Michelangelo and Sistine Chapel Artworks

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Michelangelo and Sistine Chapel Artworks

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco is both a masterpiece and the object of one of the fiercest-ever campaigns about morality and decency. The unveiling of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco in 1541 revealed a masterpiece and a colossal scandal. Michelangelo di Ludovico Buonarroti Simone was a sculptor, architect and engineer and considered painting a lower form of artistic representation; for this reason he considered Pope Julius II’s commission to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling in 1506 in Saint Peter’s Basilica a humiliation. He nevertheless agreed and signed the contract of his life with the Catholic Church.

The Making of a Masterpiece: Perfection Was Not Enough

The maestro spent endless hours on a scaffold (which he engineered himself) almost 20 meters in the air and worked incessantly from 1508 to 1512 under less-than-ideal conditions. Natural light was poor and the only artificial light available were dozens of burning candles, and because the ceiling plaster had to be a fresco (created in damp plaster), wet paint was constantly dripping on Michelangelo.

The work was daunting, but Michelangelo was no common mortal. It was customary to work with one or more assistants for large projects, but he went solo with the massive project after dismissing six assistants he had summoned from Florence to help him with the fresco technique. He was not satisfied with the work they had begun, and, having seen everything he needed to know, he liquidated them and worked in solitude until the project was completed. Through the affresco technique of the time, Michelangelo single-handedly painted the doctrine of the Catholic Church on the 1,100 square-meter chapel ceiling. From 1508 to 1541 he painted some 300 figures illustrating narrative scenes from the Book of Genesis to the Last Judgment.

He worked longer than was expected of him, much to his and the pontiff’s frustration. For Michelangelo, perfection was not an option – for the pope it was a matter of life and death. Pope Julius II didn’t live to see Michelangelo’s work. He was succeeded by Pope Leo X who was shortly succeeded by Pope Clement VII who commissioned the Maestro with painting the Last Judgment on the altar of the Sistine Chapel. But time also ran out for Clement VII and he died before seeing the finished work. Pope Paul III oversaw the work which commenced in 1536 and was finished in 1541 with the Last Judgment.

What should have been Michelangelo’s shining moment became his darkest hour. A scandal descended upon the Vatican when the work in the Sistine Chapel was finally unveiled. Michelangelo’s heaven had no rage nor hell had fury like the Vatican’s wrath. Saints and sinners with nothing on but their skin were scattered across the sacral walls and ceiling, the fresco seemed “better suited to a bathroom or roadside wine shop than to a chapel of the Pope.”said at the time a papal master of ceremonies. The maestro’s skill in anatomy was aparent in all its glory. The unclad figures resembled classical pagan gods and there was little if anything of the canonical biblical figures gracing the walls elsewhere in the Vatican.

Michelangelo did not seek inspiration from the established representations of sacral art of the time but from infinite readings and interpretations of the Old Testament His humanist upbringing had been shaped in the milieu of the de Medici humanist academy in Florence. The nude figures had a symbolic meaning that was largely misunderstood by Church officials who called the artist “inventore delle porcherie” (inventor of obscenities). Michelangelo’s artistic output reflected a reconciliation between Christian theology and classical rationalism. There was no room in Michelangelo’s heaven and hell for clothes but only for souls awaiting their fate.

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