The Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel is rectangular and measures 40,93 meters (134,28 feet) long by 13,41 meters (44 feet) wide (the dimensions of the Temple of Solomon, as given in the Old). It is 20,70 meters (67,91 feet) high and is roofed by a flattened barrel vault, with small side vaults over the 6 centered windows. The pavement (15th century) is in opus alexandrinum.
The architectural plans were made by Baccio Pontelli and the construction work was supervised by Giovannino de Dolci between 1473 and 1484, at the orders of Sixtus IV.
The first mass in the Sistine Chapel was celebrated on 9 August 1483, as a ceremony by which it was consecrated and dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.
The wall painting were executed by premier painters of the Quattrocento: Perugino, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Rosellini, Signorelli and their respective workshops, wich included Pinturicchio, Piero di Cosimo and Bartolomeo della Gata. The subjects were historical religious themes, selected and divided according to the medieval concept of the partition of the world history into there epochs: before the Ten Commandments were given to Moses, between Moses and Christs birth, and the Christian era thereafter. They underline the continuity between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, or the transition from the Mosaic law to the Christian religion.
The walls were painted over an astonishingly short period of time, barely eleven months, from July, 1481 to May, 482. The painters were each required first to execute a sample fresco; these were to be officially examined and evaluated in January, 1482. However, it was so evident at such an early stage that the frescoes would be satisfactory that by October 1481, the artists were given the commission to execute the remaining ten stories.
The pictorial programme for the chapel was comprised of a cycle each from the Old and New Testament of scenes from the lives of Moses and Christ. The narratives began at the altar wall - the frescoes painted there yielding to Michelangelo's Last Judgment a mere thirty year later - continued along the long walls of the chapel, and ended at the entrance wall. A gallery of papal portraits was painted above these depictions, and the latter were completed underneath by representations of painted curtains. The individual scenes from the two cycles contain typological references to one another. The Old and New Testament are understood as constituting a whole, with Moses appearing as the prefiguration of Christ.
The two most important scenes from the fresco cycle, Perugino's Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter and Botticelli's The Punishment of Korah; both contain in the background the triumphal arch of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, who gave the Pope temporal power over the Roman western world. The triumphal arch alludes to the imperial grant of papal power of the Pope. Sixtus IV was thereby not only illustrating his position in a line of succession starting in the Old Testament and continuing through the New Testament up to contemporary times, but was simultaneously restating the view of the papacy as the legitimate successor to the Roman Empire.
The Punishment of the Korah - the message of this painting provides the key to an understanding of the Sistine Chapel as a whole before Michelangelo's work. The fresco reproduces three episodes, each of which depicts a rebellion by the Hebrews against God's appointed leaders, Moses and Aaron, along with the ensuing divine punishment of the agitators. On the right-hand side, the revolt of the Jews against Moses is related, the latter portrayed as an old man with a long white beard, clothed in a yellow robe and an olive-green cloak. Irritated by the various trials through which their emigration from Egypt was putting them, the Jews demanded that Moses be dismissed. They wanted a new leader, one who would take them back to Egypt, and they threatened to stone Moses; however, Joshua placed himself protectively between them and their would-be victim, as depicted in Botticelli's painting.
The centre of the fresco shows the rebellion, under the leadership of Korah, of the sons of Aaron and some Levites, who, setting themselves up in defiance of Aaron's authority as high priest, also offered up incense. In the background we see Aaron in a blue robe, swinging his incense censer with an upright posture and filled with solemn dignity, while his rivals stagger and fall to the ground with their censers at God's behest. Their punishment ensues on the left-hand side of the picture, as the rebels are swallowed up by the earth, which is breaking open under them. The two innocent sons of Korah, the ringleader of the rebels, appear floating on a cloud, exempted from the divine punishment.
The principal message of these scenes is made manifest by the inscription in the central field of the triumphal arch: "Let no man take the honour to himself except he that is called by God, as Aaron was." The fresco thus holds a warning that God's punishment will fall upon those who oppose God's appointed leaders. This warning also contained a contemporary political reference through the portrayal of Aaron in the fresco, depicted wearing the triple-ringed tiara of the Pope and thus characterized as the papal predecessor. It was a warning to those questioning the ultimate authority of the Pope over the Church. The papal claims to leadership were God-given, their origin lay in Christ giving Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven and thereby granting him privacy over the young Church. Perugino painted this crucial element of the doctrine of papal supremacy immediately opposite Botticelli's fresco.
Michelangelo Buonarroti was commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1508 to repaint the ceiling, originally representing golden stars on a blue sky; the work was completed between 1508 and 1 November 1512. He painted the Last Judgment over the altar, between 1535 and 1541, being commissioned by Pope Paul III Farnese. Michelangelo felt that he was a more developed sculptor than a painter, but he accepted the offer.
The Creation of Adam on the ceiling is the most famous Fresco in the Sistine Chapel
In 1508 Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the vault, or ceiling of the chapel. It took him until 1512 to complete. To be able to reach the ceiling, Michelangelo needed a support; the first idea was by Bramante, who wanted to build for him a special scaffold, suspended in the air with ropes. But Michelangelo suspected that this would leave holes in the ceiling once the work was ended, so he built a scaffold of his own, a flat wooden platform on brackets built out from holes in the wall, high up near the top of the windows. He stood on this scaffolding while he painted.
The first layer of plaster began to grow mold because it was too wet. Michelangelo had to remove it and start again, so he tried a new mixture of plaster, called intonaco, which was resistant to mold. Intonaco was created by one of Michelangelo's assistants, Jacopo l'Indaco. Intonaco is still in use today.
Michelangelo used bright colors, easily visible from the floor. On the lowest part of the ceiling he painted the ancestors of Christ. Above this he alternated male and female prophets, with Jonah over the altar. On the highest section Michelangelo painted nine stories from the Book of Genesis.
Michelangelo was employed to paint only 12 figures, the Apostles, but when the work was finished there were more than 300. His figures showed the creation, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and the Great Flood. The sketches are very precious and curious documents. Michelangelo used male models, even for the females, because female models were rare and more expensive.
The Last Judgement
St Bartholomew displaying his flayed skin (a self-portrait by Michelangelo) in The Last Judgement
The Last Judgment was painted by Michelangelo from 1535-1541, after the 1527 Sack of Rome by Protestant forces from the Holy Roman Empire, which effectively ended the Roman Renaissance, and just before the Council of Trent, a time of great uncertainty as to the future of the church. The work is massive and spans the entire wall behind the altar of the Sistine Chapel. The Last Judgment is a depiction of the second coming of Christ and the apocalypse. The souls of humanity rise and descend to their fates as judged by Christ and his saintly entourage. The wall on which The Last Judgment is painted cants out slightly over the viewer as it rises, and is meant to be somewhat fearful and to instill piety and respect for God's power. In contrast to the other frescoes in the Chapel, the figures are heavily muscled and appear somewhat tortured-even the Virgin Mary at the center cowers beneath him.
The Last Judgment was an object of a heavy dispute between Cardinal Carafa and Michelangelo: the artist was accused of immorality and intolerable obscenity, having depicted naked figures, with genitals in evidence, so a censorship campaign (known as the "Fig-Leaf Campaign") was organized by Carafa and Monsignor Sernini (Mantua's ambassador) to remove the frescoes. When the Pope's own Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, said "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 worked da Cesena's semblance into the scene as Minos, judge of the underworld. It is said that when he complained to the Pope, the pontiff responded that his jurisdiction did not extend to hell, so the portrait would have to remain.
Restoration and controversy
The chapel has been recently restored (1981 through 1994). This restoration was initially surrounded by a heated controversy in the art world, some claiming it a success and a breakthrough revelation, while a few claiming it ruined the masterpiece. Some conservationists complained about the loss of a brown patina that had developed over centuries, composed of candle smoke, soot, and repeated applications of poor quality varnish. Despite evidence to the contrary, they claim that this layer of murky material was actually applied by Michelangelo himself in order to "harmonise" what they called 'ice-cream colours'. The bright colours reveal Michelangelo to have been a masterful colourist, and close-ups of the frescos show complex brushwork that would not be matched, nor even attempted until the Impressionist movement of the 19th century. Others comment that bright colours were necessary for the frescos to stand out in the gloom of the chapel, with its high, narrow windows. Now that the electric lighting has been removed and the frescos illuminated solely by the light from the windows, the original colours and effect have been restored.
Because no substantial evidence has been found proving that these were Michelangelo's original intentions, the arguments are often disregarded.
Giorgio Vasari (about Michelangelo's frescoes):
This work has been and truly is a beacon of our art, and it has brought such benefit and enlightenment to the art of painting that it was sufficient to illuminate a world which for so many hundreds of years had remained in the state of darkness. And, to tell the truth, anyone who is a painter no longer needs to concern himself about seeing innovations and inventions, new ways of painting poses, clothing on figures, and various awe-inspiring details, for Michelangelo gave to this work all the perfection that can be given to such details.
Goethe: Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.
Werner Herzog (German filmmaker):
Many years ago I went to the Vatican and looked at Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. I was overwhelmed with the feeling that before Michelangelo no one had ever articulated and depicted human pathos as he did in those paintings. Since then all of us have understood ourselves just that little bit deeper, and for this reason I truly feel his achievements are as great as the invention of agriculture.
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