I never realized that one room could contain so many pieces of exquisite Renaissance Art until I visited the Sistine Chapel. Sure, when I walked through the rooms of the Uffizi, I was dazzled by works from Lippi, Boticelli, Da Vinci, and more. But, my enthusiasm was containable because there were sections of blank space separating the paintings. I could stand before Boticelli’s Birth of Venus breathless, and then resume my intake of oxygen as I strolled around the room’s perimeter before reaching his equally impressive Primavera canvas that would ultimately render me breathless again. In other words, I’d compensate for my art-imposed oxygen deprivation with an exaggerated inhale while preparing to see the next breath-taking painting.
In the Sistine Chapel, I did not have this luxury. Blank space was not an element of the Chapel’s design. Every square inch of the ceiling and walls was painted in elaborate detail by some of history’s most established artists. Walking around the Chapel’s interior, even after having been told of what to expect by our tour guide, was a truly incredible experience. And, thankfully, my body’s natural breathing response was functioning properly. I didn’t have the opportunity to monitor my own breathing for the fifteen minutes that I explored what is, in my opinion, one of the Renaissance’s most crowning achievements.
On the lateral walls of the Chapel, you can see a cycle of frescoes depicting, on the one side, the life cycle of Christ, and on the other, the life cycle of Moses. As I learned from our knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide, they were commissioned to display continuity and transition between the Old and New Testaments and were completed between 1481 and 1483. These pieces to the Chapel’s interior were the contributions of some of the period’s most famous painters. Perugino, Boticelli, and others took part in painting the large scenes on the upper portion of the walls. Every detail was meticulously portrayed in each of the subsequent paintings to tell some of the most important stories of the bible. To see the individual paintings in the cycle of frescoes, visit: http://mv.vatican.va/4_ES/pages/z-Patrons/MV_Patrons_05_01.html
Below these frescoes, on the bottom portion of the walls are elaborately detailed painted drapes. Though lacking in biblical interpretation and less significant to the overall schemes of the Chapel, I found them to be deserving of attention in their own right. The colors and shades created the illusion that the drapes were three-dimensional. While varying in colors from blues to reds, each segment of illustrated drapery was accented by painted gold threading, a detail that even further embellished their richness. Only in the Sistine Chapel would the collective impressiveness of these fresco-covered, drape-adorned walls be overlooked. While the paintings create an indescribably appealing canvas, Michelangelo’s ceiling and entrance wall are unbeatable competition for a Chapel visitor’s attention.
In 1508, Michelangelo began the four-year project of painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The center of his masterpiece consists of nine panels depicting the following scenes from the Book of Genesis: The Separation of Light from Dark, The Creation of Sun, Moon and Earth, The Separation of Land and Water, The Creation of Adam, The Creation of Eve, The Temptation, The Sacrifice of Noah, The Great Flood, and Noah’s Drunkenness. While each of the pieces is immaculately well-painted, The Creation of Adam is perhaps the most famous. I’d seen the image of God and Adam, their two hands almost meeting, but I never knew that it was a piece of such an expansive work of art!
|A Close-up of The Creation of Adam|
Surrounding the nine scenes, Michelangelo filled the rest of the ceiling with paintings of other biblical figures and stories, over 300 in fact. Looking at the completed project collectively, it’s clear that Michelangelo was also a genius sculptor. His painting looks, like the drapes below, three-dimensional. The columns and figures gracing the edges of the ceiling seem to extend outwards from the painting. It is incredible that his profound understanding of perspective translates into such a beautiful illusion.
In 1535, Michelangelo was asked to return for another project. This time, his objective was to paint the wall behind the altar. He did so on a grand scale with his renowned Last Judgment, a portrayal of the Apocalypse and the resurrection of Jesus. The bright-colored painting shows clear contrasts between heaven and hell, with souls being carried to heaven by angels and others being delivered to the devil by the mythological boatman Caron. Jesus’ features in the painting are said to have been inspired by Michelangelo’s study of two ancient Roman statues, one of which portrayed the God Apollo. Around Jesus are several martyrs, including St. Bartholomew who is holding his skinned flesh.
Being in his mid-sixties and, by this point, an acknowledged genius of the arts, Michelangelo was awarded a few liberties with this painting. For one, perhaps the most obvious, he combined Roman mythology with current catholic ideologies in his rendition of the second coming of Christ. Less obvious, but equally outside the boundaries of the catholic dogma, he included a reference to his own homosexuality with a pair of embracing men in the upper right portion of the wall. And, perhaps my favorite digression is that he uses the painting to personally attack his biggest critic, Baigio de Cesana. The clever Michelangelo paints this papal master of ceremonies as Minos, one of the judges of the Underworld. The man can be found in the lower right-hand corner of the painting with donkey ears and a serpent biting his man-parts. This, I believe, is a clear example of why the pen (or paintbrush) is mightier than the sword.
|Martyrs like St. Sebastian (with the arrows)|
|A Close-Up of Michelangelo's Critic as Minos|
While the Pope that commissioned Michelangelo’s work overlooked the artist’s freedoms with the Chapel decoration, some clergy members, like Baigio, found the nudity in his painting obscene. To render the painting less abrasive, Daniele de Volterra was later asked to cover the private parts of its characters with cloth. His profession of modifying paintings in this way earned him the nickname of “Il Braghettone”. This translates loosely to “The Panty Painter”.
Despite the arguments that Michelangelo’s use of nudity was inappropriate for a holy setting, there is no doubt that his contributions to the Sistine Chapel are among the most beautiful paintings in the world. Those, together with the paintings on the lateral walls make the papal chapel a true wonder. Throughout our tour, our guide kept referencing the survival of paintings and excavation of ruins as miracles. I found her word choice completely accurate wherever it was applied as I too found it incredible that I was able to see things from centuries and centuries ago. But, it was especially so as I walked through the Sistine Chapel. I looked up at a Moses fresco, down to the illusion of gorgeous drapes, up to Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, and over to his Last Judgment and I thought, this really is a miracle.