You will not find many people that are unfamiliar with Michelangelo’s famous fresco, “The Creation of Man,” in which the two outstretched index fingers seem like they could move at any moment. The simple structure of the painting symbolizes nothing less than the origin of humanity, the ensoulment of the first man by God. It forms part of the wall and ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel that brought Michelangelo Buonarroti worldwide renown.
While visitors to the Vatican Museums in Rome can marvel at these frescoes only from afar, “Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition” now offers the opportunity to observe these masterpieces close up, in the form of reproductions. The exhibition takes us up onto the scaffolding during restoration for a new perspective. After centuries of use, the paintings in the Chapel had become covered in such a thick layer of dust and soot, and as a result of this deterioration the brilliance of the original luminous colors had all but disappeared. It was not until the comprehensive restoration work carried out in the 1980s and 1990s that the true richness of color in the wall and ceiling frescoes could once more be observed. The exhibition illustrates the restoration and allows us to view the monumental paintings from a distance of only 4 meters, as opposed to the usual 20 meters. “Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel” thus brings an entirely new perspective to this work by Michelangelo and acts as a form of art in its own right.
Michelangelo used the 800 m² surface to showcase his entire talent as a painter. His heavily-populated compositions recount events from the Old and New Testaments, from the story of creation to the “Last Judgment.” Michelangelo was however loath to accept this task, as he saw himself more as a sculptor than a painter, and had come to Rome in 1505 to sculpt a mausoleum for Pope Julius II. The following year’s commission to paint the Sistine Chapel therefore came at an inconvenient time for Michelangelo. Julius II originally wanted the theme to be the Twelve Apostles.
Michelangelo however found this proposal “poor” and instead decided on a complex ceiling fresco composed of numerous different scenes.
The paintings and their sequence have intrigued people to this day. Michelangelo painted the story of Creation, across nine panels on the shallow barrel vault. However, whereas such a cycle typically begins with the creation of the Earth and humanity and ends with the fall of man and banishment from Paradise, Michelangelo includes scenes from the life of Noah. Additional Biblical scenes, representations of prophets, and the sibyls of antiquity also make their appearance. A painted architecture frames the images and lends a clear structure to the dynamic ensemble.
On November 1, 1512, after 4 ½ years work, the ceiling frescoes of the Sistine Chapel were solemnly inaugurated. Michelangelo achieved this accomplishment largely without assistance and under difficult conditions. Around 20 years later, in 1536, he returned to Rome. Clements VII, the successor of Pope Julius II, wanted a redesign of the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo then worked until 1541 creating the “Last Judgment” with Jesus in the center as the great judge separating humanity into the chosen and the damned.