Credit to Gregorio Borgia

All you need to know about the Sistine Chapel's ceiling

When the construction of the Sistine Chapel was completed, the ceiling had been painted blue and was dotted with stars by Pier Matteo d'Amelia. Pope Julius II, however, had a grander vision for the ceiling and turned to Michelangelo, despite the artist being mostly known for his skills as a sculptor. In 1506, the pope asked Michelangelo to paint the Twelve Apostles on the supporting pendentives around the ceiling, who in turn proposed something more complex and ambitious.

Michelangelo planned to paint the entire ceiling with scenes from the Book of Genesis, culminating in the creation of Adam. Although the pope was in favor of more traditional iconography, the artist felt that his allegorical representation of the Old Testament scenes would better convey the Christian message and beliefs. The two got into heated arguments about the ceiling subject, but eventually Julius II relented and Michelangelo was allowed free reign of the project.

Setting the foundations of a masterpiece

The Florentine artist felt that his younger rival, Raphael, was more suitable for the task, but the Pope insisted and a deal was struck. Michelangelo carried out auditions for painters more experienced in frescoes to assist in the project. However, he was unable to find anyone suitable, so he opted to undertake the monumental task on his own. Using freestanding scaffolding, Michelangelo started work in 1508 from the west end of the chapel ceiling, in order to cause the least amount of disturbance.

He worked his way in reverse order, starting from the three stories of Noah (his disgrace, the Great Flood and his sacrifice after the flood), followed by the story of Adam and Eve, and concluding with the Creation. Around the ceiling panels, Michelangelo painted prophets, sibyls and ancestors of Jesus Christ, while in the corners he depicted scenes from the Salvation of Israel. In total, the frescoes cover an area of about 500 square meters and depict over 300 figures from Christian mythology.

The first half of the ceiling was painted by the summer of 1511 and after a break to construct new scaffolding, the remaining frescoes were completed a year later. The full ceiling was publicly unveiled to critical acclaim and appraise on All Saints' Day in 1512, cementing Michelangelo’s reputation as one of the greatest artists of his era.

The Creation of Adam

Every surface of the Sistine Chapel’s interior is decorated, however the most famous fresco is undoubtedly the Creation of Adam. The centerpiece has been reproduced countless times and is regarded as one of the greatest works of religious art. In the intricately detailed painting, the white-bearded God reaches out his right arm to give life to the protoplast of humanity. Adam, laying naked on the earth, is posed in such a way to mirror his creator, thus reinforcing the concept that man was created in the image of God.

The dramatic rendition of the biblical scene is striking and captivating in its simplicity and upon closer inspection, many more details and layers of meaning emerge. While many of these details are rather straightforward and easy to spot, others are more ambiguous and shrouded in mystery. Everything from the composition to the identity of the surrounding figures and their anatomy have been the source of many debates.

This multi-layered approach was by design, since Pope Julius II wanted the ceiling to be highly symbolic, but also down to Michelangelo’s own artistic merits and interpretation of Catholic teachings and the Holy Scriptures. There are many small and otherwise unperceivable details that are open to speculation and interpretation.

A mosaic of meaning and mysteries

Among them is an apparent extra rib on Adam, said to represent Eve. While this can be attributed to being an error on the artist’s behalf, Michelangelo had an extensive knowledge of the human anatomy. The identity of the 12 figures surrounding God in the fresco is also a mystery. It has been suggested that the person by God’s left arm that gazes towards Adam is the soul of Eve. Alternatively, the figure could be an angel, the Virgin Mary, the personification of Wisdom or even perhaps the soul of humanity itself.

The cloak surrounding God has also been at the center of many debates, with some positing that it is shaped like the human brain. According to this theory, the folds and shape resemble the cerebrum, brainstem and frontal lobe. A more daring and symbolic theory suggests that the cloak represents a uterus and, meaning that the fresco depicts the literal birth of mankind. In this theory, the protruding scarf allegorically stands in for the umbilical cord, which conveniently explains the navel on Adam.

While there may never be any conclusive answers and explanations to many of the theological and symbolic mysteries, the sublime sense of elegance and beauty of the Sistine Chapel frescoes and Michelangelo’s masterpiece will continue to attract millions of visitors every year.