6 Things You May Not Know About Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Painting
On November 1, 1512, the majestic ceiling frescoes adorning Rome’s Sistine Chapel were unveiled to the public. Painted by a rising young sculptor named Michelangelo, they remain one of the Italian Renaissance’s most iconic masterpieces, with 5 million neck-craning tourists peering at their beauty each year. Below, check out seven surprising facts about the famous ceiling and the artist who painted it.
1. 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 him to stop his work and decorate the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, Michelangelo balked. First, he considered himself a sculptor rather than a painter, and second, 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 work Julius’ monumental tomb over the next few decades.
2. Contrary to popular belief, Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel in a standing position.
Most people assumed Michelangelo painted the ceiling 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 scaffoldings, which were attached to the walls with brackets. The impression that Michelangelo painted lying 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.
3. 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.”
4. Michelangelo’s masterpiece has proven highly resilient.
The Sistine Chapel’s frescoed ceiling has held up remarkably for five centuries. Only one small component is missing: part of the sky in the panel depicting Noah’s escape from the great biblical flood. The section 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.
5. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel art was touched up — and stripped down — in the 1980s and 1990s.
Between 1980 and 1999, experts restored selected artwork in the Sistine Chapel, including Michelangelo’s ceiling and his famed fresco known as “The Last Judgment,” which he created in his later years. Specialists meticulously dissolved layers of grime, soot and deposits, substantially brightening the colors of the centuries-old paintings. The restoration also undid the work of Pope Pius IV, who ordered the placement of fig leaves and loincloths on Michelangelo’s nudes during the 1560s.
6. The Sistine Chapel ceiling’s most famous panel might depict a human brain.
In the section entitled “The Creation of Adam,” figures representing God and Adam reach for each other with their arms outstretched. Their almost-touching fingers are one of the world’s most recognizable and widely replicated images. Some theorists think the scene also contains the unmistakable outline of a human brain, formed by the angels and robes surrounding God. According to Frank Lynn Meshberger, a doctor who pioneered this hypothesis, Michelangelo meant to evoke God’s bestowal of intellegence on the first human.