It was the Spring of 1509. A Florentine artist was just starting out on what would become one of the defining masterpieces of the Western World. His name—Michelangelo Buonarotti—would resonate through history. But just like so many endeavors before, his ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel had gotten off to a rocky start.
“He was working on the largest multi-figure compositions of the entire ceiling when the actual fresco plaster itself became infected by a kind of lime mold, which is like a great bloom of fungus,” art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon told Smithsonian Magazine. “So he had to chip the whole thing back to zero and start again. Eventually he sped up. He got better.”
The conditions were difficult, to say the least. There was the challenge of painting at a height of 65 feet, the scaffolds and platforms that were uniquely slotted into specially architected wall openings, and the heavily detailed work that required a great deal of perspective he had to achieve from staggering angles. Despite the most adverse conditions, by the time Michelangelo unveiled his work in 1512, he had created a true work of genius that has continued to inspire and intrigue throughout the ages.
The Sistine Chapel is the private chapel of the Pope and site of the papal conclave, where the College of Cardinals gather to elect clergy, including the new Pope. Because of Michelangelo, however, the significance of the chapel extends beyond its religious activity. Those fortunate enough to have beheld the masterpiece first hand can attest to the power of his vision. Even those who have merely seen photographs or replicas of the ceiling can admire it from afar.
Graham-Dixon found himself inextricably drawn to the masterpiece, and began investigating Michelangelo’s work. He now is a published author of a book written for the general public—Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel. Through the process of writing this book, Graham-Dixon found that the more he researched, the more he found to ponder. Consider The Creation of Adam, an image that has become one of the most familiar in all art history—Michelangelo depicts God with His finger reaching to touch Adam’s.
“Yet I found myself wondering, why did Michelangelo have God create Adam with a finger?” says Graham-Dixon. “In other representations, for example, if you look at Ghiberti’s doors in Florence, God raises up Adam with a gesture of his hand. And as I turned over various ideas and theories, I began to see it as the creation of the education of Adam, because that’s the symbolism of the finger. God writes on us with his finger, in certain traditions of theology. In the Jewish tradition, that’s how he writes the tablets of the Ten Commandments for Moses—he sort of lasers them with his finger. The finger is the conduit through which God’s intelligence, his ideas and his morality seep into Man. And if you look at that painting very closely, you see that God isn’t actually looking at Adam, he’s looking at his own finger, as if to channel his own instructions and thoughts through that finger.”
In his book, Graham-Dixon also addresses several of the controversies and myths surrounding the Sistine Chapel, including the theory that Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the chapel lying flat on his back. Graham-Dixon argues that Michelangelo actually painted standing up. The unnatural angle became so painful, especially on his neck, that for nearly four years Michelangelo suffered from painful spasms, cramps and headaches. Michelangelo once wrote to a friend: “My beard toward Heaven, I feel the back of my brain upon my neck…My loins have penetrated to my paunch…I’m not in a good place, and I’m no painter.”
The very idea Michelangelo considered himself anything less than masterful seems ludicrous, yet he meant what he wrote. At the time, Michelangelo was not known for his painting, but for his statues, such as the David and the Pieta. In fact, when Pope Julius II asked him to paint the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo was convinced that his enemies and rivals had put the Pope up to it as some sort of joke or ploy to see him fail.
“Michelangelo felt that God chose him to be a sculptor,” says Graham-Dixon, “so to be asked to paint—he didn’t consider that as serious a vocation. What he’d wanted to do, what he’s spent years of his life preparing to do, had spent eight months in the mountains of Carrara with two men and a donkey getting ready to do, was to create this great monumental tomb for Julius II.”
In the end, Graham-Dixon realized that despite a profound understanding of the Sistine Chapel, it still remains a sort of abstract concept that is somehow always just out of grasp.
“I have to say it is kind of superhuman. I find the Sistine Chapel quite a daunting work of art. It’s not very accommodating to human beings, in many ways. It presents the image of God as a dream to which we aspire. It describes the dream of oneness with God as one from which we’ve all been expelled, and we can only get back to it with a great deal of prayer and hard work. There’s a sense as well, I think, it’s only a sort of feeling I have, I can’t really justify it—but I have the feeling that Michelangelo felt he was far, far above the multitude of ordinary people. And not just physically, up on his platform, but morally as well. There is, of course, a humanity in it, but it’s a very, very hard one, and it can’t easily be turned into a nice picture.”