You may have seen it in the movie Angels & Demons when Tom Hanks dashed through the Sistine Chapel, or being parodied by none other than Bart Simpsons himself. One of the most famous works of art in history is located in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.
Painted directly on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo between the years 1508 and 1512, the entire piece of artwork is hailed as a cornerstone of High Renaissance Art.
When the paintings were first revealed to public in 1512, the masterpiece stunned viewers with its skilfully depicted figures and till today, it continues to impress awestruck tourists who travel from all over the world to visit it.
Here are 6 facts about Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel paintings you may not have known:
1. The artwork was commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1508
Pope Julius II, also known as Giulio II and "Il papa terribile" (what an unfortunate thing to be called The Terrible Pope...) requested the Italian artist, Michelangelo, to paint the Sistine Chapel's ceiling.
The Pope was determined that Rome must be rebuilt to its former glory, and had embarked on a personal campaign to achieve this. He felt that such a large-scale artistic creation would not only add fame to his name, but also serve to overwrite anything that his predecessors have done before him.
As Pope Julius did not specify what he want painted on the ceiling, Michelangelo drew inspiration from the Book of Genesis in the Bible for his paintings.
2. There are more than 300 painted human figures on the ceiling
The main central portion of the ceiling showcases scenes from the Book of Genesis, with stories like the Creation of the world, the Creation of mankind, to the Fall of mankind, and even Noah's ark.
However, on either side of these central panels, Michelangelo took his own creative license and painted huge portraits of other prophets in the Bible, as well as angels and cherubims. All along the bottom of these portraits also run smaller panels of tragedies that occured in ancient Israel, and the prophecy about the coming of Jesus.
All in all, there were over 300 painted figures that were brilliant in their lifelikeness and emotions on the ceiling.
3. Michelangelo was actually a sculptor, not a painter
Michelangelo thought of himself mainly as a sculptor, and he preferred to work with marble throughout the bulk of his work. One of his most famous sculpture is David.
Prior to painting the Sistine Chapel, the only other painting he had done was during his apprenticeship with another artist called Ghirlandaio.
Pope Julius was insistent on having Michelangelo however, and in order to convince him, Julius offered him a lucrative contract to sculpt 40 sculptures for his tomb. Given his artistic preference, Michelangelo was more interested in the sculpting project, and he only took on the painting work for Sistine Chapel as a way to gain that contact.
4. The paintings could have been completed sooner but many setbacks occured
It took Michelangelo just over four years to complete the paintings. The method of painting on wall surfaces is called frescoes. As Michelangelo had never painted frescoes before, he was learning how to do it as he painted. He also had to learn how to paint his figures in perspective, so that when viewed from the bottom looking up at the ceiling's curved walls, the figures will not look skewed.
There was also the issue of damp weather, which caused the plaster to cure incredibly slowly, as well as have mold growing on the wall surfaces. The project was further stalled when Julius left to wage war on neighbouring territories, and Michelangelo would only continue the work when Julius returned as he feared he would not be paid.
5. Michelangelo had assistants helping him
The image of this solitary figure toiling away in an empty chapel over a span of four years isn't entirely accurate. Of course, Michelangelo deserves the credit for sketching, designing and executing the bulk of the painting by himself.
But he also had many assistants who helped to mix his paints, climb up and down the scaffolding, and prepare the wall with plaster before the painting can be done over it. However, the moody and temperamental Michelangelo hired and fired these assistants on such a regular basis that none of them could claim credit for any of their work done.
6. Michelangelo suffered permanent damage to his vision because of this project
One of the common ways of painting ceilings was to lie down flat on one's back and paint looking upwards. As Michelangelo did not want to work in this position, he devised a unique scaffolding system that could hold him and his materials high enough.
The problem was that the scaffolding curved at the top as it followed the curvature of the ceiling. Because of this, Michelangelo frequently had to bend backwards and stretch his arm over his head to paint. This awkward position over four years caused permanent damage to his eyesight.