“The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.” — Michelangelo
“True art is made noble and religious by the mind producing it.” — Michelangelo
This November, artists and everyone celebrates the completion, 500 years ago, of the Sistine Chapel frescos by Michelangelo Buonarroti. The 12,000 square feet of the Chapel vault, or ceiling, was completed in four years, from 1508 to the 2nd of November 1512.
Commissioned Pope Julius ll for this herculean task, Michelangelo was intimidated by the sheer, enormous scale of the endeavor (the ceiling painting surface equalled about a 1/4th of an acre.) He wanted desperately to decline. Michelangelo thought he was being set up by his enemies (he apparently had a touch of paranoia, but but perhaps not without reason) to fail miserably and thus ruin his already exalted reputation as an artist resulting from his sculptural works of the “Pieta” and the “David.” But in Renaissance Italy, the command by the pope was an offer he couldn’t refuse
The sources of Michelangelo’s inspiration for his portrayal of the unexpected combination of Biblical history and depictions from Genesis mixed with Greek prophets (the Delphic Sybils) shown at the same level of importance as Old Testament prophets are now veiled by mystery and time. It is thought that Michelangelo used the Sistine ceiling as a secret forum to include aspects of forbidden, heretical knowledge during a period of history when such awareness might be punishable by death.
The most striking, and what would certainly have been blasphemous, of these hidden in plain sight images is within one of the iconic images of the sistine Chapel: “The Creation of Adam.” It is well-documented that Michelangelo had expertise in human anatomy as the result of outlawed dissection of cadavers. The hypothesis that this composition was based on an anatomical rendering of the human brian was not asserted until the 1990’s.
There are also assertions that various compositions are based on hebrew letter-forms. It is known that Michelangelo studied the Torah and other ancient hebrew teachings when he was a teenager at the de Medici family estate, which served as his early school. Such inqueries into these ancient texts were also forbidden.
Among the many myths about the Sistine Chapel is that Michelangelo mainly painted laying on his back on scaffolding 65 feet high, suspended downward from the ceiling. As you can see you the artist’s own drawing, his neck was craned back and his chin was always pointed upward. He reported he could work for ten minutes before his pain started, but he continued to work the rest of the day literally in agony.
I believe this misconception has been reinforced by the 1965 film “The Agony and the Ecstasy” (where one can be forgiven for confusing the portrayal by Charlton Heston as Michelangelo with Moses or even God.)
Michelangelo stated that he started the project as a vigorous young man of 33 but after it was finished, he was an old and broken man, whose friends would not recognize him, at 37. Though he lived for almost fifty more years, during his time working on this high vault and from his extensive vision, he was often in poor health and feared dying before completion. He wrote a plaintive and complaining sonnet about the travails of this work. (You can hear a reading of Michelangelo’s sonnet about working on the Sistine frescos here.)
The example of Michelangelo’s dedication to work on an overwhelming, awe inspiring project that has now endured a half-millennium holds valuable lessons for artists and for living. In my next posting, I will attempt to illuminate a few of those lessons.