Guide To the Michelangelo Frescos in the Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo's stunning Sistine Chapel frescos are the undisputed highlight of a visit to the Vatican Museums in Rome. The chapel boasts some of the most famous paintings in the history of art. It's a room of unrivaled artistic creation.
In this Vatican guide, I unfold and explain the Sistine Chapel. I give you an overview and analysis of Michelangelo's beautiful High Renaissance frescos, so you'll know what you're looking at when you visit.
It's incredibly important to unpack Michelangelo's work and know something about it before stepping into the chapel. Otherwise, it will be a less rewarding experience. The chapel is overwhelming enough, even with a bit of prior knowledge.
The Sistine Chapel is perhaps the world's most famous interior decorated space. And it (mostly) came out of the mind of just one man, Michelangelo, nicknamed Il Divino. The scale of the work and breadth of Michelangelo's imagination is incredible.
20,000 people visit daily to cast their eyes upward to the glorious ceiling. Originally, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was azure blue with stars.
History of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Frescos
In 1508, Pope Julius II summoned Michelangelo from Florence to paint the ceiling of his private chapel. But it wasn't just a private room. It's a room of grave importance, where new popes are elected in a conclave.
Michelangelo wasn't entirely enthusiastic about the Sistine Chapel project. He was first and foremost a sculptor.
He had relatively little experience when it came to organizing a painting project on this scale. And he was already working on Julius II's tomb, a project he preferred.
But Michelangelo had no choice in the matter. According to Julius II, it was "paint or hang." In any event, Michelangelo was insanely talented and up to the task at hand -- which the canny pope no doubt discerned.
Michelangelo signed the contract with Pope Julius II in 1508. He was 28 years old and had already carved his renowned David and Pieta. He demanded complete creative control.
Michelangelo learned fresco painting on the job. He began painting the ceiling using the traditional method of using cartoons (preparatory drawings) to transfer his designs onto wet plaster. Later, Michelangelo became so proficient that he worked freehand.
He claimed to work without assistants. But that's not entirely true.
Michelangelo had assistants who painted the architectural elements, a subspecialty of painters at the time. And others who worked on preparing plaster or mixing pigments. But the ceiling paintings were his alone.
Little did Michelangelo know what turmoil awaited him with the project. But after four and a half years of physical strain and conflict with the Pope, Michelangelo had painted nearly 9,000 square feet of ceiling with some of the most beautiful and sublime figures in history.
The frescos depict scenes exclusively from the Old Testament. They seem to open up the chapel to heaven. There's a lot of overly perfect naked male bodies, Michelangelo's particular obsession. He considered muscled masculinity a sign of the divine.
Michelangelo painted the frescos standing up, not laying down as legend and The Agony and the Ecstasy holds. You'll have to crane your neck to see the frescos, just like Michelangelo.
When the frescos were completed, they won universal praise. Generations of artists would study and be inspired by Michelangelo's works. One of the first was a young Raphael, who was working on the nearby Raphael Rooms during Michelangelo's project.
Overview of the Sistine Chapel
1. Composition of the Frescos
Michelangelo's iconographical program has a clear thematic and artistic logic.
At the highest point of the ceiling is a central band with nine scenes from the Book of Genesis. You read them beginning at the altar wall. The scenes follow the chronology of the Bible, from the Creation through the Fall of Man and the Life of Noah.
All the scenes are framed by a painted architectural framework. It looks almost real, not like mere paint. In the nine panels, there are four smaller scenes and five larger scenes.
In total, there are 175 separate pictorial fields on the ceiling. Michelangelo created a complex stage set with levels of reality. His final product reflects the Renaissance's rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture.
The smaller ceiling scenes are framed with 20 Ignudi (male nudes). The Ignudi were a painted architectural element that Michelangelo invented.
The forms were inspired by the Laocoon sculpture in the Vatican's Pio-Clementine Museum, a statue that was a game changer for Michelangelo. Michelangelo had witnessed its excavation in Rome in 1506.
The most celebrated of the Ignudi (shown above) is in an extreme contrapposto (counterpoise) position. Even his hair is in contrapposto.
In order to frame the central Old Testament scenes, Michelangelo added a fictive architectural molding down the length of the chapel. Below the central ceiling band sit an alternating series of Old Testament prophets and pagan sibyls in triangular spandrels.
They're incredibly beautiful. Anyone of these figures would be a timeless work of art.
The lunettes are the lowest register, making the transition from the ceiling to the wall. In the lunettes, you'll find the ancestors of Christ. At least that's what the titles say. It's a mini family tree.
All the names are male, but the figures are male and female. Rather than exalt the ancestors, Michelangelo basically profiles everyday men and women.
The four corners of the ceiling contain pendatives (shown in lavender on the diagram above). They depict scenes from the Old Testament like the stories of Judith and Holofernes and David and Goliath.
2. Sequence of the Frescos
From the altar, the 9 individual panels, in order, are:
The Separation of Light from Darkness
The Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Plants
The Separation of Land and Water
The Creation of Adam
The Creation of Eve
The Fall and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden
The Sacrifice of Noah
The Drunkenness of Noah
Michelangelo didn't paint the scenes in chronological order. Michelangelo started at the entrance end and painted toward the altar. That way, masses could still take place while he worked. As he painted, Michelangelo's figures became fewer and much larger in scale.
Art historians speculate that the discrepancy was due to Michelangelo deconstructing and moving his scaffolding. For the first time, he was able to actually see his paintings from the floor. When he looked up, he realized that the small figures got lost in the complexity of the scene.
3. Restoration of the Frescos
In 1980, a serious renovation of the Sistine Chapel began. It took 14 years to clean away the detritus of centuries. The result was a glowing and richly hued Sistine Chapel seen in natural (no longer artificial) light.
There had been two layers of varnish applied to Michelangelo's ceiling. The varnish protected the ceiling. But because it is adhesive, soot and grim stuck to the ceiling. When they restored the ceiling, all the varnish was removed.
What the restoration revealed were Michelangelo's vibrant and electric colors. Some were shocked. But it's a testament to Michelangelo's talent as a colorist. And the high-key colors allowed the frescos to be more easily seen and deciphered from 60 feet below.
The vibrant restoration stunned most viewers. I know it did me. I could hardly believe the difference in the chapel between my youthful years and subsequent visits.
Top Things To See In The Sistine Chapel
Here's my list of the most important things you need to see in the Sistine Chapel. I go through the Old Testament scenes on the ceiling chronologically and then tell you what else to look for and admire.
You won't be able to really take then all in in a single visit. The Sistine Chapel requires repeat visits, especially if you're rushed through by a tour guide. Each time you visit, you'll notice and appreciate more.
1. God Separating Light From Darkness
The first scene is lovely. In it, a muscular God is clad in billowing pink robes. He has light on one side of his body and darkness on the other. God's head is thrown back as he pushes the contrasting parts in half.
His neck is rather odd looking. Some historians think the neck contains an anatomically correct depiction of the brain stem. Michelangelo was known to dissect cadavers, so had a good working knowledge of human anatomy.
The four Ignudi of this scene reflect the theme of light and darkness. The ones closest to the dark clouds seem sleepy, while those on the other side are engaged in activity.
2. Creation of the Sun and the Moon
There's a lot of Hollywood in this scene. On the right, God is an imperious and intimidating almost Zeus-like figure. He simultaneously creates the moon with his left hand and the sun with his right hand.
3. Separation of the Land From the Sea
Here, you see the second day of creation. In this scene, Michelangelo depicts God as an old man with a long flowing beard. He flies over an expanse of water. His gesticulating hands seem to bless what he has created.
4. Creation of Adam
The Creation of Adam is the most celebrated Sistine Chapel ceiling scene. Michelangelo's translation doesn't really conform to the Old Testament version. In the Old Testament, God created Adam from dust.
Michelangelo visual representation reinvests the story of the creation of Adam. In fact, Michelangelo's interpretation has practically superseded the Bible version of the tale. If you ask most people how Adam was created, they'll tell you it was a zap from God's finger.
God is depicted as a buff figure accompanied by a host of angels. He is the embodiment of vitality. Some art historians speculate that God is set within a cross section of the human brain.
The progenitor of the human race, Adam, is an idealized nude lying in the center of earth. He looks adoringly at God, waiting for the magic touch. Interpreted as the transmission of life, this touch is the most famous "hand of god" depiction in the world, appearing on coffee cups and fridge magnets everywhere.
5. Creation of Eve
This scene is in the exact center of the ceiling. It was created in only four days.
Against a barren landscape, it shows Eve emerging from Adam's side, following an upward motion of God's hand. The scene's composition is flawless. The lines of Adam's body, the hands, and the faint landscape in the background create a perfect balance.
6. The Fall and Expulsion
In this famous vignette, Adam and Eve sin and are expelled from the Garden of Eden. It's a metaphorical separation of good and evil. It sets the scene for the need of a savior for mankind.
The Garden of Eden itself consists only of a few boulders and a tree stump. Michelangelo didn't care much about landscapes. The serpent-woman tempts the pair to eat the forbidden fruit.
Eve reaches up for the forbidden fruit. Like all Michelangelo's women, she takes on an almost masculine appearance.
Adam actively participates with Eve. He's not just a hapless victim, as is sometimes written. There's a bit of sexual innuendo between Adam and Eve, which translates to their expulsion
by a sword wielding angel.
7. The Sacrifice of Noah
In biblical chronology, this scene actually happens after the flood. So the frescos aren't in exact chronological order. This was probably because Michelangelo wanted more space for the Flood scene.
This panel shows the sacrifice to god after surviving the flood. Clad in red, Noah officiates the ceremony.
8. The Flood
In the Bible, reflecting on man’s wickedness, God regrets ever having created mankind. He destroys everyone with a 40 day flood. Everyone except the righteous Noah,
This was the first scene that Michelangelo painted. In this scene, the figures are much smaller than later frescos and the narrative is more complex. It's not so much a scene about the arc, but a story of desperation and the suffering of mankind.
Four distinct scenes are separated by air and water. On the right side, figures clamor into a sort of shelter. On the left, people climb a mountain to escape the deluge. In the center, a boat is about to capsize. In the far back, men build an arc, the only hope of survival.
9. The Drunkeness of Noah
I hadn't remembered that Noah was drunk in the Bible. But Michelangelo depicts it.
Noah has discovered winemaking, but is ignorant of its powerful effects. Noah passes out naked to sleep off his boozy indulgence.
The scene is a symbol of Noah's weakness. And a reminder that even the most righteous of mankind are flawed.
8. The Prophets
The prophets are another important element of the ceiling program. They are almost double the size of other figures, underscoring their importance. There are 7 prophets: Jonah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Zachariah, Isaiah, and Daniel.
Zachariah is emphasized by his position on one end of the ceiling. He appears above the coat of arms of Julius II.
Zachariah is a relatively minor prophet of the Old Testament who prophesied the coming of Christ. He's portrayed as a wise old man in a luminous orange and green robe, seated on a marble throne. His face bears a resemblance to Julius II.
Jonah is shown with a large fish by his side. Jonah supposedly spent three days inside a whale, and the fish symbolizes that misadventure. Jonah is seated right above The Last Judgement fresco.
Jeremiah could be interpreted as a self portrait of Michelangelo in his exhausted state toward the end the years long project. The figure is in a cross leg position, mulling over life. It reminds me of Auguste Rodin's The Thinker in Paris.
9. The Sybils
The five Sybils come from classical mythology, not the Bible. They are ancient pagan soothsayers who can foresee the future. They predict the coming of a savior. Characteristic of Michelangelo's change in style at the Sistine Chapel, they're monumental. Yet, the sybils are also elegant at the same time.
The 5 sybils are: the Persian Sybil, the Erythraean Sibyl, the Delphic Sybil, the Cumaean Still, and the Libyan Sybil,
With their bulging muscles, one might think they're just men dressed as women with boobs slapped on. Michelangelo really only valued the male nude. Some art historians speculate their physiques were modeled on the Belvedere Torso in the Vatican Museums.
The Delphic Sybil is the youngest and best known of the five sybils on the ceiling. Like all the sybils, she sits on a marble throne.
It's speculated that she's the first sybil that Michelangelo painted. She's dressed in a billowing colorful robe and holds a scroll, which identifies her. She seems on the verge of announcing a vision.
The Cumaean Sybil is a powerful hunk of an old woman, a figure of ugliness. Her masculinity is belied only by her tiny wrinkled head and graceful feet. She appears absorbed in the task of deciphering a large green book.
The Libyan Sybil is the most beautiful and celebrated of the Sybils. She has a contorted, almost serpentine posture.
The book of prophecy turns her around to show off her foreshortened arms and back muscles. It's a picture of power in grace in motion. She's superbly gowned in gorgeous colors.
10. The Ignudi
The Ignudi are among the most famous images in the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo paints them in sets of four to frame the smaller ceiling panels. He uses the Ignudi to demonstrate his mastery of the male nude. They are athletic young men shown in almost acrobatic poses, surrounded by garlands of oak leaves.
Their presence doesn't really fit the Sistine Chapel's overall theme. So the Ignudi are a bit of a mystery.
They may reinforce the motif of Adam. Or, they may just be a Renaissance-y depiction of the ideal of human perfection, another chance for Michelangelo to show off his knowledge of anatomy and reiterate his preferred theme.
11. Judith and Holofernes
Judith and Holofernes is a lunette painting that you will need to get right under to see really well. When you get a good look at it you will almost cringe away from it since it’s so graphic. The expression "head on a platter” originates here.
In the painting, Judith has managed to kill Holofernes, a general who threatens her village. Holofernes is show decapitated on the right. On the left, Judith and her handmaiden carry off the disembodied head.
12. David and Goliath
David and Goliath is another lunette scene. It's the story of the courage of an underdog (David) who against all odds defeats evil (Goliath). Michelangelo focuses on the moment of Goliath's decapitation. The slingshot David used to fell the giant appears in the foreground.
12. The Last Judgment
In 1536, 24 years after he had finished painting the ceiling, Michelangelo returned to the Sistine Chapel. At age 61, Pope Clement VII summoned him to paint The Last Judgment on the altar wall. Clement died soon after the commission, but his successor Pope Paul III carried out the project.
This time around, Michelangelo worked entirely alone. It took him 5 years to complete the powerful fresco. It's an overwhelming composition, set in azure blue background. The majority of the figures painted in the scenes were nude.
With the approaching Reformation, this was considered blasphemous and caused a public outcry. One year after Michelangelo died, some photoshopping was done to cover up the full frontal nudity.
Here's my guide to why "underpants"were painted on The Last Judgment after Michelangelo's death.
The Last Judgment is rendered in a different style than Michelangelo's prior ceiling frescos. The 300 figures are more monumental and the colors are largely monochromatic -- essentially sky and flesh tones.
In the middle, Christ looks decidedly different than usual. He's shown as excessively youthful, buff, smoothly shaven, and floating on clouds.
He's depicted more like Apollo than the suffering bearded savior one expects. His raised hand casts judgment against the damned.
The Last Judgment was a difficult task for a senior citizen. Perhaps to depict his unhappiness at the enforced servitude, Michelangelo supposedly hid two dour self portraits in The Last Judgment.
He painted his face on Holofernes’ severed head. And his face is possibly on the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew. Although that face looks awfully young (no gray hair) to have been the actual age of Michelangelo as he painted.
Art historian Giorgio Vasari noted that, "in creating his grandiose apocalyptic image, Michelangelo had created a work comparable in sheer scope to Dante's entire poem."
How To Visit the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel
Address: Viale Vaticano, 00165 Rome
Hours: Monday to Saturday, 9:00 am to 6:00 pm
Entry fee: € 17. € 21 if purchased online, which is recommended. On the last Sunday of each month, the Vatican Museums can be visited free of admission charge from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm. But it will likely be packed.
Pro tips: There's also a strict dress code at the Vatican -- no shorts, no hats, no bare shoulders. Be forewarned, if you're there in the summer, there's no air conditioning and it can feel suffocating.
How to get to the Vatican: The Vatican Museums are located on the west side of the Tiber River and on the northern edge of Vatican City. They can be accessed by foot, metro, or bus.
You can literally just walk right in. The metro stops are Ottaviano an Cipro. Or take bus #40 or 64. If you arrive at St. Peter's Basilica first, it's a 15 minute walk to get to the actual Vatican entrance.
I hope you've enjoyed my guide to Michelangelo's frescos in the Sistine Chapel. You may enjoy these other Rome travel and art guides:
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