Chapel doubting he had the ability to paint foreshortened figures. On May 10,
1508 Michelangelo contracted to paint the ceiling for 3,000 ducats1 and began work that very
The ceiling is divided into three zones, the highest showing scenes from Genesis. Below
are prophets and sibyls. In the lunettes and spandrels are figures identified as ancestors of Jesus
or the Virgin. His awesome Last Judgment is on the alter wall.
The sequence of the Old Testament and New Testament scenes were arranged to
emphasize the authority of the Pope. Between the windows above are painted images
pre-Constantian sainted Popes. To left and right of the alter wall were the findings of Moses and
the birth of Christ. Above them, on the level of the Popes was the beginning of the Papal series
and in the center, possibly an image of Christ flanked by Peter and Paul. Michelangelo was first
commissioned to paint the twelve apostles on the twelve pendentive-like2 areas.
In place of the twelve Apostles who followed Christ, Michelangelo painted the Hebrew
Prophets and pagan Sibyls who foresaw the coming of a Messiah. Here, for the first time in
the Chapel, Greco-Roman culture is joined to the Hebrew world. These Prophets and Sibyls
inhabit the curved lower part of the vault, sitting on thrones. By this method Michelangelo
created an imaginary architecture: the bands across the vault are united by the cornice above
with its projecting segments. The Prophets and Sibyls are clearly to be understood as sitting in
front of the Ancestors of Christ, painted in the spandrels and lunettes3. These are pictorial
versions of the mere list of names that begins the Gospel of Matthew, the generations linking
Christ with the tribe of David, as was necessary according the Old Testament prophecy. Thus
the Hebrew and pagan seers who foretold the coming of the Messiah alternate with
representations of Christ?s own ancestors. This part of the vault is closely connected with the
scenes below that show Christ?s life and work on earth as the counterpart and fulfillment of the
prophetic example of Moses.
Some of the scenes of Genesis are obviously related to Christian events, others are less
obviously relevant. Michelangelo?s decoration of the Sistine ceiling is the most pictorial
ensemble in all of Western art, and for that reason it has to be approached from different points
of view.
Michelangelo began painting in the winter of 1508-9, not the earliest scenes of creation
over the sanctuary, but the Noah episodes over the entrance. At first he had trouble with the
mold and had to paint some of the ceiling over. He used watercolor painted into newly applied
plaster, a technique he learned but had never before practiced independently. He transferred
his design to the wet plaster by holding it up and following the lines with a stylus, making
grooves that can be seen. He was at first conscientious in following these lines, but