Michelangelo used painted architecture and numerous nudes to divide the Sistine Chapel ceiling into separate panels and give it a complex design. Today we summarize the elaborate arrangement he came up with.

Show Notes

Our last four podcasts have had to do with different aspects of the Sistine Chapel, which I divided into three main parts, the side walls, the ceiling, and the altar wall. The side walls were frescoed in about a single year, in parts of 1481 and -82, by five great artists including Botticelli and Perugino. Twenty-five years later Michelangelo began work on the ceiling. It took him four years to complete it, and twenty-five years after that, he began work on his Last Judgment, which required another five years. This gives us three great waves of fresco painting in a period of about sixty years. Two of these were by Michelangelo.

Sistine Chapel entire interior looking toward the altar, where Michelangelo painted the “Last Judgment” in 1536-41. The rectangular frescos in the middle register of the side walls are those done in 1481-82 by Botticelli, Pergugino, and other greats of that period. Michelangelo’s complex design decorated the ceiling in 1508-12. (Photo: Antoine Taveneaux, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Today we take up the most admired of these three features of the chapel, Michelangelo’s fresco on the vault that forms the chapel’s ceiling. This past Monday, October 31, 2022, was the 510th anniversary of its dedication by Pope Julius II, on the Feast of All Saints Day, 1512; and Raphael and other great artists of the time were then on hand to see the completed work for the first time. If not a divine sign, this anniversary is a happy coincidence, and reminder that the ceiling has excited awe, and generated controversy, for half a millennium.

Our subject is difficult partly because it is so big as to be unwieldy, and it’s not really a single subject, as the Last Judgment is. It’s five or six thousand square feet of painting, with about 340 different figures in many different scenes or settings. Given the complexity of its subject, it is natural to get distracted from the fresco itself by such related and fascinating subjects as these:

  • The stormy relations between the pope and the artist, both of whom were powerful and difficult characters.
  • The question of who designed the fresco, or who designed its various parts: Did Michelangelo really win the right to decide for himself what to paint, as he claims, or did Church authorities guide him?
  • The complicated politics that preoccupied Italy as Michelangelo was hard at work. The pope was fighting wars to defend, unify, and expand the Papal States, sometimes against Venice, sometimes against Ferrara, and sometimes against France. These wars even saw a huge statue of Pope Julius II, made by Michelangelo, melted down, turned into a cannon, given the feminine name “Giulia,” and later used in an assault on Rome and the Vatican.
  • The rivalry between Michelangelo and Raphael, both working in the Vatican at the same time, and both striving to be and to be known as the best artist in the world. And then there was the architect Bramante building the new St. Peter’s Basilica at just this same moment.
  • Michelangelo’s secrecy: he kept his work hidden, so it could not be seen from the floor, which also prevented him from seeing it from the floor, so even he could not know exactly how his work would appear from sixty feet below. There was only one preliminary unveiling, on the Feast of the Assumption, August 15, 1511, at the half-way point of the project, when the scaffolding was moved from the back half of the chapel to the front.
  • Technical requirements and techniques of getting the job done. These included making pigments, choosing best formula for plaster, building a scaffold, transferring designs from the preliminary cartoons to the wet plaster, and so forth.
  • And I would like to know where this remarkable man came from? What elements of his education gave him such a marked passion to excel and such an indifference to personal comfort? What contribution did the Florence of Lorenzo the Magnificent make?

All these are wonderful topics and are raised in original source material, such as in Michelangelo’s letters and poetry, and in contemporary biographies by Vasari and Condivi. There is also a relatively recent and good book that takes them up. It’s by Ross King, and it’s called, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling. It’s a popular, readable history of the painting of the ceiling, and it discusses several of what I call the fascinating distractions that surround the ceiling: the pope’s wars, the artist’s rivalries with Raphael and Bramante, difficult personalities, technical challenges, and even the financial burdens imposed on Michelangelo by his family.

I’d like to start at the beginning, however, so I’m going to attack the main subject first. What’s up there on that ceiling? I’ve tried to put it in words, but I encourage you to consult the pictures and links I’ve added here.  Now brace yourself for a description of a complex array of triangles and rectangles. Still, I’ve tried hard to corral the whole fresco into a sevenminute summary. After it, we’ll start looking at the content of these geometric shapes. We’ll be back looking at the chapel ceiling also in the next episode.

Schematic Drawing to show the organization of subjects on the Sistine Ceiling. Note the main divisions: the nine central panels, four pendentives, fourteen peripheral lunettes, eight triangular spandrels, and, alternating with the triangular shapes, the rectangular spaces for the Prophets and Sibyls. The label “family” in the eight spandrels refers to ancestors of Christ as listed in the very beginning of the Book of Matthew. (TTaylor, CC BY-SA 3.0)

A Pendentive from the front left corner of the Sistine Chapel (Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The ceiling has its own architecture, and Michelangelo had to accommodate it. It is a barrel vault, which means an arched ceiling curves down to meet the walls that support it. In the four corners are pendentives, each of which creates a concave triangular space as it joins two walls with the sloping vault from above. Near the top of the side walls are six arched windows on each side, and there are two more on the back wall. Each window is surrounded by a paintable arch-shaped space around its upper part. These window-hugging arched spaces are called lunettes; and as the wall rises to meet the curve of the barrel vault, triangles are created above the four windows around the center of each side wall. These are called spandrels.

A lunette from Sistine Chapel (Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

To stress the simplest point, Michelangelo had to accommodate his fresco to an irregular surface. It had an arched ceiling, the vault, four large triangular pendentives in the corners, eight smaller triangular spandrels above the windows, and fourteen lunettes around the windows in the upper portion of the back and side walls. There had once been two more lunettes on the front or altar wall, but Michelangelo himself later destroyed them to make more room for his “Last Judgment.”

The Spandrel of Ozias, located above a window near the middle of the left side of the chapel (Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

To this actual architecture, Michelangelo added his own illusionistic architecture to further divide the space in which he was working. The result is that his fresco is organized into a series of rectangles, triangles, and lunettes, each of which encloses a scene involving one or more figures. By my count, there are forty-seven of these main separated spaces, plus others that are less prominent. The borders between them are formed by real or painted architecture, nude figures in various postures, and ten circular medallions, each referring to a Biblical story.

The painted architecture that does the compartmentalizing represents stone beams, cornices, pilasters, and caryatids and Atlantes. You will remember that cornices are the decorated horizontal ledges that project outward from exterior walls, usually near the top of buildings, the Colosseum very much included. Caryatids and Atlantes are female and male human figures that serve as columns or pilasters to hold up architectural beams, so they further increase the large number of figures that populate Michelangelo’s ceiling. As far as I can tell, the various figures that serve as borders between the main scenes are all nude, and except for the Caryatids, all male. I do not think they identify specific characters from the Bible or elsewhere.

A cornice of illusionistic architecture marks off a large rectangle down the center of the ceiling or vault, and this single rectangle is then divided into three groups of three smaller rectangles, with each group dedicated to representing related stories from the book of Genesis. Their size and position make them the most prominent frescoes of the ceiling. The group at the altar or front end of the chapel presents three depictions of God’s different creations before he created human beings. In the center are three frescoes concerning his creation of Adam and Eve. Further back, there are three scenes from the story of Noah. The rectangular panels in each group of three are of different sizes. The central group has two larger rectangles and one smaller one; the other two groups have one larger and two smaller rectangles. These differences allowed Michelangelo to make the story of Adam and Eve the most eye-catching, as did his placement of it at center of the chapel. The fresco in the center of the center is God’s creation of Eve, not his better-known fresco of the creation of Adam.

Six of the nine central ceiling panels divided by ignudi and a painted architecture of cornices. The round medallions reduce the size of the smaller central panels and help the cornices separate the smaller central panels from the Prophets and Sibyls. Caryatids and Atlantes are on the pilasters that separate the Prophets and Sibyls. Three spandrels are fully captured, as are the very tops of three lunettes.  (Photo: CC BY 2.5)

Forming a perimeter around the nine rectangles on the central axis are twelve alternating rectangles and triangles, somewhat smaller than the panels in the center. The subjects of the perimeter rectangles are Old Testament prophets and pre-Biblical sibyls. The five prophets and five sibyls are arranged so that each prophet is beside a sibyl and facing another one across the width of the chapel, just as each sibyl is both beside a prophet and facing one. So that’s ten perimeter rectangles: the other two are at the opposite ends of the chapel on the central axis. The prophet Jonah is over the altar in front, and the prophet Zechariah is in the back.

As for the triangles, eight are spandrels that are just above windows, four on each side. The other four triangles are the larger pendentives in the four corners of the chapel. The pendentives are based on the stories of David and Goliath and Judith and Holofernes in the back of the chapel, and those of the Brazen Serpent and the Punishment of Haman up front. The spandrels represent the ancestors of Christ as listed in the very beginning of the book of Matthew. The lunettes, which are on the side walls and surround the upper part of the windows are also illustrations of Christ’s ancestors.

The Prophet Zechariah, on the center of the back wall, bears the likeness of Julius II (The Prophet Jonah is front and center on the ceiling, just above the “Last Judgment” (Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Prophet Jonah is front and center on the ceiling, just above the “Last Judgment” (Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

I mentioned that the panels are of unequal size, which gives a certain emphasis to the larger rectangles down the central axis. But the smaller panels often include fewer figures, so these figures can rival or even exceed in size those crowded into larger panels in the center. For example, the prophet and sibyl at the very front are clearly larger even than the God who is busily creating things in the center panels. The larger size of the prophets and sibyls is even more noticeable toward the back of the chapel, since the figures in the stories involving Noah are more numerous and therefore smaller. Called the ignudi, there are twenty nude males that help divide the nine central panels of the vault, and they too are often larger than the characters in the stories they frame.

So ends my quick tour of the ceiling and upper walls of the chapel. There now remains the still more important question of how to think about it. I’m tired out from my study of triangles, rectangles, and lunettes, so today I’ll only take a step in this direction.

Wall Section with Michelangelo’s Lunettes at the top, a row of Popes and Side Wall Frescoes done in 1481-82 (including Perugino’s “Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter,”) and painted tapestries    (Michelangelo Public Domain)

We’ve observed Michelangelo’s use of architecture, both real and painted, to divide the ceiling into separate panels of different sizes and shapes. A second rather obvious observation is that there are bodies everywhere, both in the separate scenes and on the borders that help to keep the scenes apart. Along with the large ignudi, there are forty-eight nude caryatids and Atlantes and twenty-four other nudes in a bronze color above each of the lunettes and pendentives. Michelangelo’s other great contribution to the Sistine Chapel, his Last Judgment, is even more exclusively devoted to painted bodies, for it has much less painted architecture and only a strip of landscape at the bottom. This might lead us to think that Michelangelo is less interested in the stories he tells than in the bodies he displays, which are often but not always beautiful and are arrayed in an amazing multitude of positions. This conclusion would receive further support if we accept the familiar view that art rises above everything else, exists for its own sake, and need not justify itself by advancing a moral, political, or theological teaching. Perhaps Keats meant something like this when he said that beauty is truth, and truth beauty.  The opposed point of view, which need not dismiss the importance of beauty, is that art may also serve a particular understanding of the world and that, in particular, Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel do this. So besides bodies, what else is represented on the ceiling, and how is it represented? Might it convey some meaning?

One of Michelangelo’s twenty “ignudi,” who just might rival the nominal subjects of the ceiling in importance (The Prophet Jonah is front and center on the ceiling, just above the “Last Judgment” (Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Apart from the architecture and the nudes that are given no identity and seem unassociated with any particular story, I count forty-two panels that refer directly to people or events from the Old Testament, so I’m inclined to say that this is the principal subject of the ceiling. This emphasis is not what was called for by the plan first handed over to Michelangelo, which was to give prominence to the Twelve Apostles. This plan would have emphasized the pope’s claim to authority deriving from Christ and passing through the apostles, especially Peter. We can see this claim being advanced by an eye-catching fresco on the side walls of the Chapel. By Perugino, it’s the fifth from the front on the right wall, and it shows Christ handing the keys of the kingdom to St Peter as described in Matthew chapter 16, versus 18-19. Moreover, Perugino, Botticelli, and the other greats of twenty-five years earlier had painted a row of popes just below the lunettes, so if the Apostles were painted in just above them, it would further suggest the intimate connection between the popes and the Apostles. So, the original plan for the ceiling called for reinforcements to support this shaky papal claim, soon to seem even shakier, as Martin Luther’s protests were just a decade away.

One of Michelangelo’s twenty “ignudi,” who just might rival the nominal subjects of the ceiling in importance (The Prophet Jonah is front and center on the ceiling, just above the “Last Judgment” (Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Michelangelo prepared sketches to execute the orders he was given, but he became disillusioned with the project and complained that it was “a poor thing.” Perhaps he meant that he did not think this plan offered a good opportunity for painting a gallery of nudes, which is what Ross King assumes; or, perhaps he had other ideas for a subject of even weightier importance, such as God’s several creations, including that of man. In any event, Michelangelo claimed in a letter that “[The pope] gave me a new commission to do what I liked,”[1] though it is dubious that either the pope or the various theologians responsible for supervising orthodoxy would surrender complete authority over artistic representations of events central to the faith.

School of Raphael, “Donation of Constantine,” which represents Constantine kneeling before the pope and granting him full authority to rule the entire western part of the Roman Empire, an event which never happened (Public Domain)

There is no fully reliable evidence indicating exactly how the discussions went that determined the new subjects for the chapel’s ceiling. They are drawn from the Old Testament, but I am also struck by how little the resulting frescoes flatter either Julius II or the papacy in general. An easy and apt contrast is with several of the frescoes in the Raphael Rooms. As we discussed in the podcasts on the largest of these, the Sala di Costantino, the artists represented known falsehoods so their frescoes could claim that Constantine was a great supporter of the pope. That is, they perpetrated lies. The Raphael Rooms as a group also honor or flatter the popes who commissioned them, so they include multiple and prominent representations of Julius II and Leo X, and one also of Clement VII. In the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo went so far as to use the likeness of his patron Julius II in his representation of the prophet Zechariah, who is on the back wall, but that’s it, as far as I’ve noticed or read. The changed design of the chapel ceiling made it both more rooted in the Old Testament and less explicitly pro-papal. What reasons or causes lay behind these effects, I do not know.

The central subjects of the ceiling include the origins of all things, and it is hard to think of a subject more sublime than this, at least if you understand these creations to be the work of a wise and beneficent god; and these frescos advance just this encouraging point of view, especially in their representation of God reaching out to touch Adam’s finger, which I understand to be a tactile version of God breathing a soul into His creation. Another subject about as lofty as this is the Last Judgment of human beings, which Michelangelo represents on the altar wall. When Michelangelo complained that the initial plan was “a poor thing,” it is possible that he thought of the creation as a richer subject.

This is a start on the subjects of the ceiling, but it can’t be the end of the story, so we will return to the ceiling in our next episode. The central panels and the four pendentives will get most of our attention, but I’m sure something else will turn up.

[1] Quoted in King, p. 60.

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