Cloisters of Saint John Lateran, Rome. Source:

Thursday, 27 November 2014

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

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

Sistine Chapel fresco, by Michelangelo.
The Downfall of Adam and Eve, and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
Date: 1509.
Source: Web Gallery of Art[1]
Author: Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564).
(Wikimedia Commons)

While much of the symbolism of The Ceiling dates from The Early Church, The Ceiling also has elements that express the specifically Renaissance thinking that sought to reconcile Christian Theology with the Philosophy of Renaissance Humanism.

During the 15th-Century in Italy, and in Florence, in particular, there was a strong interest in Classical Literature and the Philosophies of Plato, Socrates and other Classical writers. Michelangelo, as a young man, had spent time at the Humanist academy established by the Medici family in Florence. He was familiar with early Humanist-inspired sculptural works, such as Donatello's Bronze David, and had himself responded by carving the enormous nude Marble David, which was placed in the Piazza near the Palazzo Vecchio, the home of Florence's Council.

The Humanist vision of Humanity was one in which people responded to other people, to social responsibility, and to God, in a direct way, not through intermediaries, such as The Church. This conflicted with The Church's emphasis. While The Church emphasised Humanity as essentially sinful and flawed, Humanism emphasised Humanity as potentially noble and beautiful.

These two views were not necessarily irreconcilable to The Church, but only through a recognition that the unique way to achieve this "elevation of spirit, mind and body" was through The Church as the agent of God. To be outside The Church was to be beyond Salvation. In The Ceiling of The Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo presented both Catholic and Humanist elements in a way that does not appear visually conflicting. The inclusion of "non-Biblical" figures, such as the Sibyls or Ignudi, is consistent with the rationalising of Humanist and Christian thought of The Renaissance. This rationalisation was to become a target of The Counter Reformation.

Sistine Chapel fresco by Michelangelo,
God dividing the waters, showing the illusionary architecture,
and the positions of the Ignudi and Shields.
Date: 1509.
Source: Web Gallery of Art[1].
Author: Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564).
(Wikimedia Commons)

The iconography of The Ceiling has had various interpretations in the past, some elements of which have been contradicted by modern scholarship and others, such as the identity of the figures in the Lunettes and Spandrels, continue to defy interpretation.

Modern scholars have sought, as yet unsuccessfully, to determine a written source of the Theological programme of The Ceiling, and have questioned whether or not it was entirely devised by the artist, himself, who was both an avid reader of the Bible and a genius.

Also of interest, to some modern scholars, is the question of how Michelangelo's own spiritual and psychological state is reflected in the iconography and the artistic expression of The Ceiling. One such speculation is that Michelangelo was tormented by conflict between homosexual desires and passionate Christian beliefs.

English: The Prophet, Joel. Fresco, painted by Michelangelo and his assistants,
for the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, between 1508 and 1512.
Polski: Fresk w Kaplicy Syksyńskiej przedstawiający
Source: Scanned from book.
Author: Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564).
(Wikimedia Commons)

The Sistine Chapel is 40.5 metres long and 14 metres wide. The Ceiling rises to 20 metres above the main floor of The Chapel. The Vault is of quite a complex design and it is unlikely that it was originally intended to have such elaborate decoration. Pier Matteo d'Amelia provided a Plan for its decoration, with the architectural elements picked out, and The Ceiling painted Blue and dotted with Gold Stars, similar to that of the Arena Chapel, decorated by Giotto, at Padua.

The Chapel walls have three horizontal tiers, with six windows in the upper tier down each side. There were also two windows at each end, but these have been closed up above the Altar, when Michelangelo's Last Judgement was painted, obliterating two Lunettes. Between the windows are large Pendentives, which support the Vault. Between the Pendentives are triangularly-shaped Arches, or Spandrels, cut into the Vault above each window. Above the height of the Pendentives, the Ceiling slopes gently without much deviation from the horizontal. This is the real architecture. Michelangelo has elaborated it with illusionary, or fictive, architecture.

The first element, in the scheme of painted architecture, is a definition of the real architectural elements by accentuating the lines where Spandrels and Pendentives intersect with the curving Vault. Michelangelo painted these as decorative Courses, that look like sculpted Stone Mouldings. These have two repeating motifs, a formula common in Classical architecture. Here, one motif is the Acorn, the symbol of the family of both Pope Sixtus IV, who built The Chapel, and Pope Julius II, who commissioned Michelangelo's work.

by Michelangelo.
Sistine Chapel Ceiling Fresco.
This File: 20 March 2005.
User: Ccson.

The other motif is the Scallop Shell, one of the symbols of The Madonna, to whose Assumption The Chapel was Dedicated in 1483. The Crown of the wall then rises, above the Spandrels, to a strongly projecting painted Cornice, that runs right around The Ceiling, separating the pictorial areas of the Biblical scenes from the figures of Prophets, Sibyls and Ancestors, who, literally and figuratively, support the narratives. Ten broad painted Cross-Ribs, of Travertine, cross The Ceiling and divide it into, alternately, wide and narrow pictorial spaces, a grid that gives all the figures their defined place.

A great number of small figures are integrated with the painted architecture, their purpose apparently purely decorative. These include two faux marble Putti, below the Cornice on each Rib, each one a male and female pair; stone ram's-heads are placed at the apex of each Spandrel; Copper-Skinned nude figures in varying poses, hiding in the shadows, propped between the Spandrels and the Ribs, like animated book-ends; and more Putti, both clothed and unclothed, strike a variety of poses as they support the name-plates of the Prophets and Sibyls.

Above the Cornice, and to either side of the smaller scenes, are an array of Round Shields, or Medallions. They are framed by a total of twenty figures, the so-called Ignudi, which are not part of the architecture but sit on inlaid Plinths, their feet planted convincingly on the fictive Cornice. Pictorially, the Ignudi appear to occupy a space between the narrative spaces and the space of the Chapel, itself.

Sistine Chapel painting in the triangular Spandrel,
in the fourth Bay over the Ezekiel (Hezekiah)-Manasseh-Amon Lunette,
and between the Cumaean Sibyl and Isaiah. Part of the Ancestors of Christ series.
Artist: Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564).
Date: 1509.
Source/Photographer: Web Gallery of Art, URL:
(Wikimedia Commons)

Along the Central Section of the Ceiling, Michelangelo depicted nine scenes from the Book of Genesis, the first Book of the Bible. The pictures fall into three groups of three, alternating, large and small Panels.

The first group shows God creating the Heavens and the Earth. The second group shows God creating the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, and their disobedience of God and consequent expulsion from the Garden of Eden, where they had lived and walked with God. The third group, of three pictures, shows the plight of Humanity, and, in particular, the family of Noah.

The pictures are not in strictly chronological order. If they are perceived as three groups, then the pictures in each of the three units inform upon each other, in the same way as was usual in Mediaeval Paintings and Stained-Glass. The three Sections, of Creation, Downfall and Fate of Humanity, appear in reverse order, when read from the entrance of the Chapel. However, each individual scene is painted to be viewed when looking towards the Altar. This is not easily apparent when viewing a reproduced image of the Ceiling, but becomes clear when the viewer looks upward at the Vault. Paoletti and Radke suggest that this reversed progression symbolises a return to a state of Grace. However, the three Sections are generally described in the order of Biblical chronology.

The Lunette of Jacob and Joseph, the Earthly father of Jesus.
The suspicious old man may represent Joseph.
Sistine Chapel fresco, by Michelangelo. One of the Ancestors of Christ series. Note: This is not Joseph, who ruled Egypt, or Jacob, son of Isaac. This is the Joseph that was the Earthly father of Jesus. It is the last in the Series of Ancestors on The Sistine Chapel Ceiling.
Artist: Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564).
Date: 1509.
Source: Web Gallery of Art[1]
(Wikimedia Commons)

The scenes, from the Altar towards the Main Door, are ordered as follows:

The Separation of Light and Darkness;
The Creation of the Sun, Moon and Earth;
The Separation of Land and Water;
The Creation of Adam;
The Creation of Eve;
The Temptation and Expulsion;
The Sacrifice of Noah;
The Great Flood;
The Drunkenness of Noah.

Adjacent to the smaller Biblical scenes, and supported by the Ignudi, are ten circular Parade Shields (Medallions), sometimes described as being painted to resemble bronze. Known examples are actually of lacquered and gilt wood. Each is decorated with a picture drawn from The Old Testament, or the Book of Maccabees, from the Apocrypha.

The Medallions represent:

Abraham about to sacrifice his son, Isaac;
The Destruction of the Statue of Baal;
The worshippers of Baal being brutally slaughtered;
Uriah being beaten to death;
Nathan the Priest condemning King David for murder and adultery;
King David's traitorous son, Absalom, caught by his hair in a tree, while trying to escape, and beheaded by David's troops;
Joab sneaking up on Abner to murder him;
Joram being hurled from a Chariot onto his head;
Elijah being carried up to Heaven;
On one Medallion, the subject is either obliterated or incomplete.


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