Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel - the true story behind the Agony and the Ecstasy

Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel. It's hard to think of one without thinking of the other. 

sistine chapel ceilingSistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo Buonarroti - 1508-1512.

Find out the stories behind how an unlikely, inexperienced sculptor got the job to paint what would become one of the greatest masterpieces the world has ever seen.

Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel - a brief history

I was writing a page about the Sistine Chapel, and I realized I needed to dedicate a whole page to Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel.

Not least because Michelangelo is my favorite artist of all time (so I am biased, what can I say?) 

Frankly, I can barely fit onto one page what I want to tell you about Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel. As you might imagine, many books have been written on the subject. Art historians have spent their careers studying this one topic. 

On this page you'll find out about:

To find out more about the best way to visit the Sistine Chapel, visit my page here.

A different kind of page on Romewise

This page about Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel is a bit different from most pages you will find on this site.

I wanted to give you a bit of the history but there is so much to tell. Even when trying to just leave in the bare minimum, this page stretched to over 6,000 words. I researched and wrote for over a month to bring you this page.

You can even find a bibliography at the bottom.

This page is for those of you who want a bit of detail about the history, architecture, and paintings of the Sistine Chapel, in particular Michelangelo's work there. 

If you find it too lengthy, you can just use the menu above to jump to the section that most interests you.

I hope you've found my page about Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel interesting and helpful!

How, when, and why the Sistine Chapel was built

The story of Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel begins before Michelangelo was born (1475).

It starts with the Pope Nicholas V and his private chapel.

The next piece of the puzzle involves Pope Sixtus IV.

Neither of these men met Michelangelo, but they are important parts of the history of the place he is so famous for painting.

Pope Nicholas V and Fra Angelico

In the mid-1400s, Pope Nicholas V decided to make some major changes to the Vatican.

First of all, he thought that "Old Saint Peter's basilica" needed to be rebuilt, as it was leaning and unstable (he was correct, although he did not live to see this project even begun).

Pope Nicholas V ordered huge blocks of marble that had fallen from the Colosseum across town to be delivered to the Vatican for use in fixing the basilica. 

One of the next things he did was decide that the Vatican is where the Pope should live, as opposed to the Lateran palace across town (where San Giovanni in Laterano basilica is). So he had a chapel made for his private use in the Vatican Palace.

niccoline chapelNiccoline Chapel and frescoes by Fra Angelico, a precursor to Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel.

Pope Nicholas V had one of the best artists of the day, Fra Angelico, cover the inside of this chapel with frescoes. The images depict two of the earliest Christian martyrs, St. Stephen and St. Laurence. The vault features the Four Evangelists in the corners. 

Today we call that chapel the "Niccoline Chapel," named for Pope Nicholas V. 

While this became the Pope's private chapel, there was another papal chapel on Vatican grounds. It was known as the "Cappella Magna," which means greater chapel. 

How to see the Niccoline Chapel inside the Vatican

You can visit the Niccoline Chapel if you take a tour of the Vatican Secret Rooms.

Pope Sixtus IV and his chapel

Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel had yet to meet.

When the Sistine Chapel was inaugurated in 1483, Michelangelo Buonarroti was only 8 years old.

Francesco della Rovere was elected pope in 1471. He took the name Sixtus IV. 

Pope Sixtus IV was known for many things but probably his most famous accomplishment was the restoration, or rather rebuilding, of the Cappella Magna, which had become decrepit.

Between 1473 and 1481, architects worked to rebuild the chapel. 

The new chapel was designed by Baccio Pontelli, and built under the supervision of Giovannino de Dolci.

It was thereafter called the Sistine Chapel, named for Pope Sixtus IV. (By the way, there is a bridge in Rome called Ponte Sisto. This bridge is also named after Sixtus IV.)

There are conflicting sources about the opening date of the Sistine Chapel in 1483.

It seems it may have been opened on August 9, 1483.

Most sources agree Pope Sixtus IV celebrated the first mass in the Sistine Chapel for the Feast of the Assumption on August 15, 1483. On this occasion, it was dedicated it to the Virgin Mary (which I find interesting as there is hardly any reference to her in all the art there, even today.)

Sistine Chapel architecture

The exterior is plain, which was typical of churches buildings of the time. There is no decorative doorway, since access to it is from inside the Papal Palace.

The outside of the Sistine Chapel is austere and fortress-like, as it was intended when it was built in the 15th century.

Beside the main room, there is also a basement and a sort of attic.

The architecture of the Sistine Chapel follows the dimensions of Solomon's Temple from the Old Testament, or 6:2:3. This may or may not have been deliberate.

The main chapel space is 134 feet long by 44 feet wide, with a ceiling height of 68 feet. (40.8 meters long x 13.4 meters wide x 20.7 meters tall.)

The ceiling is a barrel vault with windows. It was meant to also act as a fortress, another architectural feature that was typical of churches of the period.

There is a marble screen (transenna) across the middle of the chapel. This was designed Mino da Fiesole, Andrea Bregno, and Giovanni Dalmata. 

It was meant to separate the Pope and his attendants from the faithful who would stand in the back of the chapel. Originally it divided the Sistine Chapel exactly in half but over time, as the Pope required more attendants, the screen was moved back to where it stands today.

The first art in the Sistine Chapel

Before Michelangelo came along, many other artists had a hand in decorating Pope Sixtus IV's new chapel.

The ceiling painted to look like the sky

The ceiling was originally painted bright blue with gold stars, by Pier Matteo d'Amelia. 

Cosmatesque Floor

The floor is made of colorful tiles in a style called opus alexandrinum, a version of Cosmatesque style that was popular in churches in the 12th14th centuries. (You can see this style in many churches around Rome and also in other parts of Italy.)

The design on the floor marks the processional way from the main door, to be followed by the Pope on special liturgical occasions.

Sistine Chapel Side paintings

When Pope Sixtus IV saw his finished chapel, he called on the best artists of the day to decorate the walls along the sides. 

Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino (assisted by Pinturicchio), Domenico Ghirlandaio, Luca Signorelli, and Cosimo Rosselli (assisted by Piero di Cosimo) came from Florence and Perugia to paint the walls of the Sistine Chapel. In some cases, we are not sure who painted a given fresco. Some of the paintings may also have been done by assistants to the artists.

Between 1481 and 1482, artists created two series of frescoes on opposite walls.

Before Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel were made nearly synonymous, many other artists had a hand in its decoration.

Southern wall

The southern wall is decorated with the Stories of Moses, representing the Old Testament. Starting from the altar, they include:

  • Moses Leaving for Egypt by Pietro Perugino
  • The Trials of Moses by Sandro Botticelli
  • The Crossing of the Red Sea by Cosimo Rosselli, Domenico Ghirlandaio or Biagio di Antonio Tucci
  • Descent from Mount Sinai by Cosimo Rosselli or Piero di Cosimo
  • Punishment of the Rebels by Sandro Botticelli
  • Testament and Death of Moses by Luca Signorelli or Bartolomeo della Gatta

Northern wall

The northern wall houses the Stories of Jesus, representing the New Testament. Starting from the altar, they include:

  • Baptism of Christ by Pietro Perugino
  • Temptation of Christ by Sandro Botticelli
  • Vocation of the Apostles by Domenico Ghirlandaio
  • The Sermon on the Mount attributed to Cosimo Rosselli
  • The Delivery of the Keys by Pietro Perugino
  • The Last Supper by Cosimo Rosselli

Side tapestries and trompe l'oeil

The artists also painted a gallery of papal portraits above the biblical scenes.

And below the biblical scenes, they frescoed the walls with a trompe l'oeil that looks like silver and gold draped tapestries. 

During important ceremonies, the side walls are covered with a series of tapestries. These tapestries were designed later by Raphael, who was commissioned by Pope Leo X.

The tapestries depict events from the Life of St. Peter and the Life of Saint Paul, the two patron saints of Rome.

Today, you can see some of these tapestries inside the Pinacoteca of the Vatican Museums.

Who was Michelangelo?

Before we get into Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, here's a little bit about his early life. You will see how his childhood acquaintances and experiences shaped who he would become as a man.

Michelangelo Buonarroti was born March 6, 1475, near Arezzo, about 40 miles outside of Florence. He was one of five brothers. His family was middle class, even if his father's ancestors came from nobility. As a baby, his mother had him wet-nurse and eventually live part of the time with stone-cutter neighbors in the Tuscan countryside. Michelangelo's mother died when he was six.

When he was 13, Michelangelo apprenticed in the workshop of the foremost Florentine artist of the day, Domenico Ghirlandaio. Even at that age, Michelangelo's raw talent shone through. Ghirlandaio (probably) had him paint a few small figures in the Florence church of Santa Maria Novella.

In this painting on the altar of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Domenico Ghirlandaio allowed Michelangelo to paint the three figures in the background, with their backs to us.

Lorenzo de Medici, also called Lorenzo il Magnifico (Lorenzo the Great) was a great lover of the arts and was partially directly responsible for the Italian Renaissance. He had the best artists and thinkers live on his properties as a sort of artists' colony and he gave them room and board, materials, and the time and space to create.

Michelangelo spent some of his formative years here, together with other great talents of the day. This is where his love for sculpting and his innate talent began to really shine through.

Michelangelo had been brought up with stone-cutters, so he knew from a young age how to choose, quarry, and cut stone with his bare hands.

He became so passionate about wanting to sculpt the human body correctly that he paid an attendant at the city morgue to allow him to sneak in at night and cut open the bodies of corpses that nobody had claimed. This was illegal and punishable by death, but Michelangelo was determined.

This activity literally made him sick, but he persevered. One other artist was doing this as well (elsewhere), and they each understood when they saw each other's art what the other was doing. That other artist was Leonardo da Vinci.

Without having seen the Sistine Chapel, one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.— Johann Wolfgang Goethe, 23 August 1787

Michelangelo began getting small commissions and then larger ones. Local wars and politics caused him to leave Florence more than once, and he went to various parts of Italy where he gained experience as well as powerful patrons and allies.

When Michelangelo was in his early twenties, he got a commission to come to Rome and sculpt something for a side chapel in Old Saint Peter's Basilica. (This is the name for the basilica before the current version you see today. It had been constructed during the reign of Constantine the Great in the 4th century.)

By the time Michelangelo finished his masterpiece, the Pietà, his patron had died. Not only that, but the basilica where it was to go was leaning heavily, and Michelangelo was afraid to put his work in there for fear it would be crushed when the building collapsed. Nonetheless, he and some friends snuck it in. There is so much more to this story, and there are so many others about his art and his life. I encourage you to read some biographies about Michelangelo.

Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel - there is more of his work around the Vatican and Rome, like his stunning Pietà in Saint Peter's Basilica.

Since this page is about Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, we come now to the moment when Pope Julius summons Michelangelo to Rome.

Pope Julius II and Michelangelo - tough love

Pope Julius II was the nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, the pope who had the Sistine Chapel built for him.

Pope Julius II was a man to be reckoned with. He was nicknamed "the warrior pope" because he actually went to battle defending Rome and the papacy. 

His suit of armor is in the Room of the Swiss inside the Vatican Palace. 

Pope Julius II suit of armor inside the Vatican. It's not normally something you can visit but on some special occasions it is open to some select visitors.

You can get a glimpse of this room from behind a grate if you visit the Niccoline Chapel as part of a VIP tour of the Vatican Secret rooms.

Pope Julius II decided Michelangelo should build his tomb. And it was to be monumental, literally. It was going to be so grandiose and enormous that both the Pope and Michelangelo agreed that Saint Peter's Basilica needed to be rebuilt.

The pope was a feisty, headstrong, and impatient man.

The relationship between Michelangelo and Pope Julius II would prove a rocky one over the years.

When you are Pope, you get to tell people what to do.

When you are Michelangelo, a temperamental, brilliant artist, you want to decide what to do.

And the two battled over this for years.

Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel - how Pope Julius II harangued a sculptor and convinced him to paint

Pope Julius II had a lot of projects going on at the Vatican.

He was collecting antiquities that were being unearthed around Rome. These included the Laocoön sculpture, the Belvedere torso, and the Belvedere Apollo. Michelangelo was around for these moments and he was heavily influenced by this ancient Greco–Roman art.

Pope Julius began amassing these and other works in the Belvedere Palace, and thus began the collection of what would become the Vatican Museums.

Pope Julius II also had the idea of rebuilding Saint Peter's Basilica.

The first chief architect he consulted was Donato Bramante. (Later architects included Giuliano da Sangallo and Raphael, but it would ultimately be Michelangelo who created the final design for Saint Peter's Basilica, in particular the dome, as you see it today.)

Michelangelo had a hand in much of what you see today at the Vatican, including the design of the dome.

In 1505, the Pope had selected Michelangelo for his tomb project, based on Michelangelo's rising fame due to his Pietà and David sculptures.

Bramante was not thrilled about this young upstart getting such a big commission from the Pope.

He thought he might try to nip this in the bud by suggesting that the Pope have Michelangelo paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, yet another of the Pope's many Renaissance projects.

Ascanio Condivi, Michelangelo's first biographer, 

who was also his friend and apprentice, and

Giorgio Vasari, in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects

both posited that Bramante urged Pope Julius II to have Michelangelo paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel because Bramante was sure it would show what a no-talent hack Michelangelo was, since Michelangelo was a sculptor and not a painter.

Bramante hoped this would result in Michelangelo's humiliation and retreat back to Florence.

Bramante misjudged quite badly how that would turn out.

Michelangelo's Moses for the (unfinished) tomb of Pope Julius II is yet another of his masterpieces. You can it see in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli near the Colosseum in Rome.

At first, Michelangelo refused the Pope's request on that very basis - he was a sculptor and wanted only to sculpt, not paint.

He was also in the middle of sculpting the pope's tomb, and he didn't like to interrupt his work, once begun. There was quite a bit of back and forth but in the end, you know who won that argument.

The Pope wanted Michelangelo to paint the 12 apostles.

Michelangelo said, let's think big, really big. Let's think Genesis! The first book of the Bible.

And you know who won that argument, too.

While Bramante was working on the new design for Saint Peter's basilica, and while Michelangelo was beginning to work on the Sistine ceiling, Raphael, another rival of Michelangelo, was starting to fresco Pope Julius' private chambers.

At the time, it might have seemed that the Sistine Chapel was the least important of all these projects.

What is fresco painting exactly?

The Fisherman, fresco from Akrotiri, on the Aegean island of Santorini (classically Thera), dated to the Neo-Palatial period (c. 1640–1600 BCE). Wikimedia commons.

Here is how fresco painting works: First you apply a coat of wet plaster, which is a mixture of sand and lime.

Before it's completely dry, you paint on it with water-based pigments. As the plaster dries, the colors fuse chemically with the lime, becoming part of the plaster, which is why it lasts forever.

The fresco technique dates back at least to Egyptian times.

One big downside is that there is no margin for error.

First of all, you have to be quick, making sure you apply paint before the plaster dries. Second, if you goof, you have to destroy the entire thing and start again from the beginning with new plaster.

Renaissance artists who painted frescoes would usually first create sketches of the design. These are called cartoons.

Then, the sketches would be divided up into sections. The artist would paint one section at a time on a given day.

The Florentine recipe for plaster turned out to be problematic when applied in Rome. The climate and materials were slightly different, and mold began to grow on the plaster. In fact, at the beginning of the project, Michelangelo had to destroy a section he'd already painted and start over.

Michelangelo tried a new mixture of plaster, made from a mixture of Pozzolana (volcanic) ash, lime, and water. This plaster, developed by Jacopo l'Indaco, one of Michelangelo's assistants, proved resistant to mold. It is still in use today.

Painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel - how the project began

Michelangelo had honed his drawing skills in Ghirlandaio's workshop. He had also learned a little bit about fresco painting by assisting more experienced fresco artists.

But he still saw himself primarily as a sculptor, and that is the work he loved most. He never wanted to paint.

So, when Michelangelo accepted the job to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, he brought a few trusted artists from his native Florence to work with him, partly to help him get started with this art technique with which he was mostly unfamiliar.

Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel - the scaffolding

Obviously, Michelangelo would need some sort of scaffolding.

Bramante came up with a design that included a scaffold with ropes hung from the ceiling. Michelangelo rejected this idea, as he realized it would leave holes in the ceiling.

He and his assistants built scaffolding to Michelangelo's specifications. It was a flat, wooden platform that came out from the side walls high up near the tops of the windows.

Contrary to the romantic idea of Michelangelo lying on his back to paint the Sistine Chapel (immortalized in the 1965 movie "The Agony and the Ecstasy" with Charlton Heston playing Michelangelo), Michelangelo actually stood on his scaffolding while he painted.

Think about doing this for four years. It caused Michelangelo tremendous neck and back strain, and damaged his eyesight irrevocably. This may be one reason for the title "The Agony and the Ecstasy."

Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel - Ceiling Elements

Michelangelo had a daunting task ahead of him. How to fill a 6,000 square feet (558 square meters) expanse?

Diagram of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. TTaylor work adapted by Begoon - on Wikimedia Commons

Certainly the most admired section of the ceiling today is the vault in the center with its nine panels from the Old Testament.

The panels are divided into three sections, each with three paintings. They represent:

  • The Creation of the Heavens and Earth
  • The Creation of Adam and Eve (Humankind)
  • Noah and the Great Flood
Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel - the most famous part is the nine-panel section depicting Genesis in the center vault.

Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel - Noah and the flood

Michelangelo began somewhat backwards, by painting the stories of Noah and the Flood first.

These panels were at the entrance of the chapel, farthest from the altar where the Pope would stand, and he wanted to start farthest away so that he could improve his technique by the time he got to the space closest to the altar.

Next, he was not sure how he was going to paint God. This had never really been done before in such an obvious way, and Michelangelo wanted to work his way up to doing something so daring and important.

Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel - the story of Noah and the Deluge.

The first thing to note about this series is that they are themselves out of order. 

If you enter the Sistine Chapel from the back, where the actual entrance is located, you will see that the first panel on the ceiling is of the Drunkenness of Noah. This is followed by the middle panel, which depicts the Great Flood. The third panel as we move along the ceiling is the Sacrifice of Noah.

The order in Genesis would begin with the deluge, followed immediately by Noah making a sacrifice to God after the flood is over and has spared him. The last bit of this story involves Noah planting fields, and then, once grapes are harvested, having a bit too much to drink, passing out naked, only to be shamed and then covered up by his sons.

It may be that Michelangelo simply needed the largest panel (in the middle) to depict more scenes of the flood. In fact, on that panel alone, he painted over 60 figures in different states and places...all depicting the tragedy about to befall them. 

There are four distinct scenes in the center deluge panel.

On the right side, a group of people seeks sanctuary under a crude shelter. This includes a father carrying his already drowned son. On the left, others are climbing up the side of a mountain in a futile attempt to escape the rising seas. This includes mothers and their children, even babies. In the middle, a small boat is doomed and about to sink. Only far in the background, on serene waters, you can see the ark, waiting to take Noah, his family, and the animals to salvation.

When you think about this scene in Genesis, it's supposed to be about God wiping out the human race, save one man and his family, because they are all evil and sinners. But Michelangelo's depiction shows us the raw humanity, and if we could get up close to the people he paints, we'd feel pity and tenderness for them.

However, when Michelangelo painted these three panels, he was up close to them on his scaffolding and didn't look at them from far below on the chapel floor until he was done, and the scaffolding moved.

Once he did, he understood that much of the meaning was lost to the casual observer, as the people and their faces were too far away.

That's why the next six panels are painted in such a different way, so that we can see them easily from far below.

Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel - Adam and Eve

In 1510, Michelangelo took a year off from painting the Sistine Chapel. (This was in part because of a payment dispute with the Pope.)

The Pope was impatient and forced Michelangelo to unveil what he'd already done. The crowds were awed. But Michelangelo had yet to paint what would become his masterpiece - God's creation of humankind.

When Michelangelo took up his brushes again and began to paint the scenes depicting Adam and Eve, he had a much better handle on fresco work, and he understood the kind of image he needed to portray to make an impact on viewers below.

He had also gained a lot of experience and comprehension of a technique called foreshortening, which is a way to paint from high up that allows the viewer far below to see a subject in what looks like the correct proportions. 

Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel - Creation of Adam 1508–1512.

He must have also been thinking about how he would portray God.

In these panels, God is portrayed as a grey-bearded rugged old man. Nobody had ever depicted God this way before. In fact, not everyone who saw this painting understood at first that it was God.

But since then, this is how we have come to see him in religious paintings. Michelangelo changed everything.

While the center panels are the most famous, many people focus simply on the stunning symbolism of God breathing life into Adam simply by reaching out toward him. It is a gorgeous painting, but if you look more closely, you'll spot some interesting secrets.

First, remember that Michelangelo knew human anatomy (although only a very few knew about his night-time misadventures in the morgue in Florence).

Contemporary scholars think that he depicted a human brain around God. It is indeed the correct anatomical shape for a dissected brain, as noted by Frank Lynn Meshberger, M.D in 1990. (You can read his paper here.) One could even interpret this as God not just breathing life into man but also giving him intellect. Michelangelo famously believed that intellect was a divine gift, so this would make sense.

Other doctors (obstetricians) decided that the figure of God and his surrounding shell actually depicts a human uterus and placenta, which would also make sense, as God gives life/birth to Adam.

You'll have to decide for yourself what you think of the painting and what it means.

Second, look at the woman peering out from behind God's left arm. That is Eve, waiting to be born/created.

Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel - his ceiling depicts scenes from Genesis, while his Last Judgement on the back wall is about the Apocolypse.

Another thing to note is the panel of Adam and Eve being banished from the Garden of Eden after having sinned. Their faces are serene and almost angelic in the left half.

Once they have become sinners and are forced to leave the Garden of Eden, their faces look haggard, sad, even sinister.

Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel - God creates the universe

The last three panels are from the very beginning of Genesis, and show God creating the universe.

Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel - These three panels are from Genesis and depict God creating the universe. From the bottom up, they are God separating light from darkness, God creating the sun, moon, and plants, and God separating land and water.

On the first panel, the First Day of Creation, God creates light and separates light from darkness.

The next scene according to Genesis actually appears in the third panel. Here, God divides the waters from the heavens.

The middle panel would have come last in this series according to Genesis. It shows two scenes from the fourth and fifth days—God creating the sun and moon, and God creating plants (vegetation). We can see God touching the moon with his left hand and touching the sun with his right. He looks determined and forceful.

God is also depicted on the left side, from behind, pointing toward green plants on the bottom of the panel.

There is quite a bit of speculation as to why Michelangelo would paint God's backside so vividly.

Was this a reference to God's meeting with Moses in Exodus, in which God says to Moses "And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen"? I think not, since this scene is the Creation, and Moses has nothing to do with this.

Many say it was yet another of Michelangelo's hidden messages, more specifically, a hidden jab at the Pope with whom he was constantly at odds. A kind of mooning, if I may use that term loosely.

Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel - the human figures and influence on painting

“One can easily tell that the creator of the paintings in the Sistine Chapel was above all a sculptor.” - Edvard Munch

Besides the center panels, there are other figures and stories in all the nooks and crannies of the ceiling.

In total the ceiling includes 343 figures.

The Sistine Chapel has four triangular pendentives in each corner. Michelangelo painted these with stories depicting the salvation of the Jewish people.

Around the arched tops of the windows are lunettes, which Michelangelo painted with the ancestors of Christ.

Ignudi, or nude youths, can be seen all over the ceiling. There are also prophets and sibyls (ancient seers who, according to tradition, foretold the coming of Christ) in the spandrels.

Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel - what influenced his paintings

Michelangelo's painting of human figures was clearly influenced by several things.

The most obvious thing that influenced Michelangelo's painting style was his love of sculpture. Not just his own love of sculpting, but also his admiration for ancient GrecoRoman works, in particular the Belvedere torso.

The Belvedere torso, in the Vatican Museums, had a huge impact on Michelangelo and influenced the way he painted human figures.

It was also heavily influenced by his intimate knowledge of human anatomy.

Finally, Michelangelo was also likely moved to paint figures with masculine builds as he famously admired the male body as art form above the female body. In fact, he used male models even when he was painting women, touching them up after the fact to make them more feminine.

So you can see that his paintings of human bodies, including the body of God, are muscular and sculpture-like. And you can also see that his depictions of female bodies look as though they began as paintings of male bodies and then were altered to give them some feminine aspects such as breasts.

What Michelangelo did in the Sistine Chapel was create a whole new way of painting. Other artists of the day were both awed and intimidated by this.

Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel - Meanwhile, inside the Vatican...

With Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel just a few meters away, Raphael was simultaneously painting the Pope's private quarters. This fresco "School of Athens" is one of his most famous works.

While Michelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he told the pope that under no circumstances was anyone else to see it until he was finished.

The chapel functioned the entire time that Michelangelo worked there. He simply had drop-cloths overhead so that those below could not see what he was doing.

And he certainly would not have wanted his rivals and critics, Bramante and Raphael, to get any ideas.

But that is exactly what they did. Apparently the two snuck into the Sistine Chapel and got an eyeful of Michelangelo's masterpiece. Who knows what they thought.

But it's clear that it had some kind of impression on Raphael. He went back to his already-finished painting "School of Athens" in the Stanza della Segnatura, and added a figure that strongly resembled Michelangelo in looks and in mood.

The philosopher Heraclitus is meant to be a likeness of Michelangelo in Raphael's painting "School of Athens." He is seated at the bottom of the steps.

Michelangelo finished the Sistine Chapel ceiling in October 1512. It was unveiled October 31, 1512, All Hallows Eve.

Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel - The Last Judgement

What happened next

In the years following the inauguration of Michelangelo's ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, much happened in Rome, Italy, and Europe that would have major repercussions on the church and on the world. These events also darkened Michelangelo's outlook.

  • In 1492, the New World was "discovered." This opened up many possibilities for trade but it also was probably daunting for Europeans for whom the world had seemed to revolve around them.
  • In 1517, Martin Luther published his Ninety-five Theses. This was the beginning of what would be a painful schism in the Catholic church, resulting in the Protestant Reformation and subsequent Counter-reformation.
  • In 1527, Rome was sacked by French troops loyal to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. This happened on May 6, and on this day, Rome was brutally savaged. The Pope hid in Castel Sant'Angelo, and the Swiss Guard stayed at the Vatican to defend it. Most of them died that day, which is why to this day it's the day that the new Swiss Guard are inaugurated each year. 

In September 1534, only days before his death, Pope Clement VII (Giulio di Giuliano de' Medici) commissioned Michelangelo to paint the back wall behind the altar of the Sistine Chapel.  

Preparations for the wall began in 1535, and Michelangelo painted the wall under the jurisdiction of Pope Paul III (Farnese), between 1536 and 1541.

Times had changed. Michelangelo's outlook on life had grown darker. And this was reflected in the painting he created, the Last Judgement.

Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel - the meaning of the Last JudgEment

The original painting on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel was the Assumption of the Virgin Mary by Perugino. Only this sketch survives.

The entire wall behind the altar of the Sistine Chapel is covered with Michelangelo's Last Judgment (called "Giudizio Universale" in Italian).

There was already a painting there, done by Perugino when he was painting the side walls of the Sistine Chapel for Pope Sixtus IV.

Michelangelo not only covered that fresco but also got rid of a few more works that others had done.

The Last Judgment painted by Michelangelo shows the second coming of Christ and the final judgment of those doomed to hell or to be sent to heaven.

The painting shows Christ in the middle, with his mother Mary, the only fully-clothed person in the entire painting, next to him.

He is surrounded by the 12 apostles with their mode of martyrdom.

Altogether there are over 300 figures, with nearly all the males and angels originally shown as nudes.

The painting shows souls saved and rising toward heaven on left. On the right, you can see souls that are damned and are being pulled down toward hell.

The influence of Dante's Inferno is clearly evident. 

You can see Saint Peter, whose face may have been modeled after Pope Paul III. Saint Peter seems almost to be giving the keys of heaven back to Christ.

To the right of Christ, you can see St. Bartholomew with his flayed skin.

Most scholars agree that the face in the skin is that of Michelangelo, a self portrait.

We don't know the meaning of this.

Some speculate it was a reflection of Michelangelo's anguish at having been forced to paint yet again, when he just really wanted to be a sculptor.

Other theories suggest Michelangelo was trying to redeem himself for what he perceived as his sins when he was younger. At this point in his life, he had become more devout, and maybe he was worried about the fate of his soul.

Many art historians suggest there is a deliberate diagonal line between Christ's raised arm, going down through Saint Bartholomew and then through Michelangelo's self-portrait, past a man who is clearly anguished at realizing he is going to hell, all the way down to Minos in the bottom right-hand corner.

Satan himself is not depicted, but at the bottom right we see Minos. In Dante's Inferno, Minos was the one who supervised the admission of the damned into Hell.

When the Last Judgement was complete, Pope Paul III supposedly fell to his knees before it and prayed. Others were not so favorably impressed, in particular because of the more conservative world view that frowned on nudity in religious art. One very vocal critic was Biagio Martinelli, better known as Biagio da Cesena, who served as Papal Master of Ceremonies.

When he saw the finished fresco, he said "it was mostly disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully." Da Cesena said the painting was more suitable "for the public baths and taverns" than a papal chapel. You can imagine how well Michelangelo would have taken this criticsim.

Michelangelo went back and worked Cesena's face into the figure of Minos, giving him donkey ears and a snake biting his genitals.

And you can imagine how well Cesena took this rebuke. He complained to the Pope, who is said to have responded that his jurisdiction did not extend to hell, so there was not much he could do about it.

Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel - he painted everyone nude because that is how he imagined they would meet the end of days. Humans are born naked and in the end they die naked.

Daniele da Volterra was a pupil and friend of Michelangelo. In some of his works, you can almost see the hand of Michelangelo who might have helped him on occasion.

Sadly, da Volterra is often remembered with the nickname "il Braghettone," which means "The Britches Painter."

Another critic was Cardinal Carafa who said that the painting was obscene (This same cardinal became Pope Paul IV, who famously banned Rome's Jews to the Ghetto in 1555.)

Cardinal Carafa insisted that the genitals in The Last Judgment be covered.

Michelangelo refused.

In 1562 the Council of Trent issued a decree regulating the use of images in churches. Now the nudity would really have to be covered. 

Michelangelo's pupil and friend Daniel da Volterra did it on his behalf, promising his friend he would disturb his original painting as little as possible.

That would not have placated any artist, let alone Michelangelo.

Over time, more and more of the nudity was covered.

During the most recent restoration in the 1980s and 1990s, many of these black cloths were removed, but not the ones originally painted by da Volterra, perhaps because they were also considered part of the original painting, or perhaps because it reminds us that without those loin cloths, the painting might have been destroyed entirely thanks to overzealous critics.

Michelangelo died on February 18, 1564, days shy of his 89th birthday. How lucky are we that he lived so long and was able to give the world so much? Michelangelo is buried in Santa Croce in Florence.

Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel - a virtual tour

Click here to visit the Vatican museums official website and take a virtual tour of Michelangelo's masterpiece.

Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel - bibliography

It took me over a month of research and writing to bring you this page about Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel. I hope you enjoy it. These are the resources I used most:

Get a free eBook to help plan your next trip to Rome!

Simply sign-up today using the adjacent form

We are committed to respecting your data. Click here for our Privacy Policy

Share this page:

New! Comments

I'd love to hear what you think. Please leave a comment below.