The Vatican Museum just launched a high-resolution, panoramic photograph of the interior of the Sistine Chapel. Photograph fails to describe this site utterly, but I don't think the language has caught up with this technology yet. Follow this link and go on a tour. Photographs of the Sistine Chapel never cease to amaze me but this is something on a whole other level. This photograph lets a view pan and zoom and in doing so, you can see parts of the chapel that you can't see even when you're standing in it.
When most people think of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, they think of this image.
That's actually a detail from the center, the whole 12,000 square feet of that ceiling look like this.
My hero, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, painted it over four years from 1508 to 1512. Michelangelo didn't consider himself to be a painter and accepted the commission from Pope Julius II under duress. I'd love to know how those conversations went but alas, they are lost to history. Julius was a megalomaniac and Michelangelo was a neurotic, I'm sure hilarity ensued.
This online, interactive photo lets you get up close and personal with this amazing work and while it's hardly a substitute for being there in person, it does let you see aspects of Michelangelo's work you'd never see otherwise. If you go back to that first image of God and Adam, you can see that Michelangelo depicted God in the shape of a human brain. Seriously, zoom in on it. Keep in mind too, that there isn't a flat surface to be had on this ceiling, it's a flattened barrel arch that's cut transversely by eight smaller vaults along its length and four compound arches at either end.
All art captures the history of the time it was created and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is the ultimate time capsule from the 1500s. It's not possible to exaggerate the advances being made in science, philosophy, religion, politics and art from that period. All of those new ideas are writ large on that ceiling. As such, this ceiling is nothing less than a complete story of the underpinnings over western civilization.
The Roman High Renaissance was a heady time but it came to a sudden end when Rome was sacked in 1527 by mercenaries from the Holy Roman Empire. In the aftermath of that invasion and pillaging, a new and more serious air permeated what had been a laboratory for free thinking.
Michelangelo accepted a second commission in the chapel in 1535, when he painted his Last Judgment on the wall behind the altar.
It's a massive work and because Michelangelo painted it, it's filled with surprises that are plainly visible with this interactive photograph.
Here's St. Bartholomew and he's holding his own flayed skin.
It's St. Batholomew's skin, but that's Michelangelo's face.
Michelangelo's comfort with showing human nudity caused a lot of controversy in its day and that controversy reached it's peak as he was painting his Last Judgment. George Vasari's 1987 book The Lives of the Artists quotes Michelangelo's chief accuser, Biagio da Cesena: "it was mostly disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully, and that it was no work for a papal chapel but rather for the public baths and taverns."
Michelangelo got even with him by depicting him as Minos, a judge of the underworld. To make his point further, Minos has the ears of an ass.
Even more amusing is that when da Cesena complained to the Pope about the depiction, the Pope told da Cesena: "That is too bad. If you were in purgatory, I could help you. But my jurisdiction does not extend to hell, so the portrait will have to remain."
It's cool when a 500-year-old joke can still get a laugh.
The forces da Cesena represented had the final say though because shortly after Michelangelo died in 1564, the nudes in the Last Judgment were covered by loin cloths and fig leaves.
Thanks go to the terrific Nancie Mills-Pipgras, my editor at Mosaic Art Now, who pointed me to EternallyCool.net, where I saw this Sistine Chapel link last week.