The Sistine Ceiling

As Goethe said: ‘Without having seen the Sistine Chapel, it’s not possible to have an idea of what one man is capable of doing.’ 

How long did it take Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Ceiling?


Michelangelo painted his brilliant Old Testament frescoes over four and a half years, from 1508 to 1512. These Central Stories from Genesis are featured on the ceiling and lunettes, or top sections of the walls.

The Sistine Chapel derives its name from Pope Sixtus IV, who served as pontiff from 1471 to 1484, and led the restoration of the Great Chapel between 1477 and 1480. Back then, the ceiling was painted sky blue and speckled with gold stars.

It was Pope Julius II who commissioned an initially reluctant Michelangelo Buonarroti to take on this massive reinvention of the chapel ceiling . Michelangelo had been busy at work sculpting – his favoured medium – the Pope’s marble tomb. But, this was the new papal priority and Michelangelo reported to the chapel, contract in hand.

Pope Julius II had asked Michelangelo to centre his painting around the twelve apostles. Michelangelo had other ideas: the Central Stories of Genesis including the Creation of the Sun, Moon and Plants, the Creation of Adam, The Original Sin and Banishment from the Garden of Eden, The Flood, The Sacrifice of Noah …

Michelangelo had to create this remarkable work by standing on wooden scaffolding, contorting his neck, and stretching his brushes up to the ceiling. “After four tortured years, more than 400 over life-size figures,” said Michelangelo, “I felt as old and as weary as Jeremiah. I was only 37, yet friends did not recognize the old man I had become.”


Michelangelo. Detail From The Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Plants


Michelangelo offered a second description of his painterly discomfort in the first stanza of a poem – translated by Gail Mazur – he sent to Giovanni da Pistoia:

‘I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison).
My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s
pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!’


Yet, four and half years later, Michelangelo had created one of the greatest works of art in history.


Header Art: Michelangelo. Delphic Sibyl. 1508–12. The Sistine Chapel. Vatican City






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Elizabeth Newton

Elizabeth Newton