Stop what you’re doing right now and look at your ceiling. What do you see? Probably not much. Most ceilings are quite boring. But this was not the case with the Sistine Chapel. Within it are some of the most spectacular paintings in the world. Strangely enough, the artist who painted it didn’t like to paint at all! In fact, he despised it. That artist was Michelangelo. So, if he hated painting, why did Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling? Let’s go back to the beginning.
Michelangelo grew up in Florence, Italy, during the Italian Renaissance. His full name was Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarotti Simoni. But to save us some time, I’ll just call him Michelangelo. After three years of working as an artist’s apprentice, Michelangelo moved to a new workshop that happened to be near the famous Medici gardens, which were filled with Greek and Roman statues. These masterpieces soon burned a love for sculpture deep into Michelangelo’s heart.
In his paintings, Michelangelo practically ignored landscapes, still portraits, or issues of perspective. He said painting landscapes was “a game for children and uneducated men.”1 He had a certain disdain for painting, saying, “The more painting resembles sculpture, the better I like it, and the more sculpture resembles painting, the worse I like it.”2
So, how was it that Michelangelo, who despised painting, went and painted one of the greatest masterpieces of all time? That is a good question. The short answer is—he was coerced by the pope! Let’s move to that part of the story.
Pope Julius Ⅱ Makes His Mark
The story of Michelangelo painting the Sistine chapel cannot be appreciated until you learn about Pope Julius Ⅱ. He was an arrogant, ill-tempered man who wished to be well-remembered. For this reason, he invited Michelangelo to Rome to build a magnificent tomb for him. However, the two men, very much alike in pride, found it hard to agree on anything. This was especially true in the building of Julius’s elaborate tomb, which originally was to contain 40 statues.
After Michelangelo spent 8 months in the mountains collecting tons of stone for the tomb, the pope changed his mind and put the entire project on hold. This made Michelangelo furious! So, one Saturday, Michelangelo demanded a meeting with Julius, but it didn’t go well. The two quarreled over money. Michelangelo went back on Monday but was turned away. He went back every day for 4 days— but the pope refused him. Michelangelo finally fled to Florence in a huff.
It took multiple demanding letters from Pope Julius Ⅱ to get Michelangelo to return to Rome. After so much bickering, things were not good between the pope and the artist. Then Julius Ⅱ came up with an extraordinary idea—Michelangelo could paint the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, a private chapel in the Vatican! By then Michelangelo felt he could not refuse. Though the artist dreaded picking up a paintbrush, he was weary of arguing. Tired of the pope’s demands, and needing money, Michelangelo agreed in 1508 to paint the enormous, vaulted ceiling.
The Masterpiece of the Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo remained bitter toward the pope and grumbled through his new project. He was, after all, being asked to paint 10,000 square feet from 70 feet off the ground! For more than 4 years, the artist painted strenuously. Mounted on scaffolding, Michelangelo laid either flat on his back or stood with his arms stretched over his head. He painted alone through the night with no more than a few feet between him and the gigantic fresco. The job consumed him. The constant nagging of the pope made it worse. (At least once, the pope struck the artist with a stick out of pure impatience!)
Perhaps it was the content of the masterpiece that helped fuel his determination. Michelangelo designed the biblical mural to contain 343 muscle-bound figures—his favorite thing to create. Most of the figures were human or made to look it. He also added characters of Greek mythology to the biblical stories. In the pure style of Michelangelo, every muscular being he designed was in action.
The artist continued to show action by portraying the fall of Adam and Eve, the triumph of David over Goliath, and other Old Testament stories. Between the panels, some figures sit as onlookers or eternal, unearthly guardians of the stories being told. The completed mural is truly spectacular. Sadly enough, pope Julius Ⅱ lived only 4 months after the ceiling was completed. It was hardly enough time to appreciate the greatness of the work. But Michelangelo still honored him. For after Julius died, Michelangelo attempted to build a tomb for the pope featuring a powerful figure of Moses for the entrance. Enamored, the Jews of the community flocked to see it.
Michelangelo’s Later Life
In his late fifties, Michelangelo returned to Rome for 32 more years. A lot of his work focused on beautifying the Vatican through architecture. But something changed the artist during this time. He made friends with a widow named Vittoria Colonna. Though they were never romantically involved, Michelangelo cherished her. Vittoria was a strong Christian who cared for the aging artist. The two visited together often, spending hours discussing their faith.
Michelangelo needed this kind of spiritual guidance and friendship. Having been consumed with his work, he had not made much time for friends or family. Michelangelo most likely had heard the Gospel earlier in his life (painting scenes of it for the church) but didn’t fully embrace it until his later years. The struggle in Michelangelo’s soul is most clearly seen in one of the last works he ever did. Returning to the Sistine chapel, he painted a scene called The Last Judgement.
In it, Michelangelo portrays the folly of Man’s sin and the consequences of it in the end. Many believe that the scene was inspired by Dante’s poem ‘Inferno.’ This could be true because Michelangelo himself wrote poetry and admired the work of Dante. As if he were confessing his own depravity, Michelangelo painted himself as the flailing hollow of St. Bartholomew dangling before Christ. (Bartholomew was skinned alive and died a martyr for Christ.) Michelangelo was 66 years old by this tim
Michelangelo’s Change of Heart
Vittoria’s death in 1547 brought a deep change of heart in the aging artist. Though he continued to paint and sculpt, Michelangelo did so only for the glory of God. He wrote, “Neither painting nor sculpting can any longer quiet my soul, turned not to that divine love which on the cross, to embrace us, opened wide its arms.” 3 Finally at peace with himself, Michelangelo appeared to embrace the Savior. In February of 1564, the weary and worn-out artist passed away.
Michelangelo stands alone in what he accomplished. He created many a moving masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel being but one of them. His incredible works, as well as his unique story, surely place Michelangelo in a category all by himself.
Activities for All Ages
All Students—Paint the Ceiling! (Adult Supervision Needed.) Follow the ideas below for your age group to paint the ceiling! (Materials lists will vary for each age group. Feel free to improvise!)
Younger Students (Materials: coloring pages, tape, newspaper, watercolors, paint brush, paint smock)
- Tape coloring pages on the underside of a table.
- Protect the floor with newspaper and wear a smock.
- Paint the “ceiling” by either lying on the ground or crouching underneath the table.
Middle Students (Materials: Poster board; pencil; tacks; newspaper; paint smock; ladder; tempera paints, poster paints, or acrylic paints; paint brushes.)
- On poster board, sketch the hands of God and Adam like Michelangelo!
- Tack the poster board to a real ceiling.
- Protect the floor with newspaper and wear a paint smock.
- With adult supervision, carefully position a ladder under the scene and paint it thickly.
Older Students (Materials: Tissue paper; thumbtacks; tape; cosmetic brush; newspaper; paint smock; ladder; tempera paints, poster paints, or acrylic paints; paint brushes; make-up powder or chalk dust.)
- On tissue paper, lightly sketch a Greek or Biblical character.
- Using one thumbtack, gently pinprick an outline of your sketch.
- Use additional thumbtacks to adhere poster board to the ceiling.
- Carefully tape the edges of the tissue paper sketch over the poster board.
- With a cosmetic brush, carefully apply the powder to the tissue paper to transfer the outline of your sketch to the poster board.
- Remove the tissue paper. This technique was used by Michelangelo and others to transfer sketches on paintings.
- Protect the floor with newspaper and wear a smock. Now, paint within your outline.
- Gilles Neret, Michelangelo. (New York: Taschen, 1998), 23.
- bid., 83.