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Michelangelo’s Sketches for the Sistine Chapel

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Michelangelo Buonarotti is considered one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance. He is looked at as an equal to Leonardo da Vinci and Rafael. He was a true Renaissance man; a poet, an artist, a sculptor and an architect. Michelangelo was born into a banking family just outside of Florence

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.

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To any visitor of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, two features become immediately and undeniably apparent: 1) the ceiling is really high up, and 2) there are a lot of paintings up there. Because of this, the centuries have handed down to us an image of Michelangelo lying on his back, wiping sweat and plaster from his eyes as he toiled away year after year, suspended hundreds of feet in the air, begrudgingly completing a commission that he never wanted to accept in the first place. Fortunately for Michelangelo, this is probably not true. But that does nothing to lessen the fact that the frescoes, which take up the entirety of the vault, are among the most important paintings in the world. The narrative begins at the altar and is divided into three sections

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.

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In addition, the fact that Michelangelo’s program concerning the frescoes creation was very different from the traditional prophecy-and-fulfillment typology from the very start; when beginning to work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the sculptor already had the concept of redemption as the basic motive for the entire artwork in his mind (Adams 336). As a result, the paintings convey both the morals of the stories in question and the complexity of the choices made by the characters, the emotional strain and the anguish that these characters must have been going through. While most of the religious ideas that Michelangelo placed in the corresponding context are very easy to understand, some of his renditions of the traditional Biblical plots and the elements of the Christian symbolism take quite a lot of time to be figured out. For example, the acknowledgement of the fact that in the Creation of Adam, Adam has not been born yet, since he has not touched the hand of God (Adams 343) does not come instantly to the viewer. Thus, a hidden innuendo becomes suddenly revealed, and the effect of subtlety is created. Instead of posing faith as the end in itself, which will instantly give a believer the answers to all the questions that they may have, Michelangelo makes it clear that religion should be viewed as a specific philosophy.Adam’s life is shown rather precisely in a series of frescoes; likewise, the story of Noah is represented in a chronological manner. In fact, the frescoes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling can be split into four large groups, which are the story of the Creation, the Fall (the Adam and Eve story), the Story of Noah and the so-called Shields, which carry the images of minor scenes from the Old testament

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.

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In the final analysis, we know and admire Michelangelo as a sculptor, painter and architect, a true genius of Renaissance art

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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Adams, Laurie Schneider. Italian Renaissance Art. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. 2013. Print.

Buonarotti, Michelangelo. The Sistine Chapel. 1508–1512. Web.

Michelangelo the Poet? Web.

Pinsky, Robert. Michelangelo’s Poem about the Awkward Parturition of the Sistine Chapel. 2010. Web.

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