Michelangelo exhibits Sistine Chapel 500 years ago

A portion of the massive Sistine Chapel. Photo courtesy of FotopediaTHURSDAY, NOVEMBER 1: Even at a sweeping pace and a fresco style of painting, it took Michelangelo four years to finish detailing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel—and 500 years ago today, the masterpiece was exhibited to the public. Fellow artist Giorgio Vasari described the pivotal event: “The whole world came running when the vault was revealed, and the sight of it was enough to reduce them to a stunned silence.” (Take a virtual tour of the chapel with help from the Vatican.)

The Sistine’s ceiling has inspired artists, theologians and visitors alike through the past five centuries, and it continues to inspire tens of thousands of visitors to the Vatican every year. Among other things, the Sistine Chapel is the Papal Chapel where bishops privately elect the next pope. To mark the anniversary, Pope Benedict XVI is repeating the vespers of Pope Julius II beneath the glorious ceiling to mark the half-millenium event.

Julius II was in the midst of a sweeping campaign to increase the Church’s power in Italy when he imagined a grand project: the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. (Wikipedia has details.) The walls of the chapel had been painted two decades earlier, but the pope envisioned a piece of art so immense and layered in its complexity that it would endlessly stir conversations among the bishops who gathered there. Pope Julius asked—or, rather, demanded—that Michelangelo take on the job. Primarily a sculptor, Michelangelo hesitated and, when war broke out in Rome, he fled to continue sculpting elsewhere. Yet when war ended, Pope Julius returned to his powerful position at the Vatican, summoned Michelangelo for the project and signed a contract with the artist in May of 1508. (A Smithsonian article names the artist, on this 500th anniversary, a “genius.”)


In his early 30s, Michelangelo was already a renowned artist; when the contract was signed with Pope Julius, Michelangelo began studying, reading, and rereading the Bible—a practice that continued until the ceiling was finished. Many hold that Michelangelo was given free reign to design the scheme of the ceiling, and rather than base his figures on traditional works of art, he drew inspiration from scriptural words. Perhaps the most often imitated image is that of God’s hand touching the hand of Adam—an image that modern artists and authors believe is laced with even more meaning than meets the eye. Think “E.T.” and “2012” among other modern works. On Michelangelo’s ceiling, nine scenes from Genesis paint time from the Creation of Adam to the Drunkenness of Noah. Apostles, prophets, various biblical figures and more dot the painting’s landscape, to rally a total of 343 figures. Observers may notice hidden humor—such as a profane gesture by one cherub—but the overall message of the ceiling is humanity’s need for Salvation, offered by God through Jesus.


Michelangelo designed his own scaffold for the four-year project, and the holes used to support his platform were reused in the latest restoration project (1980-1999). Some argue that, when removing the layers of grime caused by centuries of candle smoke, the paintings were left lacking Michelangelo’s stunning highlights and shadows. (Get the story in The Australian.) Future preventative measures have led various suggestions, including a climate control system that will offset the humidity, dust and sweat brought in by 5 million tourists every year. Tourist numbers have doubled in the past 20 years, and the Vatican expects increasing numbers of Asian visitors to bring up the number even more. (Museum Director Antonio Paolucci assured the Vatican newspaper that the paintings would be protected for another 500 years.)

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