Michelangelo And The Sistine Chapel

‘. . . come to the rescue / Of my dead painting now, and of my honour; / I’m not in a good place, and I’m no painter.’ A sonnet by Michelangelo about the experience of painting the chapel ceiling, with self-portrait (see p.65 for a full translation).

Michelangelo And The Sistine Chapel
Andrew Graham-Dixon

Copyright © 2009 by Andrew Graham-Dixon

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10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Graham-Dixon, Andrew.

Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel / Andrew Graham-Dixon.

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.


1. Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1475-1564--Criticism and interpretation. 2. Mural painting and decoration, Italian--Vatican City. 3. Mural painting and decoration, Renaissance--Vatican City. 4. Bible. O.T.--Illustrations. 5. Cappella Sistina (Vatican Palace,Vatican City) I. Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1475-1564. II.Title.

ND623.B9G66 2008



Printed in the United States of America

Per Silvia

Table of Contents

The Genesis Cycle

  • 1. The Separation of Light and Darkness
  • 2. The Creation of the Sun, Moon and Plants
  • 3. The Creation of Life in the Waters
  • 4. The Creation of Adam
  • 5. The Creation of Eve
  • 6. The Temptation and Expulsion from Paradise
  • 7. The Deluge
  • 8. The Sacrifice of Noah
  • 9. The Drunkenness of Noah

The Spandrel Paintings

  • 10. David and Goliath
  • 11. Judith and Holofernes
  • 12. The Death of Haman
  • 13. The Brazen Serpent

The Prophets and Sibyls

  • 14. Libyan Sibyl
  • 15. Daniel
  • 16. Cumaean Sibyl
  • 17. Isaiah
  • 18. Delphic Sibyl
  • 19. Zechariah
  • 20. Joel
  • 21. Erythraean Sibyl
  • 22. Ezekiel
  • 23. Persian Sibyl
  • 24. Jeremiah
  • 25. Jonah

Shaded areas: The Ancestors of Christ

  • 26.
    The Last Judgement

This book celebrates the five-hundredth anniversary of Michelangelo’s commencement of work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It marks the cinquecentennial, as it were, of his very first brushstroke. My aim, in writing it, was to provide an informative and approachable introduction to one of the world’s most rewarding works of art – and, in doing so, to fill a somewhat surprising gap.

While the existing literature on Michelangelo is vast, the sum total of commentary on the Sistine Chapel ceiling is smaller than might be supposed. It is certainly dwarfed by the literature on any single one of Shakespeare’s major plays –
, or
King Lear
, for example. Furthermore, much of what has been written takes the form of specialised art historical enquiry.

Certain issues have tended to dominate scholarly discussion of the ceiling. In what order were the various pictures on the ceiling painted? To what extent was Michelangelo responsible for each particular image, and to what extent did he rely on the contributions of assistants? Was the iconography of the ceiling influenced by one or more of the theologians in the intimate circles of Michelangelo’s patron, Pope Julius II, and can such influence – Joachite or perhaps Augustinian – be detected in the paintings? How did the architecture of the Sistine Chapel itself, and the sacred rituals performed there, shape Michelangelo’s thinking? To what degree has his work survived the vicissitudes of time, and should the extensive late twentieth-century programme of restoration that so transformed the appearance of the paintings be applauded or condemned? Such questions have been extensively addressed, although often in rather piecemeal and partisan fashion, and mostly in learned articles published in art historical journals and periodicals. But there have been relatively few attempts to navigate between the various interpretations – to synthesise the existing knowledge and present it, in accessible form, to the general reader.

That is the primary purpose of this book, which is basically intended to be a user’s guide to the Sistine Chapel ceiling. But I should say at the start that certain of the questions on which much ink has been spilled seem more interesting, to me, than others.

While various forms and figures in the minor parts of the ceiling were almost certainly carried out by the painter’s assistants, it seems obvious, to my eye, that the vast majority of the work is Michelangelo’s own. Such is the symphonic unity of the ceiling as a whole that it demand’s to be regarded as, essentially, the creation of one man. Likewise, I consider much of the debate about the restoration of the ceiling to be fundamentally arid. The colours that emerged from beneath centuries of grime may have seemed disconcertingly sharp to those who had become accustomed to the layers of dirt with which time had smoked Michelangelo’s paintings. But I believe that comparison of the ceiling with the works of Michelangelo’s known admirers – the chromatically vivid
of Pontormo in the small church of Santa Maria Felicità, in Florence, or Domenico Beccafumi’s dazzlingly bright ceiling in Siena’s Palazzo Communale – proves beyond doubt that the restoration did indeed allow us to see his frescoes in their true colours. To put the matter simply, it makes perfect sense that the Sistine Chapel ceiling as we now see it should have been a catalyst for the paintings of Michelangelo’s followers; whereas the same thing could not have been said about the ceiling as it was before. The restoration was, in my opinion, both justified and brave. If only the authorities at the Louvre would be as bold in doing away with the murk of time that befogs Leonardo’s
Mona Lisa.

Leaving such questions aside, I have chosen to focus on what I regard as the essence of the Sistine Chapel ceiling – what Michelangelo meant by it, how its meanings unfold, the subtle ways through which he gave expressive life to its many interlinked compositions. Because it is impossible to understand or appreciate any work of art without an understanding of its context, I begin by telling the eventful story of the artist’s own life, from birth to the moment when — reluctantly — he agreed to paint the ceiling for Julius II. I consider the nature of his early work and explore his unique, fiercely independent and often refractory personality, while also attempting to give the reader some sense of the world in which the painter lived and worked — its religion, its politics, its social conventions.

The heart of the book is my interpretation of the ceiling itself. This takes the form of an extended analysis of the work, both as a whole and also part by part, picture by picture. In addition, I briefly consider Michelangelo’s subsequent contribution to the Sistine Chapel,
The Last Judgement
, and examine just a few of his later works in sculpture and drawing. This is because I believe those later works were themselves fruits of the same spiritual journey that produced the Sistine Chapel ceiling — and might therefore, among other things, be legitimately regarded as the older artist’s reflections on his own younger self.

As a general rule, I have tried to give the greatest possible respect to Michelangelo’s own attempts to influence posterity’s perceptions of his life and work. This means that I often quote from the two early biographies of the artist, by his contemporaries Giorgio Vasari and Ascanio Condivi. It is my belief that these texts, although not written directly by Michelangelo himself, were so shaped by him that they reveal a great deal about his intentions, his beliefs, and his sense of his own significance. The problem is that they reveal those things often obliquely, through codes or parables or exaggerations. There are things in them, certainly, that are not literally true and may even be downright lies. But many of those falsehoods were, I believe, Michelangelo’s way of expressing truths about himself for which he had no other language. More than any of the critical and art historical literature on the artist, Condivi and Vasari have been my touchstones.

I end by drawing the various threads of my argument about the ceiling together – and by attempting to spell out what I believe its central message to be. I do not expect everyone to agree with me. But I hope at least that the curious general reader who gets to the end of the book will feel better equipped to form their own conclusions.

I have been helped in numerous ways by numerous different people in the course of my work. I have benefited from conversations with Hugo Chapman and David Ekserdjian, experts both on Michelangelo’s drawings (and much else besides).
Anche, grazie mille
to Giuliano Sacco, who kindly allowed me to print his fine Latin poem about Michelangelo. As ever, I feel guiltily indebted to my long-suffering family, who on this occasion put up both with my Michelangelo-induced moods and my Michelangelo-induced absences. Many thanks to the administration and staff of the Vatican Museums, who saved me countless hours by graciously allowing me to bypass the snaking line of pilgrims to the Sistine Chapel. Many thanks, as well, to Bea Hemming, Tomas Graves and the rest of the team at Weidenfeld & Nicolson for all their hard work and commitment in getting the book into shape and to press. I am also extremely grateful to my commissioning editor, Alan Samson, for persuading me to take the book on in the first place. But my greatest debt of all is to Silvia Sacco, my formidable researcher, without whom this book could certainly never have been written and to whom it is therefore dedicated.

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