The Agony and the Ecstasy: Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling turns 500

Joanne Shurvell
Michelangelo's inspired imagining of the Creation of Adam

Perhaps second only in fame to Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, Michelangelo's magnificent frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel opened to the public for the first time 500 years ago this week
in St Peter's Basilica in Rome.

This masterpiece of Renaissance art, at around 40 metres long by 13 metres wide (460 square metres), includes 343 figures with nine central panels depicting the stories of the Old Testament from the Creation to the fall of man.

The narrative on the ceiling shows God creating the Sun, Moon and Earth, Adam and Eve, the temptation and expulsion from the Garden of Eden and the story of Noah's Ark. 

Adjacent to the main panels are massive portraits of Prophets and Sybils who foretold the coming of Jesus. And scattered throughout are cherubs and smaller nude figures. The frescoes (Italian for 'fresh') were created by painting directly onto wet plaster that was applied each day. Michelangelo's use of bright colours ensured that the scenes could be easily viewed from the floor 20 metres below.

Even if people haven't seen the frescoes live, they've certainly seen Michelangelo's imagining of the Creation of Adam - with the finger of God stretched out to give life to Adam - on a mug, a t-shirt or a poster.

So it is slightly surprising that the Vatican Museums, who administrate the Sistine Chapel, aren't making a bigger deal of the anniversary of this famous artwork. In fact, it's difficult to find any reference at all to the occasion on their website. This could simply be that the Chapel's administrators are trying to protect the artworks from what one Italian critic recently referred to as 'drunken herds', trailing in dust on their shoes and illegally using damaging flash photography. Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican Museums probably wouldn't describe the visitors like that but he did point out that "such a crowd emanates sweat, carbon dioxide and dust", all of which are harmful to the frescoes. The Sistine Chapel is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the world with over 20,000 a day and 4 million visitors annually and the Vatican is probably torn between wanting to protect its precious artwork and the 15 euro admission charge from every visitor.

When Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475-1564) was commissioned in 1508 by Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he was already famous as the sculptor of Pieta (1498) and David (1504).

He was initially reluctant to accept the commission as he considered himself a sculptor not a painter. But he was eventually persuaded when he was given leeway to deviate from the original assignment to paint the 12 Apostles, allowing him the artistic freedom to create something far more elaborate and time-consuming.

'The Agony and the Ecstasy', a 1961 book by Irving Stone made into a cheesy Hollywood film starring Charlton Heston as Michelangelo and Rex Harrison as Pope Julius, depicted the artist lying on his back high up on scaffolding toiling away almost single-handedly. In reality, Michelangelo painted standing and he had a constant stream of assistants to help him with his momentous undertaking. In essence,  Michelangelo wasn't much different from contemporary artists like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons who have an army of assistants to execute their designs. However, no one would dispute the genius of Michelangelo or the masterpiece of his frescoed ceiling half a millenium ago or today.

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