Cloisters of Saint John Lateran, Rome. Source:

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The Sistine Chapel Ceiling. An Artistic Vision Without Precedent. (Part Two).

Text and Illustrations from Wikipedia - the free encyclopaedia,
unless otherwise stated.

English: The Prophet Daniel,
by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564).
The Ceiling of The Sistine Chapel.
Русский: Пророк Даниил, Роспись свода Сикстинской капеллы.
Date: 27 June 2007.
Source: Электронная библиотека. Музеи Ватикана.
(Wikimedia Commons)

The middle level contains a complex scheme of frescoes, illustrating The Life of Christ on the Right Side, and The Life of Moses, on the Left Side. It was carried out by some of the most renowned Renaissance painters: Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Pinturicchio, Signorelli and Cosimo Rosselli.

The upper level of the walls contains the windows, between which are painted pairs of illusionistic Niches, with representations of the first thirty-two Popes. A draft, by Matteo d'Amelia, indicates that The Ceiling was painted Blue, like that of the Arena Chapel, and decorated with Gold Stars, possibly representing the zodiacal constellations.

It is probable that, because the Chapel was the site of regular meetings and Masses of an elite body of officials, known as the Papal Chapel, who would observe the decorations and interpret their Theological and Temporal significance, it was Pope Julius' intention and expectation that the iconography of the Ceiling was to be read with many layers of meaning.

The Sistine Chapel Ceiling.
Photo: August 2008.
Source: Own work.
Author: Patrick Landy (FSU Guy).

Michelangelo, who was not primarily a painter, but a sculptor, was reluctant to take on the work. Also, he was occupied with a very large sculptural commission for the Pope's own tomb. The Pope was adamant, leaving Michelangelo no choice but to accept. But a war with the French broke out, diverting the attention of the Pope, and Michelangelo fled from Rome to continue sculpting. The tomb sculptures, however, were never to be finished, because, in 1508, the Pope returned to Rome victorious and summoned Michelangelo to begin work on The Ceiling. The contract was signed on 10 May 1508.

The scheme, proposed by the Pope, was for twelve large figures of the Apostles to occupy the Pendentives [Editor: Pendentive: A Spherical Triangle which acts as a transition between a Circular Dome and a Square Base, on which the Dome is set]. However, Michelangelo negotiated for a grander, much more complex, scheme, and was finally permitted, in his own words, "to do as I liked".

His scheme for the Ceiling eventually comprised some 300 figures and took four years to execute, being completed in 1512. It is unknown, and is the subject of much speculation among art historians, as to whether Michelangelo was really able to "do as he liked". It has been suggested that Egidio da Viterbo was a Consultant for the Theology. Many writers consider that Michelangelo had the intellect, the Biblical knowledge, and the powers of invention, to have devised the scheme himself. This is supported by Condivi's statement that Michelangelo read and re-read The Old Testament, while he was painting The Ceiling, drawing his inspiration from the words of Scripture, rather than from the established traditions of Sacral Art. There was a total of 343 figures painted on The Ceiling.

Arches (left and right), Dome (top), and Pendentive (centre), in Moscow Cathedral.
Interior of Cathedral of Christ The Saviour, Moscow, Russia.
Photo: 29 June 2004.
(Wikimedia Commons)

To reach the Chapel's Ceiling, Michelangelo designed his own scaffold, a flat wooden platform, on brackets, built out from holes in the wall near the top of the windows, rather than being built up from the floor. Mancinelli speculates that this was in order to cut the cost of timber. According to Michelangelo's pupil and biographer, Ascanio Condivi, the brackets and frame, that supported the steps and flooring, were all put in place at the beginning of the work and a lightweight screen, possibly cloth, was suspended beneath them to catch plaster drips, dust and splashes of paint.

Only half the building was scaffolded at a time and the platform was moved as the painting was done in stages. The areas of the wall covered by the scaffolding still appear as unpainted areas across the bottom of the Lunettes. The holes were re-used to hold scaffolding in the latest Restoration.

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 described his physical discomfort in a humorous sonnet accompanied by a little sketch.

The painting technique employed was fresco, in which the paint is applied to damp plaster. Michelangelo had been apprenticed in the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio, one of the most competent and prolific of Florentine fresco painters, at the time that the latter was employed on a fresco cycle at Santa Maria Novella, and whose work was represented on the walls of The Sistine Chapel. At the outset, the plaster, intonaco, began to grow mold, because it was too wet. Michelangelo had to remove it and start again. He then tried a new formula created by one of his assistants, Jacopo l'Indaco, which resisted mold, and entered the Italian building tradition.

The location of the scaffolding is evident on this Lunette in The Sistine Chapel.
Note the unpainted area at the bottom.
Date: 1509.
Source: Web Gallery of Art[1]
Author: Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564).
(Wikimedia Commons)

Because he was painting fresco, the plaster was laid in a new section every day, called a giornata. At the beginning of each session, the edges would be scraped away and a new area laid down. The edges, between giornate, remain slightly visible, thus they give a good idea of how the work progressed. It was customary for fresco painters to use a full-sized detailed drawing, a cartoon, to transfer a design onto a plaster surface – many frescoes show little holes made with a stiletto, outlining the figures.

Here, Michelangelo broke with convention. Once confident the intonaco had been well applied, he drew directly onto the Ceiling. His energetic sweeping outlines can be seen scraped into some of the surfaces, while, on others, a grid is evident, indicating that he enlarged directly onto the Ceiling from a small drawing.

Michelangelo painted onto the damp plaster using a wash technique to apply broad areas of colour, then, as the surface became drier, he revisited these areas with a more linear approach, adding shade and detail with a variety of brushes. For some textured surfaces, such as facial hair and wood-grain, he used a broad brush with bristles as sparse as a comb. He employed all the finest workshop methods and best innovations, combining them with a diversity of brushwork and breadth of skill far exceeding that of the meticulous Ghirlandaio.

Sistine Chapel Ceiling fresco, by Michelangelo.
The evidence of the plaster, laid for a day's work, can be seen around the head and arm of this Ignudo [Editor: "The Ignudi" is the phrase coined by Michelangelo to describe the twenty seated male nudes he incorporated into The Sistine Chapel Ceiling frescoes. Therefore, "Ignudo" is singular. "Ignudi" is plural.]
Date: 1509.
Source: Web Gallery of Art[1]
Author: Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564).
(Wikimedia Commons)

The work commenced at the end of the building furthest from the Altar, with the latest of the narrative scenes, and progressed towards the Altar with the scenes of The Creation. The first three scenes, from the story of Noah, contain a much larger number of small figures than the later Panels. This is partly because of the subject matter, which deals with the fate of Humanity, but also because all the figures at that end of The Ceiling, including the Prophets and Ignudi, are smaller than in the Central Section. As the scale got larger, Michelangelo's style became broader, the final narrative scene of God in the Act of Creation was painted in a single day.

The bright colours, and broad, cleanly defined outlines, make each subject easily visible from the floor. Despite the height of The Ceiling, the proportions of The Creation of Adam are such that, when standing beneath it, "it appears as if the viewer could simply raise a finger and meet those of God and Adam".

Vasari tells us that the Ceiling is "unfinished", that its unveiling occurred before it could be re-worked with Gold Leaf and vivid Blue Lapis Lazuli, as was customary with frescoes, and in order to better link the Ceiling with the walls below it, which were highlighted with a great deal of Gold. But this never took place, in part because Michelangelo was reluctant to set up the scaffolding again, and probably also because the Gold, and particularly the intense Blue, would have distracted from his painted conception.

Some areas were, in fact, decorated with Gold: The Shields, between the Ignudi, and the Columns, between the Prophets and Sibyls. It seems very likely that the gilding of the Shields was part of Michelangelo's original scheme, since they are painted to resemble a certain type of Parade Shield, a number of which still exist and are decorated in a similar style with Gold.

A Sistine Chapel fresco, by Michelangelo.
The image of God in the Act of Creation was painted in a single day,
and reflects Michelangelo, himself, in the act of creating the Ceiling.
Date: 1509.
Source: Web Gallery of Art[1]
Author: Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564).
(Wikimedia Commons)

The overt subject matter of The Ceiling is the Doctrine of Humanity's need for Salvation, as offered by God, through Jesus. It is a visual metaphor of Humankind's need for a Covenant with God. The Old Covenant of the Children of Israel, through Moses, and the New Covenant, through Christ, had already been represented around the walls of The Chapel.

The main components of the design are nine scenes from The Book of Genesis, of which five smaller ones are each framed and supported by four naked youths or Ignudi. At either end, and beneath the scenes, are the figures of twelve men and women who prophesied The Birth of Jesus. On the crescent-shaped areas, or Lunettes, above each of the Chapel's windows, are Tablets listing the Ancestors of Christ and accompanying figures. Above them, in the triangular Spandrels, a further eight groups of figures are shown, but these have not been identified with specific Biblical characters. The scheme is completed by four large corner Pendentives, each illustrating a dramatic Biblical story.

The narrative elements, of the Ceiling, illustrate that God made the World as a Perfect Creation and put Humanity into it, that Humanity fell into disgrace and was punished by death and by separation from God. Humanity then sank further into sin and disgrace, and was punished by The Great Flood. Through a lineage of Ancestors – from Abraham to Joseph – God sent The Saviour of Humanity, Christ Jesus.

The coming of The Saviour was prophesied by Prophets of Israel and Sibyls of the Classical world. The various components of the Ceiling are linked to this Christian Doctrine. Traditionally, the Old Testament was perceived as a pre-figuring of the New Testament. Many incidents and characters, of the Old Testament, were commonly understood as having a direct symbolic link to some particular aspect of The Life of Jesus, or to an important element of Christian Doctrine, or to a Sacrament, such as Baptism or The Eucharist. Jonah, for example, was readily recognisable by his attribute of the large fish, and was commonly seen to symbolise Jesus' Death and Resurrection.


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