Famous Paintings You Should Know: 10 The Sistine Chapel

Sistine Chapel

Michaelangelo 1508-1512 Vatican

Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel. Now when I was 18 I visited the Sistine Chapel and it was an amazing experience and when I went outside there were two Australian girls and they walked up to me and with a strong accent asked ‘what makes this painting so special?’. Now, everything inside the Catholic church is painted, as you walk into the Sistine Chapel all the walls and ceilings are painted, so what makes this one so special, what makes this roof so special, and that is very very good question.

Now first of all I’d like to say that the Sistine Chapel is not just one painting, a lot of people consider it to just be this one panel, the most famous panel where God created Adam and they break touch for the first time, but actually the whole Sistine Chapel is so much bigger: it is a collection of 9 panels that actually goes through the entire Book of Genesis. In the middle we’ve got the beginning of God’s creation separating light and dark, forming Earth, making animals, eventually making Adam and Eve, then we continue to The Fall of Man, we get sin and Satan in the form of a snake, we move on to Noah, Noah and the ark, the shaming of Noah, and on the sides we’ve got a different books and stories also from Genesis but less well known, then we also have in the corners all the prophets and prophetess.

Now what is very interesting is that Catholic theology varies a lot from protestant theology, varies a lot from Pentecostal theology and what we see in this painting is a lot of female prophets, we actually see quite a few beautiful female prophets which were later actually removed from the Bible.

Another thing to note and the reason this painting is so famous is because of Michelangelo’s incredible understanding of anatomy. Yes all the other figures up until then was quite stifled they were quite structured where because Michaelangelo was a sculptor (he hated painting) he didn’t want to do this commission but he was kind of forced by the Catholic church to paint this ceiling, all he wanted to do was his marble and cut-outs sculptures. The big thing that they were impressed by was his absolute command and understanding of anatomy you don’t just see figures standing up straight but you see them moving, twisting, swerving, arching. There’s so much movement and this is why this panel of the ceiling painting stands out over all the others.

Another amazing thing to consider is that the Sistine Chapel’s roof is actually curved so what Michelangelo did is he calculated the impact of the curve on the eye and he painted for that curve so this is absolutely incredible, when you are standing at the bottom everything looks absolutely in proportion and it is wonderfully straight and exactly how you want it but when you’re up at the ceiling everything is actually painted on a bit of a dome and it’s curved so he has really tricked the eye and he has corrected for the faults of the curve. This is incredible science and math, he painted for four-and-a-half years on this, like I said he absolutely hated it, didn’t want to go to Rome to go and paint this he wanted to stay in Florence but his hand was forced and eventually he went.

When he finished the Sistine Chapel he was asked to come back to finish the wall that is right in front of it, so on the roof we have Genesis and then the room is ended by painting Revelations which is the last book of the Bible, so we’ve got the first book and the last book of the Bible framing this room.

When Michaelangelo was painting the last book of the Bible when he did The Last Judgement, the painter Rafael was rising to fame already and Rafael was actually working further down the corridor on another series of The School of Athens, probably one of his most famous paintings and he so wanted to meet the genius Michelangelo but Michelangelo was extremely jealous, extremely selfish, egotistic, volatile human, so he actually chased Raphael out and threw some of his brushes and tools at Raphael so he couldn’t see how Michaelangelo was painting.

One of the things that Michelangelo did is in The Last Judgement there’s a dead skin being held right at the top in the clouds and Michelangelo said that that is his self-portrait, that is what’s left of him after dealing with the Catholic Church have sucked his soul and life out of him. What is also interesting is that Raphael added himself into The School of Athens, the painting that he just did down the passage, and he also added his heroes: Michelangelo and da Vinci, so even though Michaelangelo really treated him like dirt and was quite jealous of his new fame he still honoured his heroes by adding them into the painting.

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