The Sistine Chapel is probably the single most impressive, influential and famous art-filled room in the whole world. Intended to be the private chapel of a pope, the whole world now comes to worship at this altar of artistic creativity. It also serves as the election room of new popes.
The building and the painting of the Sistine Chapel was completed in three major phases. The first was the building and wall painting phase. Commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV (of the della Rovere family) it took about eight years (1475 to 1483) to complete. It was consecrated and dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary on 15th August 1483. The architect was Baccio Pontelli and the construction was supervised by Giovannino de'Dolci.
In 1481, while the chapel was still being constructed, Pope Sixtus IV brought in several great Florentine artists to paint the walls. They were Pietro Perugino, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Piero di Cosimo, Rosselli, Luca Signorelli, Pinturicchio and Bartolomeo della Gatta. They took only eleven months to complete their commission.
The walls are divided into three horizontal sections. The uppermost comprises of pilasters that support the vault. The middle section (or order) tells two stories from the bible. The left wall relates the life of Moses while the right wall tells the life of Christ. At ceremonial occasions the lowest portions of the side walls are covered with a series of tapestries depicting events from the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. These were designed by Raphael and woven in 1515-19 at Brussels.
There are six windows on the long walls. Between each window is a niche with painted images of the first popes – Peter to Marcellus – who were all martyred. A beautiful and delicately carved marble screen, with an inset wooden door, divides the presbytery from the nave. The screen is the work of three sculptors – Mino da Fiesole, Andrea Bregno and Giovanni Dalmata. The screen used to divide the chapel into two equal parts but was moved making the presbytery much larger. The floor is a marble mosaic beautiful in workmanship and design.
The second phase saw the introduction of Michelangelo. In 1508 Pope Julius II (a ‘nephew’ of Sixtus IV) wanted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel repainted. The ceiling was originally frescoed by Piero Matteo d'Amelia with a star-spangled sky in 1481.
He had originally called upon Raphael (a passionate enemy of Michelangelo) to take up the project but he refused. Instead he suggested Michelangelo’s name in an attempt to discredit him knowing Michelangelo was a sculptor and not a painter. Raphael created one of art history’s greatest gaffes.
Michelangelo worked on the ceiling from 1508 to 1512. What he created has become a beacon of art throughout the world. He demonstrated control and understanding of detail, proportion, colour, texture, form and an unmatched originality that has illuminated the world – let alone art. He brought perfection to reality. The Sistine Chapel is a display of one man’s incredible creative genius.
The pope wanted paintings of the 12 Apostles. Michelangelo dismissed the idea as a “poor thing”. Thank heavens for his courage and ‘artistic licence and integrity’ or we would not have the most amazing works in the history of Western art. Instead what Michelangelo painted were stories from the Book of Genesis – from the Creation to the story of Noah.
This phase of Michelangelo’s work included the incomparable and stunningly daring fresco, the Creation of Adam. Michelangelo’s portrayal of God as a muscular figure with long white hair and big white beard is the one many of us, today, picture him to be. In earlier works God was represented only as a hand reaching down through the clouds.
The near touching of God and Adam’s hands is one of the most replicated, parodied and iconic images of the world. It also goes against the common perception of God breathing life into Adam. Michelangelo also shows Adam with a ‘navel.’ Other departures are the serpent in Eden depicted with a woman’s head; the forbidden fruit is a fig and not the commonly accepted ‘apple.’
To paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel Michelangelo built his own platform, extending over half the chapel area. It allowed him to stand upright (Sorry! He did not paint it on his back). However, it denied him the possibility of viewing his work from the floor. Despite that he painted huge scale figures from a distance of only a few inches.
Twenty-eight years later Michelangelo was back. This time it was Pope Clement VII who commissioned him. Shortly after Pope Clement died and was succeed by Pope Paul III who pushed the artist to quickly finish the fresco. In this phase Michelangelo painted the Last Judgment on the altar wall – the largest fresco of the century. He started work in 1535 and finished it in 1541.
Even if Michelangelo had not created what he did in the Sistine Chapel, it would still be a room filled with an extraordinary collection of masterpieces. From this single room emanates more creativity, beauty and inspiration (artistic and religious) than any other collection of art anywhere.
Despite its amazing fame there is nothing outstanding about the Sistine Chapel’s architectural features. Its dimensions are based on that of the Temple of Solomon as detailed in the Old Testament. It is 40.93 metres long, 13.41 metres wide and 20.70 metres high. The roof is barrel-vaulted. The exterior is a remarkably bare brick-walled edifice with no ostentatious embellishments, sculptures or carvings. There is no grand entrance door. Entrance to the Sistine Chapel can only be made from within the Papal Palace.
Visitors today are blessed because what they view is the restored and cleaned frescos, which took about 30 (1965 to 1994) years to accomplish.