Sistine Chapel Michelangelo, 1508-1512 (Vault) and 1536-1541 (Last Judgment)


Frescoes of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo

Versión en español

The artistic decoration that beautifully adorns the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a masterpiece by the great Michelangelo Buonarroti, was made using the complex technique of Buon Fresco or Fresco Buono. The difficult painting technique, which leaves no margin for error, must be completed in just one working day, barely eight hours, before the ceiling dries. One particularity of this technique is that, through a chemical reaction, the pigments penetrate the surface of the ceiling, becoming part of it and becoming insoluble in water. The difference with respect to Fresco Secco is that, as its name indicates, the paintings must be applied on the already dry plaster.

Above, in the central image of the vault, is the painting created by the great Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512, commissioned by Pope Julius II (Giuliano della Rovere), which represents the history of humanity in the period preceding the birth of Christ. The Sistine Chapel, formerly called the Palatine Chapel, is located in the Vatican City, not far from St. Peter's Cathedral, in Rome, Italy.

The Buon Fresco technique is based on a chemical reaction known as carbonation. "The pigments mixed with lime water are applied to a recent mortar made of lime and aggregates while the lime is still in the form of calcium hydroxide. Due to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the lime is transformed into calcium carbonate, so that the pigment crystallizes within the wall. Thus, while in most other painting techniques the paint remains on the surface, in fresco, the paint is "embedded" inside the prepared surface, making it impossible to alter."

Above, one of the most famous scenes of the Sistine Chapel, The Creation of Adam, can be found in the central area of the nave. Given his great knowledge of human anatomy and sculpture - having already created some of his best works such as The Pieta, and later The David - Michelangelo Buonarroti fused architecture, sculpture, and painting in the same work.


The old barrel vault of the Sistine Chapel, which was decorated with a simple blue paint studded with stars representing the firmament, a work by the painter Pier Matteo d'Amelia, was prepared by Michelangelo with several layers of lime and aggregate. The first layer of lime was mixed with sand and the successive layers with a higher concentration of lime to achieve a completely smooth surface with a spatula. Colors were applied to the last, finest, and still fresh layer of lime. Michelangelo, who also had great engineering skills, as he created a special scaffold to carry out the frescoes that had to allow for the scheduled masses each week, used life-size templates of the different scenes and characters that represent the Genesis, Bible, or Old Testament.

Above, an image of the Last Judgment that presides over the altar, measuring 13.70 m in height and 12.20 m in width, was created by Michelangelo between 1536 and 1541 at the request of Pope Clement VII and later confirmed by Pope Paul III Farnese (1468-1549). As a curiosity, Michelangelo's full name (1475-1564) is Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni.

The templates made on paper, which greatly simplified Miguel Ángel's work, given that the Buon Fresco technique required acting with considerable skill and speed before the plaster surface dried, consisted of perforating the lines of the drawing through a series of points. Afterwards, with a spolvero, when passing it over the perforated paper onto the surface of the ceiling, the original drawing was marked on the plaster as a guide for the artist. In addition, aside from the fact that it is a technique that does not allow for touch-ups, another of the added difficulties of Buon Fresco is that due to the chemical reaction of the pigment with the lime, the colors applied changed tonality when they dried. Therefore, Miguel Ángel did many tests and had to intuit very well how the colors would look after the surface dried. Otherwise, if there was any mistake, he had to scrape and start again.

Although from the outside the Sistine Chapel does not offer great architectural interest, the reality is that its interior hides one of the best references of the art world par excellence, the frescoes of "The Divine" Michelangelo. However, it currently receives 20,000 daily visitors to the Sistine Chapel.

To give an idea of the difficulty in mastering the Buon Fresco technique, even Leonardo da Vinci struggled with it. "The Sistine Chapel gets its name from Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere (pontiff from 1471 to 1484), who had the old Magna Chapel restructured between 1477 and 1480." Additionally, a layer of animal glue that had been applied centuries ago to Miguel Ángel's frescoes — which helped prevent the ceiling from detaching but also significantly darkened the work over time — was followed by a major restoration carried out between 1980 and 1994, during which the light and vivid colors that Miguel Ángel had used in the splendid artistic era of the Italian Renaissance were rediscovered.

Above, the main detail of the Last Judgment with the gesture of Christ separating the righteous from the sinners and the Virgin Mary, on his right, as protagonists of the scene. "Without having seen the Sistine Chapel, one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving," Johann Wolfgang Goethe.

The characters that beautifully recreate the Genesis in the Sistine Chapel were portrayed by Michelangelo with their bodies completely naked, a custom and taste of the Renaissance known as ignudi (nudes). However, the reality is that this did not sit well with some of his cardinals, especially the master of ceremonies Biagio de Cesana, so after the artist's refusal, by order of Pope Paul III Farnesio, the disciple Daniele da Volterra was tasked with covering the intimate parts of some of the characters with veils or "breeches", which earned him the nickname "Braghettone" (the breeches maker); this fact bothered Michelangelo quite a bit, although he got his revenge. This addition made later by Daniele da Volterra was painted with the oil painting technique, so the new paintings are not part of the last plaster layer prepared by Michelangelo, but were superficially added on top of it.

Above, a general image of the Sistine Chapel. One of the very interesting particularities that the Buon Fresco technique has is that it withstands the passage of time very well, as demonstrated by some of the constructions from antiquity that still survive today and that we can admire in all their splendor in the ruins of ancient Egypt, Greece, or Rome.

The Sistine Chapel, with measurements of 40 x 13.5 x 21 meters in height, inspired by the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, is usually associated with the name of Michelangelo, however, other important painters of the Italian Renaissance such as Perugino, Ghirlandaio, and Botticelli, among others, also collaborated on the walls of the chapel that support the vault, creating beautiful rectangular murals of over five meters in length with the fresco technique, as can be seen in the image above. The monumental work of Michelangelo Buonarroti carried out in the Sistine Chapel, which was developed over almost a decade, although in different periods, became not only one of the best works of the Italian Cinquecento, but also one of the masterpieces of the entire history of art. Papal Ceremonies are held in the building, as well as the Conclave and the Papal Election, which has been highly publicized in recent years.

Above, a portrait of Saint Bartholomew with the face of Pietro Aretino, a friend of Michelangelo who had been censored by the Church for his writings on lust. The character is depicted holding a dagger in his right hand and his own skin in his left hand, on which Michelangelo also depicted himself.

The great artist of the Renaissance, who had vehemently refused to cover the most intimate parts of the characters that had cost him so much work for several years, finally took revenge, and Biagio de Cesana got his punishment. In the lower right vertex of the Last Judgment, at the gates of hell, the artist portrayed the king of hell Minos with the face of Biagio de Cesana. Michelangelo ridiculed him by portraying him naked, with huge donkey ears, wrapped in a snake, and surrounded by monsters, as can be seen in the lower image. Legend has it that Biagio de Cesana, scared to see himself represented in hell, went to the pope with tears and sighs, asking him to order Mr. Michelangelo to erase his horrible caricature. Paulo III, who, as it is believed, had a good sense of humor, replied, "My son, if the painter had placed you in purgatory, I could get you out of there, for my power reaches there, but you are in hell, and it is impossible for me to help you."

Five centuries later, the reality is that Biagio de Cesana still remains in the hell of the Last Judgment of the Sistine Chapel, which recreates the Apocalypse of Saint John. Undoubtedly, whoever expressed the opinion that Michelangelo's frescoes were more like the decoration of a public bath or a tavern, will have cursed the day he presented his complaints to the pope.

It's very important to note that, before painting the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo Buonarroti had only worked as a sculptor; his most important works up until that point were the Pietà (1498-1499) and later, the David (1501-1504). In addition, the idea for Michelangelo to paint the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel was actually planned by several rival Renaissance artists envious of his talent, including Raphael, who believed that Michelangelo couldn't handle such an immense challenge, especially considering he had never worked with the difficult fresco technique before, and that he would be ridiculed by everyone. The also called "Last Judgment" hides some very interesting details worth mentioning, such as Michelangelo's evident homosexuality, his constant devotion to the beauty of the male body in particular, even representing it on female bodies—whom he simply gave breasts—male characters kissing, or including his "late" great love, the young Roman Tommaso Cavalieri, with whom he shared his life until the end of his days in February 1564.

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Michelangelo was a genius of unparalleled virtuosity. This new edition explores in depth and breadth his extraordinary work and his ascent to the elite of the Renaissance and art history. Ten richly illustrated chapters cover the artist's paintings, sculptures, constructions, and drawings, with special attention to the feat of the Sistine Chapel frescoes.

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