08 April 2010

Up close and personal with a Renaissance master work

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.


  1. I was just there in the last couple of weeks and I actually thought the opposite: there are so many things that I can see being here in person that I couldn't from pictures. I couldn't figure out how to pan on that link, so I didn't get to see if I'm still right. There are these figures on the side walls that look 3-D; I stared at them for a good 10 minutes. Completely brilliant.

  2. Wow indeed!

    Julie: you can pan around and zoom in with your mouse. It's not the most intuitive control in the world, but then again it's Italian. You can also zoom in with the shift key and pull back with the control key. The trompe l'oeil curtains and niches in the chapel were painted by Botticelli and the rest of the usual suspects from the Renaissance. Michelangelo gets all of the glory, but there were many hands that went into that room. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the walls too, but oh that ceiling sends me into convulsions.

  3. 500 year old jokes by a Pope no less
    Thanks again for sharing this - next best thing to being there?

  4. Too wonderful. Thanks for the link!
    Take me back to the good old days when popes had both style AND a sense of humor, and were willing to commission art on a grand scale.

    Now, the only papal art worth seeing is "the Ninth Hour" and that was John Paul II. It has me wondering what's in the aesthetic hopper for God's Rotweiller.

  5. Love this post, Paul. It made me think of one of my favorite poems I wrote years ago. I hope it's okay if I post it here. I love remembering the deeper work in the midst of the daily chaos!


    Who would find me in this life I have created
    assuming someone else's falsities:

    the jackal-headed god who plucks at the chain
    as they weigh my heart against the feather of truth; You —

    wishing to place the unhasped necklace around my throat, believing
    that the pavé diamonds will disguise your cross's proclivity?

    In the Sistine Chapel, God commands Eve to stand upright,
    while above her head she participates in The Fall of Man.

    And below, Adam reclines — one hand extended
    toward the reach of God's articulate finger.

    Saxon Henry

  6. Why didn't Michaelangelo consider himself a painter?! Holy smokes, I couldn't even begin to even think about creating a piece of art like that!!!!


  7. Carolyn: I don't know about it being the next best thing to being there, but it's terribly close. What would be better is a narration by an art historian. The symbolism in Renaissance art runs deep and I mean deep. The work of Michelangelo and his peers operates on a bunch of levels at one time and the effect is utterly mesmerizing.

    Saxon: Wow. Thank you. I'm honored that you feel comfortable enough to leave an original work as a comment. Wow.

    Kelly: He considered himself to be a sculptor first and foremost. Among his many talents though, he was an accomplished poet, architect and engineer too. The man was nothing short of amazing. Even so, I can't imagine that he was very good company. That level of brilliance left no room for social skills.

    Patrick: That's a good one. Wow. I'd never seen that installation before and I can only imagine that its unveiling caused the kind of stir that Michelangelo's Last Judgment did in its day.

  8. I was truly inspired! One of my favorite books is his book of poetry. Here's a verse:

    Into the ache of laughter from sweet cries
    I fell,--into a peace that cannot last,
    From one, eternal; truth away now cast,
    My senses intervene to tyrannize.
    Do all these torments from my heart arise,
    Or from your face? Since they hurt less, the vaster
    They grow, it must then be that burning-fast
    Torch of your eyes, stolen from paradise.

  9. That settles it, I'm writing a follow-up with one of his sonnets where he complains about having to paint that ceiling.

  10. Loving the exchange; love digging into poetry; love Michelangelo! I loved pulling my book of poems out, too...great follow-up post.


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