Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City is one of the most visited chapels in the world due to its impressive fresco paintings by the Renaissance painter Michelangelo Buonarroti (1474-1564). In 1505 Pope Julius II (1443-1513) asked Michelangelo to paint the ceiling, which at 68ft high was a daunting task. Initially, Michelangelo refused. He wanted to be known as a sculptor rather than a painter but eventually agreed to the job in 1508. For four years, Michelangelo stood on high platforms, painting the ceiling above his head with Biblical scenes and characters. After completion, Michelangelo happily returned to his sculptures, only returning to the chapel to paint a fresco above the altar in 1536.

For a limited time, people in London can see a life-sized, close-up of Michelangelo’s paintings. Those who have visited the Sistine Chapel will know that it is impossible to study the ceiling in detail because of the height of the building. This unique exhibition brings copies of the paintings down to ground level, where visitors can appreciate them for their unique features and grandeur. Located at the Cannon Factory near Tottenham Hale, London, the COVID-safe experience provides a never-before-seen perspective of Michelangelo’s timeless masterpieces.

The central section of the ceiling is made up of nine paintings depicting scenes from the Book of Genesis. Whilst they are not in chronological order, the paintings are grouped into three themes: Creation, Downfall, and Fate of Humanity. The exhibition positioned the paintings in the order they appear when entering the chapel, meaning the Book of Genesis appears to read backwards. Some historians suggest Michelangelo chose to paint them in this order to symbolise a return to a state of grace as people approach the altar.

The first three ceiling panels closest to the entrance of the chapel (and exhibition) tell the story of Noah, from the sixth to ninth chapters of Genesis. Noah was the 10th and final patriarch of the Bible before the Great Flood. God wanted to return the Earth to “its pre-creation state of watery chaos and then remake it in a reversal of creation.” All except Noah and his family were corrupt and violent, so God instructed Noah to build an Ark to save themselves and two of every animal from the oncoming deluge.

The scene nearest the door depicts Noah after the flood. According to Genesis 9, Noah grew drunk on the wine produced from the newly cultivated vines. As a result, he passed out and exposed his nakedness. Two of his sons, Shem and Japheth, discreetly covered their father with a cloak to protect his modesty. Ham, the third son, mocked his father instead. When Noah found out about this, he cursed Ham, saying that Ham’s descendants would serve Shem and Japheth’s descendants forever. Some Christian theologians interpret Ham’s mockery of Noah as a projection of the mockery of Jesus in the New Testament.

The second panel concerning Noah depicts the Great Flood, which is the largest punishment God inflicted on man. After instructing Noah to build an Ark, God sent 40 days of rain to flood the earth, destroying all life in the process. Michelangelo’s painting illustrates the onset of the flood. Noah’s ark is floating away in the background, where a single white dove sits in one of the hatches. Noah later sent out the dove to search for land, and it returned holding an olive branch. Since then, the dove has symbolised peace and hope. While Noah and his family sail away, the people in the foreground frantically search in vain for shelter as the flood levels rise.

The third scene comes chronologically after the flood but before the drunkenness of Noah. When Noah and his family eventually found land, the first thing Noah did was build an altar and sacrifice some of the animals to the Lord. Seeing this, God said, “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.” Christian Theologians suggest all three panels forecast events of the New Testament – the mockery of Christ (Noah’s drunkenness), baptism (Great Flood), and Christ’s death on the cross (Noah’s sacrifice).

The second group of paintings tell the story of Adam and Eve, from their creation until their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. When approaching the middle of the chapel from the entrance, the first panel is the last chronologically and combines two scenes: the fall of man and the expulsion from paradise. On the left-hand side, Eve reaches up to take the fruit of knowledge from the serpent. When God created the first man and woman, He told them they could eat the fruit of any trees, except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. By accepting the fruit from the serpent, depicted as Lilith, Eve is going against God’s will. According to Genesis 3, Eve gave some of the fruit to Adam, but in Michelangelo’s depiction, Adam reached out to take the fruit from the tree. Most Western Christian artists use an apple tree to symbolise the forbidden fruit, but Michelangelo chose a fig tree instead.

On the right-hand side, the archangel Michael expels Adam and Eve from Eden. His sword represents the flaming sword that prevented the couple from returning to the garden. Michael is not mentioned in the account in Genesis, but Michelangelo included the angel to emphasise the man and woman were banished from the presence of God. Adam and Eve were forced to fend for themselves and eventually die in the wilderness.

In the centre of the chapel ceiling is a panel depicting the creation of Eve. Due to its position, the composition is smaller than the rest of the scenes from Genesis. Using inspiration from paintings by other Italian artists, Michelangelo portrayed Adam in a deep sleep, whilst Eve stands up and reaches towards her God and creator, who Michelangelo represents as an elderly man. According to Genesis 2:21-22, “God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.”

The third scene in the Adam and Eve story is perhaps the most famous painting in the Sistine chapel and art history. Once again, God is depicted as an elderly man, who reaches out to touch Adam to impart the spark of life. Surrounding God are twelve figures about whose identities are often argued. The woman under God’s left arm is generally accepted as Eve due to her resemblance to Eve in Michelangelo’s other paintings and her gaze toward Adam.

Christian theologians have analysed The Creation of Adam in great depth. As a sculptor, Michelangelo was familiar with human anatomy. When discussing the painting in a medical journal, someone pointed out that the proportions of Adam’s torso were slightly off to encompass an extra rib – the rib God later used to create Eve. Others suggest the red cloak surrounding God represents the human womb and the twelve figures, the future human race. Another medical hypothesis concerns the shape of God’s head in comparison to Adam’s smoother brow. The shape of the head Michelangelo gave God is more anatomically accurate to house a brain. This means Adam, who had not yet eaten from the tree of knowledge, did not have a fully formed brain.

The last three scenes before reaching the altar come from the first chapter of Genesis, during which God created the world in six days. In the first painting, Michelangelo depicts God breaking through the background to represent the separation of the waters from the heavens – the second day of creation. The movement of God’s body and his outstretched hands suggest His elemental powers and strength.

The next scene illustrates days three and four of creation. On the left, God faces away from the viewer, pointing His hand towards some green plants. On the third day, God created dry land and commanded, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” On the right, God’s outstretched arms point towards the sun and moon, which He placed in the sky on the fourth day “to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years.” The way Michelangelo paints God’s robe and hair suggest God is moving at speed across the sky.

Despite being the last scene displayed on the ceiling, the final painting depicts the first stage of the creation narrative. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day’, and the darkness he called ‘night’.” Michelangelo depicts God from below amidst swirling black and white clouds to demonstrate the separation of night and day. Some theologians liken the image to the Last Judgement, with the light representing God’s chosen people and the dark, the condemned.

As well as the nine scenes from Genesis, the Sistine Chapel ceiling contains pendentives (triangular sections) featuring figures from the Bible and mythology. Twelve of these are categorised as prophetic figures, twelve people who prophesied the coming of a Messiah. Seven are male prophets from the Bible, and the remaining five are female prophetesses or Sibyls from classical mythology.

Above the altar sits Jonah, a reluctant prophet famously swallowed by a large fish. Some Bible scholars believe the Book of Jonah is fictional, but whether it is a story or not, Jonah is considered a foreshadowing of Christ. Between the crucifixion of Jesus and his resurrection, He spent three days in the tomb. This is the same length of time that Jonah spent in the belly of the fish. Michelangelo includes the image of a large fish beside the sitting figure of Jonah, although it does not look large enough to swallow a man whole.

The prophet Jeremiah sits on the left side of the altar with his head bowed in anguished meditation. Known as the “weeping prophet”, Jeremiah was called by God to proclaim Jerusalem’s coming destruction. According to Jewish tradition, Jeremiah wrote the Book of Jeremiah, the Books of Kings and the Book of Lamentations. The latter is a collection of his laments for the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Michelangelo captures Jeremiah’s emotional pain and reflects the same emotions in the two figures standing behind the prophet. It is suggested that Jeremiah is a self-portrait of Michelangelo lamenting his fate as a painter when he would rather earn a reputation as a sculptor.

Michelangelo depicts the prophet Ezekiel as an elderly man. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, but he also spoke of the restoration of the land of Israel. The figure of Ezekiel twists in his seat to look at a smaller figure, who is pointing upwards, either towards God or at the painting of the fall of man. Art historians suggest Ezekiel’s open hand demonstrates his amazement and readiness to receive a message from God.

Joel is also represented as an elderly man. The prophet is only mentioned once by name in the Hebrew Bible, in the introduction to the Book of Joel. No one knows for sure when Joel lived and what events he witnessed. In his writings, Joel told people to repent of their sins and promised their safety on “the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” Michelangelo painted Joel with his brow furrowed as he concentrates on his words of wisdom. Some believe Michelangelo based the prophet’s face on the Italian architect Donato Bramante (1445-1514), who helped Michelangelo design the Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican.

Sitting above the entrance to the chapel is the prophet Zechariah, who proclaimed, “Behold, your King is coming to you … Lowly and riding on a donkey…”(Zechariah 9:9). This prophesied the entry of Jesus into the city of Jerusalem, which is celebrated annually on Palm Sunday. His position over the door is symbolic of the entrance the Pope enters in the Palm Sunday procession. Traditionally, Zechariah is portrayed as a young man, but Michelangelo chose to depict him in his old age. This helps to emphasise Zechariah’s profound prophetic abilities.

Isaiah is portrayed as a younger figure who has just been disturbed from his reading by two small figures. Each painting of the prophets features two figures that may represent the conveyors of God’s message. Isaiah foretold the death of the coming Messiah. Many of his prophecies are repeated in the New Testament, particularly concerning the death and resurrection of the “Suffering Servant”. “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)

Even younger in appearance is Daniel, who spent many years working as a scribe for King Nebuchadnezzar (642-562 BC). The open book on Daniel’s lap may reference his career or allude to his ability to interpret dreams. Michelangelo used scrolls and books to highlight the prophets’ intellect, but Daniel is the only one who appears to be writing, as though recording his interpretations and prophecies for future generations. Unlike Jonah, whose famous encounter with a giant fish is documented in the painting, there is no reference to Daniel’s experience in the lion’s den, where he was thrown after disobeying the rule that forbade prayer.

Michelangelo included five Sibyls from classical mythology to emphasise the Messiah came for both Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews). The Persian Sibyl, also known as the Babylonian, Hebrew or Egyptian Sibyl, may have authored the Sibylline Oracle, although some scholars believe the Persian Sibil was more than one person. Michelangelo alluded to this theory by portraying the Sibyl with a book in her hands. The Sibylline Oracles contained information about pagan mythology and Old Testament events, including the Garden of Eden, Noah, and the Tower of Babel. Fragments surviving from the 7th century AD also contain details about the Roman Empire and early Christian writings.

The Erythraean Sibyl came from modern-day Turkey, where she prophesied the coming of the Messiah through an acrostic, which read “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior, Cross” in Greek. The Sibyl forecast other events in the life of Jesus, and St. Augustine (354-430), the bishop of Hippo, referenced her prophecies in his book The City of God. Michelangelo acknowledged the Sibyl’s wisdom by portraying her reading a book. He also depicted divine enlightenment by including a small figure lighting an oil lamp above her head.

The Delphic Sibyl looks up from her scroll with a slightly worried look upon her face, as though she has just envisioned an unpleasant future event. The Delphic Sibyl predated the Trojan War (11th century BC) and made several prophecies about events written about in classical mythology. She also foresaw that the Messiah would be mocked with a crown of thorns.

Michelangelo depicted the Cumaean Sibyl as an elderly lady. She presided over a Greek colony located near Naples, Italy. According to the poet Ovid, she lived for at least 1000 years. Ovid claimed the god Apollo offered her longevity in exchange for her virginity. She agreed, and taking a handful of sand, asked to live for as many years as the grains she held. Unfortunately, eternal youth did not come as part of the bargain. During her long life, the Cumaean Sibyl foretold the coming of a Messiah.

The Libyan Sibyl may not have mentioned Christ directly when presiding over the Siwa Oasis in the Libyan Desert, but the Church has interpreted many of her prophesies as connected to the Messiah. For instance, she foretold the “coming of the day when that which is hidden shall be revealed.” The ancient Greeks claimed the Libyan Sibyl, sometimes known as Phemonoe, was the daughter of the Greek god Zeus, and Lamia, a daughter of Poseidon, god of the sea. According to Plutarch (46-119 AD), she also told Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) that he was a divine individual and the legitimate Pharaoh of Egypt.

In each corner of the Sistine Chapel ceiling is a triangular pendentive depicting Biblical stories associated with the salvation of Israel. These are four examples of the more violent ways the People of Israel were saved from their enemies and sinful ways. One illustrated the story of The Brazen Serpent as told in Numbers 21:4–9. Moses had rescued the Israelites from Egypt, but it was a long journey to the Promised Land. They began to complain and turn against God, saying, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” As punishment, God sent venomous snakes to attack and kill many of the Israelites. Michelangelo depicted the Israelites’ frantic battle with the serpents. In the background, he included an image of a bronze serpent on a pole. To save the Israelites’, God instructed Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” This spectacle, whilst violent, taught the Israelites to trust and obey Moses and the Lord.

Another pendentive illustrates three scenes from the Book of Esther. Rather than telling the story chronologically from left to right, Michelangelo placed the final scene in the middle of the triangle. Esther was the wife of a Persian king who did not know that she came from a Jewish background. The king’s chief vizier, Haman the Agagite, hated the Jews and proposed a massacre to rid Persia of all people of Jewish descent. Haman particularly hated Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, who refused to bow down to the vizier. As a result, Haman persuaded the king to have Mordecai hanged. This part of the narrative is illustrated on the righthand side of the painting. Mordecai begged Esther to intervene by talking to the king, which she is seen doing on the lefthand side. Realising Haman’s plan would also result in Esther’s death, the king hanged Haman instead, as shown in the centre of the pendentive. Thus, the people of Israel were saved from death.

Michelangelo’s painting of David and Goliath only illustrates one scene: Goliath’s death. David, an unlikely hero, defeated the giant warrior of the Philistine army with a slingshot, which ended the war between the Israelites and the Philistines. According to the Book of Samuel, chapter 17, after David knocked Goliath out, he “took hold of the Philistine’s sword and drew it from the sheath. After he killed him, he cut off his head with the sword.” Michelangelo’s interpretation is slightly different, with Goliath trying to scramble to his feet while David methodically carries out his task in the name of the Lord. David appears much stronger than the little shepherd boy written about in the Bible and more like the powerful king he later became.

The fourth story comes from the apocryphal Book of Judith, which is not included in most Bibles. Judith was a Jewish woman living in Bethulia around 600 BC. At the time, the city was under attack by King Nebuchadnezzar’s army, led by the Assyrian general, Holofernes. To protect her city and the Israelites who lived there, Judith tricked her way into the enemy encampment where she seduced and intoxicated Holofernes. While he lay in a drunken stupor, Judith cut off his head. Michelangelo’s painting shows Judith and her maid carrying the severed head out of the tent where the headless body of Holofernes remains sprawled on the bed. Having lost their leader, the army dispersed, and the Israelites were saved.

In between the paintings of prophets and Sibyls are eight spandrels (triangular spaces) featuring small families. These are known collectively as the Ancestors of Christ. Whilst Michelangelo labelled each one with a name from the genealogy of Christ mentioned in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, it is not clear which figure in each artwork is the named individual. Some suggest the ancestor is the child because the scenes are reminiscent of paintings of the Holy Family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus. The woman or mother in each spandrel is more noticeable than the man or father, which also reflects the order of importance within the Holy Family, at least within the Catholic faith.

It is generally accepted that both Jesus’ parents descended from King David, whose father was Jesse, also known as Ishai. Jesse is one of the eight ancestors Michelangelo chose to depict. Jesse was a descendant of Shem, one of the three sons of Noah. Another ancestor is Asa, the third King of Judah and the fifth king of the House of David, who ruled between 913 and 873 BC. Michelangelo also portrayed Asa’s father, Rehoboam, the grandson of King David. Rehoboam became king after the death of his father, King Solomon. He ruled between 932 and 915 BC, during which the kingdom was divided into northern and southern tribes.

Josiah became King of Judah in 640 BC at the age of eight following the assassination of his father, Amon. Josiah was killed in 609 BC during a battle against the Egyptians. According to 2 Chronicles 35:25, the prophet Jeremiah lamented for Josiah, although there is no mention of the king in the Book of Lamentations. There are other connections between Jesus’ ancestors and the prophets, such as Ezechias, also known as Hezekiah, who often consulted the prophet Isaiah for advice. During Ezechias’ reign as King of Judah between 752 and 687 BC, he witnessed the destruction of the northern Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians (722 BC) and the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib, the king of the Neo-Assyrians (701 BC).

Jeremiah stated that no offspring of “Coniah” would sit on the throne of Judah. Scholars assume the prophet meant King Jeconiah, who was taken into captivity in Babylon. His grandson, Zerubbabel was one of the first Jews who returned from this exile and began rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. Michelangelo may have chosen to depict Zerubbabel because the Sistine Chapel bore a resemblance to the Temple in size and dimensions. The other two ancestors Michelangelo chose were Uzziah and Salmon. Uzziah was the tenth king of Judah who often sought the advice of the prophet Zechariah. Salmon, on the other hand, was the great-great-grandfather of David. He was the father of Boaz and potentially the husband of Rahab, who famously assisted the Israelites in capturing the city of Jericho.

Twenty-five years after completing the Sistine Chapel ceiling, a reluctant Michelangelo returned to paint the altar wall. He began painting in 1536, by which time Michelangelo was in his early sixties. Despite his age, Michelangelo spent five years painting 390 individual figures to depict the last judgement and second coming of Christ. According to the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, Christ will appear and judge the living and dead. The “chosen” people will enter heaven to live eternally with God, and the sinners will be sent to the fires of Hell.

In the centre of the fresco is Christ, whose crucifixion wounds are still visible. His face is turned towards the damned, who are destined for Hell. His mother, the Virgin Mary, stands on his right with her face turned towards the Saved. Positioned around Christ are some of His disciples, such as Peter, who holds the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Opposite Peter is John the Baptist, recognised by his animal skin cape.

Some of the disciples are recognisable from their attributes or deaths. Saint Thomas, for instance, holds a carpenter’s square, referencing his profession. Saint Bartholomew, on the other hand, holds his old skin, alluding to being skinned alive. Some believe the face on the skin is a self-portrait of Michelangelo.

Michelangelo included a group of angels on clouds. Seven are blowing trumpets, as mentioned in the Book of Revelation. Other angels hold books in which to record the names of the Saved and Damned. Rather than depicting Satan, Michelangelo turned to Classical mythology for his representation of Hell. Charon, the ferryman of Hades, transports the Damned across the river to Hell, where they are received by King Minos, a judge of the Underworld.

In the bottom left corner, the resurrected dead arise from their graves and float up towards the angels and Heaven. Some of the Damned struggle against the devils who pull them towards Hell and others are paralyzed with horror.

On completion, Catholics were divided over the suitability of the painting. Whilst The Last Judgement often appeared in churches, it was unusual to see it over the altar. Others took offence at the nudity of the figures and accused Michelangelo of being insensitive to proper decorum. The Vatican council quickly hired the Mannerist painter Daniele da Volterra (1509-66) to paint discrete drapery over the exposed genitalia. These additions were added after the original paint had dried, so fifteen of them were easy to remove during restoration work between 1990 and 1994. Today, the fresco is a combination of Michelangelo’s intended design and Volterra’s alterations.

Whilst it is no replacement for the real thing, the Sistine Chapel exhibition allows people to look at each section of the ceiling in detail and learn about the history and Biblical significance of each figure and scene. At a time when travel is uncertain due to COVID-19, the exhibition brings the Sistine Chapel to those who cannot visit the Vatican. London is one of the first cities to host Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition and Londoners only have until 2nd January 2022 to visit before it jets off to another location around the world. Cities currently on the waiting list include Madrid, Paris, Lisbon, Sydney, Singapore, New York and São Paulo. Book now to avoid disappointment.

Tickets are available online starting at £11 per adult and £8 per child. Whilst it is open to children, some paintings contain nudity which may be unsuitable for younger visitors.


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8 thoughts on “Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel

  1. What an epic undertaking, Hazel, to write so succinctly about such a monumental exhibition. You bring the pictures to life. Well done!

  2. What a fascinating and interesting blog, I feel I need to see the exhibition again as this article is so packed with well researched facts and stories. Hazel has produced another masterpiece and the photos really help to bring everything alive. In its own way you have produced your own masterpiece which will stand the test of time.
    Thank you for sharing your talents.

  3. I was fortunate enough to visit the Sistine Chapel a few years ago and only wish I had this fascinating and detailed blog at the time to explain it all to me

  4. I am totally amazed at this extensive and detailed description of the exhibition. How you manage to collect all this information together in such detail I do not know. Well done for all your hard work Hazel.

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