Each week, we bring you the backstory of work featured in our collection, written by a member of our curatorial team. 

This work has been and truly is the beacon of our art, and it has brought such benefit and enlightenment to the art of painting, restoring light to a world that for centuries had been plunged into darkness.” — Giorgio Vasari on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Ceiling

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Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel Ceiling

by Haley Temin, Associate Curator

The year is 1506 and Pope Julius II has devised a plan to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He commissions the prodigious Michelangelo—a sculptor, not a painter—who’s very reluctant to take on the vast project due to the fact that he was already occupied with a very large sculpture for the Pope’s own tomb. Pope Julius, however, was particularly adamant that Michelangelo be the one to paint the ceiling, leaving the artist with no choice but to accept the Pope’s offer. Conveniently enough, a war broke out with the French that same year, diverting the Pope’s attention and leaving Michelangelo the perfect chance to flee Rome and continue with his true passion: sculpting.

Fast forward two years. 1508. The Pope has returned from war, victorious, and again orders Michelangelo to begin work on the ceiling. The simple scheme originally proposed by the Pope was for twelve apostles—but Michelangelo has a much grander and detailed plan. The scheme suggested, and finally accepted, would be comprised of 343 figures, and would take four years to execute. The plan of the ceiling contained nine scenes from the Book of Genesis, including the most well known scene (The Creation of Adam), as well as the large and acclaimed fresco of The Last Judgement. Each figure found in the scenes differs from the next, expressing a diverse spectrum of emotions and intensity far exceeding any biblical representations that came before it. The variety of poses taken on by his human figures demonstrate the sheer talent of the artist, and became a huge influence of the human model for artists ever since. These painted scenes are unprecedented, demonstrating the diverse talents of Michelangelo, and would go on to change the course of Western art forever.

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Michelangelo Buonarroti, Sistine Chapel: The Last Judgement, Fresco, 1538-1541

Out of the many myths surrounding the story, only a few facts hold true. Contrary to popular belief, Michelangelo did not paint the ceiling laying on his back, but in fact painted in a standing position on a scaffold he built himself. According to Giorgio Vasari, a friend of Michelangelo’s as well as a painter and historian, the work was done in very uncomfortable conditions, and Michelangelo had to paint with his head tilted up for the majority of the time. In fact, working on the ceiling was so unpleasant Michelangelo wrote a poem about it!

“I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,” he wrote. He complained that his “stomach’s squashed under my chin,” that his “face makes a fine floor for droppings,” that his “skin hangs loose below me” and that his “spine’s all knotted from folding myself over.” He ended with an affirmation that he shouldn’t have changed his day job: “I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.” (source: history.com)

Apart from the less than accommodating working conditions, Michelangelo still managed to exceed the work of any of the masters before him, breaking away from the conventional way of painting fresco (using a stencil to outline onto the plaster surface), painting directly onto the ceiling instead. Despite his passion for sculpture, Michelangelo’s versatile talents in painting, architecture, and every facet of his life is undeniable and historically transcendental. Giorgio Vasari writes in his book, “The Lives of the Artists”:

“Thus, any person who has good judgement and an understanding of painting will see in this work the awesome power of the art of painting, for Michelangelo’s figures reveal thoughts and emotions which were never depicted by anyone else…and in studying his labors, the senses are confused solely at the thought of how other paintings, both those that have been executed and those to come, would compare to this one.”

Needless to say, if you haven’t seen this masterpiece in person, I’d hop on the next plane to Rome! It’s worth every last euro.

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Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel Ceiling