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When discussing the Sistine Chapel, the most influential room of High Renaissance art, there are countless directions with which to begin. And as Sheena Iyengar has presented multiple times in the scientific literature, sometimes having too many choices can hinder us from making one at all. I had a difficult time starting this essay! That will reoccur a lot in the upcoming months, I’m sure, especially when I talk about the David or the Pietà. I figured I’d start first by overriding a misconception some have about the Chapel.

Who Painted It?

The most famous frescoes in the Chapel, the ones that draw most of the 25,000 people who pass through it each day, are Michelangelo’s works on the ceiling and The Last Judgment, a fresco on the front-facing wall. But he was not the only contributor to the design of the room. Before Michelangelo painted the ceiling, it featured a depiction of the night sky by Piero Matteo d’Amelia. The design of this has been lost to history, superceded by Michelangelo’s later masterpiece where it once remained. However, it was inspired by the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, albeit lacking the constellations which d’Amelia later included.

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The side walls of the Chapel, with the exception of the Ancestors of Christ which Michelangelo painted, were completed by other renowned artists. These two major pieces, The Life of Moses and The Life of Jesus, were completed by Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Pugino, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Roselli.

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The Life of Moses

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These don’t immediately draw your eye when you walk inside (they’re on the side wall, after all) but they contain a great amount of complexity upon close inspection.

Further Background

I spoke about the commission of the Chapel ceiling briefly in Michelangelo’s biography in the post on Doni Tondo. But there’s more to the narrative. Pope Julius II was a militant Pope, looking to control the nation-states of Italy through the influence of the Vatican. He was militant in that he secured alliances with France and the Holy Roman Empire to conquer Romagna, which was then occupied by Venice. He himself led troops into battle to overthrow the despots in Perugia and Bologna.

He was also committed to overseeing the complete reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica, and by fostering the Christian arts in its walls and passageways. He commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling in 1508, and was later commissioned by Pope Clement VII to paint The Last Judgment in 1536. The Last Judgment was originally intended to depict the resurrection at the time of its commission, but was later revised by Pope Paul III to show Christ’s final judgment on man (which Paul thought would be a more important message for Rome at the time).

Despite the popular conception, Michelangelo did not paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel on his back. The chapel had a platform which Michelangelo walked on when he worked, standing on his tiptoes and painting large enough for a viewer to see below. Historical sources have noted that Michelangelo was completely absorbed in his work when painting the ceiling. He would refuse food and drink when asked, working late into the night and waking up early to continue where he left off.

The Ceiling

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The ceiling was Michelangelo’s first commissioned work in the Sistine Chapel. What’s fascinating about the work is the fact that it can be moved into either a temple or mosque, given its roots in the Old Testament, though there’d be significant difficulty in the aniconic nature of both religions with Michelangelo’s depiction of God [Exodus 20:3-4 ; al-Qiyaamah 75:22-23, ar-Radd ‘alal-Jahmiyyah, pg. 57].

Just as the side walls are divided into three-section panels, so too is the ceiling. Michelangelo relayed stories from the Old Testament, with three central themes: The Creation of the Heavens and the Earth, The Story of Adam and Eve, and The Story of Noah. These themes consist of three panels each.

Separation from Light from Darkness

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Although first in the story, this is one of the last paintings Michelangelo completed for the ceiling. There are some interesting details to note.

If you look carefully, you can see a nebulous, obscuring figure, probably a cloud, blocking God’s vision. This presents a theological message, that God’s creation was centralized in his mind, not what he could “see.” The second point is the ignudi, the four nude male figures present not only in this panel but in most others too. The lighting on these figures is different, with one side being well lit and the other in shadow. Like in the Doni Tondo, there has been intense speculation on the meaning of these nude figures. One theory, a prominent one, calls attention to the ignudo by God’s right hand. It appears to be awakening from a deep sleep. This further details the association between light and creation.

And look at God’s chest. Michelangelo intentionally painted Him this way, with a large chest, to embody both classically masculine characteristics as well as reveal a certain femininity in the Divine.

Creation of the Heavenly Bodies

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This fresco is a beautiful example of subtle movement in painting. The right half of the painting has God creating the Moon in his left hand, and creating the sun with his right finger. Note, too, that this same finger will later create Adam, drawing a tie between the life-giving nature of the sun and of man. In the left half God is moving away, using his right hand to create the plants of the Earth.

While much has been interpreted from Michelangelo showing God’s rear, arguing that this was a subtle jab at the Vatican for commissioning him for this work and his disdain for the ideas involved, there is little evidence that Michelangelo despised either the Church (though he had qualms with some Popes) or for Roman Catholicism. Most likely, this was his way of humanizing the divine in a moment that many would find embarrassing.

Separation of Land and Water

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With God’s left hand, he creates the water, and with his hand pointed ahead, he creates what appears in the foreground. In this panel each of the ignudi are awake.

The Creation of Adam

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The Creation of Adam, and da Vinci’s Last Supper are the most widely reproduced religious paintings of all time. Since it’s so popular, there is an abundant amount of popular interpretation as to what Michelangelo intended. In some cases, we cannot know for sure. People have written dissertations on just the green cloth alone! There are certain meanings which Michelangelo intended, which we can speak of confidently. But the others, each fascinating in their own right, I will present with an appropriate tentativeness.

Here’s what we can say assuredly. The pose of God and of Adam are symmetrical, each extending outward in the exact same manner (we know this based on sketches Michelangelo had which are essentially mirrored). This represents man being created in the image and likeness of God, and man’s intention for sharing this commonality. We can tell from their respective gazes of God’s determination in this aspect of creation, which He had possessed in each panel thus far, and man’s longing for the divine. The fingers don’t touch. While this painting is meant to capture moving figures, evident by the cloth covering God, this also represents a theological message on the divide between the eternal and the contingent, and how man’s longing doesn’t always result in divine contact.

Here’s where it gets interpretive. Wrapped around God’s left arm is a female figure, who is staring at Adam with interest. This woman has been hypothesized to be either Eve, the Virgin Mary, or Sophia, the abstract idea of the female soul. Many art historians and critics argue that it’s most likely Eve, she being the embodiment of Sophia, but we don’t know with certainty who this figure is.

Notice that while the outstretching is symmetrical, the hands and general pose are different. While God is reaching out with his right hand, Adam is extending his left. The use of the left hand, at the time, was regarded with immediate suspicion. The preference toward right-handedness is still present in some places today, in fact. Left, in Italian, is termed sinistra, originating from the Latin for sinister. There’s a famous saying in the Bible to not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, even though the Bible does not explicitly endorse right-handedness over left-handedness. There was suspicion of those who used their left hand, and Michelangelo may have intended to foreshadow the Fall by having Adam stretch toward God with his left hand.

And what shape is God embodying here? There are two theories, one more popularly accepted than the other. The idea accepted less often is that the shape is a uterine mantle, that God appears in a shape associated with birth. The green cloth represents the umbilical cord, thus accounting for Adam’s famed belly button. The more popularly accepted notion (which doesn’t automatically render it truthful) is that God appears in the shape of a human brain. This is corroborated by the outlines in the shape, which correlate very well with the brain’s major areas. The most easily recognized one of these by most of us is the brain stem, which is visible in the very back. Remember too that Michelangelo had anatomical training in the time before he sculpted a Crucifix for San Lorenzo, so this can be argued for both interpretations. He had knowledge of what a uterine mantle and a human brain would look like. It is more likely, however, that he had encountered more brains than uterine mantles due to the greater likelihood of working on men for autopsy.

Combining views into this piece, the popularly accepted theory is that the shape represents a human brain, and the woman is Eve. The meaning from this is profound; Eve was in the mind of God as He was creating Adam. But to reiterate, these are interpretations that are not as robust as other ones in the painting.

The Creation of Eve

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We see similar themes to other ignudi, who appear even brighter here, and God using his right hand to create. Eve leans toward Him with her whole body, while Adam is in contraposto in the shadows away from Him, making Eve the central figure in the piece.

The Fall of Man and the Expulsion from Paradise

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This painting, like the Creation of the Heavenly Bodies, captures two moments in time. The first left half shows Satan as a human-snake figure, giving Eve the Forbidden Fruit which she takes with her left hand. This moment is in shadow, representing this dark moment in human history. On the right, Adam and Eve appear older and more ugly, being banished from the Garden following their choice. God is deliberately absent in this painting, embodying the lack of the divine at this dark period, and his abandonment after their decision.

The Sacrifice of Noah

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Noah appears in the middle, right hand raised. Next to him is his wife, who is overseeing the offering. This is a rather straightforward, classical depiction of a sacrificial offering. This painting would be an inspiration for Jacques-Louis David’s 1787 painting The Death of Socrates.

The Deluge

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This painting contains more than 60 figures. What’s impressive about such a high number of figures is that they do not distract. The number, in fact, provides substantial insight into the mayhem of the Great Flood. One person is trying to climb a tree to avoid the overcrowding on the small patch of land survivors are flocking toward, and as solace from the rising waters. Notice, too, the drowned man on the right side of the painting, and his friend carrying his body from the water. Here, too, God is deliberately withheld from the painting, amplifying the hopelessness of the situation.

The Drunkenness of Noah

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This scene takes place in a vineyard, with the Beloved of God working in the field, and Noah laying on the ground in a drunken state. This is a another straightforward painting, whose meaning is strongly based in the Biblical text,

Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s naked body. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father naked.

The Last Judgment

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As breathtaking as this fresco is, even more so at the time of its creation, it was met with strong criticism by some. Michelangelo’s brilliance and his later style warranted praise by many, even those who disliked this piece. The high number of nude figures, however, was pretty controversial. Biagio de Cesena, the Pope’s Master of Ceremonies at the time, complained, “it was mostly disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully.” This piece, while beautiful, did not belong in a chapel, instead it better belonged to “the public baths and taverns.” Michelangelo, upon hearing this, returned to the work and changed the face of Minos (presider of the Underworld in Ovid’s Metamorphoses) to Biagio, giving him donkey ears (symbolic of foolishness, “jackassery”) and wrapped his body in a coiled snake. This can be seen at the bottom right of the fresco. When word spread about this, and Biagio ran to the Pope to remove his face from the painting, the Pope reportedly laughed and said that he did not have jurisdiction over Hell.

The Council of Trent later agreed with Biagio, decreeing that from then on (after 1563) that no nudity should exist in religious art. Acting upon this, many nude figures in this piece had their private areas covered to hide their nudity, a movement later referred to as the Fig Leaf Campaign. The Catholic Church eventually found this to be too extreme, later contending that the naked body is a beautiful gift from God, not something that ought to hidden as if it were shameful. The Final Judgment was renovated from 1980-1994. Best of all, hilarious in my opinion, was a new discovery that emerged from this restoration. After the fig leaf was removed from Minos’s body, restorationists discovered that the snake was biting Biagio somewhere down south.

I hope this gave you more insight into a truly revolutionary room of Renaissance art. I hope too, if you haven’t had the opportunity, that you visit this chapel someday. If you cannot, here is a 360 view of the Sistine Chapel (minus all the crammed tourists). Breathtaking is the only appropriate word, yet still doesn’t capture the experience completely.

See you next week!

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