Michelangelo. The interior of the Sistine Chapel showing the ceiling fresco. Sistine Chapel, Vatican. More.
The Sistine Chapel
When Michelangelo was invited to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the lower walls of it were already decorated with scenes from the lives of Moses and Christ, executed by the Florentine and Umbrian artists Botticelli (The Temptation of Christ (1481-1482), Scenes from the Life of Moses (1481-1482), The Punishment of Korah (1481-1482)), Cosimo Rosselli, Piero di Cosimo, Domenico Ghirlandaio (The Calling of St. Peter), Luca Signorelli, Pinturicchio and Pietro Perugino (The Delivery of the Keys (1482)). Above these frescoes, which occupied straightforward rectangular fields, Michelangelo created his masterpiece.
The twelve existing windows along the lateral walls of the chapel he integrated by means of twelve lunettes capped with twelve spandrels. In them he depicted ancestors of Christ:
Azor and Sadok; Josias, Jechonias and Salathiel; Ezekias, Manasses and Amon; Asa, Josaphat and Joram; Jesse, David and Solomon; Naasson; Aminadab; Salmon, Booz and Obed; Roboam and Abia; Ozias, Joatham and Achaz; Zorobabel; Abiud and Eliakim; Achim and Eliud; Jacob and Joseph; Eleazar and Matthan.
Between these he placed the large seated figures of the Prophets and Sibyls: The Prophet Zechariah, The Sibyl of Delphi, The Prophet Isiah, The Cumaean Sibyl, The Prophet Daniel, The Libyan Sibyl, The Prophet Jonah, The Persian Sibyl, The Prophet Jeremiah, The Erythraean Sibyl, The Prophet Ezekiel, The Prophet Joel.
The entire central section of the ceiling he crossed with painted arches, dividing the ceiling into nine pictorial fields. The arches are supported at either end by painted columns. Between the arches, Michelangelo skillfully grouped the nine central fields thus created into three triptychs: The Creation of the World, The Creation and Fall of Man, and The Story of Noah.
The Creation of the World consists of three frescoes: The Separation of Light and Darkness, The Creation of the Sun and Moon, The Separation of Land and Water.
The Creation and Fall of Man includes the following frescoes: The Creation of Adam, The Creation of Eve, The Fall and The Expulsion from Paradise.
The Story of Noah consists of frescoes: The Sacrifice of Noah, The Flood, The Drunkenness of Noah.
He thereby organized the fields into a rhythmical sequence in which a large picture is flanked by two smaller ones, a device which dramatically emphasizes the four main scenes: The Creation of Sun and Moon, The Creation of Adam, The Fall and the Expulsion from Paradise, and The Flood.
At the meeting of the cornices are twenty Ignudi, paintings of naked young men, who have no connection whatsoever to the theme of the rest of the project. Michelangelo's reasons for including them are unknown, but it is mostly likely that they were simply aesthetic: Michangelo admired the male figure and often used male models even for his depictions of women.
The extraordinary thing about Michelangelo's design is that it is designed and articulated as a single unit. The groups are framed in a system of cornices in such a way that they produce the effect of enormous three-dimensional plaques and cameos. At the same time, not a single one of the frescoes is meant to stand on its own; and each one is perfectly integrated to form the unity of the whole.