Michelangelo, the painter. The Sistine Chapel ceiling.

The talented and brilliant artist (and personality) that was Michelangelo (March 6, 1475 – February 18, 1564) must be repeatedly and independently cited when talking about sculpture, painting and architecture of the High Renaissance. Such was his impact and influence on the history of Art. From Michelangelo the painter, of whom we will speak now, we know 10 works: the monumental frescoes that he executed for the Sistine Chapel (1508-1512 and 1534-1541), The Entombment (ca. 1500-1501, National Gallery, London), the Doni Tondo (ca. 1503-1506, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence), the Battle of Cascina (1504) and Leda and the Swan (ca. 1530) both lost, and the Conversion of Saul (1542-1545) and the Crucifixion of Saint Peter (1546-1550) these last two in the Capella Paolina of the Vatican Palace (Vatican City). Two paintings are of doubtful attribution: the Torment of Saint Anthony (ca. 1487-1488, Kimbell Art Museum, Texas) and Madonna and Child with Saint John and Angels (ca. 1497, National Gallery, London).

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni was born on March 6, 1475 in Caprese, a small town located near Arezzo in Tuscany. He despised oil painting. He said that it was only “appropriate for women… or idlers like Sebastiano del Piombo”. He felt that it was a less virile and less pure art than sculpture, and in particular, he despised it for elevating the features of color over those of the idea. He also hated portraits, in which he only saw “an adulation of idleness and of imperfect illusions of the senses”. Not satisfied with belittling painting, Michelangelo assured its inferiority to sculpture. The latter is therefore an opinion diametrically opposed to that of Leonardo.

In 1488, Michelangelo was already one of the apprentices in Domenico Ghirlandaio‘s workshop, where he soon discovered that sculpture was his true vocation. In fact, he never sought to paint, and only did when he was forced to do so. Following his artistic inclinations, from Ghirlandaio’s studio he decided to move to the studio of Giovanni di Bertoldo, a pupil of Donatello, who was the director of a school of sculpture and of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s collections of classical antiquities. There, Michelangelo had the opportunity to come into contact with the members of the circle of the Platonic Academy of the Medici between 1490 and 1492, surrounded not only by the members of the Medici family, but also by the circle of intellectuals who frequented them. In this environment, he met and also had the opportunity to learn the humanist philosophy and the literature of his time.

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The Holy Family with the Infant St. John (Tondo Doni), tempera on panel, by Michelangelo, ca. 1503-1504 (?) or 1507, diameter 120 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). Michelangelo painted this Holy Family for a Florentine merchant, Agnolo Doni, whose prestigious marriage to Maddalena Strozzi took place in 1504. Agnolo was able to celebrate his marriage and the birth of his first child with some of the highest expressions of painting: a portrait of husband and wife painted by Raphael and this ‘tondo’ by Michelangelo, which is the only finished panel painting by the artist to survive. Michelangelo conceived the Doni Tondo as if it were a sculpture, in which the pyramidal composition of the group takes up almost the entire height and width of the panel. This composition, so articulated and expressive, was inspired by Michelangelo’s own knowledge and study of the great marble sculptures from the Hellenistic Period, which were emerging from excavations of Roman villas. Some of these important finds, such as the Apollo Belvedere and the Laocoön group excavated in January 1506, are promptly referred to in the painting, among the naked figures leaning against a balustrade (to the left and right of St. Joseph). The young nudes, whose identification is complex, seem to represent pagan humanity, separated from the Holy Family by a short wall that represents original sin, past which there is also an Infant St. John, which would seem to refer to the interpretation of the painting as being for a christening. The plant in front of John the Baptist has been identified with hyssop, which symbolizes both the humility of Christ and baptism. There is a citron tree in the background, which represents the Cedar of Lebanon. The clover in the foreground represents the Trinity and salvation. The anemone plant represents the Trinity and the Passion of Christ. The frame around the painting, probably designed by Michelangelo, was carved by Francesco del Tasso, one of the leading wood carvers in Florence. The masculinity of Michelangelo’s female figures is explained by his exclusive use of male models. The Doni Tondo seems to have been also influenced by Luca Signorelli’s Madonna and Child in the Uffizi.

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In a work such as the Holy Family (popularly known as the Doni “tondo”), Michelangelo already shows us a familiar effusion and affection, already very human, which are not found in the works by Luca Signorelli. But it is curious that in this painting, one of the few known easel paintings by Michelangelo, the remembrance of Signorelli’s works is so evident. The Doni Tondo is so named because it was painted ca. 1503-1504 (or 1507?) on the occasion of the wedding of Agnolo Doni and Maddalena Strozzi, whose magnificent portraits Rafael was to paint. Both belonged to two of the most powerful families of the Florence oligarchy. Michelangelo’s concern for depicting volume manifested in this work is so great that it has been described as a “painted sculpture”. This characteristic of Michelangelo’s pictorial work, which also relates him to Signorelli, gives his characters a formidable monumental air that turns them into a family of giants. The same observation can be done for another of his easel paintings, now lost, from 1530, Leda and the Swan, of which there are several copies (London, Dresden, Berlin and Venice). In this painting, Jupiter’s lover is shown as a reclined giantess, whose athletic body stirs a secret force under the delicate swan’s caresses.

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Leda and the Swan, oil on canvas, by Rosso Fiorentino (copy after an original by Michelangelo, from 1530), oil on canvas, 105 x 135 cm
(National Gallery, London). This painting is an early copy of a lost original by Michelangelo, for which several autograph studies survive. The original panel was kept in the French Royal collection until the 17th century when Anne of Austria, then queen mother, apparently took offence to its licentiousness and ordered it burnt. In 1512 Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara went to Rome to reconcile with Pope Julius II, who had excommunicated him in summer 1510 for his alliance with Louis XII of France against the Republic of Venice. On 11 July he visited the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo was completing the ceiling. As he climbed the scaffolding he had a long and admiring conversation with Michelangelo, who promised him a painting. Several years passed without the commission being formalized until Michelangelo had to be in Ferrara in 1529 to inspect its city walls as “governor general of fortifications” for the Florentine Republic. On that occasion the Duke held Michelangelo to his promise and according to chronicles he produced the work when he returned to Florence in August 1530. The painting (originally in tempera), represented Jupiter as a swan making love to a reclining Leda and was based on a composition from ancient Roman gems and seals, it included an egg and Castor and Pollux as children. The painting was completed by mid-October 1530, but Alfonso described it as a “little thing” in Michelangelo’s hearing and so he refused to hand it over. The work and some of the preparatory drawings were in fact acquired (either as a purchase or a gift) by Antonio Mini, who took it to France in 1531. The other copies are in the Gemäldegalerie (Dresden), the Gemäldegalerie (Berlin) and the Correr Museum in Venice.
Battle of Cascina (central section), (copy after Michelangelo’s cartoon from 1505-1506), by Michelangelo’s pupil Aristotile da Sangallo, oil on panel, 77 x 130 cm (Holkham Hall, Norfolk, England). In the autumn of 1504 Michelangelo was given the commission to paint a battle scene for the Salone dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo della Signoria as a companion piece to Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari. This grand project didn’t came to fruition: Michelangelo partially finished the cartoon by February 1505, but the urgent summons from Pope Julius II prevented Michelangelo. This picture shows the central section of the cartoon copied by Aristotile da Sangallo. The Battle of Cascina was fought on 28 July 1364 between Florence and Pisa, with the former being victorious. The fresco designed by Michelangelo depicted a scene at the beginning of the battle, when the Florentine army was initially taken by surprise in the attack by the Pisans. He depicts Florentine soldiers bathing naked in the Arno river, responding to a trumpet warning of the Pisan attack. As the soldiers emerge from the river and buckle on their armor, they are threatened by shots from the Pisans. Several soldiers look or point toward the Pisan position to the left. One soldier has apparently been hit and fallen back into the river, while others leap energetically into action. By choosing this episode, instead of a formal battle scene, Michelangelo could depict his favorite topic: the nude male figure in various postures.

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In 1505, Pope Julius II called Michelangelo to Rome to work on the grandiose projects he had in mind. In particular, Julius wanted a mausoleum for himself to be built within the Vatican Basilica. Michelangelo sent him a project for a grandiose mausoleum and the Pope was so satisfied with the prospectus that without further ado he sent Michelangelo to Carrara (on April 1505) to cut and bring all the necessary marble to Rome. After a little more than eight months in Carrara, Michelangelo saw how the marble blocks reached St. Peter’s Square. But the Pope’s will was malleable, and the architect Donato Bramante, who was among the Pope’s closest advisers, saw Michelangelo as a rival. Thanks to Bramante’s suggestions, Julius II abandoned his mausoleum project which angered Michelangelo, who left Rome. In 1506, they would meet again in Bologna, but the Pope already had a new idea: he ordered Michelangelo to decorate the vault of the Sistine Chapel with frescoes. This trap was suggested to the pontiff by Bramante and other rivals. Michelangelo not only hated painting, he did not know anything about fresco technique. The dejection and discouragement that this task produced in him was reflected by Michelangelo in the letters he wrote at that time: “This is not my profession”, he complained, or “I’m wasting my time, and all for nothing. God help me!” Today we find it surprising that someone who detested painting as much as Michelangelo did, would nevertheless have been able to accomplish such a monumental artistic task and at the same time achieved universal glory in that art.

Thus, at the same time that Raphael painted the stanze of Julius II, Michelangelo, like a titan, worked locked up in the Sistine Chapel to also decorate it with new frescoes. Michelangelo worked on the ceiling’s decoration between 1508 and 1512, alone, reluctantly and without rest. Vasari tells us that it was the year 1508 when “Bramante, friend and relative of Raffaello da Urbino, seeing that the Pope favored Michelangelo, persuaded him so that His Holiness, in memory of Sixtus IV, his uncle, had him paint the vault of the chapel that he had built in the palace… But Michelangelo, believing it was a large and difficult work, and considering his little practice with colors, sought with all imaginable excuses to unload himself from that weight, proposing Raffaello for this”. “It seems that the more Michelangelo excused himself, the more the desire of the Pope grew, impetuous in his undertakings”, says Vasari verbatim, “for which reason, especially encouraged by Bramante, Pope Julius II, who was impatient, was on the verge of get infuriated with Michelangelo”. Finally, the great sculptor, resigning himself to doom, undertook the heroic undertaking that began on May 10, 1508.

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Interior view of the Sistine Chapel (Cappella Sistina) in Vatican City. Built between 1475 and 1483, in the pontificate of Pope Sixtus (hence its name) IV della Rovere, the Sistine Chapel has originally served as Palatine Chapel and as the location for the election of new Popes. The Chapel is rectangular in shape and measures 40,93 meters long by 13,41 meters wide, the exact dimensions of the Temple of Solomon, as given in the Old Testament. The architectural plans were made by Baccio Pontelli and the construction was supervised by Giovanino de’Dolci. In the overall decoration of the Chapel, oak leaves and acorns abound, as they were the heraldic symbols of the della Rovere family (literally “from the oak”). The walls are divided into three orders by horizontal cornices; according to the decorative program, the lower of the three orders was to be painted with fictive “tapestries,” the central one with two facing cycles: one relating the life of Moses (left wall) and the other the Life of Christ (right wall). The upper order is decorated with pilasters that support the pendentives of the vault. Above the upper cornice are situated the lunettes. Between each window below the lunettes, in fictive niches, run images of the first popes. The wall paintings were executed by Pietro Perugino, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Cosimo Rosselli, Luca Signorelli and their respective workshops, which included Pinturicchio, Piero di Cosimo and Bartolomeo della Gatta. Initially, the ceiling was frescoed by Piero Matteo d’Amelia with a star-spangled sky. Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II della Rovere in 1508 to repaint the ceiling.

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The Sistine Chapel is a large rectangular room 40 meters long by 13 meters wide. It had been built in the previous century, and the Popes predecessors of Julius II had taken an interest in having it decorated by great contemporary masters. The chancel and the tribune still have today the most beautiful Quattrocento railings and parapets that we know of. The walls are still decorated, up to the base of the vault, with frescoes by great Quattrocento painters. But what to do up there, in the huge uninterrupted barrel vault 13 meters in diameter, with irregular interpenetrations of lunettes, and 25 meters high?

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View of the Sistine Chapel frescoes by Michelangelo, 1508-1512, 35 m long and 14 m across (Sistine Chapel, Vatican City). In planning the architectural design Michelangelo devised a long central area framed by a fictive marble cornice and separated into nine sections by broad pilaster strips bent across the ceiling, also imitating white marble. Sections of alternating dimensions are framed between wider and narrower bands. Within them Michelangelo varied the size of the actual narratives, giving only the smaller ones a marble frame. Groups of four ignudi (male nudes), among the most admired elements of the ceiling, support garlands of oak leaves and acorns as well as ribbons attached to large medallions painted to look like bronze and with episodes drawn from the books of Genesis, Samuel, Kings, and Maccabees. At the corners of the ceiling Michelangelo painted four salvation subjects, including David and Goliath and Judith and Holofernes. Triangular-shaped compartments are repeated in a continuous band along the entire border of the ceiling; they contain bronze-colored nudes that alternate with the figures of the Prophets and Sibyls set into marble thrones which, in turn, have paired marble putti in a variety of poses and positions that expand upon the tradition of Donatello and Luca della Robbia. Lastly, under the cornice and the thrones, in the spandrels and the lunettes at the tops of the walls, are depicted the 40 generations of the Ancestors of Christ, from Abraham to Joseph. Michelangelo began painting this vault in the spring of 1508, beginning at west end with the Drunkenness of Noah and the Prophet Zechariah and working backwards through the narrative to the Creation of Eve, in the vault’s fifth bay and finished in September 1510. Michelangelo’s frescoes on the ceiling form the back-story to the 15th century narrative cycles of the lives of Moses and Christ painted before by Perugino and Botticelli on the Chapel’s walls.

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Michelangelo artificially divided the vast surface by means of figurative arches and cornices in perspective, in the middle of the vault. Thus he ingeniously and harmoniously formed an architectural grid that separates the compositions. Those in the central “panels” represent scenes from the early days of the human lineage (nine scenes taken from the Book of Genesis); nothing more appropriate to decorate that great vault than the story of the patriarchs. Creation is found first: God separating light from darkness; God animating with his gesture the reclining figure of Adam; God creating Eve from the body of Adam asleep. It follows the double scene of the Original Sin and the expulsion from Paradise, the Flood and the miracle of Moses’ serpent.

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Ninth bay of the ceiling: Separation of Light from Darkness, from the fresco cycle of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo, 1508-1512 (Sistine Chapel, Vatican City). The first scene in chronological order of the Nine scenes from the Book of Genesis depicts the Separation of Light from Darkness. Along the central section of the ceiling, Michelangelo depicted nine scenes from the Book of Genesis. Michelangelo divided them in three groups: the first shows God creating the Heavens and the Earth; the second group shows God creating the first man and woman, and their disobedience and consequent expulsion from the Garden of Eden; the third group shows the plight of Humanity and in particular the family of Noah. In the first scene, depicting the First Day of Creation, God creates light and separates light from darkness. This was the last panel of the nine painted by Michelangelo. The “bronze” shield above God shows Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac, and the one below God shows the prophet Elijah as he is carried up to heaven in a chariot of fire. At the center of the composition, God is shown rising into the sky, with arms outstretched separating the light from the darkness. Michelangelo employed in this scene the challenging technique of sotto in su (“from below, upward”), which makes a figure appear as if it is rising above the viewer by using foreshortening. In this particular section of the fresco, Michelangelo painted the image of God in a single day, and reflects himself in the act of creating the ceiling, painting it while standing.
Eighth bay of the ceiling: The Creation of the Sun, Moon and Plants, from the fresco cycle of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo, 1508-1512 (Sistine Chapel, Vatican City). In this bay, the Omnipotent is depicted creating the sun and moon and plants of the Earth, in a representation of the third and fourth day of the Creation narrative of the Book of Genesis. On the left side of the painting God is depicted from behind, with an imperious gesture, as he summons forth tufts of grass and the first bushes from the bare earth. On the right side there’s another image of God as he is about to give shape, with his outstretched arms, to the incandescent disk of the sun and the cold one of the moon. His face expresses the force needed for the creation of the abode of living beings. Through the depiction of abstract patterns of drapery, Michelangelo emphasized the powerful motion of the figures, and together with the strong contrasts of light and shade, the movement in opposite directions of the two figures heightens the dynamic tension of the scene and conveys a sense of immediacy.
Seventh bay of the ceiling: The Separation of Land and Water, from the fresco cycle of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo, 1508-1512 (Sistine Chapel, Vatican City). This fresco depicts the events of the second day of Creation according to the Book of Genesis. The spirit of God with the heavenly host flies over the gray-blue expanse of the waters to divide them from the heavens. We see three cherubim half hidden in his cosmic cloak, as though foreshadowing the Holy Trinity. Michelangelo here depicted the figure of God the Father with his powerful hands filling almost the entire space. His notably foreshortened figure seems to be launched from the left toward the viewer. Behind the Creator, the sky is clear and bright, while his other side has turned grayish-white. One of the medallions held by the ignudi is not decorated (left), the other represents the Death of Absolom.
Sixth bay of the ceiling: The Creation of Adam, from the fresco cycle of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo, 1508-1512 (Sistine Chapel, Vatican City). One of the largest panels in the vault is devoted to the scene of the Creation of Adam, Michelangelo worked on it after an idle period of about 6 months, between the winter of 1511 and October 1512, where he painted the “altar half” starting with the Creation of Adam. For this central section of the ceiling, Michelangelo was based on four episodes from the story of Adam and Eve as told in the first, second and third chapters of Genesis. God’s figure is circumscribed by the ellipse formed by his celestial mantle, and accompanied by angelic spirits. The left arm of the Creator is encircled around a youthful and androgynous figure. This figure has intrigued commentators from the beginning and has been variously interpreted as the uncreated Eve (due to the figure’s feminine appearance and gaze towards Adam), or Sophia, the personification of divine wisdom; the 11 other figures symbolically represent the souls of Adam and Eve’s unborn progeny, the entire human race. Seen against an indistinct natural background that is only just hinted at, as if it were the dawn of the world, the youthful, athletic figure of Adam reclining on a grassy slope, almost on the edge of an abyss, seems as if he is about to rise from the ground. He holds out his arm toward that of the Lord, who, borne aloft amidst a flight of angels, stands out brightly against the shell of shadow of his huge purple mantle. The remarkable invention of the outstretched arm and the forefingers about to meet becomes a metaphor for the vital energy that passes from the Creator to the creature fashioned in his image. In this gesture, God imparts the spark of life from his own finger into that of Adam, whose extended left arm mirrors God’s, a reminder that man is created in the image and likeness of God. The body of Adam is rendered with great softness with passages of chiaroscuro, but also with strong sculptural emphasis. This particular scene of the whole Sistine fresco cycle has been reproduced in countless imitations and parodies, and has been recognized as one of the most replicated religious paintings of all time. The inspiration for Michelangelo’s treatment of the subject on the creation of Adam probably come from a medieval hymn, “Veni Creator Spiritus“, which asks the ‘finger of the paternal right hand’ (digitus paternae dexterae) to give the faithful speech.
Fifth bay of the ceiling: The Creation of Eve, from the fresco cycle of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo, 1508-1512 (Sistine Chapel, Vatican City). Michelangelo painted the Sistine ceiling in two stages. Between May 1508 and the summer of 1511, he completed the “entrance half” of the Sistine chapel and ended this stage by painting the Creation of Eve and the scenes flanking this central panel. Michelangelo painted this scene immediately beyond the screen that originally divided the interior of the chapel into two almost equal parts. Beginning in this panel, and continuing for the next 4 bays (6-9, see previous pictures), the figures of the four ignudi are not placed following a symmetrical arrangement but, instead, their figures are drawn in a variety of gestures and poses, reflecting and increasingly free and complex rhythmical correspondences, with rotating movements and pronounced bending of their limbs. The subjects of the scenes painted on the bronze-colored medallions are a matter of debate: the one at the left might represent either the Destruction of the Tribe of Ahab, the Followers of Baal, or the Death of Nicanor; the one at the right depicts either David before the prophet Nathan, or Alexander before the High Priest of Jerusalem. In response to the gesture and intense gaze of the Creator, Eve appears to rise from the rocks behind a sleeping Adam rather than from his body, extending her joint hands. The bodies of the couple appear to be those of adolescents, in contrast to those depicted in the scene of the Fall and Expulsion (see following pictures). The figure of the Lord, wrapped in a voluminous violet mantle that only allows a glimpse of the red tunic he wears in the other scenes of the Creation, draws on an iconographic tradition dating back to Giotto and Masaccio, from which it is differentiated, however, by the white-blond hair and thick beard. The composition forms a right-angled triangle with Adam as the horizontal and God the Father the vertical element, and Eve, in an attitude of adoration, striving towards the hand of God as a diagonal hypotenuse. For the design of this composition, Michelangelo was based directly from another creation sequence, the relief panels that surround the door of the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna by Jacopo della Quercia whose work Michelangelo had studied in his youth.
Fourth bay of the ceiling: The Fall and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, from the fresco cycle of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo, 1508-1512 (Sistine Chapel, Vatican City). A bold and momentous step towards greater clarity was taken with the Fall of Adam and the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It has been noted that the composition’s three pilasters, the fallen pair to the left, the pair expelled from Paradise to the right, and the anthropomorphized tree of knowledge with the female-like tempting serpent in the center (the Tree of Life before the Fall), join arms at the top to form the letter M in uncial script. Was this intended to be Michelangelo’s signature? To the left, the profusion of the Garden of Eden is indicated by a few details, but even among these a barren stump thrusts up its branches beside the archetypal female. To the right, total desolation surrounds the human couple. The rhythm of the whole composition flows from left to right. To the left Adam and Eve, with their youthful, athletic bodies, bathed in rosy light. Eve grasps the fruit boldly, Adam greedily, but in misfortune, seems greater than the woman. It is striking that the cherub with the raised sword pointing the way out of the Garden, although in flight and strongly foreshortened, seem like a twin of the tempter and, like her, issues from the tree. To the right, in a desolate landscape, Adam and Eve set out toward their destiny of pain and death, their bodies contracted and suddenly aged, their drawn faces vividly expressing their remorse and anguish. Michelangelo has depicted the forbidden tree as a fig rather than an apple tree as it was commonly depicted in art.
Third bay of the ceiling: The Sacrifice of Noah, from the fresco cycle of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo, 1508-1512 (Sistine Chapel, Vatican City). The three panels representing the story of Noah, taken from the sixth to ninth chapters of Genesis are thematic rather than chronological. The seventh scene in the chronological order of the narrative represents the Sacrifice of Noah. This composition derives from those of classical reliefs, showing Noah celebrating the sacrifice on an altar seen from the corner, and assisted by other figures. In the chronological sequence of the biblical narration, the Sacrifice followed, and not precede, the Deluge, but, apart from considerations relating to the typological interpretation of the scene, it is possible that Michelangelo preferred to reserve one of the largest panels in the ceiling for the Deluge (see following pictures). Giving thanks to the Lord for his salvation from the waters, Noah is wearing the same blood-red tunic that he wore when he was tilling the vineyard in the background of the Drunkenness of Noah (see pictures below). The work of assistants has been detected in the figure of Noah’s wife on the right, surrounded by rigid outlines and modeled in a cursory manner, and also in the one of the youth on the left who, lighting the fire under the altar with a torch, shields his face from the heat with his hand. The figures of the youth dragging the ram and the one taking the viscera of the animals were painted by Domenico Carnevali around 1568, after the original figures were lost as a result of the detachment of the intonaco* caused by instability in the structure of the wall. The medallions represent the Destruction of the Statue of the God Baal (left) and the Killing of Uriah (right). Though this scene bears similarities to classical depictions of votive offerings or sacrifice, a new element enters and points towards the future. It is Michelangelo’s elliptical composition, partly hidden in the shape of a rhomb, which was later adopted by many artists. This typical Baroque motif has two focal points; unity is divided between two separate poles. The sons of Noah as two athletic acolytes are very much in evidence, while the main celebrant, bending over the sacrificial hearth, is inconspicuous in the background.
Second bay of the ceiling: The Deluge, from the fresco cycle of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo, 1508-1512 (Sistine Chapel, Vatican City). In the doctrine of the typological relationship between the Old and New Testaments, the Deluge was considered to prefigure baptism, while the Ark was the symbol for the Church itself. The lustral water of the baptism removes the original sin, while that of the flood cleansed the world of sinners. Consequently, Noah was saved from the water by the wood of the Ark, just as the wood of the Cross offers salvation to those who are in the Church. In this episode, three different patterns of behavior may be distinguished in human beings: while the righteous take refuge in the Ark (the Church) and find salvation therein, the damned attempt to assail it, and others are lost due to their excessive attachment to worldly things, and seek safety carrying their possessions with them. In fact, in the foreground of the fresco, this latter group seek to flee from the threat of the rising waters by crowding onto the rocky islet on the right or by wearily climbing up to the high ground on the left. In the distance, the wicked, having reached the platform surrounding the Ark, hurl themselves against the vessel from which they have been excluded. Lastly, those who have reached a boat that is about to capsize, between the Ark and the hill in the foreground, are also engaged in a fierce struggle. The destructive forces of nature and the elements are hardly indicated. But Michelangelo instead sought to express in this fresco all passion and torment, all toil and victory in human terms; for him it is not the event itself which is decisive but its effect on those who experience it, expressed in movement and gestures. In their distress men may commit wrongs near the capsizing boat and round the ark, but the scenes of mutual assistance and mercy preponderate, and it is precisely this which raises the perplexing question: why should all these people perish? It is a great composition but one which still shows the influence of Signorelli and other painters: full of unsolved problems and over-crowded with detail.
First bay of the ceiling: The Drunkenness of Noah, from the fresco cycle of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo, 1508-1512 (Sistine Chapel, Vatican City). This is the ninth (and last) scene in the chronological order of the narrative, the Drunkenness of Noah. This episode has been interpreted, since the time of St. Augustine onward, as the prefiguration of the mocking of Christ. One of the ignudi was destroyed by the detachment of intonaco caused by the explosion of a powder magazine at Castel Sant’Angelo in 1797. A 16th century engraving shows that this figure was a mirror image of the one facing it, and it is likely that it was executed using the same cartoon but reversed. The large gilded medallions represent scenes of Bidkar Throwing the Body of the Deposed King Joram from his Chariot in Naboth’s Vineyard (left), and the Murder of Abner (right). Michelangelo evidently neglected the chronological sequence of the Noah series, as Noah’s offering should have come directly after the Deluge. Instead, we see Noah asleep and mocked by his sons is the first fresco that meets the eye as one enters the Chapel through the east door. The reclined figure of the Patriarch resembles that of a Roman river god. The figure of Noah planting the vineyard is depicted in the left background. The three sons of Noah: Ham, Shem, and Japeth are covering the nakedness of their drunken, sleeping father.

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These panels are divided by the arches, but animating this painted architecture are the 20 figures of naked young men (ignudi), the spiritual brothers or lovers of Michelangelo, who lean on pedestals, pensive ephebi whose appearance combine both feminine and masculine features, the eternal humanity that contemplates its march from the beginning of time.

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Ignudi (decorative nude figures), from the fresco cycle of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo, 1508-1512 (Sistine Chapel, Vatican City). As part of the decorative scheme of the ceiling, Michelangelo included the 20 figures of ignudi, sitting on plinths and bearing garlands of oak leaves and acorns, and of medallions painted to resemble bronze. These nude figures allowed Michelangelo to fully demonstrate his skill in creating a huge variety of poses for the human figure and which have provided an enormously influential pattern book of models for other artists ever since. These athletic, nude and handsome young men that Michelangelo painted are unrelated to the symbolic Biblical scenes that surround them. They seem to be a slightly older version of the young boys Michelangelo painted behind the Holy Family in his Tondo Doni (see picture before), and were apparently included in the fresco cycle for no other reason than their ambiguous beauty and decorative purposes. The symbolic meaning of these figures has never been clear. At the time, a number of critics were angered by their presence and nudity, including Pope Adrian VI who wanted the ceiling stripped on moral grounds.

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Below, between the lunettes of the arches, alternating, are the figures of prophets and sibyls, gigantic creatures, as a supreme representation of the human race, and destined to await the great happening that will redeem them from sin. Each of these figures is an important character, of gigantic stature, as only Michelangelo could imagine them. They are seated on either side of the vault: Isaiah, still young, prophesies, pointing to his head, full of visions; near him, the Cumaean Sibyl, an old woman loaded with years, reads from a large book that she holds on her knees; Jeremiah, with his head bowed, resting on one hand, seems in deep sorrow; Daniel studies and compares books to predict the coming of the Messiah. Young like him, the Delphic Sibyl is a daughter of these giants, a thoughtful girl who also looks at the book of the future.

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Prophets and Sibyls, from the fresco cycle of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo, 1508-1512 (Sistine Chapel, Vatican City). Michelangelo’s decorative scheme includes seven figures of seated prophets of Israel. They include the four so-called Major prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. The other three, chose among the Twelve Minor Prophets, are Joel, Zechariah and Jonah. The picture above shows Daniel (top left corner), followed by Jeremiah, Isaiah, and in the lower left corner, Jonah.
Michelangelo depicted Prophet Daniel as a youthful Titan assisted by his genius half hidden in his lilac mantle behind him. He is deeply focus on reading and writing.
The melancholy inspired by the figure of Jeremiah, more than any other figure, is a deeply moving moral self portrait. His hand grasps his beard with a saturnine gesture. The genii of Jeremiah are the strangest of the whole series. The one to the left is feminine and also shows, like the Prophet, an air of affliction; the one on the right, with a monkish look and hooded, is an unmistakable allusion to Savonarola. Deep in sorrowful meditation, Jeremiah leans forward, resting his bowed head on his hand and his elbows on his spread knees.
Isaiah looks confident and different in character. He seems to listen intently. As he listens, his genii point excitedly into the distance whence the great voice addresses him. Isaiah’s naked feet are crossed, and his entire figure expresses veneration, expectation and readiness. What is the significance of the half closed book which he marks with his inserted finger? Maybe, that the book is nothing; books may fail, the voice alone is infallible. Note how the contours of the figure form a circle from which only the head and one hand emerge. The left arm, the left hand, and the head together with the genii, describe an oval superimposed on the circle. His light-toned draperies in blue, green and red, symbolize faith, hope and charity.
Michelangelo depicted Jonah in an extraordinary pose and bold foreshortening with the “great fish” beside him and his eyes turned towards God the Creator. His figure seems as if it would be falling off from the ceiling on the viewer.
The Sibyls were prophetic women who were resident at shrines or temples throughout the Classical World. Michelangelo included the five Sibyls said to have prophesied the birth of Christ. As a group, they represent women physically and mentally heroic. The picture above includes the Cumanean Sibyl (bottom center), the Lybian Sibyl (right next) and the Delphic Sibyl (right).
The Cumaean Sibyl was represented as a bulking old woman completely absorbed in the difficult task of deciphering the meaning of what she is reading in the large open book bound in green and accompanied by two genii gazing at its pages over her shoulders. The figure of this Sibyl was often represented in art with a powerful presence that overshadows every other Sibyl.
The Libyan Sibyl shows a graceful pose, displaying her lovely shoulders, her foreshortened arms, and the lowered profile of her fine head with its gold tresses, she lays aside the large and cumbersome open book as if about to close it. The splendid and superbly gowned figure is extremely colorful; gold tints prevail in her dress lined with salmon pink. The complex, almost serpentine, rotation of the young sibyl, who seems to be rising from her seat, gives prominence to the remarkable richness, elegance, and delicacy of the juxtapositions of color.
The Delphic Sibyl unwinds a scroll with her left hand and seems to be turning toward the viewer. The effect of movement is accentuated by the swirls of the light blue mantle lined with yellow fabric with red shadows and the pattern of the folds of the light green tunic. Her left arm bent over the open scroll is prefigured in Michelangelo’s Madonna of his Tondo Doni (see picture before), her fair hair is blown back by the wind of the spirit.

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Still in the spaces that remain on each side of the windows, Michelangelo painted other biblical scenes, a world of tragic characters, Minor Prophets and Jewish heroes, moved by the finger of God.

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Frescoes of the pendentives, from the fresco cycle of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo, 1508-1512 (Sistine Chapel, Vatican City). In each corner of the chapel is a triangular pendentive that Michelangelo painted with four scenes from Biblical stories that are associated with the salvation of Israel by four great male and female heroes of the Jews: Moses, Esther, David and Judith. The scenes are: The Brazen Serpent, The Punishment of Haman, David and Goliath and Judith and Holofernes. Pictured above are the Brazen Serpent (left) and Judith and Holofernes (right). The scene of the Brazen Serpent shows a tangled group of Israelites who writhe in the throes of death. The mass of bodies poisoned by the snakes occupies the whole right part, spreading toward the center. The survivors are grouped on the left, eyes and arms turned imploringly toward the image of the brazen serpent. This group of contorted bodies and grotesque faces is a striking forerunner of the spectacular motifs that were, in the following decades, typical of the Mannerism.
In the scene of Judith and Holofernes, Michelangelo placed in the center and nearest to the viewer, the figures of the two women standing out in the bright light against the white wall placed obliquely in the background. Judith is portrayed as she is about to place a cloth over the severed head of Holofernes, which the maidservant is carrying in a tray held on her head. The biblical heroine’s face is hidden because she is looking toward the darkened room on the right where, sprawled on the white sheets of the bed, the headless body of the general, depicted with complex foreshortening, appears still to be in a state of frenzied agitation.

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Michelangelo spent four years frequently locked up in that room, facing a great deal of fatigue, as he had to carry out the works several times due to his inexperience in the fresco technique. He didn’t know about the particularities of the lime of Rome, and when part of the vault was already painted, the frescoes begun to cover with a white salt layer. So he had to mount the scaffolding again and dismiss the apprentices he had taken on as assistants. Only a few close friends were allowed to contemplate the work in progress. The Pope, who was hurried and impatient by nature, often went there too to see the work with his own eyes. The bitterness that Michelangelo went through painting the Sistine Chapel can be seen in the deep air of melancholy that prevails in all the characters painted on the vaults. Michelangelo not only had to fight with art difficulties, but also with financial trouble, since the Pope was at war with the French at the time, and sometimes he lacked material resources. Michelangelo had to suspend the work twice, and in one of them he went to Bologna exasperated. Vasari says that because he had to paint the vault in such constant uncomfortable position, in his old age his eyes often hurt. Michelangelo himself tells in a sonnet the difficulties and hard work he went through during the execution of this immense work:

“My beard points to heaven, and I feel the nape/of my neck on my hump; I bend my breast/like a harpy’s, and, with its non-stop dripping/from above, my brush makes my face a richly/decorated floor.”

Finally, he says to Giovanni da Pistoia, his friend, to whom he directs the sonnet: “Defend my dead painting from now on,/ Giovanni, and the honor of my name, for I am not well/ placed, nor indeed a painter”. The vault of the Sistine Chapel had no need of an apologist; from day one, all of Rome, and since then all of humanity, have been unanimous in recognizing it as one of the greatest triumphs of human endeavor. Michelangelo finished the vault’s decoration on October 31, 1512, and it was inaugurated to the public the following day (November 1, All Saints’ Day). Julius II was so pleased that he wanted to celebrate the Pontifical Mass that day in the chapel. In all, the final ceiling’s work includes about 300 figures. At the age of 37, Michelangelo’s artistic reputation rose to such an extent that from then on he was called il divino (the divine one). Michelangelo had not only lived up to the Pope’s (and Bramante’s) challenge, but he far exceeded all expectations and his own artistic ability.

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Ancestors of Christ, from the fresco cycle of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo, 1508-1512 (Sistine Chapel, Vatican City). Between the large pendentives that support the vault are windows, six on each side of the chapel. Above each window is a lunette and above eight of the lunettes at the sides of the chapel are triangular spandrels filling the spaces between the side pendentives. For these spaces Michelangelo chose to represent the Ancestors of Christ, thus portraying Jesus’ physical lineage, while the papal portraits below on the walls of the chapel represent his spiritual successors, according to Church doctrine. Centrally placed above each window in the middle of the lunettes is a painted faux marble tablet with a decorative frame that includes the painted names of the male line by which Jesus, through his Earthly father, Joseph, is descended from Abraham, according to the Gospel of Matthew. However, the genealogy is now incomplete, since the two lunettes of the windows in the Altar wall were destroyed by Michelangelo when he returned to the Sistine Chapel in 1537 to paint The Last Judgement. In the triangular spandrels, the figures are seated on the ground due to the shape of the surface. Depicted in the picture are (from top to bottom and from left to right): Nahshon, Jacob and Joseph, the Jesse spandrel, the Salmon spandrel, and one of the bronze shields representing the Death of Uriah.
In the Nahshon lunette, the two figures, alone and in profile, face in the same direction, are placed without any concern for symmetry. The woman is depicted standing, with one foot resting on the stone seat, looking at herself in an oval mirror that she is holding in her hand, her elbow resting on the knee of her raised leg. Her back and head are bent forward, following the curve of the top edge of the lunette. On the other side of the lunette, a youthful Nahshon, sits leaning back on the edge of the tablet, engrossed in reading the book open in front of him. His outstretched right leg rests on the wooden pedestal of the lectern holding the book, while the other one is bent, and his arms are folded.
In the Jacob and Joseph lunette, sullen and perplexed, wrapped in a huge yellow ochre cloak and seemingly withdrawn, the old Jacob dominates the family group on the left with his wife at the back. Similarly, on the right, the female figure, usually thought to be Mary, is more prominent than the other members of the Holy Family and the child holding a mirror. Behind Mary in the shadow, Joseph holds the Christ child, who stretches out an arm toward the round mirror held out at the height of his face by a naked female child, possibly an allegory of the Church.
The Jesse spandrel is named because it is above the Jesse-David-Solomon lunette. Placed precisely on the axis of the triangle, the enigmatic female figure appears to be deep in meditation and totally extraneous to the two figures, a man and a child, that may be discerned behind her in the darkness. In accordance with the lunette below, it can be assumed that Jesse as a child is depicted here together with his parents.
Like the Jesse spandrel, the Salmon spandrel is thus named because it is above the Salmon-Boaz-Obed lunette. The family group fits perfectly into the triangular field and appear closely linked by the interplay gestures and glances, focused on the woman’s activity. The woman is trimming with shears the neck of a garment she is making for her son while he looks on. She is Hannah, the mother of Salmon, whose child went to live in the temple, and indeed, the male figure in the background is wearing a distinctive hat that might suggest that of a priest. In accordance with the lunette below, it is assumed that the boy is Salmon.
The imitation bronze shields that are found throughout the ceiling, represent violent episodes in the history of Israel. Depicted in the picture is the shield commemorating the Death of Uriah.

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The last anecdotes that Vasari tells us about the colloquia between the Pope and Michelangelo after the inauguration are interesting. The Pope wanted the vault to be enriched even more with bright colors and touches of gold, to which Michelangelo responded that the patriarchs and prophets painted there “were never rich, but holy men because they despised riches”. In the end, Julius II, the impatient Pope, had only a few months to admire the masterpiece he had commissioned. The Pontiff would die four months after the ceiling was inaugurated, on February 21, 1513.

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Intonaco: Italian term for the final, very thin layer of plaster on which a fresco is painted. The plaster is painted while still wet, in order to allow the pigment to penetrate into the intonaco itself. An earlier layer, called arriccio, is laid slightly coarsely to provide a key for the intonaco, and must be allowed to dry, usually for some days, before the final very thin layer is applied and painted on. Intonaco is traditionally a mixture of sand (with granular dimensions less than two millimeters) and a binding substance.

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