Michelangelo Unveiled Unfinished Chapel Ceiling

Dan Graves, MSL

Michelangelo Unveiled Unfinished Chapel Ceiling

All of Rome waited in expectation. For months, Michelangelo Buonarroti had worked in secret. Curiosity was aflame. What had he accomplished? Had he succeeded in transferring his skill as a sculptor to work with fresco (paint in plaster)?

Pope Julius II, as impatient as ever, demanded that Michelangelo unveil the ceiling of the Sistine chapel although it was far from done. High on the scaffolding, his face just inches from the ceiling, paint dripping into his eyes, Michelangelo had completed only the central vault.

Julius prevailed. Down came the scaffold, erected with such labor. On this day, November 1, 1509, the public surged into the chapel to see what Michelangelo had wrought.

Painters could only gape in astonishment. Michelangelo, who had earlier revolutionized sculpture, now did the same with painting. His nine groups of stories from Genesis stole the breath of contemporaries. He made his figures seem to be in perspective and distributed them across the vault with an astonishing inner rhythm to tell the stories of creation, the fall of man, and sacred history. (Years later, he added the Last Judgment to the wall behind the altar.) His rivals immediately began to ape his techniques.

Michelangelo infused much of his art with Christian feeling. An admirer of the reformer Savonarola, his sonnets show that he genuinely desired to know God and considered himself unworthy of him:

O my dear God, matched with the much I owe
All that I am were no real recompense:
Paying a debt is not munificence.

Although he had flaws of temper, Michelangelo's art and life reveal an individual concerned for God's glory. A contemporary wrote, "Buonarroti, having lived for ninety years, there was never found through all that time anyone who could with right and justice impute to him a stain or any ugliness of manners."

However, he found dealing with Pope Julius a strain. Once when Michelangelo threatened to leave Rome, Julius, in a fury, said he would have him flung from the scaffold. Michelangelo immediately took it down and refused to add the gold leaf and touch-ups that Julius wanted.

Bibliography:

  1. Cross, F. L., editor. "Michelangelo." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford University Press, 1997.
  2. Janson, H. W. History of Art. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1969.
  3. Symonds, John Addington. The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti. New York: Modern Library, 1928.
  4. Various encyclopedia and internet articles.

Last updated June, 2007.

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