Today we survey the entire chapel by breaking it into three parts, the side walls, the ceiling, and the altar wall; but we also note that these parts are unified by giving us a Christian view of the beginning, middle, and end of all time. Along the way, the chapel implies that we humans have a moral purpose and are responsible for our lives; and it reassures us that there is a loving if severe God above us. How different this view is from that of the modern age!

Show Notes

Although I announced back in July that I’d be taking a short break from podcasting, that break grew into a sort of sabbatical leave lasting over two months. It did so mostly because of a couple of writing and speaking opportunities on the subject of my favorite book, Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus, which I translated from the Greek for Cornell University Press twenty-five years ago. I’d like to thank both The Ashbrook Center at Ashland University and the McDonald Center at Mercer University for these speaking and writing opportunities.

Written by a student of Socrates, the Education of Cyrus is a charming and wise book if ever there was one. It has no direct connection with Rome or Roman history but describes the transformation of a small republic into the vast Persian Empire, and its lead character is similar in some respects to Julius Caesar and the other powerful generals who transformed the Roman Republic into an empire. Links between Cyrus and Caesar are suggested also by Machiavelli’s expressed admiration for some of the policies of both men. It is thus possible for me to think that my study of Xenophon’s great book helps me to understand Rome better, especially its foreign policy successes and the collapse of its republic into the rule of a single man. My Cyrus-related responsibilities now having been discharged, I now look forward to resuming my regular schedule of podcasting on Rome every two weeks.

The main subject of my most recent podcasts has been the Sistine Chapel, which most visitors to the Vatican Museums look forward to as the expected highpoint of their visit. Let me get us restarted by reintroducing this chapel and then, in the next podcast, moving forward with wholly new material regarding two of Botticelli’s paintings on the chapel’s side walls.

Irving Stone’s “dramatic biography” of Michelangelo while he was working on the Sistine Ceiling.

The usual introduction to the chapel understandably concentrates on Michelangelo’s remarkable contribution to it and on his complicated relationship with the fiery Pope Julius II, who commissioned the great sculptor to paint the vast ceiling of the chapel. (You may remember that this is the same pope who commissioned the destruction of the old St. Peter’s and the building of the new basilica, and he had also already put Michelangelo in charge of other projects, including that of sculpting a vast funeral monument to help preserve his memory. (Revisit my episode entitled “St. Peter in Chains and Moses in Marble” for a reminder, and see Ross King’s Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling for an excellent overview.) Adding to the drama is the reported rivalry between Michelangelo and Raphael, for remarkably, Raphael began work on the frescoes of what we now call “the Raphael Rooms” at almost the same time as Michelangelo started work on the chapel ceiling, in 1508. This focus on Michelangelo, Julius II, and Raphael was at the center of The Agony and the Ecstasy, a book written by Irving Stone which was turned into a movie in 1965 with Charlton Heston playing Michelangelo and Rex Harrison as Julius II. If it exaggerates some points, it is not a bad introduction to the three men and to the politics of the age. The film can also help one appreciate Goethe’s famous quotation about the Chapel, that “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel, one cannot form an adequate idea of what one man is capable of achieving.” The chapel is about God, but in some sense a godlike man steals the show.

It makes sense to focus on Michelangelo and his relations with Julius II and Raphael, but the introduction to the chapel I presented in my last two podcasts does not do so. Instead, I began with the subjects of the paintings and made the following two main points. First, the frescoes in the chapel consist of three main elements which complement one another and show remarkable unity. I say “remarkable” because there are about 12,000 square feet of painted surface, and this painting was carried out over a period of seventy years and several popes. Its designers must have worked hard to maintain this unity over such an expanse of time and space. Second, the emphasis on Michelangelo distracts attention from the side walls, which were painted when Michelangelo was still a little boy, by a previous wave of great Renaissance artists, including Botticelli and Perugino. I’d like to help keep these side walls from being overshadowed by the sweeping frescoes above them.

In saying the paintings of the chapel are unified, I mean that they are divisible into three main elements, the ceiling, the altar wall, and the two long side walls, but that taken together these support a unified, Christian view of all time. We see God’s creation of the universe and of human beings on the ceiling, His laws for human beings as received by Moses on the left or south wall of the Chapel, His revision of these laws through his son Jesus Christ on the right or north wall, and the Last Judgment on the altar wall. The chapel thus gives us the beginning, middle, and end of time; it implies that we humans have a moral purpose and are responsible for our lives; and it reassures us that there is a loving if severe God above us. If this is the general message of the chapel, a Christian message, it invites us to compare this view to that of our own time. This what I tried to do in my earlier introduction to it, two episodes ago, when I went out on a limb and suggested that the modern age has rejected the chapel’s message. Science has become our great authority, and along with the many tangible benefits it brings, it may also show order in nature. It shows no purpose, however, and the struggle to deduce moral laws or human purpose from science seems unlikely to succeed, at least to me. For more on this, return to this earlier “Introduction to the Sistine Chapel,” two episodes ago.

My second and much more minor point was simply that we tourists tend to overlook the twelve frescoes on the side walls, and I don’t think we should. We overlook them for two main reasons, first because Michelangelo did not paint them and second because they are complicated.

Perugino, Christ Giving the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter, which represents the main claim of the papacy to preside over the entire Christian Church. (Note the two representations of the Arch of Constantine in the background. The fresco is the fifth on the right side wall.  (Pietro Perugino, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Michelangelo did not paint the frescoes on the side walls, but Botticelli, Perugino, Pinturicchio, Ghirlandaio, and Rosselli did; and they show us a different approach to the fresco than that of Michelangelo. The frescoes on the side walls are less sweeping, vast, and dramatic than those on the ceiling and altar wall, but they are richly detailed and beautiful. They are complicated and require more knowledge of the Bible than those of Michelangelo, but perhaps this should be seen as a recommendation rather than a weakness. I promised in my last episode that I would look closely at two of these frescoes, both by Botticelli, before moving on, and I will do so in my next episode. This should help listeners determine whether it is worth their while to get ready for the side walls as well as for the ceiling and altar wall of the chapel.

So ends my effort to remind us all of where we were when I ran off to restudy Xenophon: I think the chapel’s frescoes claim that we live in a divine and purposeful order, and I think general opinion in the modern world rejects this claim. If true, I wonder how such a vast change in world view affects the way we think and live. I also think the side walls make an important contribution to the chapel, even by Michelangelo’s high standards. I hope to make progress on both points in upcoming podcasts.

Let me now mention a few points that do not focus so much on the subjects represented in Michelangelo’s frescoes but nonetheless help to explain why so many have admired his work so much. I will for now neglect his “Last Judgment” on the altar wall and focus on his ceiling. An interval of thirty years passed between these two vast undertakings, and a similar interval followed the painting of the side walls and Michelangelo’s painting of the ceiling.

The Challenges of the Project

I am impressed by how many different skills Michelangelo employed to complete his project. The inherent difficulties of fresco painting explain some of these; the vast size of the ceiling explains others. His first challenge, apart from that of dealing with a strong-willed pope, was to design and build an affordable scaffold to support himself and his workers sixty-five feet in the air and at locations 130 feet apart. Then he had to remove a preexisting fresco, create a vast and organized composition for the ceiling as a whole, acquire and improve the pigments that would give him the bright colors he wanted, manage a team of assistants, and get the pope to pay him as he had promised. He also had to paint, and to do so brilliantly.

This photo of the front half of the chapel ceiling gives  a good indication of the size and complexity of the project. It also shows the sizeable amount of painted architecture consisting of classical cornices, Caryatids, and Atlantes. (Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

As often happened with Michelangelo, personality clashes often accompanied these challenges. Pope Julius had recently put Donato Bramante in charge of tearing down the old St. Peter’s Basilica, then 1,200 years old, and building a new one; and he then assigned to this great architect the additional task of designing scaffolding for Michelangelo. The task was complicated by the need to allow the chapel to host its usual functions while the work above went forward, so it would not be possible to have a forest of supporting timbers at ground level. Both the project and the lives of the artist and his assistants depended on the building of this scaffold. Bramante proposed a system in which the scaffold would hang by ropes fastened into the ceiling; but Michelangelo, who did not suffer fools or even geniuses gladly, mocked the plan of the great architect because it required digging holes into the ceiling without providing a way of filling and painting over them when the scaffold was taken down. He then got to work himself and designed his own system of scaffolding.

There is some dispute over the precise details, but the general idea was to build a high bridge from one side of the chapel to the other, with the width of the bridge being about half the length of the chapel. The bridge would have steps, would arc upwards to match the contour of the ceiling, and would be anchored by brackets fastened deep in the side walls. It could be disassembled and moved so that it gave access either to one end of the chapel or to the other. It may be relevant that Michelangelo had previously given some thought to a project to build a bridge linking Europe and Asia at the Bosporus Straits.

Once he had a way to support himself and his assistants close to the ceiling, he had to prepare the surface he would be painting. There was already a fresco in place, one of a deep blue sky dotted with gold stars, and it was decided to remove it entirely. I presume this was because it had cracked and could not be trusted to support a new layer of plaster. You may remember from our earlier podcast, “Of Frescoes,” that frescoes required two layers of plaster, one preparatory, and the other to receive the artist’s colors, so to remove the preexisting fresco, Michelangelo’s assistants had to remove a sky’s worth of plaster, tons of it. When wet plaster sets or cures, it becomes calcium carbonite, which is essentially limestone. This makes frescoes highly durable; it also makes them hard to hack into oblivion.

Another kind of challenge was that of securing and preparing the pigments that would give the great artist the colors he wanted. Not having art supply stores to rely upon, and being a perfectionist, Michelangelo sought out the best pigments available. Some were heated and dissolved in vinegar, others were coarsely ground, others were passed through sieves, and others were reduced to a powder. Many were fabulously expensive, and the artist had to bear their cost.

It is unclear how much of the painting Michelangelo initially intended to do himself. He hired four or five accomplished fresco artists from Florence, so it would appear he intended to supervise a workshop of assistants, as his teacher Ghirlandaio had done and as his rival Raphael would also do. But he fired them early on, and close studies of the frescoes have led scholars to agree that he basically painted the entire ceiling himself.

You have heard that fresco painting is time-sensitive, many preparations are required before the painting can begin. The first layer of plaster, called the arriccio, must be applied a couple of months in advance to allow it to cure properly before it is covered. Meanwhile, preliminary sketches had to be done, and then exact drawings were made on paper. These drawings were called cartoons, and when the second layer of plaster was applied, the intonaco, the designs on the cartoons had to be transferred quickly onto it, so the painting could be done while the plaster was wet. Since the cartoons could be the size of the sheets for a double bed, even manipulating them into place was not easy. (To the best of my knowledge, only one of these many cartoons survives, and it was for the “Last Judgment.”)

I am barely capable of tracing the outline of my hand, so it is quite beyond me to grasp how Michelangelo and the other Renaissance artists were able to represent so well the appearance of so many different human figures in so many different postures and in (and out of) so many different kinds of dress. And they painted well not only people but also animals, landscapes, and architecture. Then add to this very basic challenge that Michelangelo had to figure out the right scale, for his frescoes would be seen from different distances approximately sixty feet away. Somehow, he managed to keep them from looking like either pygmies or giants. And then there is the challenge of painting with perspective and due foreshortening, so his frescoes would have depth. And this on surfaces that had different degrees of curvature to them.

I do not fully understand foreshortening, but here’s a start: in a typical full body portrait, the head and feet of a subject are about equidistant from the viewer. But suppose you wish to represent an angel flying toward the viewer, or a prone figure from toe to head. To show such subjects as we see them, the parts closest to the viewer must be made unnaturally large, and those fu

God Divides Water from Land, an example of foreshortening (Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

ow to distort them. Many of the paintings on the ceiling show a degree of foreshortening, for we are looking at figures on a different plane, but Michelangelo’s representation of God separating land from water is an especially clear example: since God is angled sharply toward us, his head and beard loom large, and His body is shorter than it would be if its parts were supposed to be equidistant from us. (This representation of God is the subject of the third main rectangular panel in the ceiling, starting from the altar wall.)

The sum of these extreme challenges apparently led some of Michelangelo’s rivals to think he would fail and, thus, lose the outsized reputation he had won for himself, especially by his statue of David, completed just a few years before being called to paint the ceiling. Perhaps it boosted their envy-driven hopes to know that Michelangelo’s training and passions were much more deeply associated with sculpture than with painting. Perhaps all these challenges worried Michelangelo himself, for he did not want this assignment, but it was not easy to oppose the wishes of Pope Julius II, the Warrior Pope.

I do not wish to say that Michelangelo is the only painter ever to face challenges: all Renaissance fresco artists faced some of the difficulties I’ve just mentioned, such as the need to work quickly and to find and prepare the pigments they needed. But Michelangelo’s project was so vast that its difference in size makes me think his challenges were not only bigger but represented a qualitative difference from those of other fresco projects.

The natural order of things would be for me to turn next to the subject matter and composition of Michelangelo’s ceiling, but I have a previous commitment not to overlook the sidewalls. I gave them a general intro in my last podcast and will focus next time on two of Botticelli’s frescoes. One represents the temptations of Christ; the other, which faces it, shows relevant scenes from the life of Moses. In the week following, we will go back to Michelangelo’s ceiling.