The Art of the Sistine Chapel

sibylThe Sistine Chapel was (interior view) built in 1473 under Pope Sixtus IV, replacing an earlier 13th century structure known as the “Great Chapel.” Commissioned as a private chapel for the popes in Rome, the Sistine Chapel is the official meeting-place of the Papal court, and is used for daily masses as well as several holy festivals. The chapel is most famous for its works of art, which include floor mosaics and frescoes on the walls and ceiling. The earliest frescoes (those on the side-walls) were completed between 1481 and 1482 by an illustrious group of Florentine artists, including Perugino, Pinturicchio, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Rosselli, and Signorelli. These depict various popes, prophets, and scenes from the Old and New Testaments. The chapel’s most renowned feature, however, is its ceiling, which was decorated by Michelangelo 1508-11. Here we find some of Michelangelo’s most famous paintings, such as The Creation of Adam and The Delphic Sibyl. The artist returned to the chapel from 1536 to 1541 in order to complete a fresco of The Last Judgment, which covers the entire altar-wall. In this scene the artist hid a self-portrait in the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew.

Michelangelo’s Ceiling (image)

Indubitably the most famous aspect of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s ceiling decoration depicts a mixture of Biblical, classical, and contemporary Renaissance themes. On the side panels, we find a combination of Biblical prophets and classical Sibyls, placed in six facing pairs, with each figure suggesting a pose of divine enlightenment or revelation. Between each side panel is a triangular window cove, each decorated with an ethereal and unknown ancestral figure. The center panels depict a progression of scenes from the Book of Genesis, dealing first with the acts of God (various stages of creation) and then with the acts of man (Adam and Eve through Noah). The dividing scene, and central panel of the ceiling, is the creation of man — perhaps the chapel’s most enduring image. Each center panel is framed by several spontaneously-posed nudes, an addition that sparked a small amount of controversy within the Vatican after the chapel’s opening. The ceiling is framed by four large triangular spandrels, each displaying a different scene from the later books of the Old Testament. Finally at either end of the ceiling is a portrait of a great Old Testament prophet: Zechariah, shown reading, and Jonah, shown receiving the word of God.

Scenes from the center of the ceiling:

The Individual Prophets and Sibyls:

The Four Scenes in the Pendentives:

The Ignudi:

Further Information