Great Moments in Catholic History
Fr. Jacques Monet, S.J. 

12 Michelangelo Paints the Sistine Ceiling

Christianity and the Creative Spirit in Mankind

When Pope Julius II blessed the foundation stone of the new Basilica of St. Peter in Rome on April 18, A.D. 1506, the papal city was well on its way to becoming the undisputed artistic and intellectual capital of the western world. The Pope was a man of action. He knew how to wield the sword as well as the crozier. (Il papa terribile he was called, as he rode his fiery steed in full armour into the smoke of battle, in wars to defend the Papal States against Venice, Perugia or Bologna.) But, although a military leader and a statesman, he realized the need for a setting which would be in keeping with the magnificence he wished for his papacy.

He much preferred to command artists rather than soldiers, and so he gathered about himself the foremost living artists in all fields -- Raphael the painter, Bramante the architect, Leonardo the universal genius. And Michelangelo.

Julius 11 had received most of his training from his uncle Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484), and he inherited from him a passionate love of the arts. Sixtus had created and endowed the Vatican Library and built the chapel which bears his name. It was designed to serve for conclaves, so it was high and solid; it was intended to be his private chapel, so it was decorated in brilliant colours, enhanced with touches of gold to give it the splendour and gaiety of a page from an illuminated manuscript. He subsequently installed in it the singers who have since been known as the Sistine Chapel Choir. But the high barrel-vaulted ceiling 68 feet above the floor with 700 square yards of surface, he Ieft untouched.

Julius II decided to have it decorated in Sixtus' honour, and, to do this, he commissioned the greatest artist of his day, "the man," according to contemporaries, "who bore the palm of all ages, transcending and eclipsing all the rest, the divine Michelangelo Buonarotti, who is supreme."

Michelangelo was only 33 when, in 1508, he began the ceiling which would be his greatest work. He was famous already for the great sculptures of the Medici Chapels in Florence, for the classic Pieta, for the gigantic David, and for many other masterpieces.

He worked alone for four years on the ceiling, Iying on his back most of the time, his beard and face bedewed from brush drops thick and thin. He was interrupted periodically by an impatient pope who knew well how to hurl threats and encouragement from below the scaffolding.

Michelangelo conceived the ceiling as a celebration of the greatest theme in Christian humanism: that of mankind as the heart of creation. Using some 300 human figures in a seemingly endless variety of postures, he painted the human story as he saw it, mankind mediating between God and the whole of God's creation. He recalled the dismal, fallen state of humans without vision, portrayed the great visionaries, Jewish and classical, who had foretold salvation, and then in the end he burst into his humanist's view of God's own nature.

In his two frescoes on the creation of light and on the creation of Adam, he drew a Creator that was full of humanity, and a man who was full of God's stupendous force. Throughout, in colour, dignity, and design, he expressed his joyous pride in individual achievement, in the power of the human mind, and in the beauty of the human body.

In the Sistine ceiling, the human being as such became the measure of all things, the likeness of God's own perfection. More so, the human being became universal. Michelangelo found model and inspiration in pagan as well as in Jewish antiquity, not only in the story of Israel, but also in the culture of ancient Greece and Rome. His insight into Christian humanism had plunged deep enough to meet the creative spirit that inhabits the whole of mankind.

The creation of the Sistine ceiling is one of the great moments in Catholic history. By emphasizing the human, by combining Old Testament themes with those of classical antiquity, the ceiling proclaims more than Christianity's growth out of the Jewish experience. It converts backwards in time, so to speak. It shouts out Christ's essential compatibility with the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome .

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