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Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling: fun facts

Sistine Chapel

Michelangelo: the ever-interesting Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508-1512)

I’ve been to the Vatican a couple of times (Rome in the spring is amazing, in case you need someone to tell you where to go for a holiday in April or May) and each time I’ve stood in the Sistine Chapel looking up and ignoring the pain in my neck. As this is one of Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni’s (Michelangelo’s) masterpieces, painted between 1508 and 1512, you can find dense crowds of tourists there at any time. In case you didn’t know, there are a few lesser-known facts I’d like to tell you about.

He hated painting it
Apparently Michelangelo hated painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Not unthinkable conidering it measures 12,000 square feet. In one of the surviving pieces of paper he shows how difficult it is to paint above your head: having to reach all the way up and it hurts. On the same sheet he describes, in sonnet form, what he had to endure. Is it a bit of a 16th century tantrum?


“I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture, hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy (or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison). My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket, my breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush, above me all the time, dribbles paint so my face makes a fine floor for droppings! My haunches are grinding into my guts, my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight, every gesture I make is blind and aimless. My skin hangs loose below me, my spine’s all knotted from folding over itself. I’m bent taut as a Syrian bow. Because I’m stuck like this, my thoughts are crazy, perfidious tripe: anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe. My painting is dead. Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honour. I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.”


Preparatory work
For such a large commission he will have produced a large number of preparatory sketches. These varied from ideas for figural compositions, showing the bare minimum to convey the idea, to more detailed sketches, to life-sized cartoons which would be used to transfer the composition onto the plaster. Sadly not all studies for the ceiling have survived; Michelangelo is known to have burnt some of his work on at least two occasions, in 1518 and 1564. It is still not entirely clear why: were they not good enough to keep, did he not want to leave any work that made him look less than perfect?



Compositional sketch for “Judith and Holofernes”, ca. 1508, pen and ink. Teylers Museum, Haarlem
Studies for the Libyan Sibyl, ca. 1510-1511, red chalk. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Bulging muscles
Another interesting aspect about Michelangelo’s figures is that he painted exaggerated bulging muscles. Gian Paolo Lomazzo (1538-1592), and Italian artist and writer on art, writes that Michelangelo was keen to show his knowledge of anatomy but also sought to convey the idea that the bodies had been strengthened by Nature. Showing the figures on the ceiling as extra volumetric would have been a good idea too.

Jonah: manipulation of perspective
Jonah, Michelangelo

Jonah (image: Wikimedia commons)

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel has sloping parts and vaults. Michelangelo has painted some mindboggling illusions on the most sloping sections: a great example is his painting of Jonah. This part is best viewed when going through the large brown doors at the opposite end to where visitors currently enter the Chapel: this was the old entrance and, importantly, the viewpoint that Michelangelo had in mind for his work. As Agnes Crawford writes in her Understanding Rome blog (“Jonah, the lynchpin of the Sistine Chapel”): “Jonah is painted with his head thrown back and his legs hanging forward. His position is in direct contrast to the physical form of the vault on which he is painted: while Jonah leans back the ceiling curves towards us. Michelangelo’s manipulation of the perspective belies his study of and work in statuary; he paints like a sculptor.” What an amazing accomplishment: while Jonah leans back the ceiling curves towards us.

Communicating the masterpiece: the Michelangelo Crescendo
When visitors entered through the original entrance they would have been met with what is known as the ‘Michelangelo Crescendo’:  they were able to see the entire masterpiece in just one gaze. Michelangelo achieved this by careful design, painting a composition that was not uniform. In an academic article Peter Gillgren (The Michelangelo Crescendo, 2010) writes that the historical scenes close to the entrance side are crowded with small figures (the Prophets and the Sibyls) while the scenes further away, by the altar, contain only a few figures which are larger and more sculptural. This ‘tool’ allowed Michelangelo to communicate the work to his audience by conveying its meaning rather than its content.

“Michelangelo: the last decades” exhibition at the British Museum, 2 May – 28 July
I just noticed this morning that the British Museum in London will be exhibiting a number of his drawings: “Michelangelo: the last decades”, from 2 May until 28 July (British Museum). This exciting exhibition will show his drawings for The Last Judgment, painted on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel when he returned in 1536. Certainly worth a look if you’re in the area.

Further reading and references: