Our artistic traditions are full of wisdom. We can look to the past and, with curious minds and open hearts, absorb the lessons of our cultural history. The Italian Renaissance is filled with great stories that resulted in great art, and the story and art of Michelangelo are an enduring example.
The story begins in 16th-century Rome, which was quickly becoming the cultural center of the Western world. At 33 years of age, Michelangelo was summoned by Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo was not a painter—he was a sculptor—and when asked to paint the ceiling, he replied, “Painting is not my art.”
Why then did Pope Julius II ask Michelangelo to paint instead of sculpt? According to Giorgio Vasari’s “Lives of the Artists,” Michelangelo suspected that Bramante, a highly respected architect who worked for Pope Julius II, wanted to ruin his reputation by having him paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel:
“In this manner it seemed possible to Bramante and other rivals of [Michelangelo] to draw him away from sculpture, in which they saw him to be perfect, and to plunge him into despair, thinking that if they compelled him to paint, he would do work less worthy of praise, since he had no experience of colors in fresco….”
It is true that Michelangelo did not know how to fresco, but this did not deter him. Dr. William Wallace, a leading expert on Michelangelo, observes that “at the time of the Sistine, Michelangelo is still trying to be the greatest artist of all time. He’s acting more like the artist that carved the “David”: ‘I’m the best sculptor. Now, I’m going to be the best painter. I’m going to be the best artist of all time.’ He’s still suffering the hubris of youth.”
For four grueling years, Michelangelo took what he learned about fresco and tirelessly painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Although he was not a painter by training, he ended up completing one of the largest and most phenomenal fresco paintings in history. His task was not an easy one; according to Ross King’s book “Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling,” Michelangelo had to deal with family issues, rivalries, technical mishaps, and politics. In his personal notebooks, Michelangelo repeatedly told of his troubles while painting the ceiling: “I live here surrounded by the greatest anxieties, suffering the greatest bodily fatigues: I have not a friend of any sort, and I do not want one; I have not so much time as suffices for me to eat the necessary food.”
Michelangelo did not let his hardships discourage him. Instead, he turned his trials into visual praise of the divine. Ross King states that Michelangelo was unsatisfied with the Pope’s initial ceiling design for the 12 apostles, and asked the Pope’s permission to be even more ambitious and use the human body to explore the scope of the human relationship with God. The Pope agreed, and the initial design of the 12 apostles was turned into a complex design comprising more than 300 figures.
Michelangelo included not only themes from Christianity, but also figures from Judaism and paganism. “The Sistine is not just nine stories of Genesis. It’s the whole cornucopia of creation,” explains Wallace. “It’s everything. It’s not a separation between Christianity and paganism. It’s God’s creation, and he created pagan antiquity before he created Christianity. He created the world. The Sibyls are the counterpart to the prophets; they are the pagan world before Christianity came. So, in the same way that we have pagan Sibyls [on the Sistine], we also have Jewish stories on the Sistine. The Sistine is not Christian, Jewish, or pagan; it’s all of creation.”
Not only did Michelangelo include Christian, Judaic, and pagan figures in one composition, he also painted a visual depiction of God—a rarity for artists. “This is God and the beginning of God’s creation, and He deserves to be painted,” says Wallace. “It is true that in earlier Christian art, sometimes God isn’t represented or it’s just his hand or something, so it’s very bold to imagine what God looks like. Michelangelo has given us an image of God that has become the canonical idea of what God looks like for many people in the world.”
That depiction of God, “The Creation of Adam,” a fresco that forms part of the Sistine ceiling, is one of the world’s most iconic images. Michelangelo painted Adam in his moment of awakening whereupon he meets his maker. A reclined Adam looks longingly into the eyes of God and reaches out to touch his creator. God—along with the biblical figures that surround Him—moves with great energy toward Adam. Pleased with his design, God reaches out to touch Adam.
The space between the fingers of Adam and God are so close, yet so far away: “The few centimeters that separate their fingertips are the greatest suspension of time and narrative in the history of art,” says Wallace in his book “Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man, and His Times.” If only Adam would put forth a little more energy, if he would match the effort of God, it seems like he would touch God, and the separation between them would cease to exist.
After painting over 300 figures in more than 150 separate pictorial units, Michelangelo completed the ceiling to the satisfaction of Pope Julius II. The Sistine ceiling was unveiled on All Saints Day, Nov. 1, 1512.
“It’s quite admirable and remarkable that he persisted given what he confronted,” comments Wallace. “The very fact of painting a ceiling is in itself astonishing. There were all kinds of problems. We have to admire that he persisted under incredible duress, facing challenges that are unimaginable, and many other people would’ve given up, but he did not.”
Herein lies a nugget of wisdom in Michelangelo’s story: Michelangelo persevered through his hardships with faith and a strong desire to visually express the divine. Michelangelo was asked to complete a project that was foreign to him, and not only stepped up to the occasion, but also exceeded expectations. His inspired effort to express the divine through the human form, despite the many difficulties, helped him create a modern marvel that we continue to appreciate 500 years later.