The Ignudi of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Frescoes

Supporting Figures or Deeper Meaning?

Michelangelo Ignudo
Ignudo; detail from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Scan © Mark Harden, used with permission

"The Ignudi" is the phrase coined by Michelangelo to describe the 20 seated male nudes he incorporated into the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes. These figures are interesting in that they do not fit the theme of the paintings, so their true meaning has been a mystery in the art world.

Who Are the Ignudi?

The word ignudi comes from the Italian adjective nudo, meaning "naked." The singular form is ignudo.

Michelangelo adopted the name "The Ignudi" for his 20 figures, giving it a new art-historical context.

The youthful, athletic male figures are depicted in pairs of four. Each pair surrounds five center panels on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (there are nine panels in total). The ignudi appear on the panels: "The Drunkenness of Noah," "The Sacrifice of Noah," "The Creation of Eve," "The Separation of Land from Water," and "The Separation of Light from Darkness."

The ignudi frame the biblical stories, one on each corner. A pair of bronze-like medallions depicting scenes from the Old Testament rest between two of the figures along the outer edges. One of the medallions is left incomplete for unknown reasons.

Each ignudo is depicted in a relaxed pose that does not match the others. The figures are all seated and leaning on a variety of objects. In the earliest paintings, the ignudi were in a similar pose to those in the same panel.

By the time Michelangelo got to "The Separation of Light from Darkness," the poses show no similarities.

What Do the Ignudi Represent?

Each ignudo represents the male human figure at its most idealized. They are painted in a sort of blending of ancient Classicism and modern naked superheroes (a topic about which Michelangelo could not have known).

What adds to their intrigue is that none had anything at all to do with Bible stories.

This leads people to question their meaning. Are they merely supporting characters in this detailed scene or do they represent something deeper? Michelangelo did not leave any clues as to the answer.

Speculations include that the ignudi represent angels who oversaw the events depicted in the Bible scenes. Others believe that Michelangelo used the ignudi as representations of human perfection. Their physique is, after all, perfectly sculpted and their mannerisms have much more freedom than other figures in the frescoes.

There is possible meaning behind the objects surrounding the ignudi as well. Acorns are depicted with each ignudo and many people believe these refer to Pope Julius II, Michelangelo's patron.

The pontiff was a member of the Della Rovere family as was his uncle Popes Sixtus IV who built the Sistine Chapel and for whom it was named. The Della Rovere name literally means "of the Oak Tree" and a tree is used on the Italian noble family's crest.

The Controversy of the Ignudi

One look at any of Michelangelo's work in the Sistine Chapel reveals quite a bit of nudity. This was shocking to a number of people, including a pontiff or two.

It's said that Pope Adrian VI did not enjoy the nudes whatsoever. When his papacy began in 1522, just ten years after the completion of the frescoes, he wanted them removed because he found the nudity vulgar. This did not come to fruition because he died in 1523 before any destruction could be done.

Pope Pius IV did not target the ignudi specifically, but he did confront the chapel's nudity. He had naked figures in "The Last Judgment" covered with fig leaves and loin cloths to protect their decency. That occurred in the 1560s and during renovations to the artwork in the 1980s and 90s, restorers uncovered the figures to Michelangelo's original state.