What would you do if someone asked you to spend the next four years working with your arms raised above your head? Sounds like a form of medieval torture?
It was a similar request that launched the project that eventually became one of the most renowned works of art in the world. The masterpiece? The Sistine Chapel. The man behind the paintbrush? Michelangelo.
If you close your eyes and imagine a painter, your vision will probably include a paintbrush, a palette, an easel, and a canvas. As Michelangelo discovered, however, not all canvases are created equal. And not all art has to hang on the wall. Sometimes the canvas is the wall!
The Sistine Chapel is a large chapel within the Vatican in Rome, Italy. It is used by the Pope for papal conclaves and other important services and meetings. When it needed repairs in the early 1500s, Pope Julius II decided to commission Michelangelo to create an original work of art on its ceiling.
Michelangelo wasn't really interested in the project to begin with. First of all, he was primarily a sculptor, so the idea of such a large painting project didn't appeal to him. Secondly, he was already working on a project he loved: sculpting a marble tomb for the Pope.
The Pope insisted that Michelangelo was the artist for the job and refused to take no for an answer. Thus, Michelangelo began work on the project in 1508.
The Pope's original idea had been to paint twelve large figures of the Apostles. Michelangelo, however, convinced the Pope to give him free reign to create nine important scenes from the Book of Genesis.
Michelangelo's work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling took four years, finishing in 1512. Of all the scenes painted on the ceiling, the most famous is The Creation of Adam, which depicts the Biblical creation story. The outstretched fingers of God and Adam represent one of the most famous works of art in the world, rivaled only by Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa.
Why did it take so long to complete the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? It's easier to understand when you comprehend the size of the ceiling. In total, the ceiling measured approximately 12,000 square feet! When the work was finished, Michelangelo had painted 343 figures on the ceiling.
It was also painstaking work. The method he used was known as fresco, which involved applying paint to damp plaster. Contrary to what many people believe, Michelangelo did not lie on his back to paint the ceiling.
Instead, he devised his own scaffolding system that consisted of a wooden platform supported by brackets inserted into holes in the wall near the top of the windows. From his scaffold, Michelangelo could paint while standing. Nevertheless, it was still very uncomfortable to paint with his hands in the air and his head tilted upward constantly.