Nov 1 1512, Sistine Chapel Ceiling Floors the Public

Michelangelo's signature

He was the superstar of the High Renaissance as an artist. He was above all a sculptor. He painted but had little regard for painting. Accomplished in architecture. Wrote poetry. Yet it is the 5000 sq. ft. of fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel that is ‘regarded as one of the major artistic accomplishments of human civilization’.

On 1 November 1512, Michelangelo stunned and changed the course of western art with the first public viewing of the ceiling. He had kept his progress on the work a secret, no one knew what to expect so the impact must have been tremendous. This is a very brief primer including the artist and attitude, a schematic, a sonnet written by Michelangelo with a cartoon, my experience, the prophets and sibyls, a Khan Academy video, mixed in are the usual multitude of images.

A sculptor’s vision in the weighty rendering of human forms, architectural elements, and biblical scenes on a flat surface in which each element seems to truly have mass, to occupy and immerge from space.   A vibrant coiling expanse dense with life, color, and a narrative realism, that had never been seen before.  A monumental project that he did not want to do.  He was foremost a master sculptor but had been commissioned, coerced, to paint by his patron Pope Julius II.  In 1508, he began a 4-year intensely arduous labor of love to glorify God.  Kept from his true passion of sculpting which he had described as a process to ‘liberate’ the human forms that ‘spoke’ to him from within slabs of marble.  Devoted to an overwhelming project he suspected that he had been put up to fail.  The result was an indescribably magnificent masterpiece for the ages.

Khan Academy video

My Visit

Decades ago I lived in the countryside near Rome for only a year between high school and university.  I still regret leaving Italy.  While in high school I had been taking college classes at the local university for no credits so they were cheap and no pressure.  I anxious to leave high school behind.  I finished high school in December of my senior year.  I was a brat wasting time refusing college for art school. But I’d made no effort to go to either one after high school.  I’d long wanted to go to Italy, since I was 8, I had an older sister had gone to Rome in college and simply didn’t come back.   My parents hated my time wasting and boyfriend so much that they sent me to Italy to my sister.  We had no money but it was fantastic!  We’d go to Rome, wander the streets into chapels or hop a city transport to places just to see and be.  My sister gave me lectures as we walked, I wrote about what I’d seen and learned.

I was taken to Rome to the Vatican by an Italian boyfriend who spoke no English, I didn’t speak Italian. Fun!   The Vatican is massive and my boyfriend was bored so I rushed us thru to the Sistine Chapel before we left.  I was captivated, thrilled, and disappointed.  The ceiling is very high and before the cleaning three colors were dim.  Still it was magnificent.  I laid on my back on the floor to stare at it for a while.  I didn’t care about the crowd of people, they didn’t care about me.  Do not lay on the floor of the Sistine Chapel.  I was rushed by a policeman who being Italian was very excited.  “Ma signorina!  Che fai?!  Non stare cosi…etc etc etc etc.  And he helped me off the floor and continued to explain something to me.  I was amused because excitable Italians are entertaining.  Boyfriend was not amused.  It was all so grand until he told me as we left…”L’odio musei” “I hate museums”.  How could anyone walk out of the Vatican and say that?!


Below: Detail views and bays… Images get are not in proper order in this section, I’m on an iPad and I’ve run out of steam!  I’ll publish then finish.


The Artist

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni was an Italian sculptor, painter, architect, and poet of the High Renaissance born in the Republic of Florence, who exerted an unparalleled influence on the development of Western art. Considered to be the greatest living artist during his lifetime, he has since been described as one of the greatest artists of all time. Despite making few forays beyond the arts, his versatility in the disciplines he took up was of such a high order that he is often considered a contender for the title of the archetypal Renaissance man, along with his rival and fellow Florentine Medici client, Leonardo da Vinci.  ~wiki/EncBrit


The Labor

Michelangelo penned a sonnet to describe his tortured body painting the Sistine Chapel.  The poem has a cartoon he drew of himself painting God.

My beard turns up to heaven; my nape falls in,
Fixed on my spine: my breast-bone visibly
Grows like a harp: a rich embroidery
Bedews my face from brush-drops thick and thin.

My loins into my paunch like levers grind:
My buttock like a crupper bears my weight;
My feet unguided wander to and fro;

In front my skin grows loose and long; behind,
By bending it becomes more taut and strait;
Crosswise I strain me like a Syrian bow:
Whence false and quaint, I know,
Must be the fruit of squinting brain and eye;
For ill can aim the gun that bends awry.

Come then, Giovanni, try
To succour my dead pictures and my fame;
Since foul I fare and painting is my shame.  ~Michelangelo



Above: “God divides light from darkness” was painted in a single day.  It is a self-portrait of the standing position with arms raised that Michelangelo maintained while painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Below: schematic for the entire Sistine Chapel ceiling and more detail views.



Prophets and Sibyls

Michelangelo’s Prophets and Sibyls painted in the Sistine Chapel are commanding works of art in their own right. These figures, are the largest on the Vault of the Chapel.

Around the center of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are twelve prophetic figures all representing the coming of Christ. Seven of these are Israeli Prophets, and the remaining five are the female Sibyls of the Classical World. The alternating male and female figures are seated on thrones and are depicted reading manuscripts, books or scrolls.

The pagan Sibyls have been included to symbolize that the Messiah was to come for all the people of the world and not just the Jews.

They are:- Jonah, Jeremiah, Persian Sibyl, Ezekiel, Erythraean Sibyl, Joel, Zechariah, Delphic Sibyl, Isaiah, Cumaean Sibyl, Daniel, Libyan Sibyl.

Source: text taken from ~

Below: images need labels

Daniel before and after cleaning: