Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo
Sistine Chapel is the palace of Pope and the chief site of papal ceremonies in the Vatican City - Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo introduction. The chapel represents a major achievement of 15th century Italian Renaissance movement, and it contains some of the finest artistic accomplishments that have been difficult to be superseded through the world in the past 500 years.
Sistine Chapel was built by Pope Sixtus IV as a formidable symbol of Papal authority and resurgence of Rome as the stronghold of Christianity. Towards this aim, the chapel was constructed with a fortress like exterior and huge sense of interior space (Seymour, 82). However the chapel had some structural vulnerabilities and they become glaring when in 1504 the vault of the chapel, decorated as a ‘star spangled’ sky, cracked through its middle (Januszczak ,36).
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Therefore when Giuliano della Rovere, nephew of Sixtus IV, was elected as Pope Julius II, one of his prime concern was restoration and redecoration of the Sistine Chapel (Seymour, 82). Towards this end he decided to hire the services of Michelangelo Buonarroti, the famed sculpturer, to paint the ceilings of the Chapel setting the stage for the grandest series of paintings found in the history of western art (Seymour, 83). It also set the stage for a drama of colossal human and aesthetic dimensions.
Michelangelo started the work on Sistine Chapel when he was thirty three and he completely finished it when he was sixty six (Januszczak ,xi). In this time frame he created a visual splendor that has continued to amaze spectators and critics. However the intervening details contain a tale of intense conflict and dilemma of one of the greatest artist of all the times pitted against the indomitable will of the most powerful office in Christian world.
In this paper I would analyze the cause and the nature of the conflict that defined the life of Michelangelo and the consequences of this conflict on the history of evolution of western art. I shall also analyze the subtle factors and interplay of events that, although trivial in the first appearance were momentous in the historical context. I shall try to present the factors in the light of relation between Pope Julius II and Michelangelo and the confrontation and mingling of two great personalities that created the magnificence of Sistine Chapel Ceiling.
Michelangelo and Pope Julius II
Before presenting the possible reasons on using the talents of Michelangelo for decorating Sistine Chapel Ceiling, it is important to understand the motivational factors of Julius II and his personality traits in the overall context of Roman resurgence and the artistic grandeur he vied to achieve.
Giuliano della Rovere owed his entire religious career to his uncle Pope Sixtus IV. Guliano was a man of remarkable talents. He had fierce disposition of a warrior, insuppressible energy (Symonds, 79) and a genius for understanding and patronizing high quality art . He reigned as Pope Julius II for 10 years (1503-1513) and during these years he created a true papal empire, re-establishing its power and unity and once again made Rome as the center of humanistic learning (Hibbard, 85). Julius II had grandiose plans for Rome and in his designs to make the city as the epitome of art and architecture his determination was uncompromising. Almost immediately after ascendancy to papal chair he used his office to patronize best artistic talents and institute grandiose architectural and artistic projects. He commissioned the artists on rebuilding and decorating the city on the antique scale as the new ‘Christian Rome’ (Hibbard, 85).
In his aggressive and determined zeal to beautify Rome, Julius II did not loose sight of Sistine Chapel built by his uncle. And therefore when the suggestion came to him to refurbish the ceiling of chapel, he found the idea close to his own heart. The walls of Sistine Chapel were decorated with frescos in the time of Sixtus IV. The frescos depicted scenes from Old and New Testament and were done by the most famous artists of their time, such as Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli, and Luca Signorelli, as well as Bartolommeo della Gatta and Cosimo Rosselli (Seymour, 70). The ceiling of chapel was on the other hand painted as the night sky or star studded heaven on a blue background and it appeared to create an appropriate visual environment and a space like resemblance inside the chapel with a sense of great height above. However the ceiling was out of consonance with the paintings and images on the walls and did not create the visual climax that was started by historic paintings or the images and niches representing Christ and other saints (Seymour, 70). It lacked the architectural value and Julius II wanted to avoid anything in the ceiling that looked ‘mean’ (Seymour, 75). While looking for a consummate talent to redecorate a new ceiling, one that compliments the frescos on the wall, the Pope somehow decided that Michelangelo was the person best suited to accomplish the work.
Art historians have struggled in attributing a precise reason to Julius II for commissioning Michelangelo to redecorate the ceiling. There are many theories, some describing the megalomania of Pope in choosing Michelangelo as documented by Hibbard, (86) or the other documented by Seymour (75) which suggests that name of Michelangelo was suggested to the Pope by his chief architect, Bramante, who knew the impossibility of task, pinning his hopes on certain failure of Michelangelo which later he would use to advance the papal favor to his fellow country man Raphael.
Both of these theories lack any conclusive element. The fact remains that Pope Julius II was already aware of phenomenal talents of Michelangelo, the sculptor. Michelangelo was introduced to Pope by a distinguished architect Giuliano da Sangolla who had worked by Julius Della Rovere when he was a cardinal (Hibbard, 86). Julius II, keen to take advantage of genius of Michelangelo, conceived a project of making his own tomb and gave the project in hands of Michelangelo in 1505. Michelangelo worked on many plans and designs and finally came up with a grandiose model for the tomb. He ordered vast quantities of marble, took personal errand of eight months, summoned workmen and engineers and in agreement with Julius II selected the site of where the tomb was to be constructed. However, Julius II, with his attention taken up in other grander projects, eventually lost interest in his tomb. It was a cruel waste of the time and energy Michelangelo had put in the designing and planning the tomb, and probably marked the first tragedy of the genius artist (Symonds, 91). Michelangelo left Rome and retired to Florence after this episode.
Michelangelo: The Ceiling of Sistine Chapel
By 1508, Michelangelo was something of a frustrated genius. His great project, the statue of David, was completed in 1504 and in the four ensuing years he had worked on four assignments: the Cascina battle painting, the twelve Apostles for the Cathedral of St. Matthews, the tomb of Julius II, and the memorial statue in Bologna of Pope Julius II, that was only one to be completed (Hibbard, 97). The last project was particularly wearing on mind and soul of the great artist and after its completion he thought to finally to leave Rome and settle in his home city of Florence.
When Julius II embarked on the project of Sistine Chapel ceiling, he probably wanted to compensate Michelangelo for the sepulcher that he could not complete. Although his chief architect Bramante objected to the choice of Michelangelo, the sculptor as the painter of frescos on the grounds that he lacked expertise or talent in designing figures in foreshortening (Seymour, 76). However Julius II was adamant and he ordered for Michelangelo as the painter of Sistine Chapel Ceiling.
Michelangelo was already enjoying a love and hate relationship with his patron Pope. Like any true artist he was temperamental and highly sensitive to criticism. He had fled from Pope on a couple of occasions and some of his insecurity stemmed from his unfounded hatred of Bramante whom he thought of conceiving all damaging schemes to advance the prospects of Raphael (Hibbard, 92). Furthermore, He was truly distraught by rejection of Pope of his work on St. Matthews and once he fled from Rome he feared the papal wrath so much that despite repeated assurance from Rome and briefs demanding his presence he did not submit himself until virtually compelled. The Pope had recognized the genius of Michelangelo and he not only pardoned him but reassigned the work on Sistine Chapel Ceiling to complete. When Michelangelo accepted the commission it signified reconciliation of two great talents and formed the complex relation of mutual admiration, respect and egoistic conflict.
Motivational Factors of Michelangelo
From various historical accounts a notion emerges that Michelangelo was considered ill suited to take up the huge and momentous work of painting the ceiling of Chapel. Apart from comments of Bramante, Michelangelo signed himself as “Michel angniolo schultore” (Seymour, 77). And writing about himself his words say
“I m not in a good place and I m no painter”, (Seymour, 77).
However, in truth Michelangelo was an accomplished painter and he had already staked his claim with ‘The Battle of Cascina’, that denotes above quote nothing more as an ironic statement on the part of the man. Recent evidences have emerged that Michelangelo received his first professional training from the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio and showed genius in fresco style painting. Hence there are substantial reasons to believe that when he was called by Pope for painting the ceiling he had a established reputation as a painter, (Seymour, 77).
It has been already mentioned that Michelangelo harbored intense distrust and ill will against Bramante. It may be his own mind that concocted all the conspiracy theories and ascribed them to Bramante, but the fact remains that Michelangelo, although recognizing Bramante as among the finest architects in history of mankind, remained suspicious of his motives. Therefore when Baramante opposed Pope’s idea to appoint Michelangelo as the painter for Chapel’s ceiling, the news reached Michelangelo and enraged him sufficiently to take the work with determination and vigor (Seymour, 76).
He thus began the monumental work of painting the ceiling and his paintings through the time to date are recognized as the most complex and finest example of western art that shows the immense talent and genius of the artists.
Conflict of Michelangelo
In his own life time Michelangelo was hailed as a painter with no superior and as a sculptor par excellence. Still the life of the man was a series of conflict, depression and dejection, traits that are often associated with men of genius and nervous energy.
As it is noted above, when Michelangelo started the work on Sistine Chapel ceiling, he was of thirty three of years of age it took his another thirty three years to complete the momentous task. The first and major part of the ceiling painting took his four years from 1508 to 1512, years during which he developed life long neck and back problems. Yet his problems were more of a person of high intensity, ambition and sentimentality.
It is beyond doubt that Pope Julius II was a true connoisseur of artistic talent and did not hesitate in patronizing the genius of Michelangelo. However, the relation with Pope was not a comfort for Michelangelo. He found himself under commanding orders, papal dictates and even rejection from his patron on his project of St. Mathews. The free spirit of the artist revolted and he left Rome not once but twice to work in independence of Florence.
Michelangelo was reluctant to take upon the work on Sistine ceiling and he tried every way to get out of the commission. The reasons were multifold and they included distrust of Bramante to personality conflict with the Pope himself (Wolflin, 176).. Further, he had mentally committed himself on the tomb of Julius and was loath to have undertake another project, on this occasion, painting Sistine ceiling, that was much grander and beyond his so far experience (Symond).
The letters of Michelangelo, written to his family, represent his pain and thought in his creative years that troubled the great sculptor and artist.
“I am living here in discontent, not thoroughly well, and undergoing great fatigue, without money, and with no one to look after me.” And when one of his brothers wanted to visit him in Rome he wrote back: “I hear that Gismondo means to come hither on his affairs. Tell him not to count on me for anything; not because I do not love him as a brother, but because I am not in the position to assist him. I am bound to care for myself first, and I cannot provide myself with necessaries. I live here in great distress and the utmost bodily fatigue, have no friends, and seek none. I have not even time enough to eat what I require. Therefore let no additional burdens be put upon me, for I could not bear another ounce” (Symonds, 140-141)
But as circumstances would have it, Michelangelo, the greatest artist was tied with Rome, the resurgent capital of Christianity and hence destined to work for a series of Popes, which distracted his energy, wasted his time and filled him with the frustration an artist feels over incomplete works (Symonds, 80). The first one among them, the ‘tragedy of Julius Tomb’ marked year of hard work and effort ending in repeated failures. The work on Julius Tomb, stretching through five separate contracts between Michelangelo and capricious authorities ruling the Rome extended for 40 long years and enervated Michelangelo’s spirit and stamina.
Thus it was greed and desires of personal profit in the papal office, bent to utilize services of perhaps the most gifted sculptor and painter that constituted his tragedy and conflict.
Conflict with Pope over Nudes
When undertaking the work on ceiling, it is probable that Michelangelo himself had no clear idea of his painting intentions. However as he started working he advanced the thesis that no beauty exists outside the human form (Wolflin, 176) and instead of decorating the surface with flowers and petals he covered the entire surface extensively with human forms. Michelangelo painted the ceiling of Sistine Chapel with some 200 nude figures (Januszczak, 135).
He started with the nudes in ‘The Sacrifice of Noah’ ‘Drunkenness of Noah’ and ‘The Fall and Expulsion’ and continued with nude figures through out his paintings (Wolflin, 176). Michelangelo was against working on any previously established pattern and he clearly mentioned the fact to Pope. As a result Pope Julius released him from constraints of the original project and allowed him a free run of his genius (Hibbard, 105). But there was always some confrontation between the two, the chief cause being impatience of the Pope, against which Michelangelo suffered and felt he had little time to accomplish the momentous work forced on him.
Binding factors between Pope and Michelangelo
Pope Julius II and Michelangelo were two titanic individuals, each heading his realm in his own way. Julius had power, deep sense and appreciation of art and a grand design to utilize the talents he had at disposal. Michelangelo, on the other hand was the very greatest talent that Julius needed to accomplish his plans. It was inevitable then that when time and space threw these two great souls together a mutual relation was bound to emerge between them.
Michelangelo and Julius II shared a deep bond of sympathy because they were constituted of same temperament. Both of them had aimed colossal achievements in their respective fields of work., their imagination stimulated by same fire of large and simple truth rather than complex and subtle thoughts and both of them had vigor of character, energy, genius and an uncompromising spirit (Symonds, 81). Nothing can better exemplify this constrained bonding between them than Michelangelo’s repeated run from Rome and stubborn resistance to Papal briefs demanding his presence and Pope’s reacceptance of the artist every time he returned back. Both of them how inevitable one was for another and in their combination of idea and execution and complementary power and creation they imprinted history permanently with the paintings of Sistine chapel ceiling.
Hibbard, Howard. Michelangelo. Harper & Row: Cambridge, MA..1985.
Januszczak, Waldemar. Sayonara, Michelangelo: The Sistine Chapel Restored and Repackaged: Addison Wesley (Current Publisher: Perseus Publishing).: Reading, MA.: 1990.
Michelangelo, the Sistine Chapel Ceiling: Illustrations, Introductory Essays, Backgrounds and Sources, Critical Essays. Contributors: Charles Seymour Jr. – editor. W. W. Norton: New York.: 1972.
Symonds, John A. The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti: Modern Library. New York. 1928.
Wolfflin, Heinrich. History of art and ideas. Michelangelo, the Sistine Chapel Ceiling: Illustrations, Introductory Essays, Backgrounds and Sources, Critical Essays. Contributors: Charles Seymour Jr. – editor. W. W. Norton: New York.: 1972