7 Things You Didn't Know About the Sistine Chapel

Everything You Wanted to Know About Michelangelo's Famous Frescoes

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Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling is one of the most influential artworks of all time and a foundational work of Renaissance Art. Painted directly on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, the masterpiece depicts key scenes from the Book of Genesis. The complex narratives and skillfully painted human figures stunned viewers when the painting was first unveiled to the public in 1512 and continues to impress the thousands of pilgrims and tourists from around the world who visit the Chapel every day.

Below are seven essential facts about the Sistine Chapel ceiling and its creation. 

1. The Paintings Were Commissioned by Pope Julius II 

In 1508, Pope Julius II (also known as Giulio II and "Il papa terribile"), asked Michelangelo to paint Sistine Chapel's ceiling. Julius was determined that Rome should be rebuilt to its former glory, and had embarked on a vigorous campaign achieve the ambitious task. He felt that such artistic splendor would not only add luster to his own name, but also serve to supersede anything that Pope Alexander VI (a Borgia, and Julius' rival) had accomplished. 

2. Michelangelo Painted Over 5,000 Square Feet of Frescoes 

The ceiling measures about 40 meters (131 feet) long by 13 meters (43 feet) wide. Although these numbers are rounded, they demonstrate the enormous scale of this nontraditional canvas. In fact, Michelangelo painted well over 5,000 square feet of frescoes.

3. The Panels Depict More Than Just Scenes From the Book of Genesis

The ceilings well-known central panels depict scenes from the Book of Genesis, from the Creation to the Fall to shortly after Noah's deluge. Adjacent to each of these scenes on either side, however, are immense portraits of prophets and sibyls who foretold the coming of the Messiah.

Along the bottoms of these run spandrels and lunettes containing the ancestors of Jesus and stories of tragedy in ancient Israel. Scattered throughout are smaller figures, cherubs and ignudi (nudes). All told, there are more than 300 painted figures on the ceiling. 

4. Michelangelo Was A Sculptor, Not A Painter

Michelangelo thought of himself as a sculptor and preferred working with marble to almost any other material. Prior to the ceiling frescoes, the only painting he'd done was during his brief stint as a student in Ghirlandaio's workshop.

Julius, however, was adamant that Michelangelo — and no other — should paint the Chapel's ceiling. To convince him, Julius offered as a reward to Michelangelo the wildly lucrative commission of sculpting 40 massive figures for his tomb, a project that appealed much more to Michelangelo given his artistic style. 

5. The Paintings Took Four Years to Finish 

It took Michelangelo a little over four years, from July of 1508 to October of 1512, to finish the paintings. Michelangelo had never painted frescoes before and was learning the craft as he worked. What's more, he chose to work in buon fresco, the most difficult method, and one normally reserved for true masters.

He also had to learn some wickedly hard techniques in perspective, namely painting figures on curved surfaces that appear "correct" when viewed from nearly 60 feet below. 

The work suffered numerous other setbacks, including mold and miserable, damp weather that disallowed plaster curing. The project was further stalled when Julius left to wage war and again when he fell ill. The ceiling project, and any hope Michelangelo had of being paid, were frequently in jeopardy while Julius was absent or near death. 

6. Michelangelo Didn't Really Paint Lying Down 

Although the classic film The Agony and the Ecstacy, depicts Michelangelo (played by Charlton Heston) painting the frescoes on his back, the real Michelangelo didn't work in this position. Instead, he conceived and had constructed a unique scaffolding system sturdy enough to hold workers and materials and high enough that Mass could still be celebrated below.

The scaffolding curved at its top, mimicking the curvature of the ceiling's vault. Michelangelo often had to bend backward and paint over his head — an awkward position that caused permanent damage to his vision. 

7. Michelangelo Had Assistants

Michelangelo gets, and deserves, credit for the entire project. The complete design was his. The sketches and cartoons for the frescoes were all of his hand, and he executed the vast bulk of the actual painting by himself.

However, the vision of Michelangelo toiling away, a solitary figure in a vacant chapel, isn't entirely accurate. He needed many assistants if only to mix his paints, scramble up and down ladders, and prepare the day's plaster (a nasty business). Occasionally, a talented assistant might be entrusted with a patch of sky, a bit of landscape, or a figure so small and minor it is barely discernable from below. All of these were worked from his cartoons, however, and the temperamental Michelangelo hired and fired these assistants on such a regular basis that none of them could claim credit for any part of the ceiling.