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Michelangelo's Paintings In The Sistine Chapel

( Originally Published 1920 )



THE ceiling of the Sistine Chapel contains the most perfect works done by Michelangelo in his long and active life. Herehis great spirit appears in its noblest dignity, in its highest purity; here the attention is not disturbed by that arbitrary display to which his great power not unfrequently seduced him in other works. The ceiling forms a flattened arch in its section: the central portion, which is a plain surface, contains a series of large and small pictures, representing the most important events recorded in the book of Genesis-the Creation and Fall of Man, with its immediate consequences. In the large triangular compartments at the springing of the vault are sitting figures of the Prophets and Sibyls, as the foretellers of the coming of the Saviour. In the soffits of the recesses between these compartments, and in the arches underneath, immediately above the windows, are the ancestors of the Virgin, the series leading the mind directly to the Saviour. The external connection of these numerous representations is formed by an architectural framework of peculiar composition, which encloses the single subjects, tends to make the principal masses conspicuous, and gives to the whole an appearance of that solidity and support so necessary, but so seldom attended to, in soffit decorations, which may be considered as if suspended. A great number of figures are also connected with the framework; those in unimportant situations are executed in the color of stone or bronze; in the more important, in natural colors. These serve to support the architectural forms, to fill up and to connect the whole. This may be best described as the living and embodied genii of architecture. It required the unlimited power of an architect, sculptor, and painter to conceive a structural whole of so much grandeur, to design the decorative figures with the significant repose required by the sculpturesque character, and yet to pre-serve their subordination to the principal subjects, and to keep the latter in the proportion and relations best adapted to the space to be filled."-Kugler, p. 301.

The pictures from the Old Testament, beginning from the altar, are :

1. The Separation of Light and Darkness.

2. The Creation of the Sun and Moon.

3. The Creation of Trees and Plants.

4. The Creation of Adam.

5. The Creation of Eve.

6. The Fall and the Expulsion from Paradise.

7. The Sacrifice of Noah.

8. The Deluge.

9. The Intoxication of Noah.

"The scenes from Genesis are the most sublime representations of these subjects;-the Creating Spirit is unveiled before us. The peculiar type which the painter has here given of the form of the Almighty Father has been frequently imitated by his followers, and even by Raffaelle, but has been surpassed by none. Michelangelo has represented Him in majestic flight, sweeping through the air, surrounded by genii, partly supporting, partly borne along with Him, covered by His floating drapery; they are the distinct syllables, the separate virtues of His creating word. In the first (large) compartment we see Him with extended hands, assigning to the sun and moon their respective paths. In the second, He awakens the first man to life. Adam lies stretched on the verge of the earth, in the act of raising himself ; the Creator touches him with the point of His finger, and appears thus to endow him with feeling and life. This picture displays a wonderful depth of thought in the composition, and the utmost elevation and majesty in the general treatment and execution. The third subject is not less important, representing the Fall of Man and his Expulsion from Paradise. The tree of knowledge stands in the midst, the serpent (the upper part of the body being that of a woman) is twined around the stem; she bends down towards the guilty pair, who are in the act of plucking the forbidden fruit. The figures are nobly graceful, particularly that of Eve. Close to the serpent hovers the angel with the sword, ready to drive the fallen beings out of Paradise. In this double action. this union of two separate moments, there is something peculiarly poetic and significant; it is guilt and punishment in one picture. The sudden and lightning-like appearance of the avenging angel behind the demon of darkness has a most impressive effect."-Kugler, p. 304.

"Pheidias created tranquil Divinities; Michelangelo, suffering Heroes."-Goethe.

The lower portion of the ceiling is divided into curvilinear triangular spaces occupied by the Prophets and Sibyls in solemn contemplation, accompanied by angels and genii. Beginning from the left of the entrance, their order is:

1. Joel. 6. Sibylla Libyca.

2. Sibylla Erythraea. 7. Daniel.

3. Ezekiel. 8. Sibylla Cumaea.

4. Sibylla Persica. 9. Isaiah.

5. Jonah. 10. Sibylla Delphica.

"The Prophets and Sibyls in the triangular compartments of the curved portion of the ceiling are the largest figures in the whole work; these, too, are among the most wonderful forms that modern art has called into life. They are all represented seated, employed with books or rolled manuscripts : genii stand near or behind them. These mighty beings sit before us pensive, meditative, inquiring, or looking upwards with inspired countenances. Their forms and movements, indicated by the grand lines and masses of the drapery, are majestic and dignified. We see in them beings who, while they feel and bear the sorrows of a corrupt and sinful world, have power to look for consolation into the secrets of the future. Yet the greatest variety prevails in the attitudes and expression-each figure is full of individuality. Zacharias is an aged man, busied in calm and circumspect investigation : Jeremiah is bowed down absorbed in thought the thought of deep and bitter grief ; Ezekiel turns with hasty movement to the genius next to him, who points upwards with. joyful expectation, etc. The Sibyls are equally characteristic': the Persian, a lofty, majestic woman, very aged; the Erythrsean-full of power, like the warrior-goddess of wisdom; the Delphic-like Cassandra, youthfully soft and graceful, but with strength to bear the awful seriousness of revelation."-Kugler, p. 304.

"The belief of the Roman Catholic Church in the testimony of the Sibyl is shown by the well-known hymn, beginning with the verse:

'Dies irea, dies ilia,

Solvet saeclum in favilla; Teste David cum Sibylla.'

It may be inferred that this (fourteenth-century) hymn, admitted into the liturgy of the Roman Church, gave sanction to the adoption of the Sibyls into Christian art. They are seen from this time accompanying the prophets and apostles in the cyclical decorations of the Church. . . . But the highest honor that art has rendered to the Sibyls has been by the hand of Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Here, in the conception of a mysterious Order of women, placed above and without all considerations of the graceful or the individual, the great master was peculiarly in his element. They exactly fitted his standard of art, not always sympathetic, nor comprehensible to the average human mind, of which the grand in form and the abstract in expression were the last and first conditions. In this respect the Sibyls on the Sistine ceiling are more Michelangelesque than their companions the Prophets. For these, while types of the highest monumental treatment, are yet men, while the Sibyls belong to a distinct class of beings, who convey the impression of the very obscurity in which their history is wrapt--creatures who have lived far from the abodes of men, who are alike devoid of the expression of feminine sweetness, human sympathy, or sacramental beauty; who are neither Christians nor Jewesses, Witches nor Graces, yet living, grand, beautiful, and true, according to laws revealed to the great Florentine genius only. Thus their figures may be said to be unique, as the offspring of a peculiar sympathy between the master's mind and his subject. To this sympathy may be ascribed the prominence and size given them-both Prophets and Sibyls-ascompared to their usual relation to the subjects they environ. They sit here in twelve throne-like niches, more like presiding deities, each wrapped in self-contemplation, than as tributary witnesses to the truth and omnipotence of Him they are intended to announce. Thus they form a gigantic framework round the subjects of the Creation, of which the birth of Eve, as the type of the Nativity, is the intentional centre. For some reason, the twelve figures are not Prophets and Sibyls alternately-there being only five Sibyls to seven Prophets-so that the Prophets come together at one angle. Books and scrolls are given indiscriminately to them.

"The Sibylla Persica, supposed to be the oldest of the sisterhood, holds the book close to her eyes, as if from dimness of sight, which fact, contradicted as it is by a frame of obviously herculean strength, gives a mysterious intentness to the action.

"The Sibylla Libyca, of equally powerful proportions, but less closely draped, is grandly bringing herself to lift a massive volume from a height above her head on to her knees.

"The Sibylla Cummaea, also aged, and with her head covered, is reading with her volume at a distance from her eyes.

"The Sibylla Delphica, with waving hair escaping from her turban, is a beautiful young being-the most human of all-gazing into vacancy or futurity. She holds a scroll.

"The Sibylla Erythraea, a grand bare-headed creature, sits reading intently with crossed legs, about to turn over her book.

"The Prophets are equally grand in structure, and though, as we have said, not more than men, yet they are the only men that could well bear the juxtaposition with their stupendous female colleagues. Ezekiel, between Erythraea and Persica, has a scroll in his hand that hangs by his side, just cast down, as he turns eagerly to listen to some voice.

"Jeremiah, a magnificent figure, sits with elbow on knee and head on hand, rapt in the meditation appropriate to one called to utter lamentation and woe. He has neither book nor scroll.

"Jonah is also without either. His position is strained and ungraceful-looking upwards, and apparently remonstrating with the Almighty upon the destruction of the gourd, a few leaves of which are seen above him. His hands are placed together with a strange and trivial action, supposed to denote the counting on his fingers the number of days he was in the fish's belly. A formless marine monster is seen at his side.

"Daniel has a book on his lap, with one hand on it. He is young, and a piece of lion's skin seems to allude to his history."-Lady Eastlake, "History of Our Lord," i. 248.

In the recesses between the Prophets and Sibyls is a series of lovely family groups representing the Genealogy of the Virgin. The four corners of the ceiling contain triangular groups illustrative of the power of Jehovah displayed in the deliverance of His chosen people.

Near the altar are :

R.-The deliverance of the Israelites by means of the brazen serpent.

L.-The execution of Haman.

Near the entrance are:

R: Judith and Holofernes.

L.-David and Goliath.

Only 3,000 ducats were paid to Michelangelo for all his great work on the ceiling of the Sistine. It was uncovered November, 1512, and fairly astonished the world.

It was when Michelangelo was already in his sixtieth year that Clement VII. formed the idea of effacing the three pictures of Perugino at the end of the chapel, and employing him to paint in their place the vast fresco of "The Last Judgment." It occupied the master for seven years, and was finished in 1541, when Paul III. occupied the throne. During this time Michelangelo, a devout Dante-lover, frequently read and re-read the wonderful sermons of Savonarola, to refresh his mind, and that he might drink in and absorb, and reproduce, their religious grandeur. To induce him to pursue his work with application, Paul III. went himself to his house attended by ten cardinals : "an honor," says Lanzi, "unique in the annals of art." The Pope wished that the picture should be painted in oil, to which he was persuaded by Sebastiano del Piombo, but Michelangelo refused to work, except in fresco, saying that oil-painting was for women and lazy persons.

"In the upper half of the picture we see the judge of the world, surrounded by the apostles and patriarchs; beyond these, on one side, are the martyrs; on the other, the saints and a numerous host of the blessed. Above, under the two arches of the vault, two groups of angels bear the instruments of the Passion. Below the Saviour another group of angels holding the books of life sound the trumpets to awaken the dead. On the right is represented the resurrection; and higher, the ascension of the blessed. On the left, hell, and the fall of the condemned, who audaciously strive to press to heaven.

"The day of wrath ('dies irae') is before us-the day of which the old hymn says

'Quantus tremor est futurus, Quando judex est venturus, Cuncta stricte discussurus.'

The Judge turns in wrath towards the condemned and raises His right hand with an expression of rejection and condemnation; be-side Him the Virgin veils herself with her drapery, and turns with a countenance full of anguish towards the blessed. The martyrs, on the left, hold up the instruments and proofs of their martyrdom, in accusation of those who had occasioned their temporal death: these the avenging angels drive from the gates of heaven, and fulfil the sentence pronounced against them. Trembling and anxious, the dead rise slowly, as if still fettered by the weight of an earthly nature; the pardoned ascend to the blessed; a mysterious horror pervades even their hosts-no joy, nor peace, nor blessedness are to be found here.

"It must be admitted that the artist has laid a stress on this view of his subject, and this has produced an unfavorable effect upon the upper half of his picture. We look in vain for the glory of heaven, for beings who bear the stamp of divine holiness and renunciation of human weakness; everywhere we meet with the expression of human passion, of human efforts. We see no choir of solemn, tranquil forms, no harmonious unity of clear, grand lines, produced by ideal draperies; instead of these, we find a confused crowd of the most varied movements, naked bodies in violent attitudes, unaccompanied by any of the characteristics made sacred by holy tradition. Christ, the principal figure of the whole, wants every attribute but that of the Judge : no expression of divine majesty reminds us that it is the Saviour who exercises this office. The upper part of the composition is in many parts heavy, notwithstanding the masterly boldness of the drawing; confused, in spite of the separation of the principal and accessory groups; capricious, notwithstanding a grand arrangement of the whole. But, granting for a moment that these defects exist, still this upper portion, as a whole, has a very impressive effect, and, at the great distance from which it is seen, some of the defects alluded to are less offensive to the eye. The lower half deserves the highest praise. In these groups, from the languid resuscitation and upraising of the pardoned, to the despair of the condemned, every variety of expression, anxiety, anguish, rage, and despair is power-fully delineated. In the convulsive struggles of the condemned with the evil demons; the most passionate energy displays itself, and the extraordinary skill of the artist here finds its most appropriate exercise. A peculiar tragic grandeur pervades alike the beings who are given up to despair and their hellish tormentors. The representation of all that is fearful, far from being repulsive, is thus invested with that true moral dignity which is so essential a condition in the higher aims of art."-Kugler, p. 308.

"It may be fanciful, but it seems to me that in this, and in every other of Michelangelo's works, you may see that the idea, beauties, and peculiar excellencies of statuary were ever present to his mind; that they are the conceptions of a sculptor embodied in painting.

" . . . S. Catharine, in a green gown, and somebody else in a blue one, are supremely hideous. Paul IV., in an unfortunate fit of prudery, was seized with the resolution of whitewashing over the whole of the Last Judgment, in order to cover the scandal of a few naked female figures. With difficulty was he prevented from utterly destroying the grandest painting in the world, but he could not be dissuaded from ordering these poor women to be clothed in this unbecoming drapery. Daniele da Volterra, whom he employed in this office (in the lifetime of Michelangelo), received, in consequence, the name of Il Braghettone (the. breeches-maker)."-Eaton's "Rome."

"The Apostles in Michelangelo's 'Last Judgment' stand on each side of the Saviour, who is not here Saviour and Redeemer, but inexorable Judge. They are grandly and artificially grouped, all without any drapery whatever, with forms and attitudes which recall an assemblage of Titans holding a council of war, rather than the glorified companions of Christ."-Jameson's "Sacred and Legendary Art," i. 179.

" 'The Last Judgment' produced to my eye the same sort of confusion that perplexes my ear at a grand concert consisting of a great variety of instruments, or rather when a number of people are talking at once."-T. Smollett, Letter xxxiii.

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