A Brief History
Sistine Chapel, 1512 CE, Boxer Briefs
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The depiction of divine creation of humankind is captured in Michelangelo’s masterpiece,The Creation of Adam. Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to redecorate the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel vaulted ceiling. After some negotiating on subject matter and scale, Michelangelo was given free rein to design the artwork himself. The finished painting depicts stories from the Book of Genesis, portraits of ancestors of Jesus, Old Testament prophets, pagan sibyls, and trompe l’oeil architectural features. The Creation of Adam is perhaps the most famous section of the nearly 5,000 square feet of painting. In the Creation of Adam, we see God portrayed as a strong grandfatherly figure, floating on a robe, surrounded by angels. Contemporary critique of the composition claims that the robe behind God is an accurate representation of the human brain, illustrating God’s gift of knowledge to man.
Michelangelo saw himself primarily as a sculptor, and was unenthusiastic about being commissioned to paint. It was grueling work, done high on rickety scaffolding with little light or fresh air. He even wrote a witty poem to a friend lamenting his squashed stomach, knotted spine, and crushed brain. Despite Michelangelo’s reluctance, the Sistine Chapel ceiling turned out to be one of the most inspiring and revered works of art in the world.
Michelangelo used the “fresco” technique for the Sistine Chapel. A thin layer of wet plaster is trowelled directly onto the building surface. While the plaster is still soft, a rough image is incised on the plaster by tracing over a sketch of the final design. The sketch is removed to reveal “guidelines” in the plaster which aid the painter. Michelangelo had to work quickly and in small sections to paint the colorful pigments on the plaster before it set completely. Fortunately, fresco painting encapsulates the pigment into the plaster, making the painting especially durable. In the 1980’s-90’s, a major restoration project was completed which removed hundreds of years of candle soot, grime, and “enhancements”, returning Michelangelo’s frescoes to the intense colors he had originally selected.