On this date in 1512, Michelangelo unveiled the ceiling frescos of the Sistine Chapel to the world. Pope Julius II had asked Michelangelo to begin work on the ceiling frescos only four years earlier, even though Michelangelo had never done frescos before, on any scale let alone such a monumental one. In perhaps the greatest feat ever of “learning on the job,” Michelangelo not only learned the art of fresco, but redefined it, in indelible images such as that of Adam receiving the spark of life from his Creator (above), or as Sam Malone called it during one episode of Cheers, “two muscular guys touching fingers.”
Seeing the ceiling in person is an overwhelming experience. After being herded through the Vatican apartments and seeing the works of Raphael and others, including my favorite Raphael, The School of Athens (more on that later), you find yourself milling about in the open area of the chapel, shushed by the attendants incessantly as you try to look straight up without falling down in awe. I wish there was enough room to just lie down and take it all in, like the constellations on a clear night. I’ve looked at reproductions in books countless times and read about all the symbolism and narratives woven throughout the imagery, but nothing prepares you for the thing itself, there in the flesh. That experience impressed on me like none other the reality of iconography as the “bible” of the illiterate of former times. God’s grandeur oozes from every corner of Michelangelo’s frescos, truly bringing you into communion with a higher plane.
From the ground, it’s impossible to fully appreciate the fine detail of the individual figures. One of my favorites is the Libyan Sibyl (above), all torque and dynamic twist, ready to spring from the wall into three dimensions. There’s a great preliminary drawing of the Libyan Sibyl by Michelangelo in which he designed the figure without clothing. Looking at that and the frescoed version, you can almost see the muscles moving beneath the drapery. Historians once thought that Michelangelo designed his figures right on the wall, conjuring them on the spot from his mind, because of the lack of preparatory drawings that survived. They now suspect that those drawings were simply cast away after serving their purpose, sadly lost to the mists of time.
Legend has it that Michelangelo kept the ceiling under wraps until the unveiling, forbidding even the Pope from taking a sneak peak. It’s amazing to think that, as Michelangelo worked in the chapel on the ceiling, Raphael worked in the apartments on frescos such as The School of Athens. Raphael, the story goes, curious about his rival’s work, apparently snuck into the chapel and saw the work. Understandably impressed, Raphael returned to The School of Athens, which shows Aristotle, Plato, and other ancient philosophers debating various aspects of the universe. In the foreground of the painting, Raphael added a depiction of the philosopher Heraclitus, not only using Michelangelo as the model but also painting in the style of Michelangelo’s frescos—an homage in an homage (above). Perhaps only one genius could fittingly praise another.