The Sistine Chapel ceiling

06.02.14: 539th anniversary of the birth of Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564).

Michelangelo, "Ceiling of Cappella Sistina" (1512)

Julius II’s decision to completely renovate the decoration of the Ceiling was probably due to the serious problems of a static nature that affected the Sistine Chapel from the earliest years of his pontificate (1503-1513). They must have been the result of the excavations carried out both to the north and to the south of the building for the construction of the Borgia Tower and for the new St. Peter’s. After a long crack had opened in the Ceiling in May 1504, Bramante, then the Palace architect, was charged with finding a solution and he fixed some tie rods in the area above the Chapel. However, the damage suffered by the old painting must have been such as to convince the pontiff to entrust Michelangelo with a new pictorial decoration. On 8 May 1508, the artist signed the contract which foresaw the painting of twelve apostles in the pendentives and ornamental motifs in the rest. Subsequently, at the request of Buonarotti himself, who considered the project to be a “poor thing”, the Pope gave him a new commission in which he left the full planning of the programme to the artist. It is however quite likely that for his creation the artist availed of the cooperation of the theologians of the papal court. Michelangelo placed nine Central stories illustrating episodes of the Genesis within a powerful painted architecture, with at their sides figures of Nudes, holding medallions with texts taken from the Book of Kings. At the base of the architectural structure twelve Prophets and Sibyls seated on monumental thrones are countered lower down by Christ’s forefathers, portrayed in the Webs and in the Lunettes (north wall, south wall, entrance wall). Finally, in the four corner Pendentives, the artist illustrated some episodes of the miraculous salvation of the people of Israel. Michelangelo completed the first half of the Ceiling, that is from the entrance wall to the Creation of Eve, in August 1510. The work must have been completed by 31 October 1512, as the Pope celebrated Mass in the Chapel on 1 November.

The eight webs contain frescoes of groups of figures that probably complete the series of the Ancestors of Christ of the lunettes below. There is however still some conflict in the opinion of the critics as to their precise identification.

The large spandrels placed in the corners of the ceiling narrate four episodes of the miraculous salvation of the people of Israel. These should be interpreted as prefigurations of the Messiah, because they testify as to the constant presence of God in the life of his people and the continuous renewal of the promise of Redemption. They are therefore junction points between the stories of the ceiling and those of the walls.

Prophets and Sibyls seated on monumental thrones are alternated along the long sides, while the short sides are dominated by the figures of Zachariah and, above the altar, of Jonah (Jonah 1,2), who has a pre-eminent position inasmuch as he is the prefiguration of Christ (Matthew 12,38-40; 16,1-4; Luke 11,29-30). The Prophets and Sibyls are identified by a text in the label below them and are those who were the first to sense the coming of the Redeemer. The Prophets and Sibyls therefore testify as to the continuous wait of mankind for the Redemption. The former did in fact foresee the coming of Christ for the people of Israel. The latter, although belonging to the pagan world, are represented here because of their prophetic gifts, in this way extending the wait for Redemption from the chosen people to all mankind.

The central part of the ceiling shows nine stories of the Genesis, divided into groups of three, relative to the origin of the universe, of man and of evil. The first three episodes (Separation of Light from Darkness: Genesis 1:1-5; Creation of the sun, moon and planets: Genesis 1:11-19; Separation of Land from Sea: Genesis 1,9-10) dominated by the figure of God, Creator of the Universe, are followed by those of the Creation of Adam (Genesis 1:26-27) and of Eve (Genesis 2:18-25), with the figures of man and woman in their nakedness, the symbol of innocence (Genesis 2:25) which will be lost with Original Sin (Genesis 3:1-13), shown in the next panel together with the resulting Banishment from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:22-24). The last three frescoes (The Sacrifice of Noah: Genesis 8:15-20, The Flood: Genesis 6:5-8,20, The Drunkenness of Noah: Genesis 9:20-27) show the fall of mankind and its rebirth with Noah, chosen by God as the only man to be saved for repopulating the earth after the Creator had decided to destroy every living creature in it because of human evil.

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