After its construction in 1475, the Sistine Chapel became the center of Christianity and served as the pope’s own chapel. In 1508 Julius II looked at the ceiling of his chapel and the wall behind his altar and decided he needed something fitting for the most powerful person in the world. To complete his grand vision, he recruited a 33-year-old artist named Michelangelo.
Why Michelangelo? Michelangelo apprenticed himself to Domenico Ghirlandaio at age 13 and only required one year of study. Afterword, Lorenzo de Medici, ruler of Florence, introduced Michelangelo to the life of a Renaissance artist. The young artist studied sculpture, pouring over anatomy books and examples to bring an unparalleled realism to his work. Before the age of 30, he sculpted the Bacchus, the Pieta and the David. Pope Julius II had to have this young master for this penultimate project. However, Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor, not a painter.
Julius had a commission that Michelangelo desperately wanted, the pope’s tomb, which was to contain forty sculptures. Michelangelo only would receive the commission if he agreed to paint the ceiling of the chapel. He agreed but was faced with two major problems. Problem one: His canvas lie sixty feet off the ground and possessed an impossible curvature. Problem two: He did not have a substantial background in the style of frescos.
Michelangelo designed an ingenious scaffold. Suspended from the ceiling at a height of 60 feet and fastened to the ceiling’s curve, the scaffold provided support for Michelangelo and his assistants while allowing the chapel to function uninterrupted. Michelangelo’s master, Ghirlandaio, was well known throughout Italy for his frescos and imparted knowledge of the style onto his pupil. The rest was experimentation.
At the onset of planning, Julius wanted the twelve apostles to be the ceiling’s theme. Michelangelo had greater designs for the project. He would paint the apostles, but he would also add nine scenes from Genesis—three of creation, three of Adam and Eve, and three of Noah. Under the main scenes, 40 generations of Jesus’ ancestors would be depicted. With the tapestry and the payment laid out, all Michelangelo had to do was paint.
Close up of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling
The painting began with the scenes of Noah above the entrance. Michelangelo’s early paintings contained a lot of his older techniques. At this point he still was learning the medium, as well as the difficulty of making frescos on curved walls appear normally to people on the ground 60 feet below. He also had the difficulty of standing up and often, painting over or behind his head for the duration of the project. Yet, once Michelangelo became fully accustomed with the medium and his surroundings, he painted like a madman.
As the ceiling transitions from the scenes of Noah to those of Adam and Eve and their eventual expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Michelangelo’s improvement in the medium of fresco is evident. An examination of the plaster shows that by the middle of the project Michelangelo had forsaken all work except the final coat. He no longer needed the incisions and sketches that served as a roadmap to his earlier frescos. He painted with great sweeping brushstrokes, and his speed intensified as he neared completion.
Despite having strained relations with an ailing Pope Julius II, which caused the project to stall at certain points, Michelangelo unveiled his work to the public on November 1, 1512; never before had such an ambitious undertaking been seen. Spectators stood in awe of the magnificence and realism of the master’s vision.
Although he held up his part of the bargain, Michelangelo never did get to complete Julius’ tomb. Upon the pope’s death in 1513, funding was cut by his successor, Leo X. Yet, Michelangelo worked until his death at 88 and produced many more everlasting works, including The Last Judgment, a companion piece to the ceiling.
Watch Michelangelo’s mini bio: