Pope Sixtus IV died on August 12th, 1484. Nineteen years later, on November 1st, 1503, another member of the della Rovere clan was elected to the papacy in the shape of Pope Julius II (r. 1503-13).
Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, the nephew of Sixtus IV, was elected pope a month before his sixtieth birthday. It would not be long before he summoned Michelangelo to Rome with a very special commission in mind. Having seen the artist’s sculpture of the Pieta in St Peter’s Basilica, Julius II wanted Michelangelo to carve his tomb. However, no sooner had Michelangelo begun work on a funerary monument that was to have been 50 feet high and 34 feet wide, and would have incorporated no fewer than forty full-length marble statues, than the pope’s attention was distracted by a crack which had appeared in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The crack was duly repaired, but instead of simply repainting Piermatteo d’Amelia’s vision of the star-studded heavens, the pope came up with the idea of a completely new design for the vault. And he knew the perfect man for the job.
The pope explained his ideas to Michelangelo. The spaces above the windows were to be decorated with images of the twelve apostles, while the ceiling should be painted with a geometric design of interlocking circles and squares all’antica. Michelangelo, who thought of himself primarily as a sculptor, was less than keen to put down his hammer and chisel to take up his brushes and paints. Fresco painting was also a very skilled and demanding technique and not one in which he’d had a great deal of practise. He also strongly objected to the pope’s design, arguing that it would be ‘una cosa povera’ (a poor thing). Michelangelo would later say that the pope accepted his objections and gave him carte-blanche to do what he liked. The second part of this story is highly unlikely. The pope would never have handed over to a mere artist responsibility for the decoration of the most important chapel in Christendom. Experts in theology would have been consulted, just as they had been for the painting of the walls. But we cannot say, with certainty, who devised the scheme which Michelangelo would eventually paint. The scenes on the ceiling would complete the story of the history of mankind, which had been started on the walls of the chapel, by illustrating the first chapters, namely, the story of creation and of life before the Mosaic Law.
On May 10th, 1508, Michelangelo signed the contract and work began on making the ceiling ready for repainting. One of the first problems Michelangelo had to address was that of scaffolding. As the chapel had to be kept open for use throughout the duration of the project, the use of ground-based scaffolding was out of the question. The artist came up with an ingenious solution in the form of a wooden bridge, or rather a series of stepped arches, which spanned the chapel about forty-five feet from the ground. The bridge only extended half the length of the chapel, but it gave painters and plasterers access to all parts of the ceiling within this range. Michelangelo then suspended beneath the scaffolding a large sheet of canvas, which he claimed was for the protection of the chapel’s precious pavement. He also knew full well that it would serve to protect his precious work from prying eyes. The canvas would have had a third use in screening the sixty-five feet drop from the eyes of his assistants.
Each day, work on the ceiling began with the application of a screed of plaster (sufficient for a day’s painting) called the intonaco. As soon as the plaster had developed a thin skin, the design was transferred onto the ceiling by a technique known as pouncing. The lines of Michelangelo’s cartoon, the preparatory sketch he had made for what he intended to paint, were pricked out. The cartoon was held up against the ceiling and dusted with charcoal. When the cartoon was removed the outline of the sketch remained on the ceiling as a series of charcoal dots. Sadly, not a single one of the cartoons Michelangelo made for the ceiling has survived.
The main body of the ceiling is divided by a painted architectural structure into frames, which contain the stories from the Book of Genesis. A series of prophets, through whom God spoke in the Old Testament, and sibyls, who had the gift of foresight in the classical world, sit opposite each other at either side of the scenes. The prophets and sibyls represent, respectively, Judaeo and Greco-Roman culture, the two components on which the Christian culture was founded. In the four corner pendentives, are depictions of biblical scenes which show God, as he works through his servants, to bring about the salvation of the world.