Ancient European citizens believed that cultural heritage was a precious treasure, bestowed upon us from the heavens. Western art reached its apex during the Renaissance, when Rome – city of churches, palaces, the pope, and high culture – became the unequivocal heart of fine art.
Rome houses numerous Renaissance masterpieces depicting highly religious imagery. To this day, one cannot help but admire the view of St. Peter’s Basilica, the wondrous domes, the famous paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo’s paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Inside the Sistine Chapel is one masterpiece of particular note: ‘The Creation of Adam.’
This extraordinary painting is just one of numerous masterpieces on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, built within the walls of the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Pope, in Vatican City.
The genius painter, poet, and sculptor Michelangelo painted ‘The Creation of Adam’ within its wider narrative context over four years, and in doing so, exemplified the Renaissance artistic disposition of the 16th century. Michelangelo’s collection featured Biblical stories, and focused on the Book of Genesis.
Commissioned by Pope Julius II, Michelangelo dedicated the four years between 1508 and 1512 to painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Along the centre of the ceiling runs nine scenes, or “frescoes,” each depicting a story from the Book of Genesis. The stories, in chronological order, are told as follows:
- Separation of Light from Darkness
- Creation of the sun, moon and planets
- Separation of Land from Sea
- Creation of Adam
- Creation of Eve
- Original Sin and Banishment from the Garden of Eden
- The Sacrifice of Noah
- The Flood
- The Drunkenness of Noah
The unique genius of these nine paintings owes to the fact that Michelangelo intentionally reversed their order, beginning with ‘The Drunkenness of Noah’ and ending with ‘Separation of Light from Darkness.’
Some scholars have interpreted Michelangelo’s intention as a wish to portray humanity returning to its origins; starting from the material world, and forging a route back to the purity of the spiritual world.
Circling these nine frescoes is a collection of 12 paintings of different prophets, which predicted the appearance of Jesus throughout history. The paintings illustrate four biblical stories about Moses, Esther, David, and Judith, four significant figures who appeared in the genealogy of Jesus himself. A number of dynamic narrative athletes adorn the paintings and tie the frescoes together.
In addition to the paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, it would be remiss to exclude Michelangelo’s ‘The Last Judgment,’ which covers the altar wall of the chapel. This standalone masterpiece illustrates doomsday, or the end times, when the gods are said to descend and pass judgment over all citizens of the world.
Under doomsday prophecy, “good people” will ascend to heaven and “wicked people” will fall into hell. At the center of the painting, Jesus appears, raising his hands as if to make the final judgment over all corrupted souls.
‘The Last Judgment’ was painted between 1536 and 1541. The fresco measures an astounding 13.7 meters high and 12 meters wide. It is considered, alongside the ceiling of the chapel, one of Michelangelo’s most impressive artistic achievements.
Other paintings on walls of the chapel include the works of famous historical artists such as Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Pietro Perugino, and Raphael. They, similarly, depict seminal Bible narratives.
The Sistine Chapel showcases a stunning collection of quintessential Renaissance art and also illustrates the rich and fascinating relationship between fine art and Western religious belief.
Between 1980 and 1999, a massive restoration initiative took place after smoke from candles burned inside the chapel caused damage to the artwork. Today, the color of the paintings has been largely restored, but some more intricate details – shadows, striking bands of color – were lost.
Regardless, five million tourists visit the Sistine Chapel every single year. The Sistine Chapel, and the stunning collection of Renaissance artwork within is a true, precious anthropological masterpiece.