The Sistine Chapel was built by the order of Pope Sixtus IV between 1477 and 1483. It was intended to serve as a private place of worship for him and his successors, as the site of their innermost councils, and not least as a bolthole of last resort if worst ever came to worst and Rome was invaded once again. Its external appearance reflected this last function: standing at the northeast corner of Saint Peter’s Basilica, it was a tall but narrow, rather ugly building cum fortress, with walls ten feet (three meters) thick, narrow windows better suited to bowmen than casual gazers, and a bristling ring of battlements; it even came complete with slits for pouring boiling oil down on attackers. Its upper floor was a cramped warren of barracks and supply rooms for the soldiers who were stationed there.

The Sistine Chapel exterior today. (Maus-Trauden)

But the voluminous chapel proper that filled its ground floor could hardly have been more different. Its dimensions conformed exactly with the Old Testament’s stated measurements of the Holy of Holies inside the Temple of Solomon: 134 feet (41 meters) long, 44 feet (13.5 meters) wide, 68 feet (21 meters) high. To decorate this space, Sixtus hired the foremost artists of his day, many of them Florentines, including Sandro Botticelli and the young Michelangelo’s future master Domenico Ghirlandaio. One of its long walls was filled with scenes from the life of Moses, the other with scenes from the life of Jesus. Above these two most revered of all the prophets of Christianity ran a series of portraits of the most important popes in Church history, 32 of them in all. And soaring high above everything else was a Vault of Heaven: a deep blue sky speckled with stars, painted onto the ceiling.

This nineteenth-century engraving portrays the Sistine Chapel as it might have looked originally, before Michelangelo repainted the ceiling. (Public Domain)

From Sixtus’s death in 1484 on, it was in this secluded yet auspicious spot that the Church’s most senior cardinals met in conclave to decide who should become the next pope whenever that most essential office of all became vacant. As the Church’s newest building in Rome, the Sistine Chapel was not condemned by Pope Julius II to the razing that was to be the fate of the old Saint Peter’s Basilica and most of its other companion buildings.

This isn’t to say, however, that the Sistine Chapel stood immaculate even at the beginning of his reign in 1503. Despite its young age, it was literally coming apart at the seams. Thanks to the shifting fundament beneath it — always a problem for builders in Rome, which lies near a fault line — the south wall had begun to lean away from the rest of structure, threatening to split the ceiling in two, as evinced by an ugly spiderweb of cracks that now marred the Vault of Heaven. Julius authorized engineers to install new iron support pillars in the walls. These more or less restored the building’s structural integrity, but the aesthetic damage that had already been done remained done: Julius was told that there was no way to salvage the cracked Vault of Heaven. The only option left was to paint it all over again. Enter Michelangelo, tenuously restored to the pope’s good graces after doing his artistic penance in Bologna.

He was an odd choice for the project on the face of it, such that art historians have spent centuries trying to get inside Julius’s head, asking themselves what on earth he was thinking. As we have seen, Michelangelo considered himself to be first and foremost a sculptor, not a painter. His Pietà and his David statue, those two masterpieces that would have made his reputation as one of the greatest of all the Renaissance artists even had he died as soon as he completed them, had both been sculptures. By contrast, he had abandoned his one notable painting commission since reaching maturity — to decorate the one wall of the Hall of the Great Council in Florence — as soon as a better offer had come along. While historian Ross King is perhaps overstating the case when he says that Michelangelo “hardly touched a paintbrush” after leaving his original apprenticeship with the Ghirlandaio brothers, he does not do so by much. Certainly Donato Bramante, the architect of the new Saint Peter’s Basilica and one of the latest entries on Michelangelo’s ever-growing list of enemies, didn’t think he was up to it, as he told the pope directly: “Holy Father, I believe he does not have enough courage and spirit for it, because he has not done too many figures and, above all, the figures [proposed for the chapel ceiling] are high and in foreshortening, and this is another thing from painting at ground level.”

As Bramante’s comment indicates, Julius, who never thought small, had something far more ambitious in mind for the chapel’s new ceiling than just another starry sky: he wanted real figures up there high above his head to complement the ones on the walls. To paint figures so that they looked suitably majestic from such an unusual viewing angle and distance would have taxed the abilities of the most experienced masters of frescoes in Italy, among whose ranks Michelangelo most assuredly was not numbered. It is thus no surprise that he expressed little enthusiasm for the project when it was put to him — not even for the opportunity to prove Bramante wrong about his degree of “courage and spirit.” He would have much preferred to return to working on his tomb for Pope Julius, a conception he still cherished despite all his recent difficulties with his patron. But Julius was, for all his decadence and egotism, a keen judge of artistic talent; this was a rare case of someone else seeing a capability in Michelangelo that the artist himself, who was not normally known for his modesty, failed to recognize.

And so, on May 10, 1508, Michelangelo reluctantly signed the contract to create a new ceiling for the Sistine Chapel, receiving in return 500 gold ducats as a down payment. “It was typical of Michelangelo,” notes his biographer Miles J. Unger, “that, even though he was dragged kicking and screaming into [the] project, once committed he dedicated himself heart and soul to making something that would astonish the world.” Be that as it may, the fact remains that throughout the more than four years of his life that it would consume, the artist would continue to speak of the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling more as a duty than a passion. “This is the trouble with this work: it’s not my true profession and I waste my time,” he wrote in a letter to his father. “Lord help me!” (His “true profession” in his own eyes was of course that of sculptor.)

Even if it hadn’t been suspended horizontally 68 feet above his head, the medium for his work would have presented a challenge, for fresco painting of any type was by definition a challenge. The word fresco means “fresh” in Italian; its application to art comes from the fact that it involves painting directly onto fresh — still wet, in other words — plaster. To begin with, a layer of this fresh plaster was applied to the location to be painted. From that point, the artist had, depending on atmospheric conditions, the ambient temperature, and the like, anywhere from 12 to 24 hours to work with before the plaster dried and his efforts were frozen in place just as they were. The painting of frescoes could thus take on almost the character of a sporting event, a breakneck race against the clock; some artists actually learned to paint with both hands at the same time as a way of working faster. As they worked, they were attended by a support team worthy of a Tour de France rider, plying them with fresh pigments and food and drink and squirts of cold water in the face when exhaustion began to set in. The stakes were high; Michelangelo’s head must have been all too full of the many examples of artists whose fresco projects had gone disastrously awry, leaving behind a hot mess instead of a masterpiece. Even an acknowledged master like Leonardo da Vinci wasn’t immune to the vagaries of mixing plaster with paint, as the city fathers of Florence had just learned to their disappointment. And when moved onto a ceiling, the adventure could become dangerous in a bodily sense; a number of painters had fallen to their death from scaffolds over the years. Small wonder so many chose to keep it relatively simple by painting starry skies and the like. But, needless to say, both Pope Julius and the artist himself expected more from Michelangelo.

The first step in remaking the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling must be to remove what was already there, scraping away the damaged plaster upon which had been painted the old Vault of Heaven. I told you earlier that Michelangelo was interested strictly in art for art’s sake, that he had no leanings toward engineering or science like Leonardo. This remains true, but it is also true that he proved himself capable of unexpected feats of engineering whenever the production of his art made it necessary. This now became one of those cases. Julius first assigned none other than the hated Donato Bramante to construct a suitable scaffolding for reaching the chapel ceiling, but Michelangelo pronounced his design inadequate and dismissed him in short order, going with a scaffold of his own ingenious invention instead, a series of crisscrossing foot bridges suspended under the ceiling, reachable by ladders hung along the walls. At the order of Julius, the scaffold was only allowed to occupy half of the chapel at one time. So, it was set up at one end of the hall of worship, whereupon Michelangelo’s work crew swarmed over it at the tedious labor of scraping the ceiling clean — raining plaster down on the heads of the priests who still conducted services below as they did so — and applying a fresh plaster undercoat. Then the scaffold was taken apart, moved to the other end of the chapel, and the procedure was repeated.

While his hired hands were pulling down the damaged Vault of Heaven, Michelangelo was planning what he would paint in its place. Much speculation is attached to the origins of the final plan for the ceiling. Michelangelo himself later claimed that Pope Julius first gave him fairly explicit instructions to paint Jesus’s twelve apostles up there.

Then, having begun the work [of planning], it seemed to me that it would turn out poorly, and I told the pope that depicting only the apostles would seem a paltry thing. He asked me why. I told him, “Because they themselves were poor men.” So he gave me a new commission, telling me that I should do what I wanted and that he would accommodate me.

This tale has struck many over the years as unlikely on the face of it, given that Julius was known to be a very hands-on manager of his artists and their artworks. Then, too, there are other documented instances of Michelangelo claiming credit for the inspirations of others. That said, Miles J. Unger at least judges it as more probable than not that the ceiling’s contents really were Michelangelo’s own conception, basing that judgment primarily upon his sketchbook, which shows their gradual evolution into the spectacle which the tourists of today still see above them when they crane their heads.

Saint Paul had divided the history of the world into three epochs: the time before the Law, the time of the Israelites and their Old Covenant with God, and the time of the New Covenant preached by Jesus Christ. Two of these epochs were already represented in the Sistine Chapel, one along each of its long walls. But what of the third epoch — actually the first one in a chronological sense, the time before Moses came down from the mountaintop bearing the Ten Commandments? Michelangelo proposed to complete the trifecta by painting this epoch on the chapel’s ceiling, spanning from the moment of creation, through humanity’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden, and on to the Great Flood and its aftermath.

It must be understood that the space which Michelangelo had to work with was variegated and complex, the farthest thing from the inviting blank rectangle of a conventional painter’s canvas. The middle of the ceiling was vaulted — read, vertically bowed — and it was encroached upon by four triangular spandrels running down each of its longer sides and by a fan-shaped pendentive at each of its four corners. Miles J. Unger writes that “the solution Michelangelo contrived to overcome this difficult problem was the essential creative breakthrough. Instead of minimizing or ignoring the natural divisions of the ceiling, Michelangelo chose to build on them. He organized the visual field like an editor organizing a difficult text, dividing it into various chapters and sub-chapters, each with its own heading and each assigned to its proper place.” In our own next chapter, we’ll take a close look at the finished ceiling, parsing the story Michelangelo intended it to tell. Here in this one, however, we’ll continue to focus on process.

This photograph of the eastern half of the ceiling shows four of the eight triangular spandrels and two of the four fan-shaped pendentives. (Antoine Taveneaux)

Michelangelo started to paint the ceiling in earnest in October of 1508. A sheet of canvas was hung beneath the scaffold that stood under the western half of the ceiling. This canvas was meant both to keep paint from falling down on the ornate marble floor of the chapel and to hide the work from the people below, for Michelangelo always preferred a dramatic unveiling to displays of incremental progress. Each day, he would point the professional plasterers in his employ to the space he wanted to paint on that day, whereupon they would apply the requisite coat of the material that was their stock in trade. (Plasterers tended not to be terribly long-lived men, given that the last step before application involved slaking the stuff with quicklime, a chemical as corrosive to living lungs as it was to the corpses on which it was often sprinkled to hasten decomposition.) One to two hours after the plaster had been applied, the precious window of time in which it could be painted would open up.

In keeping with his ethos of not running a “shop,” Michelangelo was more reluctant than most of his peers to employ assistants; the Pietà and the David statue were, as far as we know, entirely the work of his own hands. The Sistine Chapel ceiling was, however, much too large for anyone to attempt to paint alone. At any given time, a dozen or more helpers were up there on the scaffold with him: some grinding and mixing pigments, some actually applying paint to plaster. Working from the paper cartoons that Michelangelo had created during the months when the ceiling was being scraped clean, the painters stood upright and reached above their heads to duplicate their contents on the ceiling. (The old saw that Michelangelo painted the chapel ceiling whilst lying flat on his back in a narrow crawlspace has no basis in fact, stemming from a mis-translation of a text from 1527.)

The work was to a large extent dependent on the whims of the weather. Dampness was the enemy of the fresco painter as much as time, diluting the colors he applied and causing mildew to appear on the plaster itself before it could dry completely. Michelangelo had a high standard of quality: on countless occasions, he ordered his plasterers to scrape an apparently finished part of the ceiling clean again so that everyone could start all over from scratch. The project proceeded slowly — agonizingly so for Pope Julius, whose private chapel was half covered in scaffolding and rang with the shouts of workmen through all hours of the day and night.

Perhaps in a bid to get it moving faster, Julius commissioned none other than Raphael, who had by now followed Michelangelo to Rome as he had once followed him to Florence, to paint the ceiling of his private library, setting up an implicit competition not unlike the one that had earlier taken place between Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Yet there was an important difference this time: this latest competition cast the 33-year-old Michelangelo as the establishment man rather than the young Turk, giving the latter role to the 25-year-old Raphael.

The two men could hardly have been more unlike one another. Michelangelo was infamously slovenly, even for a time and place where virtually no one bathed more than once per week; even his hagiographer Condivi had to allow that he wore his boots so many days together that, when he finally took them off, “the skin [of his feet] came away like a snake’s.” He tended to be withdrawn and gruff in personality, especially when he was deeply immersed in a project, as he most certainly was now. Raphael, on the other hand, was the very picture of a refined Renaissance gentleman. A contemporary wondered that he “is far removed from any kind of arrogance. Indeed, his behavior is friendly and courteous, nor does he reject any advice, or refuse to listen to an expression of opinion.” Vasari later wrote of Raphael that “he was not obliged, like so many other geniuses, to give birth to work by suffering.” The two prodigies learned to dislike one another heartily — although, as was so often the case with Michelangelo, it was more a matter of him taking the initial umbrage and Raphael responding in kind than one of loathing on an equal footing. It didn’t help Raphael’s cause that he was frequently seen in the company of Donato Bramante; although widely separated in age, the two of them had much else in common, starting with the same hometown of Urbino, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) east of Florence.

A story has it that Raphael was strolling the streets of Rome one day in the midst of a boisterous crowd of revelers when he bumped into Michelangelo, all alone as usual. “You with your band like a bravo,” scowled the solitary misanthrope. “And you alone like a hangman,” smiled an unperturbed Raphael.

Raphael completed the pope’s library ceiling in magnificent style while Michelangelo was still plodding away on the chapel ceiling to no visible result. Julius was so pleased with Raphael’s work that he awarded him a commission to decorate the walls of the same room and, indeed, the rest of his private apartments. Among other renowned works, that commission would eventually result in The School of Athens, the extraordinary fresco which we already met in an earlier chapter. As a visual who’s who of ancient philosophy, it was appropriately painted just above the pope’s collection of philosophical tracts. But in addition to its other themes, it was a sort of in-joke about the contemporary Italian art scene; Euclid had the features of Bramante, Plato those of Leonardo, etc. (This last was ironic because the real Plato vocally hated painting as a distortion of and distraction from the reality he saw around him.) Even Raphael himself made an appearance, in the role of the esteemed ancient painter Apelles. Michelangelo, however, was pointedly snubbed. No matter: he told anyone who would listen how much he detested Raphael’s style of comfortable, sociable, drawing-room art.

Of course, the different natures of the rivals’ two projects made it a fundamentally unfair competition. Every month or two, Raphael would complete some beautiful new addition to the pope’s walls or ceiling, unveil it, and bask in the approbation of his patron and his peers. Meanwhile Michelangelo continued to climb a ladder every morning and labor away above until late in the evening on what was still only the first half of the complete chapel ceiling. When Julius demanded to know when he would be finished, his reply was curt: “As soon as I can.” At this, Julius grew so enraged that he threatened to have Michelangelo flung off his scaffold. He began to beat the artist about the head and shoulders with his papal staff: “As soon as I can! As soon as I can! What do you mean? I will make you finish it!” His impatience may have had something to do with his health, which was not particularly good. Although only just moving into the second half of his sixties, the pope was already suffering badly from gout, as well as, it seems probable, the syphilis that was such a constant bane of life among the Roman luxury set. He had long known that the new Saint Peter’s Basilica would take decades to complete, that he hadn’t a chance of seeing it in its finished state; now, he must have been worried that his chapel too would still be unfinished when he died.

But Michelangelo refused to be hurried. The work in the chapel stretched on and on, through all of 1509 and into 1510. At last, in the summer of that year, he pronounced the first half of the ceiling to be done. It was time now to pull down the canvas and the scaffold and display his creation to the world. But, much to his vexation, Pope Julius had by then chosen to personally lead another army into the field, in an attack on the city of Ferrara, which was attempting to break away from the Papal States. He didn’t return from that campaign for a full year, during which it was now Michelangelo’s turn to chafe with impatience; what with Julius being unwilling to let anyone else see the ceiling before he did, Michelangelo couldn’t move the scaffold which concealed it to the other half of the chapel, and thus couldn’t do more than plan what he would paint there and sketch cartoons on paper. When the pope did finally come back to Rome, he was in as ill a humor as Michelangelo, having failed to secure his military objectives. The ceiling would have to be very impressive indeed to win his approval.

The unveiling was slated for August 15, 1511, just before the Mass that would accompany the Feast of the Assumption. A screen was set up across the middle of the chapel. Then, working in top secret, a crew on the far side of it pulled down the canvas and the scaffold to expose the ceiling there; this was the first time even Michelangelo himself could take it all in from a proper perspective, rather than staring at bits and pieces of it only just above his head.

On the big day, the pope and his entourage passed in procession beyond the screen. He craned his august head, stood staring for several long minutes while the tension in the crowd around him built to a fever pitch, and then stated quietly that he was satisfied with the work. And with that, the Mass continued.

Raphael was among the other dignitaries present on that day. He too was duly if grudgingly impressed by what he saw. And yet, if Condivi is to be believed, he also thought that he could do even better, tried to persuade Julius that he should take over and paint the other half of the ceiling. That said, we shouldn’t set too much store by this tale: it seems most likely to have been a slander whispered in Condivi’s ear by Michelangelo himself, who never forgot an enemy — not even when said enemy had been dead for decades, as was the case with Raphael by the time Condivi wrote his authorized biography of Michelangelo.

I am on firmer ground when I note that, just after the unveiling of this western half of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Raphael returned to The School of Athens, which he had completed over a year earlier. He carefully chipped away a piece of plaster between Plato and Aristotle, replacing it with a fresh layer. And there he painted in a figure ostensibly representing the Archaic-period philosopher Heraclitus that was in reality modeled after Michelangelo. Was this reversal of his earlier slight meant as a gesture of respect for the older artist, even though Raphael knew it was doomed to go unreciprocated? It does seem probable. But it seems equally probable that it was also a bit of a joke at Michelangelo’s expense. For, in addition to being a wise philosopher of flux and change (“You cannot step into the same river twice”), Heraclitus was known for his misanthropy, for saying that no less renowned a writer than Homer “ought to be horsewhipped” for his sins against Heraclitus’s definition of literature. His brooding, hunched figure in the painted scene fit his personality — as it did that of Michelangelo. Raphael must surely have known that Michelangelo would hate being included in his motley Who’s Who of Renaissance Italy, and might very well have relished getting the sad old grouch’s goat.

Michelangelo as Heraclitus in Raphael’s The School of Athens. (Public Domain)

All that aside, Michelangelo was thrilled that the unveiling had gone well and was eager to begin painting the second half of the ceiling — the one which was to include the image that would become the most iconic of them all, that of God giving the spark of life to Adam. Within days, he and his crew were back up there on the relocated scaffold, beavering away once again. Thanks to experience and better luck in terms of weather, the work went somewhat faster this time. It took only a little over a year before Pope Julius II got to see the full masterpiece he had cajoled and bullied Italy’s greatest living artist — with all due respect to Raphael — into creating for him. The Sistine Chapel ceiling was unveiled in its glorious wholeness on, of all days, October 31, 1512 — All Hallows Eve.

Shortly after, the pope fell seriously ill. Taking to his bed, he drank copious quantities of many different types of wine, convinced of its magical curative properties if he could just hit on the right combination. Alas, it didn’t help. Rumors leaking out of the sickroom had it that he was terrified of what awaited his soul beyond the grave, “for he had sinned greatly and had not bestirred himself for the good of the Church as he should have done.” He died on February 21, 1513, ten months short of his 70th birthday.

Michelangelo saw the passing of his most powerful patron ever as an emancipation. Finally, he could get back to creating — to sculpting — the art he really wanted to create.

But this ceiling he had never really wanted to paint would, even more so than the Pietá and David, make Michelangelo in the eyes of his contemporaries and his posterity. For the rest of his life — a long life that would span quite some decades yet — he would be known near and far as the demigod who had given birth to a wonder in Rome to rival the most fabled achievements of the ancients, a sight that his fellow artists and privileged laymen alike would travel weeks or months for the opportunity to gawk at. We should not be reluctant to join them in their appreciation. So, let us now pause the march of history and use a chapter just to take this wonder in.

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(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

9 Comments for "Chapter 13: The Artist in the Chapel"

  • Robert

    Fantastic as always.

    A minor suggestion – since you already include both metric and imperial measurements for the size of the Holy of Holies, how about also including the original in cubits?

    • Jimmy Maher

      Is there some special relevance or meaning behind the numbers when expressed that way?

      • Robert

        No, I just thought it would be more complete and a bit “cute”.

        • Jimmy Maher

          In that case, I think I’ll leave it alone. I always try to include English and metric units for the convenience of readers, but I’m not sure I have any who are most comfortable thinking in ancient Hebrew cubits. 😉

  • Steph

    You know, I knew about ‘the Sistine Chapel ceiling’, but it wasn’t until I read this article that I realized that the famous ‘spark of life’ image was just one part of the larger whole. The other parts didn’t quite go through the same cultural osmosis. No wonder it took so long to paint!

  • Carlton Little

    Just wanted to say… I’m enjoying this series. But did you overlook the point about the cartoons?

    Expert art historians believe the outlines were transferred to the ceiling. This would have been done by punching small holes in the paper along the lines, affixing to the ceiling, and treating with charcoal dust. To just do it all by eye would have been impractical considering the curved surface. It’s just part of the process really. (I mean, correct if wrong, but the sources I’ve found mention this.)

    • Jimmy Maher

      Not so much overlooked as elided in the interest of readability. But writing that the cartoons “now lay unfurled at their feet” was perhaps going too far; they did unroll them on the floor of the scaffold, but only after tracing them onto the ceiling. I deleted that clause. 😉 Thanks!

  • Viktor

    Fascinating chapter! A minor correction: the name of Michelangelo’s favorite arch-enemy is Bramante, with an ‘a’.

    • Jimmy Maher

      Ouch. How did that happen? Thanks!


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