The Sistine Chapel ceiling, painted by Michelangelo is a cornerstone work of High Renaissance art.
What Do the Frescoes Depict?
A lot! The main panels down the center depict scenes from the Book of Genesis, from the Creation, to the Fall, to shortly after Noah’s deluge. Adjacent to each of these scenes, on either side, are immense portraits of prophets and sibyls who foretold the coming of the Messiah. Along the bottoms of these run spandrels and lunettes containing the ancestors of Jesus and stories of tragedy in ancient Israel. Scattered throughout are smaller figures, cherubs and ignudi (nudes). All told there are more than 300 painted figures on the ceiling. By the way, have you noticed the wealth of architectural members and moldings which dissect the ceiling? Most of those are actually two-dimensional, skillfully painted in by Michelangelo to demarcate separate compositions.
How Long Did it Take Michelangelo to Paint These?
It took him a bit over four years, from July of 1508 to October of 1512. Michelangelo got off to a slow start, not having painted frescoes before. He intended to (and did) work in buon fresco, the most difficult method, and one which only true masters undertook. In addition to having to learn everything about the medium itself and making initial blunders in that area, he also had to learn some wickedly hard techniques in perspective. (Consider that his figures look “correct” on curved surfaces, viewed from nearly 60 feet below.)
However, ultimately it wasn’t Michelangelo’s fault that the ceiling took four years. (Once he got the hang of things, he painted like a man on fire!) The work suffered numerous setbacks, such as mold and miserable, damp weather that disallowed plaster curing. A primary cause of downtime occurred when Julius was off waging a war, or ill to the point that Last Rites were administered. The ceiling project, and any hope Michelangelo had of being paid, were both frequently in jeopardy while Julius was absent or near death. Small wonder that the artist complained so often and bitterly about the project, really.
Contrary to popular belief, he painted in a standing position, not lying on his back. According to Vasari, “The work was carried out in extremely uncomfortable conditions, from his having to work with his head tilted upwards”
Michelangelo wrote a poem describing the arduous conditions under which he worked:
I’ve grown a goiter by dwelling in this den–
As cats from stagnant streams in Lombardy,
Or in what other land they hap to be–
Which drives the belly close beneath the chin;
My beard turns up to heaven; my nape falls in,
Fixed on my spine: my breast-bone visibly
Grows like a harp: a rich embroidery
Bedews my face from brush-drops thick and thin.
My loins into my paunch like levers grind:
My buttock like a crupper bears my weight;
My feet unguided wander to and fro;
In front my skin grows loose and long; behind,
By bending it becomes more taut and strait;
Crosswise I strain me like a Syrian bow:
Whence false and quaint, I know,
Must be the fruit of squinting brain and eye;
For ill can aim the gun that bends awry.
Come then, Giovanni, try
To succor my dead pictures and my fame;
Since foul I fare and painting is my shame.
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