16 Baffling Facts About the Sistine Chapel Murals That Even Tour Guides Might Not Know

The murals on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are one of the biggest pieces of artwork from the Renaissance period that can still be seen today. Its size, which is 1/6 the size of a soccer field, is absolutely mind-blowing especially if you think about the fact that all the paintings were completed in less than 5 years. Interestingly, Michelangelo, who considered himself a sculptor, but not an artist, had never painted murals before. Maybe this was the reason why this great Italian sculptor was not very eager to work on the Chapel. But some biographers think that it was his desire to prove his skill that ultimately made him agree to do the work.

Bright Side decided to learn more about the work of this genius artist that up to 30,000 people come to see every day.

The Sistine Chapel in the Vatican was built during the period from 1473–1481 at the order of Pope Sixtus IV who the Chapel was named after. To paint a mural on the walls of the Chapel, the most famous artists of the time were invited, including Sandro Botticelli. The ceiling got a lot of attention, too: artist Piermatteo d’Amelia drew golden stars on the blue background.

In 1504, cracks appeared on the ceiling and they were fixed with bricks. But Pope Julius II decided to decorate the ceiling again and in 1508, the famous Michelangelo Buonarroti from Florence started working on his greatest creation.

Since 1871, the Sistine Chapel is the only place where the election of the new Popes is done. This is the place where the white smoke rises, signaling that the new head of the Catholic Church is soon going to be presented to the world.

  • Despite a popular misconception, Michelangelo wasn’t doing the work lying on some sort of a deck, but he was standing with his head back. The work on the mural (and we are not exaggerating) cost the artist his health (even though at the moment when he started in 1508, he was only 33 years old). He developed an ear infection because of the paint that got on his face, and he also had arthritis and scoliosis. More than that, because of the lack of light during the process, Michelangelo could only read text if he lifted it high above his head.
  • Michelangelo worked using the affresco technique: the technique involved covering the ceiling with as much plaster as it was planned to cover with paintings in one day. Unlike the al secco technique where you draw on dry plaster, affresco allows you to create something that will last for a longer time. If the plastered surface wasn’t painted on the day it was applied, it was removed and the next day the plaster was put on back again. Some parts of the murals were done al secco, which led to the fact that during the restoration from 1980-1994, the shadows of some figures and the eyes disappeared.

Right next to the head and the arm, you can see the line of plaster that was applied before Michelangelo started this piece of the mural.

  • Some people believe that Michelangelo created all of the paintings alone. However, the data collected during the restoration in 1980-1994, says that at least 3 other people helped the great artist to draw putti (the pictures of boys often seen in the Renaissance period) and the architectural parts.
  • On the sides of the central scenes of the mural, Michelangelo placed a picture of the 7 prophets of Israel and 5 Sibyls — the oracles that in Ancient Greece were able to predict the future. There were 10 Sibyls and we still have no idea why the artist chose these 5. According to one of the versions, they symbolize different places on Earth.

Delphic Sibyl

  • Thanks to the special method that Michelangelo used, the murals give the impression that the stories are separated by architectural elements (like pilasters, edges, and ledges). But in fact, all of them are drawn using the trompe-l’œil (meaning “fool the eye”) technique, where the artist creates pseudo-3D images on a flat surface.
  • Working on the murals was split into 3 stages. The border between them was across the vault: the first one ends with Noah’s Sacrifice and the second one ends with The Creation of Eve. Despite the fact that the murals generally look very harmonious and the difference is not very noticeable for someone who is not an expert, the murals from the third stage are not the same as the previous ones. The thing is, after the end of work on The Creation of Eve, the scaffolding was removed to move it to another part of the Chapel and Michelangelo had a chance to see the work from below. The artist thought that the figures were too small and too hard to see, so on the third stage, he made the figures bigger and made their gestures easier to recognize.
  • In order to be able to work such a high height, Michelangelo designed special vertical scaffolding that was attached to the beams on the walls of the Chapel. They allowed him to work on the entire surface of the ceiling and didn’t stop other people from being in the Chapel: there were still services held below him while he was working. The Renaissance genius was only able to see his own work after the scaffolding was completely removed. There are 343 figures on the ceiling, apart from other details.
  • The oak leaves and acorns that some ignudi (the naked men) are holding are a reference to Pope Julius II. The thing is, the symbol of his family, the Rovere family, has an oak on it.
  • In the lunettes (the space under the arches above the windows) of the ceiling, Michelangelo drew the ancestors of Jesus. Initially, there were 16 lunettes but 2 of them that were on the altar wall were destroyed by the artist himself in order to free some space for one of the parts of the Last Judgement.
  • Even though the forbidden fruit is an apple, the part of The Expulsion from Paradise shows the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil as a fig tree. Interestingly, the left and the right parts that show Adam and Eve are portrayed in different ways: before the Fall of Man (on the right) their faces are frowning and before they try the fruit, where they are shown as beautiful and inspired. By the way, the serpent is shown as a woman.
  • Not a single mural on the ceiling shows a figure of adult Jesus (maybe he is only seen in The Creation of Adam as a child). The explanation is very simple: Michelangelo only drew the scenes from The Old Testament where the appearance of Christ was only predicted and the description of the Son of God wasn’t given until The New Testament. The savior is drawn on the altar mural The Judgement Day without a beard.
  • In 1564, Pope Pius IV ordered artist Daniele da Volterra to dress the most “naked” figures of the mural The Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Chapel. The mural itself, by the way, was drawn by Michelangelo between 1536 and 1541, so it was almost 25 years after the end of the main part of the work. Daniele da Volterra did the job he was asked to do by the Pope but he also earned the humiliating nickname Braghettone (“the maker of breeches”). But during the restoration, some of the figures were undressed, so now we can see them exactly as the great Michelangelo intended them to be.
  • The picture of God in The Creation of Adam was absolutely unusual for the time. Before Michelangelo, nobody had ever drawn God in motion. And most of the time, the Creator was only pictured as a symbol (like a hand). Experts are really interested in who the woman on the left of the Creator is: some people think it is Eve, and that the other figures show Adam and Eve’s offspring and humanity.
  • There is a famous version that says the silhouette of fabric around God is the same as the silhouettes of the human brain and the people there symbolize the different parts of the brain. However, there is a different version that says that the clothing is the womb and the green scarf is the umbilical cord that has just been cut. Experts say that this was Michelangelo’s way of showing the idealized process of human birth which explains why Adam has a belly button.
  • Even though almost all of the murals that Michelangelo made, he drew moving along the ceiling and the vaults, the pictures of God were drawn last. The artist believed that before starting to draw the figure of the Creator, he wanted to master his skills.
  • In the scene The Judgment Day, Jesus is surrounded by the apostles. One of them, Bartholomew holds the skin in his hands. Some people believe that Michelangelo drew his own portrait as a symbol of his suffering because he didn’t want to work on the mural. But most experts deny this version.

Have you seen Michelangelo’s work in person? If not, would you like to?

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