Great Artists of the Italian Renaissance
The Sistine Chapel ceiling, painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512, is a cornerstone work of High Renaissance art. The ceiling is that of the large Papal Chapel built within the Vatican between 1477 and 1480 by Pope Sixtus IV after whom it is named, and was painted at the commission of Pope Julius II. The chapel is the location for Papal Conclaves and many important services.
The ceiling's various painted elements form part of a larger scheme of decoration within the Chapel, which includes the large fresco The Last Judgment on the sanctuary wall, also by Michelangelo, wall paintings by several leading painters of the late 15th century including Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Pietro Perugino, and a set of large tapestries by Raphael, the whole illustrating much of the doctrine of the Catholic Church.
Central to the ceiling decoration are nine scenes from the Book of Genesis of which the Creation of Adam is the best known, having an iconic standing equalled only by Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, the hands of God and Adam being reproduced in countless imitations. The complex design includes several sets of individual figures, both clothed and nude, which allowed Michelangelo to fully demonstrate his skill in creating a huge variety of poses for the human figure, and have provided an enormously influential pattern book of models for other artists ever since.
Pope Julius II was a "warrior pope" who in his papacy undertook an aggressive campaign for political control, to unite and empower Italy under the leadership of the Church. He invested in symbolism to display his temporal power such as his procession, in the Classical manner, through a triumphal arch in a chariot after one of his many military victories. It was Julius who began the rebuilding of St. Peter's Basilica in 1506, as the most potent symbol of the source of papal power.
In the same year, 1506, Julius II conceived a program to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The walls of the chapel had been decorated twenty years earlier. The lowest of three levels is painted to resemble draped hangings, and was (and sometimes still is) hung on special occasions with the set of tapestries designed by Raphael. The middle level contains a complex scheme of frescoes illustrating the Life of Christ on the right side and the Life of Moses on the left side. It was carried out by some of the most renowned Renaissance painters: Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Pinturicchio, Signorelli and Cosimo Rosselli. The upper level of the walls contains the windows, between which are painted pairs of illusionistic niches with representations of the first thirty-two popes. A draft by Matteo d'Amelia indicates that the ceiling was painted blue like that of the Arena Chapel and decorated with gold stars, possibly representing the zodiacal constellations. It is probable that because the chapel was the site of regular meetings and Masses of an elite body of officials known as the Papal Chapel who would observe the decorations and interpret their theological and temporal significance, it was Pope Julius' intention and expectation that the iconography of the ceiling was to be read with many layers of meaning.
Michelangelo, who was not primarily a painter but a sculptor, was reluctant to take on the work. Also, he was occupied with a very large sculptural commission for the Pope's own tomb. The Pope was adamant, leaving Michelangelo no choice but to accept. But a war with the French broke out, diverting the attention of the Pope, and Michelangelo fled from Rome to continue sculpting. The tomb sculptures, however, were never to be finished because in 1508 the Pope returned to Rome victorious and summoned Michelangelo to begin work on the ceiling. The contract was signed on 10 May 1508.
The scheme proposed by the pope was for twelve large figures of the Apostles to occupy the pendentives. However Michelangelo negotiated for a grander, much more complex scheme and was finally permitted, in his own words, "to do as I liked". His scheme for the ceiling eventually comprised some three hundred figures and took four years to execute, being completed in 1512. It is unknown and is the subject of much speculation among art historians as to whether Michelangelo was really able to "do as he liked". It has been suggested that Egidio da Viterbo was a consultant for the Theology. Many writers consider that Michelangelo had the intellect, the Biblical knowledge and the powers of invention to have devised the scheme himself. This is supported by Condivi's statement that Michelangelo read and reread the Old Testament while he was painting the ceiling, drawing his inspiration from the words of the scripture, rather than from the established traditions of sacral art. There was a total of 343 figures painted on the ceiling.