It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost 4 years since I was in the Sistine Chapel! In 2014, I went on a 30 day tour of Europe with EF College Break (and I had the time of my life!) where we visited 13 countries, including Rome where we were able to see the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel. Unfortunately for me, my visit to the Sistine Chapel was cut short due to a sudden onset of illness. Thankfully, I was able to enjoy the incredible Vatican Museum, and Michaelangelo’s famous frescos as well.
The story of these frescos begins with Pope Julius II, who commissioned Michaelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to replace the blue starry paintings that were on the ceiling. The Pope originally requested Michaelangelo to paint a geometric pattern surrounded by the 12 apostles. However, Michaelangelo created a different scene. His work was that of what we see today in the ceiling – depictions of the Old Testament. His frescos were likely influenced by a theologian connected with the Vatican. Michaelangelo, at the time, was known for his sculpting abilities, not necessarily his painterly skills. This is ironic because Michaelangelo absolutely detested working on these frescoes and commonly stated that he wasn’t a painter, that he was a sculptor.
The subject matter depicted is varied, and far too intricate to explain in a single blog post, but is divided into three main sections. These sections are The Creation of Heaven and Earth, The Creation of Adam and Eve and the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and The Story of Noah and the Great Flood. The sections of the Biblical story is further divided by painted on architectural elements. Here’s a great image that lays out the storylines behind each of the frescos.
The ceiling of the chapel is a huge piece of work, and Michaelangelo unified the three main storylines into well thought out, unified, paintings. How’d he do this?
First, through color. The sky of the frescos is dominated by a white-ish, gray color mimicking that of marble. The figures are painted in a sharp contrast to this gray color. The figures stand out by wearing vividly colored garments, as well as having warmly toned flesh. Second, through scale. Michaelangelo used an increasing scale from his seated figures to the ones standing.