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Discovering the Paintings of the Vault in the Sistine Chapel

Discovering the Paintings of the Vault in the Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel was built by the architect Giovanni de' Dolci between 1475 and 1483. The chapel was commissioned by Sixtus IV, who wanted this construction to have essential forms, and to be closed and almost inaccessible from the outside, close to fortified. Then the paintings, begun in 1481, transformed this severe, almost bare chapel into a valuable gallery of the Italian painting from the Renaissance. It was once again Pope Sixtus IV that hired some of the best painters of the era, such as Perugino, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli, to realize the stories of the Old and New Testaments, which are painted on the central strip of the two longer walls: the life of Moses (Old Testament) on one side and the life of Christ (the New Testament), on the other, so that the two painting cycles face each other. Visiting the Chapel, it is interesting to compare the two stories and see them proceed in parallel, since almost every frame mirrors in its counterpart on the other side of the room.

In 1508 Pope Julius II, always eager for new enterprises, ordered the young Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The gigantic work, which replaced the previous blue background with golden stars, began in February 1508 and came to an end in 1512, twenty-three years before The Last Judgment. The objective difficulty represented by the size (800 square metres) and the bareness of the surface of the vault was brightly overcame by Michelangelo with an invention that reveals the scope of his artistic genius. Indeed, he superimposed on the actual framework a painted structure, in which he placed, with an amazing 3D effect, the various figurative elements. The vault of the Sistine Chapel is simply the hand-work of a revolutionary architect: the prophets, the sibyls and every other figure, are the creation of a great artist, who was able to blend together painting, sculpture and architecture like no other.

He used the particular concept of the vault to insert dynamically the mighty figures into the scenes. He integrated in the overall concept a series of nine frames with episodes from Genesis, which follow one another in chronological order from the main altar to the entrance wall. The first one is the Separation of Light from Darkness, follow the Creation of the Sun, Moon and Vegetation, the Separation of the Earth from the Waters and The Creation of Adam, the latter being the central scene of the cycle, also relevant from an artistic point of view, a fresco so extraordinary that it would be enough to make its author last forever in history. In this fresco the artist expresses the sublime act of creation with the simple touch of the fingertips, through which it seems like an actual vitality charge passes between the Creator and Adam. The cycle continues with the Creation of Eve and The Original Sin and the Banishment from the Garden of Eden, where the scene is divided into two parts by the tree which the Snake is wrapped around. On the left side said snake calls Adam and Eve to take the forbidden fruit, while on the right side, with a cause and effect relationship, it takes place the drama of the banishment from the Garden of Eden. Follows The Sacrifice of Noah, and then The Deluge, a fresco crowded with figures and episodes. Chronologically, the former should have followed the latter, but Michelangelo chose to put it before, probably in order to dispose of a larger panel in the ceiling for the majestic Deluge. With The Drunkness of Noah ends the cycle, tinged with a note of bitter pessimism about the miseries of human nature.

The Prophets and Sibyls, placed in triangular spaces, where the vault curves, are the larger figures of the monumental work. All are represented sat and accompanied with angels and genii. There are: Jonah, the Libyan Sibyl, Daniele, the Cumaean Sibyl, Isaiah, The Delphic Sibyl, Zechariah, the Erythraean Sibyl, Ezekiel, the Persian Sibyl, Jeremiah. Also, the famous “ignudi michelangioleschi” (Michelangelo’s typical naked figures) are interposed between the central frames of the vault, while the ancestors of Christ are depicted in the lunettes above the windows and in the triangular pendentives, and episodes from the Old Testament occupy the four angular pendentive. Finally on the sides of the main altar we see The Punishment of Haman on the left and The Brazen Serpent on the right, while on the opposite wall, David and Goliath was painted on the left and Judith and Holofernes on the right.