The Sistine Chapel Ceiling

In 1508, Michelangelo was summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II. He first thought that he would only be working on the pope’s tomb, but was also given the job of painting figures of the twelve apostles

against a starry sky on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Michelangelo had been given this job through a recommendation from Donato Bramante, then the chief architect of St Peter’s Basilica. Bramante hoped that by suggesting a sculptor to paint a fresco, Michelangelo would present “less creditable work than Raphael of Urbino, to whom, out of hatred for Michelangelo, they gave every support.”

Originally, since he considered himself a sculptor rather than a painter, Michelangelo attempted to turn down the job, but was unsuccessful. Since he now had no choice, he lobbied for a far more complex design. As a result, upon completion, the ceiling contained over 300 figures, as opposed to just the twelve apostles as was originally intended.

In May of 1508, Michelangelo began making plans for the layout of the ceiling, though he did not begin painting until the fall. Recognizing the scale of this enormous undertaking, he called on a number of laborers and assistants to aid him. However, dissatisfied with the quality of their work, he fired everyone that he had recruited and removed what they had painted, beginning the whole work anew on his own.

While working on it he refused to show anyone his work before it was finished, although Bramante would sneak in several friends, including Raphael, to see it. He was even reluctant to show it to the pope, who would actually climb the scaffolding to see how the work was coming along. The pope, impatient, pressured Michelangelo to finish quicker, and as a result he was forced to uncover his work in August of 1511 before its true completion in 1512.

The project, which in the end took four years to complete, caused a great deal of physical and emotional pain for Michelangelo, who remarked, “After four tortured years, more than 400 over life-sized figures, I felt as old and as weary as Jeremiah. I was only 37, yet friends did not recognize the old man I had become.” The Sistine chapel contains many biblical scenes, notably the nine scenes from the Book of Genesis, including the Creation, the creation and downfall of Adam and Eve, and three stories from the life of Noah.

Read about Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam

Further Reading

What makes a building a Basilica, Cathedral, or Chapel?


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Other Great Masters

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Sistine Chapel Ceiling: Creation of the Sun and Moon

Sistine Chapel Ceiling The Creation of Eve

Sistine Chapel Ceiling: Noah After the Flood

Sistine Chapel Ceiling: The Prophet Isaiah

Sistine Chapel Ceiling: Ignudi

“I hope that I may always desire more than I can accomplish.”

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