The High Renaissance


   

 
     
 Renaissance Art Map
   
         
     Michelangelo (Encyclopaedia Britannica)    
         
     Introduction    
     The middle years    
     The Medici Chapel    
     The last decades    
     Sistine Chapel    
     The Last Judgement    
     Drawings and Architectural works    
         
 
 

       

 
 


Michelangelo Buonarroti


Encyclopaedia Britannica



VIII



Sistine Chapel




papal chapel in the Vatican Palace that was erected in 1473–81 by the architect Giovanni dei Dolci for Pope Sixtus IV (hence its name). It is famous for its Renaissance frescoes by Michelangelo.

The Sistine Chapel is a rectangular brick building with six arched windows on each of the two main (or side) walls and a barrel-vaulted ceiling. The chapel's exterior is drab and unadorned, but its interior walls and ceiling are decorated with frescoes by many Florentine Renaissance masters. The frescoes on the side walls of the chapel were painted from 1481 to 1483. On the north wall are six frescoes depicting events from the life of Christ as painted by Perugino, Pinturicchio, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandajo, and Cosimo Rosselli. On the south wall are six other frescoes depicting events from the life of Moses by Perugino, Pinturicchio, Botticelli, Domenico and Benedetto Ghirlandajo, Rosselli, Luca Signorelli, and Bartolomeo della Gatta. Above these works, smaller frescoes between the windows depict various popes. For great ceremonial occasions the lowest portions of the side walls were covered with a series of tapestries depicting events from the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. These were designed by Raphael and woven in 1515–19 at Brussels.

The most important artworks in the chapel are the frescoes by Michelangelo on the ceiling and on the west wall behind the altar. The frescoes on the ceiling, collectively known as the Sistine Ceiling, were commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1508 and were painted by Michelangelo in the years from 1508 to 1512. They depict incidents and personages from the Old Testament. The “Last Judgment” fresco on the west wall was painted by Michelangelo for Pope Paul III in the period from 1534 to 1541. These two gigantic frescoes are among the greatest achievements of Western painting. A 10-year-long cleaning and restoration of the Sistine Ceiling completed in 1989 removed several centuries' accumulation of dirt, smoke, and varnish. Cleaning and restoration of the “Last Judgment” was completed in 1994.

As the pope's own chapel, the Sistine Chapel is the site of the principal papal ceremonies and is used by the Sacred College of Cardinals for their election of a new pope when there is a vacancy.

Pope Julius II's call to Michelangelo to come to Rome spelled an end to both of these Florentine projects. The Pope sought a tomb for which Michelangelo was to carve 40 large statues. Recent tombs had been increasingly grand, including those of two popes by the Florentine sculptor Antonio Pollaiuolo, those of the doges of Venice, and the one then in work for Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. Pope Julius had an ambitious imagination, parallel to Michelangelo's, but because of other projects, such as the new building of St. Peter's and his military campaigns, he evidently became disturbed soon by the cost. Michelangelo believed that Bramante, the equally prestigious architect at St. Peter's, had influenced the Pope to cut off his funds. He left Rome, but the Pope brought pressure on the city authorities of Florence to send him back. He was put to work on a colossal bronze statue of the Pope in his newly conquered city of Bologna (which the citizens pulled down soon after when they drove the papal army out) and then on the less expensive project of painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508-12).

The Sistine Chapel had great symbolic meaning for the papacy as the chief consecrated space in the Vatican, used for great ceremonies such as electing and inaugurating new popes. It already contained distinguished wall paintings, and Michelangelo was asked to add works for the relatively unimportant ceiling. Twelve Apostles were planned as the theme--ceilings normally showed only individual figures, not dramatic scenes. Traces of this project are seen in the 12 large figures that Michelangelo produced: seven prophets and five sibyls, or female prophets found in classical myths. The inclusion of female figures was very unusual though not totally unprecedented. Michelangelo placed these figures around the edges of the ceiling and filled the central spine of the long curved surface with nine scenes from Genesis: three of them depicting the creation of the world, three the stories of Adam and Eve, and three the stories of Noah. These are naturally followed, below the prophets and sibyls, by small figures of the 40 generations of Christ's ancestors, starting with Abraham. The vast project was completed in less than four years; there was an interruption perhaps of a year in 1510-11 when no payment was made.

The work began at the end, with the Noah scenes placed over the entrance door, and moved toward the altar in the direction opposite to that of the sequence of the stories. The first figures and scenes naturally show the artist reusing devices from his earlier works, such as the Pieta, since he was starting on such an ambitious work in an unfamiliar medium. These first figures are relatively stable, and the scenes are on a relatively small scale. As he proceeded, he quickly grew in confidence. Indeed, recent investigations of the technical processes used show that he worked more and more rapidly, reducing and finally eliminating such preparatory helps as complete drawings and incisions on the plaster surface. The same growing boldness appears in the free, complex movements of the figures and in their complex expressiveness. While remaining always imposing and monumental, they are more and more imbued with suggestions of stress and grief. This may be perceived in a figure such as the prophet Ezekiel halfway along. This figure combines colossal strength and weight with movement and facial expression that suggest determination to reach a goal that is uncertain of success. Such an image of the inadequacy of even great power is a presentation of heroic and tragic humanity and is central to what Michelangelo means to posterity. Nearby the scene of the creation of Eve shows her with God and Adam, compressed within too small a space for their grandeur. This tension has been interpreted as a token of a movement away from the Renaissance concern with harmony, pointing the way for a younger generation of artists like Pontormo, often labeled Mannerists. Michelangelo's work on the ceiling was interrupted, perhaps just after these figures were completed. When he painted the second half, he seemed to repeat the same evolution from quiet stability to intricacy and stress. Thus he worked his way from the quietly monumental and harmonious scene of the creation of Adam  to the acute, twisted pressures of the prophet Jonah. Yet in this second phase he shows greater inward expressiveness, giving a more meditative restraint to the earlier pure physical mass.

In 1534 Michelangelo returned after a quarter century to fresco painting, executing for the new pope, Paul III, the huge "Last Judgment" for the end wall of the Sistine Chapel. This theme had been a favoured one for large end walls of churches in Italy in the Middle Ages and up to about 1500, but thereafter it had gone out of fashion. It is often suggested that this renewal of a devout tradition came from the same impulses that were then leading to the Counter-Reformation under the aegis of Paul III. The work is in a painting style noticeably different from that of 25 years earlier. The pervasive colour harmony is a simple one of brown bodies against dark blue sky. The figures have less energy and their forms are less articulate, the torsos tending to be single fleshy masses without waistlines. At the top centre Christ as judge lifts an arm to save those on his right and drops the other arm to damn those on his left, suggesting in the idiom of the period a scale to weigh men in the balance. The saved souls rise slowly through the heavy air, as the damned ones sink. At the bottom of the wall skeletons rise from tombs, a motif taken directly from medieval precedents. To the right Charon ferries souls across the River Styx, a pagan motif which Dante had made acceptable to Christians in his Divine Comedy and which had been introduced into painting about 1500 by the Umbrian artist Signorelli. Michelangelo admired this artist for his skill in expressing dramatic feeling through anatomical exactitude.

 
 
 
 


Sistine Chapel

papal chapel in the Vatican Palace that was erected in 1473–81 by the architect Giovanni dei Dolci for Pope Sixtus IV (hence its name). It is famous for its Renaissance frescoes by Michelangelo.

The Sistine Chapel is a rectangular brick building with six arched windows on each of the two main (or side) walls and a barrel-vaulted ceiling. The chapel's exterior is drab and unadorned, but its interior walls and ceiling are decorated with frescoes by many Florentine Renaissance masters. The frescoes on the side walls of the chapel were painted from 1481 to 1483. On the north wall are six frescoes depicting events from the life of Christ as painted by Perugino, Pinturicchio, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandajo, and Cosimo Rosselli. On the south wall are six other frescoes depicting events from the life of Moses by Perugino, Pinturicchio, Botticelli, Domenico and Benedetto Ghirlandajo, Rosselli, Luca Signorelli, and Bartolomeo della Gatta. Above these works, smaller frescoes between the windows depict various popes. For great ceremonial occasions the lowest portions of the side walls were covered with a series of tapestries depicting events from the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. These were designed by Raphael and woven in 1515–19 at Brussels.

The most important artworks in the chapel are the frescoes by Michelangelo on the ceiling and on the west wall behind the altar. The frescoes on the ceiling, collectively known as the Sistine Ceiling, were commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1508 and were painted by Michelangelo in the years from 1508 to 1512. They depict incidents and personages from the Old Testament. The “Last Judgment” fresco on the west wall was painted by Michelangelo for Pope Paul III in the period from 1534 to 1541. These two gigantic frescoes are among the greatest achievements of Western painting. A 10-year-long cleaning and restoration of the Sistine Ceiling completed in 1989 removed several centuries' accumulation of dirt, smoke, and varnish. Cleaning and restoration of the “Last Judgment” was completed in 1994.

As the pope's own chapel, the Sistine Chapel is the site of the principal papal ceremonies and is used by the Sacred College of Cardinals for their election of a new pope when there is a vacancy.
 


Exterior of the Sistine Chapel
1475-83
Cappella Sistina, Vatican


 


Interior of the Sistine Chapel

1475-83, 1508-12
Cappella Sistina, Vatican
 

 


Interior of the Sistine Chapel

1475-83, 1508-12, 1535-41
Cappella Sistina, Vatican
 
 

The ceiling

1508-12
Fresco
Cappella Sistina, Vatican
 
 

The ceiling
(detail)
1508-12
Fresco
Cappella Sistina, Vatican
 
 

The ceiling
(detail)
1508-12
Fresco
Cappella Sistina, Vatican
 
 

The ceiling
(detail)
1508-12
Fresco
Cappella Sistina, Vatican
 
 

The ceiling
(detail)
1508-12
Fresco
Cappella Sistina, Vatican

 

The ceiling
(detail)
1508-12
Fresco
Cappella Sistina, Vatican
 

Detail of the wall decoration

1475-83, 1508-12
Fresco
Cappella Sistina, Vatican
 

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