The Plot Behind Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Masterpiece

God offers life to Adam – the Sistine Chapel ceiling centrepiece
God offers life to Adam – the Sistine Chapel ceiling centrepiece

by Ray Setterfield

September 11, 1503 — On this day Michelangelo began sculpting the twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ in marble. They were to stand in niches at Florence Cathedral. He abandoned the project two years later when he was summoned to Rome to build a tomb for Pope Julius II.

The tomb was scheduled to be finished in five years. It included forty statues and was on such a grand scale that the Pope and Michelangelo agreed Saint Peter’s Basilica would have to be rebuilt to house it.

The five-year deadline came and went, and Michelangelo continued working on the tomb for 40 years. Even so, it was never completed to his satisfaction. It is now located in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli (Saint Peter in Chains) in Rome and is famous particularly for Michelangelo’s magnificent statue of Moses.

Delays in the tomb’s completion could partly be explained by the Pope’s tendency to find new projects for Michelangelo. At one stage he ordered a colossal bronze statue of himself. The sculptor spent more than a year modelling and casting the figure, which, three years later, was melted down to make a cannon!

The principal architect for St Peter’s Basilica, Donato Bramante, was said to be resentful about the young upstart Michelangelo being given such a big commission as the tomb project, and plotted against him. Michelangelo was famous as a sculptor, especially because of his five-metre tall statue of David, and his Pieta, which depicts the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Christ. But he was not as highly esteemed for his art work.

Giorgio Vasari, an Italian writer at the time, and himself an artist and architect, recorded that Bramante joined forces with the painter Raphael in persuading the Pope that Michelangelo should paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where the conclave, baptisms and other official ceremonies take place.

Michelangelo's two artistic rivals hoped, according to Vasari, that the sculptor would make a poor job of it, fall out of public favour and have to leave Rome.

The man himself had strong doubts. He protested that he was no painter, but the Pope insisted, so Michelangelo began to work alone and in great discomfort, sticking at his painstaking task for four years.

What resulted was a monumental work of genius illustrating stories from the Old Testament including the Creation of the World, and Noah and the Flood. Bramante's hopes were dashed, and Michelangelo’s work became – and remains – one of the greatest masterpieces of Western Art. It is now admired every year by millions of tourists from all over the world.

In 1787, philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote: “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel, one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”

Michelangelo was born to Leonardo di Buonarrota and Francesca di Neri del Miniato di Siena, a middle-class family of Italian bankers on March 6, 1475. He died of a fever aged 88 on February 18, 1564 after walking in the cold night air.

The Pope wanted him to be interred at St. Peter’s but Michelangelo’s nephew and heir, Leonardo, took the body back to Florence to be buried in the Basilica of Santa Croce. More than a hundred artists attend his funeral.

*According to some reports, Galileo Galilei, the “father of modern science”, shifted his official birth date by 24 hours to coincide with the day Michelangelo passed away. He had in mind the assertion that genius never dies.

Published: May 10, 2021

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