Cloisters of Saint John Lateran, Rome. Source:

Saturday, 29 November 2014

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

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

Creation of the Stars and Planets by God,
by Michelangelo.
Sistine Chapel Ceiling Fresco.
Image from Christus Rex.
From: English Wikipedia:
(Wikimedia Commons)

In the Book of Esther, it is related that Haman, a Public Servant, plots to get Esther's husband, the King of Persia, to slay all the Jewish people in his land. The King, who is going over his books during a sleepless night, realises something is amiss. Esther, discovering the plot, denounces Haman and her husband orders his execution on a scaffold he has built. The King's eunuchs promptly carry this out. Michelangelo shows Haman crucified, with Esther looking at him from a doorway, the King giving orders in the background.

English: Interior of The Sistine Chapel
showing the Ceiling painted by
Italiano: Interno della cappella sistina.
Immagine preparata per Wikipedia da Adria Pingstone (:en:User:Arpingstone).
Date: 17 May 2004.
Source: Transferred from it.wikipedia;
transferred to Commons by User:Pierpao using CommonsHelper.
Author: Original uploader was Snowdog at it.wikipedia
(Wikimedia Commons)

The other two stories, those of David and Judith, were often linked in Renaissance art, particularly by Florentine artists, as they demonstrated the overthrow of tyrants, a popular subject in the Republic. In this image, the Shepherd Boy, David, has brought down the towering Goliath with his sling, but the giant is alive and is trying to rise as David forces his head down to chop it off.

The depiction of Judith and Holofernes has an equally gruesome detail. As Judith loads the enemy's head onto a basket, carried by her maid, and covers it with a cloth, she looks towards the tent, apparently distracted by the limbs of the decapitated corpse threshing about.

There are obvious connections in the design of the Slaying of Holofernes and the Slaying of Haman, at the opposite end of the Chapel. Although, in the Holofernes picture, the figures are smaller and the space less filled, both have the triangular space divided into two zones by a vertical wall, allowing us to see what is happening on both sides of it. There are actually three scenes in the Haman picture, because, as well as seeing Haman punished, we see him at the table with Esther and the King and get a view of the King on his bed. Mordechai sits on the steps, making a link between the scenes.

English: The Last Judgement.
Italian: Il Giudizio universale.
Artist: Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564).
Current location: Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Italy.
Credit line: user:GianniG46.
(Wikimedia Commons)

While the Slaying of Goliath is a relatively simple composition, with the two protagonists centrally placed, the only other figures being dimly-seen observers, the Brazen Serpent picture is crowded with figures, and separate incidents, as the various individuals, who have been attacked by snakes, struggle and die or turn towards the icon that will save them. This is the most Mannerist of Michelangelo's earlier compositions at The Sistine Chapel, picking up the theme of human distress, begun in the Great Flood scene, and carrying it forward into the torment of Lost Souls in The Last Judgement, which was later painted below.

The Ceiling of The Sistine Chapel was to have a profound effect upon other artists, even before it was completed. Vasari, in his Life of Raphael, tells us that Bramante, who had the keys to the Chapel, let Raphael in to examine the paintings in Michelangelo's absence. On seeing Michelangelo's Prophets, Raphael went back to the picture of the Prophet Isaiah, that he was painting on a Column in the Church of Sant'Agostino, and, according to Vasari, although it was finished, he scraped it off the wall and repainted it in a much more powerful manner, in imitation of Michelangelo. John O'Malley points out that even earlier than the Isaiah is Raphael's inclusion of the figure of Heraclitus in the School of Athens, a brooding figure similar to Michelangelo's Jeremiah, but with the countenance of Michelangelo, himself, and leaning on a block of marble.

There was hardly a design element on the Ceiling that was not subsequently imitated: The fictive architecture, the muscular anatomy, the foreshortening, the dynamic motion, the luminous colouration, the haunting expressions of the figures in the Lunettes, the abundance of Putti. Gabriele Bartz and Eberhard König have said of the Ignudi, "There is no image that has had a more lasting effect on following generations than this. Henceforth, similar figures disported themselves in innumerable decorative works, be they painted, formed in stucco or even sculpted."

The Sistine Chapel.
The Prophet Daniel,
before (left) and after (right) Restoration.
Date: 1505.
Source: Webgallery of art, Bartz and Konig, "Michelangelo".
Author: Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564).
(Wikimedia Commons)

Within Michelangelo's own work, the Chapel Ceiling led to the later, and more Mannerist, painting of The Last Judgement, in which the crowded compositions gave full rein to his inventiveness in painting contorted and foreshortened figures, expressing despair or jubilation. Among the artists in whose work can be seen the direct influence of Michelangelo are Pontormo, Andrea del Sarto,Correggio, Tintoretto, Annibale Carracci, Paolo Veronese and El Greco.

In January 2007, it was claimed that as many as 10,000 visitors passed through the Vatican Museums in a day and that the Ceiling of The Sistine Chapel is the biggest attraction. The Vatican, anxious at the possibility that the newly-restored frescoes will suffer damage, announced plans to reduce visiting hours and raise the price in an attempt to discourage visitors.

Five hundred years earlier, Vasari had said "The whole world came running when the Vault was revealed, and the sight of it was enough to reduce them to stunned silence."


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