Sistine Chapel - spot the differences!

Wed, 06/23/2010 - 06:11

Words by Aleid Ford

In the winter of 1508, Rome was drenched by heavy rains. The new year was whipped in by the tramontana, the frigid north wind reputed to bring fatigue and depression
along with the cold. The wet and freezing conditions of that year were desperate for Michelangelo, who had just begun frescoing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

It was in January that disaster struck, when a fungus and an efflorescence of salt appeared on his freshly-painted surfaces.

Too much moisture had seeped in through the bricks and mortar of the building. Mildew and salt crystals now obscured his figures so badly that they could barely be distinguished. ‘I am in a great quandary,’ he wrote to his father after the efflorescence appeared. ‘My work does not seem to go ahead in a way to merit anything. This is due to the difficulty of the work and also because it is not my profession. In consequence, I lose my time fruitlessly.’

A hard taskmaster

This setback so early in the painting process did not bode well for Michelangelo. He had been coaxed into the Sistine job by the overbearing Pope Julius II and tried now to use the January mould/salt disaster as an excuse to abandon the work.

He wrote to Julius, ‘Indeed I told Your Holiness that this is not my art. What I have done is spoiled. If you do not believe me, send someone to see.’ But the Pope was unremitting and insisted that Michelangelo continue as planned. The damaged scenes had to be chipped away and a new plaster base laid before work could begin again from scratch.

Michelangelo faced many problems in the course of the four years he spent working on the Sistine vault (1508-1512). Alterations in the proposed design, trouble with assistants and an erratic patron all contributed to a frustrating process.

The most dramatic hitch came quite suddenly, two years in, when a sudden and serious lack of funds and the Pope’s war with Bologna called a complete halt to the job. With not one cent in the papal coffers and Julius’s mind on war not art, Michelangelo was forced to lay down his brushes for a whole year between 1510 and 1511.

The hiatus was a serious irritant to Michelangelo but what the visitor to the Sistine Chapel will notice is that that 12-month break brought about some extraordinary changes in the way he approached work on the ceiling. As Michelangelo progressed from one end of the vault to the other, we can see how he modified and refined his painting to better suit the Chapel. Michelangelo always maintained that he was a sculptor at heart, but the Sistine frescoes capture his very unique evolution as a painter over four stressful years.

Size matters

During the first phase of work, Michelangelo painted everything from the prophet Zechariah up to and including the fifth bay (central panel) of the vault, also encompassing the prophets, sibyls and ancestors and Christ on either side.

The second phase of work took just one year to complete and the frescoes painted during this time are the most admired of the ceiling. When he resumed the work, Michelangelo significantly increased the size of all the figures he painted. God appears divested with real physical mass and bulk, as do the later prophets and sibyls.

Just look at the unruly mass of Jonah’s sprawling body! Individual features are exaggerated (see the great, gnarly hands of the prophet Jeremiah). The poses have become more daring, as seen in the complex and energetic contrapposto positions of the later Ignudi (the nude males that frame each of the central biblical panels).

These later, bigger bodies, styled into dynamic poses, make much more of an impact when seen from the chapel floor.

The different scenes on the ceiling are bound into a cohesive whole by the fictive architectural framework. This includes a series of grey thrones on which the prophets and sibyls sit. It looks like Michelangelo changed these too in his bid for greater impact. The prophets Jonah, Jeremiah and Daniel and the Persian and Libyan sibyls sit on thrones that are set much further forward than their earlier counterparts. The result is that they seem to pitch dangerously forward, right into our space. One almost feels like ducking!

Minimalist approach

One of the most effective changes that Michelangelo brought into his later work was a newly-chiselled approach to narrative. The early biblical scenes painted in the first campaign (Drunkenness of Noah, The Flood and the Sacrifice of Noah) are busy images, stuffed full of figures.

They conform with Leon Battista Alberti’s 15th-century notion of the perfect historical scene but are too riddled with detail to make sense a few metres down. I challenge the reader to spot the frying pan that appears in The Flood or to count the staggering 65 protagonists in that scene. For the later images, Michelangelo seems to have deliberately pared the painting down: the last few central panels feature very few figures (mostly just God on his own) and are entirely more legible as a result. The story is captured in just one dramatic pose, rather than in a bunch of figures.

It is impossible not to feel the force of ‘Creation’ when one looks at the powerful figure of God in a scene like the Separation of the Water from Earth, where his hands press right up against the ‘surface’ of the fresco. It was just this kind of interplay between ceiling and floor that Michelangelo must have been after.

In the Chapel we are witness to Michelangelo’s growing confidence as a painter. He was ultimately under enormous pressure to finish the work and executed some of the scenes with bewildering skill and pace. The panel of God Separating Light from Darkness was completed in just one day. He never lost his affinity with his first love of stone and seems to have derived much of his painting prowess from his experience as a sculptor.

The later figures possess the kind of physiological presence and spiritual penetration that one sees in his David and Moses statues.