Michelangelo Paints the Sistine Chapel Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo painted works considered among the most important achievements of Western art. His unprecedented use of both space and the human form transformed artists’ understanding of both, and his treatment of his subject matter provided some of the most powerful, widespread, and iconic images of the most monumental biblical events.

Summary of Event

In 1508, Pope Julius II summoned Michelangelo to Rome to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It was a task the artist had no interest in accepting. Michelangelo considered himself first and foremost a sculptor and had little desire to take on a large-scale painting project. Inevitably, however, Michelangelo acquiesced to the pope’s wishes, and what emerged is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Western art. Painting;Italy Sistine Chapel;painting of Michelangelo Sixtus IV Julius II Clement VII (1478-1534) Paul III Julius II Bramante, Donato Raphael Sixtus IV Perugino, Pietro Botticelli, Sandro Ghirlandaio, Domenico Signorelli, Luca Clement VII Paul III Michelangelo

Detail of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam (1508-1512), painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The painting is a canonical image of humankind’s quest in reaching toward God.

(G. P. Putnam’s Sons)

Upon ascending to the papacy, Julius II had begun a series of ambitious political, religious, and artistic initiatives. In the visual arts, he assembled in Rome the greatest artists living in Italy and essentially initiated the High Renaissance. The architect Donato Bramante was given the task of rebuilding the church of Saint Peter’, Raphael was commissioned to paint the Vatican apartments (Stanze), and Michelangelo was assigned the ambitious project of sculpting the pope’s tomb. Though Michelangelo began this enormous monument in 1505, he was destined never to complete it to his own satisfaction, and by 1508, Julius forced Michelangelo to divert his attention to painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Art patronage;Italy

The Sistine Chapel was built during the reign of Julius’s uncle, Pope Sixtus IV, for whom the structure is named. Located between the church of Saint Peter and the papal apartments, it is a relatively small space that is used for papal ceremonies and continues to host the conclave to elect a new pope. The side walls of the chapel, decorated with stories of Moses and Christ, were painted from 1481 to 1483 by such artists as Pietro Perugino, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Luca Signorelli.

Michelangelo’s assignment from Julius was to paint the chapel’s ceiling vault. The resulting work presented a wondrous but complex iconography whose significance is still debated. Nine rectangular panels make up the center of the vault. In the first three images, God creates the universe. These are followed by three scenes of Adam and Eve and three episodes from the life of Noah. Interspersed among these panels are twenty male nudes (called ignudi).

Surrounding this center section, scenes from the biblical stories of David, Judith, Ester, and Moses occupy the four corners of the vault, respectively, while the sides of the vault are decorated with images of biblical prophets, classical sibyls (female prophets), and the ancestors of Christ. In its totality, the ceiling offers a compelling if esoteric vision of the times before Christ and a prayer for the redemption that will come with the messianic age.

While the choice and order of subject matter still remain puzzling, Michelangelo’s stylistic achievement is staggering. From the moment of its unveiling, the ceiling was recognized as a supreme accomplishment of artistic invention. Over the course of his work on the chapel, Michelangelo himself underwent a remarkable stylistic evolution in his ability to render illusionistic space and dramatic form, especially while painting the nine central scenes (which were painted in reverse of their chronological order in the Bible). Most profoundly, he established the primacy of the human form as the essential conduit of meaning in his art.

The expressive power of the images is most famously recognized in the Creation of Adam Creation of Adam (Michelangelo) scene, in which God has just given his supreme creation the divine spark of life. Adam slowly awakes and reaches toward God in a languid classical pose. The small void between his fingers and the outstretched hand of God suggests a profound metaphor for the human condition.

A long-standing myth holds that Michelangelo worked in solitude, lying on his back while painting the ceiling. Recent discoveries prove, however, that Michelangelo had designed an ingenious scaffolding—a bridge anchored to the walls rather than the floor—which allowed him to work standing upright. He also employed assistants for more menial chores. Nevertheless, this monumental undertaking took Michelangelo four years of painstaking work and upon its unveiling was an immediate sensation due to its evident artistic brilliance.

Two decades later, Michelangelo returned to work in the Sistine Chapel. In 1533, Pope Clement VII commissioned Michelangelo to paint the altar wall at the western end of the chapel. The chosen subject was the Last Judgment. Again Michelangelo hesitated, since he was still working on the tomb of Julius II. He eventually accepted the commission, but he tried to abandon the project when Clement died the following year. However, Clement’s successor, Pope Paul III, was equally insistent on Michelangelo’s employment, and by 1541, the artist had finished the altar wall, having created another tour de force of artistic invention.

Michelangelo reinterprets the traditional theme of the Last Judgment in a new and provocative way. He presents an unusually wrathful but ultimately merciful Christ, and the entire scene is depicted with greater power and more terrifying imagery than had ever been seen before. Christ, physically imposing and bursting with energy, stands as judge, surrounded by a heavenly consort of saints and angels. He raises his right hand to pass judgment, and this gesture creates a cosmic swirl of frenetic activity.

The elect rise to Heaven on the viewer’s left (Christ’s right), while the damned are condemned to Hell in the lower right corner of the wall. In a pose that mimics that of Christ above, Charon, the mythical oarsman, ferries the damned across the river Styx to the fire-strewn underworld below. This frightening image of Hell is partially based on Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), a work on which Michelangelo was a recognized expert.

Through this fresco, Michelangelo contrasts the hope of salvation with the threat of damnation. In a telling detail near Christ, Saint Bartholomew holds his own flayed skin, the face of which has been identified as a self-portrait of Michelangelo. The artist was famously plagued by self-doubt, and thus his portrait dangles on the side of the damned, serving as a personal petition or prayer.

Upon its unveiling in 1541, Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment Last Judgment, The (Michelangelo) caused a sensation. It became a school of anatomy for artists to study the nude figure in its various exaggerated poses and contortions. It also provided a new essay in the use of color and light in monumental wall painting. These permutations moved Michelangelo’s art further away from the more traditional forms of the High Renaissance toward a style commonly known as mannerist, which would increasingly typify the art of the later sixteenth century.


The ramifications of Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel are immense. Through the ceiling images, Michelangelo single-handedly transformed the nature of this type of mural painting. He offered new possibilities in the creation of illusionistic space and provided a wealth of provocative ideas on the use of the human body in art and its ability to convey content and metaphorical meaning. Never before had the public witnessed such a comprehensive display of the expressive power of the human form combined with such dramatic coloring and narrative intensity. Moreover, the Creation of Adam has become a canonical image of humankind’s quest in reaching toward God. On the ceiling’s unveiling, Giorgio Vasari, Michelangelo’s friend and colleague, claimed that the whole world came to see the work and stood speechless with astonishment before it.

Thirty years later, The Last Judgment elicited both admiration for Michelangelo’s style and controversy over his work’s content, especially due to the positioning and sheer number of nudes. Shortly after Michelangelo’s death, one of his principal assistants was ordered to paint loincloths over many of these figures, which earned the artist, Daniele da Volterra, the epithet il braghettone or the “breeches-maker.”

The technique used by Michelangelo throughout the chapel is fresco, whereby paint is applied over wet plaster and becomes permanently fixed to the wall surface. The frescoes have been cleaned or retouched several times since their creation. In 1994, after a fourteen-year restoration project, the newly cleaned works displayed a remarkable clarity, legibility, and vividness of color, allowing modern viewers a glimpse of their original glory.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hall, Marcia. Michelangelo: The Frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. New York: Abrams, 2002. This fine book by a recognized expert contains an authoritative text complemented by beautiful and abundant color images of both the ceiling and wall frescoes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hughes, Anthony. Michelangelo. London: Phaidon Press, 1997. Any easy to read and engaging volume in the Art and Ideas series. Includes photographs of key locations in the artist’s life, commissioned specifically for this book.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pietrangeli, Carlo, ed. The Sistine Chapel: A Glorious Restoration. New York: Abrams, 1994. Essays by leading scholars on different aspects of the chapel in the light of recent restorations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tolnay, Charles de. Michelangelo. 5 vols. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1943-1960. A comprehensive study of Michelangelo’s works, somewhat dated but still an excellent reference.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vasari, Giorgio. Lives of the Artists. Translated by George Bull. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1965. Contains a contemporary biography of Michelangelo written by his friend and colleague.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wallace, William E. Michelangelo: Selected Scholarship in English. 5 vols. New York: Garland, 1995. These convenient volumes collect many of the most important scholarly essays on Michelangelo written in English. Volume 2, on the Sistine Chapel, and volume 4, covering the Tomb of Julius, are particularly useful.

1462: Founding of the Platonic Academy

1469-1492: Rule of Lorenzo de’ Medici

1477-1482: Work Begins on the Sistine Chapel

1495-1497: Leonardo da Vinci Paints The Last Supper

c. 1500: Revival of Classical Themes in Art

1500: Roman Jubilee

1508-1520: Raphael Paints His Frescoes

Nov. 3, 1522-Nov. 17, 1530: Correggio Paints the Assumption of the Virgin

Dec. 23, 1534-1540: Parmigianino Paints Madonna with the Long Neck

June, 1564: Tintoretto Paints for the Scuola di San Rocco

Categories: History