What the Sistine Chapel Ceiling Represents Essay

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Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was painted by Michelangelo between the years of 1508 and 1512. The chapel -- built in the 1470s for Pope Sixtus IV (the chapel's namesake) -- includes the works of many different Renaissance artists -- but it is Michelangelo's work on the ceiling that stands out above all the rest. Commissioned by Pope Julius II, Michelangelo's ceiling tells the story of the Old Testament -- the laying of the foundations of the world and the coming of Christ. The nine central panel scenes describe, for example, God separating the light from the darkness, the creation of Adam, and the exile from the Garden of Eden. The centrals are framed by a painted architectural framework that adds dimension onto dimension, and the images therein are of Old Testament prophets and pagan sibyls -- both of whom, according to the Roman Catholic tradition, foretold the coming of Christ. Thus, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is painted to commemorate the pre-History of Christ -- the back story, so to speak, of Christian salvation. Just as one can study the architecture framework of a building to understand how it stands upright, so too one can study the painted panels of the Sistine ceiling to understand the Church and how it came into existence.

The historical context in which the Sistine Chapel's ceiling was begun is rooted in the tumultuous times of the Church and the geopolitical turmoil happening in Italy. Pope Julius II exercised his power at the head of a military faction that was determined to unite the different provinces of Italy. Julius's successes prompted displays of artistic triumph -- and the Sistine Chapel was one such display. The rebuilding of St. Peter's Basilica was underway (started in 1506) and the Vatican was demonstrating its glory -- reflecting its earthly power in the structures used to symbolically represent its spiritual authority ("Sistine Chapel Ceiling").

The chapel's walls had been painted decades earlier under the previous pope. On the one side was depicted the life of Christ and on the other the life of Moses. Rosselli, Purgino and Botticelli were among the famous Renaissance artists to work on these wall compositions. As the chapel was used by church officials and designated as the Papal Chapel -- a place where the interior's stunning iconography could be used as a launch pad for serious theological discussions and extrapolations, Pope Julius wanted the ceiling to cap off the artistic achievements of the side walls and provide even more subject material for the church leaders to draw from in their talks. In this sense, the chapel's interior artistic framework was a symbolic reference point for the ecclesiastical authorities from which they could take numerous inspirations and expound upon their theology at various levels.

At the time Michelangelo was mainly a sculptor and was already at work on a tomb for the pope when Julius decided to commission him for the chapel's ceiling painting.

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When a battle with the French distracted the pope's attention, Michelangelo (who did not want to stop working on the tomb to begin work on a painting) attempted to get away -- but the pope quickly returned, called for him, and the artist was obliged to return and take up the job.

Julius's initial plan was much more modest than the one proposed by Michelangelo, which he was allowed to pursue. Michelangelo's artistic vision comprised some 300 figures across the sprawling ceiling work. It was a four-year-long masterpiece finally unveiled to the public on All Saints Day in 1512 ("Sistine Chapel Ceiling").

The composition that Michelangelo organized centers on expressing the Church's doctrine of the need for salvation. The main center pieces down the length of the ceiling are nine scenes from Genesis. These scenes are framed by the 12 men and women (the prophets and sibyls) who foretold the coming of Christ (the source of salvation). Thus, the center images tell the why of salvation, and the framework scenes indicate the how of salvation. The why scenes show the creation and the fall of man, and the 12 prophets and sibyls suggest the how of salvation -- namely coming of Christ. The number 12 is symbolically significant also because it mirrors the number of Apostles that Christ would choose. Thus, there is doctrinal symmetry in the ideas expressed even as there is artistic symmetry in the composition's design. That composition is organized by painted architectural pillars and figures -- the four Ignudi, for example, which frame the individual center scenes, combining Renaissance humanism with Christian narrative in a brilliant mesh of classical beauty and spiritual significance ("Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel").

The intertwining of humanism and theological art brought an important dimension to the painting: it merged the idea that humanity has the potential to be noble, beautiful, and whole -- and this idea is united in the ceiling's composition by the implied theme -- which is that Christ is that variable, the factor that can restore nobility to man. The humanist ideals, based on the classical philosophies of Plato and Aristotle -- i.e., the search for the unum, bonum, verum (the one, the good, the true) -- are thus united under the banner of Christian theology: Christ is the Logos of Whom the ancient pagan philosophers spoke without knowing; by their reason they were able to realize that man was limited in his capacity to really reach the heights of the noble ideals; with Christian revelation and specifically faith those ideals could be reached: Christ was the doorway through which the wounded and fallen could return to a state of grace and a union with God. This was the underlying….....

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Works Cited

"Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel." Khan Academy. Web. 17 Oct 2016.


"Michelangelo's Painting of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling." Italian Renaissance. Web. 17

Oct 2016. http://www.italianrenaissance.org/a-closer-look-michelangelos-painting-of-the-sistine-chapel-ceiling/

"Sistine Chapel Ceiling." Vatican Museums. Web. 17 Oct 2016.


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