A glimpse of heaven: The story of Michaelangelo’s masterpiece, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

FIVE hundred years ago today Pope Julius II saw for the first time the completion of his 
greatest inspiration, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by the artist Michelangelo. Stephen McGinty looks at the making of an artwork that will fill us with wonder for another 500 years

FIVE hundred years ago today Pope Julius II saw for the first time the completion of his 
greatest inspiration, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by the artist Michelangelo. Stephen McGinty looks at the making of an artwork that will fill us with wonder for another 500 years

ON the Eve of All Saints, 31 October, 1512, Pope Julius II laid on a lavish lunch in the Vatican for the ambassador of Parma. After the many courses had been cleared away, the Pontiff, clad in white, and cardinals in their red satin robes and the ambassador retired to the palace’s theatre where they enjoyed a performance of two comedies and a poetry recitation. The group then retired, as was tradition, to their respective rooms for a short siesta and rose, just as the sun was setting, to attend Vespers in the Sistine Chapel.

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Pope Julius II (Giuliano della Rovere) was then 68 with snow white hair, a ruddy face and a reputation as Il Papa Terribile or the “terrifying Pope”, who led his armies vigorously and from the front. The Spanish ambassador once noted: “In the hospital in Valencia there are a hundred people chained up who are less mad than his Holiness.”

Eamon Duffy, the papal historian, says Julius was: “A very dubious Father of all the Faithful, for he had fathered three daughters while a cardinal, and he was a ferocious and enthusiastic warrior, dressing in silver papal armour and leading his own troops through the breaches blown in the city walls of towns who resisted his authority.”

Yet he was also the most benevolent patron of the Italian Renaissance, who commissioned work by Raphael, Bramante and Leonardo da Vinci and, on this evening, 500 years ago today, he was just minutes from gazing upon the completion of perhaps his greatest inspiration, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by the artist Michelangelo.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, was a gifted, suspicious, stubborn sculptor from Florence. In 1504, when he was 29, he was already hailed as the genius of his age for freeing David from a prison of marble. Pope Julius II had commanded him to come to Rome, at first to design and construct his tomb, which he wished to be worthy of a pharaoh, before later, in 1508, asking him to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which was the private chapel of the Papal household and whose walls were already adorned with works by 15th-century masters such as Botticelli and Perugino, but whose ceiling was rather dull and painted blue with little gold stars.

The initial plan was to have 12 large figures of the Apostles, but over the next four years, the artist would complete over 300 figures, as he used the nine panels to tell the story of the book of Genesis. Michelangelo was so taken aback at the commission that he noted on the receipt for the initial payment that he, a sculptor, had received 500 ducats to paint the Sistine Chapel. He did not, as is popularly believed, work lying on his back, but standing up, with his neck cricked back.Nor did he sack his assistants and paint alone. Instead he needed them to lay the plaster, grind the pigments and prepare a stone canvas of 12,000 square feet. He worked from small drawings, most of which he later destroyed so as to conceal his methods, and worked exceedingly quickly painting directly onto the wet plaster.

Art historian Waldemar Januszczak, having climbed scaffolds to inspect the ceiling up close, wrote: “I could see the bristles from his brushes caught in the paint, and the mucky thumbprints he’d left along the margins. The first thing that impressed me was his speed. Michelangelo worked at Schumacher pace. Adam’s famous little penis was captured with a single brushstroke: a flick of the wrist, and the first man had his manhood.”

In 2002, Ross King published a history book, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, in which he chronicled the construction of this wonder of the art world. He believes the ceiling is as captivating today as it was when unveiled five centuries ago and its appeal lies in the quality of the art and the herculean task of its construction.

He says: “It is those two things together as well as the fact that he covered such an enormous space. One of the myths is that he did everything all on his own. He didn’t, but nevertheless he was the designer, and the foreman and primary painter for this absolutely massive mural. It was larger than anything ever painted before then. Then there is also the fact that he created these absolutely iconic images, which have entered our cultural DNA.”

In the days and weeks after the unveiling all the young artists in Italy marvelled, not at the Creation of Adam but on a portrait of Jonah. King says: “The image that amazed all of his contemporaries was not the Creation of Adam but it was the one on the end wall, Jonah is rearing backwards and yet his head is closer to us than his feet. It was a masterpiece of perspective.”

Today the best known image from the ceiling is the Creation of Adam where the fingers of man and God are just centimetres apart. King, whose new book chronicles the painting of Leonardo’s Last Supper, says: “The image is not entirely original as previous images of Adam had either God blowing his breath into him or in some cases Adam is being helped to his feet by God the Father, so there is the contact between the two of them. But Michelangelo’s is just so much more dramatic, with God the Father flying through the air and this iconic Adam lounging on the grass, after just being inflated with life. It has been lampooned and pastiched in every possible way. Everyone has seen that image hundreds of times before they go into the Sistine Chapel but everyone is still stunned when they go in.”

Today the Sistine Chapel is used by the Catholic Church for the conclave that elects each new Pope. Cardinal Keith O’Brien says: “In participating in the last conclave, I was honoured to be in as magnificent a place of prayer as the Sistine Chapel. Gathered together with over 100 of my brother Cardinals, we were all aware of our heavy responsibilities. As a reminder of the gravity and importance of our situation above us was the unbelievable beauty of Michelangelo’s ceiling. I was particularly moved by his portrayal of the Last Judgement in front of which we cast our votes, swearing an oath before God that our choice was the best person to lead the church.”

The painting of the ceiling placed Michelangelo under tremendous personal strain. He wrote to his father in Florence: “I lead a miserable existence. I live wearied by stupendous labours and beset by a thousand anxieties. And thus have I lived for some fifteen years now and never an hour’s happiness have I had.” At the end of October 1512 he wrote simply: “I have finished the chapel I have been painting” and noted “other things have not turned out for me as I’d hoped.”

Five centuries ago today, Michelangelo and his staff of assistants had only just cleared away the scaffolding that for four years and four weeks had dominated the room, before the arrival of the Pope and his party. It was reported that the Pope gazed upon the artist’s creation “with immense satisfaction”. However, he later said he felt it lacked a ‘final touch’ and suggested that Michelangelo add more gold and ultramarine in order to “give it a richer appearance”.

As a contemporary noted, Pope Julius II said: “It really ought to be retouched with gold.” Michaelangelo was said to have replied: “I do not see that men wear gold.” When the Pope protested that “It will look poor” the artist replied: “Those who are depicted there, they were poor too.”

If the Pope was mildly put out, Michelangelo was actively unhappy. Although he had been paid 3,000 ducats in instalments over the past four years, he had paid 85 ducats to Piero Rosselli, a master mason and assistant, three ducats for the ropes, 25 for pigments, 25 on rent, and roughly 1,500 on his assistants, leaving him 1,000 ducats, or the equivalent of three times the going rate for average craftsman.

However, Michelangelo had expected a bonus and was paid 2,000 ducats, only to later discover to his distress, that this was a downpayment on work on the Pope’s tomb.

Yet in May 1536, 24 years after completing his work on the ceiling, Michelangelo returned to the Sistine Chapel to paint The Last Judgement which, when completed five years later, would cover the whole of the wall behind the altar with an awe-inspiring and terrifying vision of what awaited poor sinners, among whom he counted himself. In it he included a striking self-portrait of himself as St Bartholomew, holding his own flayed skin.

For many the Sistine Chapel stands as a monument to the achievements of one man. After Johann von Goethe visited in the 1780s, he wrote that without visiting the Sistine Chapel we cannot understand what one man is capable of achieving.

However, Michelangelo explained in a poem what drove him to create an artwork that will surely be appreciated for a further 500 years and beyond.

“Whatever beauty here on earth is seen,

To meet the longing and perceptive eye

Is semblance of the source divine

From whence we all come

In this alone we catch a glimpse of Heaven.”