Michelangelo’s Sketches for the Sistine Chapel
When he was very young his mother died and his father sent him to live with a stone cutter’s family. Michelangelo always wanted to be an artist and he hated school. Finally he convinced his father to let him go study under a famous artist Ghirlandaio. After studying with Ghirlandaio for two years Michelangelo discovered his true passion; sculpture. His father unwillingly sent him to a school for sculptors founded by the great Lorenzo de Medici.
In the first three paintings, Michelangelo tells the story of The Creation of the Heavens and Earth; this is followed by The Creation of Adam and Eve and the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden; finally is the story of Noah and the Great Flood. Ignudi, or nude youths, sit in fictive architecture around these frescoes, and they are accompanied by prophets and sibyls (ancient seers who, according to tradition, foretold the coming of Christ) in the spandrels. In the four corners of the room, in the pendentives, one finds scenes depicting the Salvation of Israel. In this fresco, Michelangelo has used the physical space of the water and the sky to separate four distinct parts of the narrative. On the right side of the painting, a cluster of people seeks sanctuary from the rain under a makeshift shelter. On the left, even more people climb up the side of a mountain to escape the rising water. Centrally, a small boat is about to capsize because of the unending downpour. And in the background, a team of men work on building the ark—the only hope of salvation. Up close, this painting confronts the viewer with the desperation of those about to perish in the flood and makes one question God’s justice in wiping out the entire population of the earth, save Noah and his family, because of the sins of the wicked. Unfortunately, from the floor of the chapel, the use of small, tightly grouped figures undermines the emotional content and makes the story harder to follow. In 1510, Michelangelo took a yearlong break from painting the Sistine Chapel. The frescoes painted after this break are characteristically different from the ones he painted before it, and are emblematic of what we think of when we envision the Sistine Chapel paintings. These are the paintings, like The Creation of Adam, where the narratives have been pared down to only the essential figures depicted on a monumental scale. Because of these changes, Michelangelo is able to convey a strong sense of emotionality that can be perceived from the floor of the chapel. Indeed, the imposing figure of God in the three frescoes illustrating the separation of darkness from light and the creation of the heavens and the earth radiates power throughout his body, and his dramatic gesticulations help to tell the story of Genesis without the addition of extraneous detail.
The four aforementioned groups do not seem to be connected in any other way than the fact that they have all been taken from the Old Testament. Regardless of the lack of cohesion between the four scenes, the narrative framework of each is impeccable; they render the Biblical fables in a new and unusual way. It is quite remarkable that, apart from focusing on the historical accuracy of his artwork, Michelangelo also paid great attention to depicting the emotions of the characters that he was breathing new life into. The people were no longer the pious representations of the Biblical virtues – they experienced grief, happiness, pain, relief, anger, and the entire palette of emotions that was quite uncharacteristic for the traditional fresco style. While one must give Michelangelo credit for rendering the traditional Biblical fables in a new manner, one must also appreciate the artwork on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for its daring resemblance to the actual human emotions.
Many of the Michelangelo drawings that he completed, some as studies for his larger works such as the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, and some as gifts for friends, are notable works of art in their own right. The art historian Vasari stated that Michelangelo destroyed many of his drawings, “so that he would leave nothing that is not perfect.” The many drawings that do survive provide a snapshot of the thought process of a great artist.
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Buonarotti, Michelangelo. The Sistine Chapel. 1508–1512. Web.
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Pinsky, Robert. Michelangelo’s Poem about the Awkward Parturition of the Sistine Chapel. 2010. Web.