The Sistine Chapel is part of the Vatican Museums. It was built during the papacy of Sixtus IV between 1477 and 1480 on the walls of an earlier court chapel and is used for papal ceremonies and the conclave. Artists from Florence and Umbria were commissioned to paint the murals under the windows in the early phases of construction. If you look towards the altar, you can see a cycle on the left-hand wall depicting Moses.
From right to left you find:
1. Moses with his Wife in Egypt; The Circumcision of their Son (Perugino and Pinturicchio).
2. The Burning Bush; The Encounter with the Daughters of Jethro; The Murder of the Egyptian (Botticelli).
3. The Israelites Crossing the Red Sea (Rosselli).
4. Moses Receiving the Ten Commandments; The Dance around the Golden Calf (Rosselli).
5. The Punishment of the Followers of Korah (Botticelli).
6. The Sermon and Death of Moses (Signorelli).
The Christ cycle unfolds from left to right on the wall on the right (from the altar to the back wall):
1. The Baptism of Christ (Perugino and Pinturicchio).
2. The Cleansing of the Leper and Temptation of Christ (Botticelli)
3. The Calling of Andrew and Peter (Perugino).
4. The Sermon on the Mount (Rosselli).
5. The Handing Over of the Keys (Perugino).
6. The Last Supper (Rosselli).
Only in 1508 did Julius II commission Michelangelo to paint the roof of the Sistine Chapel. Over a period of four years, Michelangelo, a talented sculptor who would now prove his genius as a painter, created a cycle of frescoes which remain unique to this day. For the first time in the history of painting, works covering an enormous area of 800 square meters were painted in such a way that each fresco formed a harmonious unity with the building.
Scenes in this cycle tell the story of Genesis: The Separation of Light and Darkness; God Creating the Planets; God Separating Land and Sea and Creating Life; The Creation of Adam; The Creation of Eve from Adam’s Rib; The Fall and Expulsion from Paradise; Noah’s Sacrifice; The Deluge; and, finally, Noah’s Drunkenness.
Michelangelo completed the frescoes in reverse chronological order, beginning with Noah’s drunkenness and finishing with the creation of the world. You can see how his style changed as he progressed: his figures become larger and larger, while narrative techniques are scaled down to an absolute minimum. Whereas the Noah legend is depicted by Michelangelo through small figures with an extraordinary fascination for detail, by the time he reached The Fall (possibly even earlier), the narrative had been pared down to just a few poignant motifs, such as the imminent touch of the fingers of God and Adam in The Creation of Adam. The juxtaposition of God’s tumultuous tension and Adam’s almost exhausted calm creates two different energy poles. You can almost see sparks flying between the most famous pair of fingers the world has ever known. As Michelangelo progresses, the more monumental his portrayal of bodies becomes, culminating in Jonah (above The Last Judgement). The technique is also illustrated by the prophets and Sibyls who sit in the lower section of the vault.
In 1534, 22 years after painting the ceiling, Michelangelo was commissioned to decorate the altar with The Last Judgement. Until that time, the scene had usually been depicted through a clear arrangement of surface. Michelangelo broke with tradition by telling the story of the last day through a dramatic whirl of events. The scene rises up from the lower left-hand side in a continuous flow that starts at the resurrection of the dead, swirls around Christ in the upper central portion and descends into hell with the condemned on the bottom right. The whirl is created by a myriad of bodies which appear to contort into different poses. Christ, accompanied by his heavenly bride Mary, who reverently nestles up to the Holy One, fervently casts judgement on Good and Evil. Even the saints huddling around him shudder in fear of the decision, illustrated by Peter and Paul standing on his left and right respectively, and Lawrence and Bartholomew on the left and right at his feet. They await Christ’s gesture spellbound. The condemned fall away to the right towards hell, trembling and tortured by the horror. Charon, the ferryman, is already waiting to carry them across the River Styx into the underworld. Through his grandiose portrayal of 391 bodies, Michelangelo anticipated the arrival of Baroque styles of painting.