Michelangelo in the Renaissance
Born in Florence in 1475, Michelangelo Buonarroti is one of the towering figures of art. He achieved great fame in his own lifetime and forever after as a sculptor, architect, painter, and poet. During his career, Michelangelo received many important commissions from members of the Medici family.
The frescoes that Pope Leo X commissioned for the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel constitute Michelangelo’s greatest claim to fame. Michelangelo eschewed the usual practice of the time, in which the master artist would design the overall plan but have assistants help him on the actual painting. Instead, Michelangelo himself painted the entire ceiling (a surface of more than ten thousand square feet) over a four-year period from 1508 to 1512. He planned an ambitious, daring scheme of Old Testament scenes framed and surrounded by painted architectural elements and Classical figures.
From the historian’s point of view, the Sistine Chapel ceiling is most notable for its mix of biblical and Classical elements. Michelangelo set aside twelve large, prominent spaces for portraits of ancient prophets of the birth of Jesus. Seven male prophets from the Old Testament alternate with the figures of five female pagan sibyls—prophets from the Classical world. Michelangelo treated these figures equally in terms of placement, size, and scale, with no suggestion that either the artist or the patron saw any incongruity. Given that the Sistine Chapel was at the very heart of the headquarters of the Catholic Church, and that the Church itself sponsored the project, this alone makes it clear that Renaissance Europeans had no sense that these elements were contradictory.
The ceiling frescoes show a clear break with medieval artistic traditions in their style as well. The figures are heroic in size and scale, bursting out of frames that cannot contain them. They are shown in a great variety of poses, from every angle and point of view—a complete break from the medieval style. These figures also show that Michelangelo had a thorough knowledge of human anatomy; the depiction of the bones and muscles beneath the skin is perfectly accurate. The faces reveal recognizable emotions that make the frescoes a celebration of the human being. All these elements mark the Sistine ceiling as a product of the Renaissance. Sixteenth-century art historian Giorgio Vasari later wrote that the Sistine ceiling “restored light to a world that for centuries had been plunged into darkness.”
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