The Sistine Chapel ceiling, painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512, is a cornerstone work of High Renaissance art. The ceiling is that of the Sistine Chapel, the large papal chapel built within the Vatican between 1477 and 1480 by Pope Sixtus IV, for whom the chapel is named. It was painted at the commission of Pope Julius II. The chapel is the location for papal conclaves and many other important services. Sistine Chapel ceiling facts
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- Michelangelo wanted nothing to do with the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling.
In 1508, 33-year-old Michelangelo was hard at work on Pope Julius II’s marble tomb, a relatively obscure piece now located in Rome’s San Pietro in Vincoli church. When Julius asked the esteemed artist to switch gears and decorate the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, Michelangelo balked. For one thing, he considered himself a sculptor rather than a painter, and he had no experience whatsoever with frescoes. He also had his heart set on finishing the tomb, even as funding for the project dwindled. Nevertheless, Michelangelo reluctantly accepted the commission, spending four years of his life perched on scaffolding with his brush in hand. He would return intermittently to Julius’ monumental tomb over the next few decades.
- Contrary to popular belief, Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel in a standing position.
When they picture Michelangelo creating his legendary frescoes, most people assume he was lying down. But in fact, the artist and his assistants used wooden scaffolds that allowed them to stand upright and reach above their heads. Michelangelo himself designed the unique system of platforms, which were attached to the walls with brackets. The impression that Michelangelo painted on his back might come from the 1965 film “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” in which Charlton Heston portrayed the genius behind the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling.
- Working on the Sistine Chapel was so unpleasant that Michelangelo wrote a poem about his misery.
In 1509, an increasingly uncomfortable Michelangelo described the physical strain of the Sistine Chapel project to his friend Giovanni da Pistoia. “I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,” he wrote in a poem that was surely somewhat tongue-in-cheek. He went on to complain that his “stomach’s squashed under my chin,” that his “face makes a fine floor for droppings,” that his “skin hangs loose below me” and that his “spine’s all knotted from folding myself over.” He ended with an affirmation that he shouldn’t have changed his day job: “I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.”
- Michelangelo’s masterpiece has proven highly resilient.
The Sistine Chapel’s frescoed ceiling has held up remarkably well in the five centuries since its completion. Only one small component is missing: part of the sky in the panel depicting Noah’s escape from the great biblical flood. The section of painted plaster fell to the floor and shattered following an explosion at a nearby gunpowder depot in 1797. Despite the ceiling’s apparent hardiness, experts worry that foot traffic from the millions of people who visit the Sistine Chapel each year continues to pose a serious threat.
- New popes are elected in the Sistine Chapel.
Built in the 1470s under Pope Sixtus IV, from whom it takes its name, the Sistine Chapel is more than just Vatican City’s most popular tourist destination. In fact, it serves a crucial religious function. Beginning in 1492, the simple brick building has hosted numerous papal conclaves, during which cardinals gather to vote on a new pope. A special chimney in the roof of the chapel broadcasts the conclave’s results, with white smoke indicating the election of a pope and black smoke signaling that no candidate has yet received a two-thirds majority.