The Sistine chapel is one of the greatest artistic achievements in the world. Everyone knows it which is why the queues to get into the Vatican Museum are so long. Everyone is excited when they get into the chapel, which is why the security guards spend so much time shouting Silenzio, Silent, No Photo. Kudos for the chapel goes to Michelangelo Buonarroti. Ask anyone who painted the Sistine chapel and you’ll get the answer Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, commonly known as Michelangelo. But he was not the only artist involved in the chapel. He wasn’t the first, although his contribution was by the far the most onerous.
Amongst other artists, Sandro Botticelli contributed three frescoes to the walls. These are images that draw the eye even away from the ceiling. Ethereal Botticelli brushwork creates characters that contrast from those heavier, more solid creations of Michelangelo.
The atmosphere in the chapel is one of a pack of noisy, excited children trying to keep quiet but just not able to help themselves point and whisper. As the whisper rises to speaking the guards beat the noise back with a shouted Silenzio and the cycle starts again. It is not the best way to look at art, but then neither is standing up and peering at a ceiling. But everyone makes the effort because this is the most famous ceiling in the world. The creation of Adam might well be the most famous painting in the world. Everyone stands looking painfully up as though trying to spot a plane overhead, eyes struggling to take in the sheer mass of figures and colours. Heads bob down to give the neck muscles a break, people consult guide books and try and find what they’ve just read about on the ceiling.
It is an amazing sight. You enter the door in a single file queue of people and it hits you, paintings all around, everywhere you look. The walls to both sides, the ends of the room, the ceiling. It’s a staggering achievement by artists who were at the peak of their powers. It took only six years, being finished in 1483. The chapel itself has the same proportions as Noah’s ark and Solomon’s temple.
How to read the Sistine chapel
To read the story correctly it is necessary to focus first on the South wall, where frescoes depict key moments in the life of Moses. At the same time you should look at the pictures on the North wall which depict Jesus’ life and draw parallels with the Mosaic stories opposite. Oddly, the vital beginning scenes were destroyed when Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the huge Last Judgement on the West wall. The nativity of Christ and the finding of Moses in the basket were both lost. This definitely detracts from the fresco cycle and makes the starting point harder to find. It does in fact start with Moses returning from Egypt to free the Hebrews. On the other wall Christ’s life starts with his Baptism by Perugino’s assistants. That’s who painted the fresco – the baptism was performed by John the Baptist.
Scenes from both men’s lives fill the walls, ending in the giving of the keys to Peter and the Last Supper. The episode of Christ’s charge to Peter was seen as a moment when Peter was given supremacy – a vital argument in the Pope’s wish to be preeminent.
Botticelli’s Temptation of Christ is my choice of the frescoes around the room. In it he displays all the grace and beauty for which his paintings are renowned. Packed with action yet still managing to be calm and inspiring, it is the pick of the works on display. Or at least it would be if it wasn’t for the ceiling and the Last Judgement.
Michelangelo’s contributions are just so much bigger than everyone else’s that they have to be promoted to number one spot. They are superb, but there is so much of them. The ceiling is an art gallery on its own, a crazed addition, like a Bentley gatecrashing a concours Cinquecento convention. We know that Michelangelo regarded himself as a sculptor and was not keen to take on the commission. It took him from 1508 to 1512, a long period in the life of an artist who was constantly developing. The change in his style can be noted especially by studying his images of Zechariah and Jonah at different ends of the work. Zachariah sits comfortably in his chair, whilst Jonah seems to reverberate with an exuberance.
The scale of the ceiling can not be taken in in one visit. Indeed it is hard to imagine it can ever be properly studied by a visitor without special access as it is too far away and the environment is no longer conducive to contemplation. The ceiling is clearly a masterpiece. We all know that and somehow that is all we need to know. But it is on a scale that shouts its way into people’s affections. Botticelli’s work may be smaller and more compact but it allows the viewer to appreciate its qualities in a more humble manner.
The Last Judgement
Not content with adding the ceiling to the works of art in the Sistine chapel Michelangelo took on the commission to paint the Last Judgement on the West wall. Destroying in the process two frescoes in the cycle of Moses and Jesus’ lives. It took him seven years, finishing in 1541. Based on Dante, da Veroli and Plato’s thought the huge fresco embodies ideas that Michelangelo returned to in his poetry.
Technically the work of a great capolavoro the work takes a new approach to the subject, with the scenes swirling around Christ rather than being depicted in layered images of Heaven, Earth and Hell. It is known that Pope Clement VII had studied Copernicus’ cosmology and the fresco could be a symbol of this new approach, with Jesus placed directly in the centre.