Sistine Chapel Michelangelo Paintings

View of the Sistine Chapel with the elaborate paintings by Michelangelo.
View of the Sistine Chapel with the elaborate paintings by Michelangelo.

The Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings by Michelangelo were commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1508. Michelangelo tried to refuse the commission, but he eventually gave in to pressure from the pope. By fall of the same year, painting on the ceiling had begun.

Working on scaffolding was physically demanding, and Michelangelo created image after image on an ever increasing scale. He eventually exerted all the power of his mind and spirit, using themes and motifs from past sculptural works in his glorious fresco masterpiece. The four-year ordeal proved physically and emotionally agonizing for the reluctant artist, who recounted, "After four tortured years, more than 400 over life-size figures, I felt as old and as weary as Jeremiah. I was only 37, yet friends did not recognize the old man I had become."

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There is no single most advantageous point from which to view Michelangelo's colossal vision on the Sistine ceiling. Individual scenes are independent of the figures surrounding them. In Last Judgment (behind the altar at front), the master grouped the figures in four broad tiers that are connected by the clockwise movement of the figures upward from the graves at lower left and downward toward hell at right.

In this article, each page will explore another detail of this enormous piece of art. Follow the links below and discover Michelangelo's frescoes within the Sistine Chapel.

Go to the next page for an up-close view of the ceiling and to read more about this grand masterpiece.

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Sistine Chapel Ceiling by Michelangelo

The Sistine Chapel is located in the Vatican. ceiling's painted scenes are of gigantic proportions (ceiling 130 feet 6 inches x 43 feet 5 inches).
The Sistine Chapel is located in the Vatican. ceiling's painted scenes are of gigantic proportions (ceiling 130 feet 6 inches x 43 feet 5 inches).

The Sistine ceiling (1508-12) commission from Julius II, which was originally for paintings of the twelve apostles and several decorations on the Chapel ceiling, grew to include prophets from the Old Testament alternating with sibyls from classical antiquity. Due in part to the enthusiasm with which Julius II received the artist's increasingly elaborate plans, Michelangelo was given the freedom to realize his ambitious vision for the frescoes.

By October 31, 1512, the master had completed frescoes of more than three hundred figures on the ceiling. These magnificent paintings, which have recently emerged from many years of restoration, yielded some of the most extraordinary pictorial images of all time and forever altered the course of artistic endeavors in the Western Hemisphere.

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Go to the next page to learn about one of Michelangelo's five sibyls present on the Sistine ceiling, the Delphic Sibyl.

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Delphic Sibyl Within the Sistine Chapel Ceiling

This detail, Delphic Sibyl, is one of the Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings (ceiling 130 feet 6 inches x 43 feet 5 inches) by Michelangelo.
This detail, Delphic Sibyl, is one of the Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings (ceiling 130 feet 6 inches x 43 feet 5 inches) by Michelangelo.

Michelangelo's Delphic Sibyl (1508-12) is the most beautiful and youthful of the five sibyls depicted on the Sistine ceiling. The sibyls were female seers from antiquity who were thought to have predicted the coming of Christ, and this sibyl appears startled as she turns her head away from her prophetic scroll and gazes into the future.

The Delphic Sibyl was the voice of Apollo, the greek god of music, poetry, prophecy, and medicine, and it has been suggested that the four colors in her garments represent Earth, Water, Fire, and Air -- the basic elements of life.

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One of the main themes of the ceiling is the Creation. On the following pages, find pictures and descriptions of the Creation details, starting with Separation of Light and Darkness.

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Separation of Light and Darkness Within the Sistine Chapel Ceiling

This detail from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo's Separation of Light and Darkness (ceiling 130 feet 6 inches x 43 feet 5 inches), is located in the Vatican.
This detail from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo's Separation of Light and Darkness (ceiling 130 feet 6 inches x 43 feet 5 inches), is located in the Vatican.

Michelangelo placed this major scene, Separation of Light and Darkness detail (1508-12), directly over the altar where Mass is celebrated. For the first time the figures are presented as if viewed from below. By linking this scene, the first in time, to the priestly ritual of raising the host at the altar, the artist expressed the fundamental Chris­tian message that God's plan for human salvation existed from the very moment in which God created the universe, separating light from darkness.

Another one of the Creation scenes concerns the Creation of Sun, Moon, and Planets. Go to the next page to learn more about this work.

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Creation of Sun, Moon, and Planets Within the Sistine Chapel Ceiling

In Creation of Sun, Moon, and Planets from the Sistine Ceiling 43 feet 5 inches) almost furiously energetic creator.
In Creation of Sun, Moon, and Planets from the Sistine Ceiling 43 feet 5 inches) almost furiously energetic creator.

In the Sistine ceiling detail Creation of Sun, Moon, and Planets (1508-12), Michelangelo depicted God bursting forward from the right, then quickly receding to the left, in the dramatic foreshortening that often characterized his later style. From the right, God seems to explode across the heavens, his mighty arms outstretched in a cross, suggesting the sacrifice of Christ. The sun and the moon, both darkened at the crucifixion, are visible near God's hands.

The Creation of Adam portion of the Sistine ceiling is one of the most recognizable works of art in the world. Learn more about how Michelangelo reimagined and interpreted this subject.

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Creation of Adam Within the Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Creation of Adam beautifully depicts the unity between the body and soul. This painting (ceiling 130 feet 6 inches x 43 feet 5 inches) by Michelangelo is in the Sistine Chapel.
Creation of Adam beautifully depicts the unity between the body and soul. This painting (ceiling 130 feet 6 inches x 43 feet 5 inches) by Michelangelo is in the Sistine Chapel.

Michelangelo delicately expressed the marvelous unity of body and spirit in the figure of Adam in Creation of Adam (1508-12), a striking and incomparable vision of God's omnipotence and the godly potential of humans.

The fatherly power of God, his body stretched to its full majesty and might, is in perfect contrast to the humble longing of Adam, who is about to be graced with a soul through the splendor of God's touch.

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Detail from Creation of Adam.
Detail from Creation of Adam.

In conceiving this gesture between Adam and God and the force that flows through the space between the two outstretched hands, Michelangelo revealed his great intellectual ability to reimagine an old subject. He created in this intimate space a gesture of such living power that it serves as the focal point of the entire ceiling.

One of the earlier Sistine Chapel ceiling scenes is that of Noah's flood. Read more about Deluge by Michelangelo on the next page.

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Deluge Within the Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Deluge by Michelangelo is a painting (ceiling 130 feet 6 inches x 43 feet 5 inches) within the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Deluge by Michelangelo is a painting (ceiling 130 feet 6 inches x 43 feet 5 inches) within the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

One of the earlier scenes Michelangelo painted on the ceiling and one of the four large scenes that stretch from cornice to cornice, Deluge (1508-12) is a work of tragic and terrifying grandeur.

Despite the beauty of the tightly conceived sculptural groupings, the painting is more scattered and fragmented in composition than later scenes. It shows, in comparison to the later frescoes, how Michelangelo's style changed as he grew more confident.

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Detail from Deluge within the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Detail from Deluge within the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

A poignant detail of the Deluge shows a struggling father, grieving as he bears the weight of his drowned son.

The next detail from the Sistine ceiling by Michelangelo is the scene showing the Creation of Eve by a very fatherly God.

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Creation of Eve Within the Sistine Chapel Ceiling

This detail shows Michelangelo's Creation of Eve (ceiling 130 feet 6 inches x 43 feet 5 inches) within the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican.
This detail shows Michelangelo's Creation of Eve (ceiling 130 feet 6 inches x 43 feet 5 inches) within the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican.

In Creation of Eve, Sistine ceiling (1508-12), Michelangelo depicted Eve emerging from the side of a sleeping Adam, whose head and body are supported by the trunk of a crosslike tree, no doubt an allusion to the crucifixion. This is the ceiling's first scene in which God appears in the guise of an immensely dignified and wise old man.

In the Fall of Man scene, on the next page, Michelangelo let the figures occupy all of the foreground. Read more about the innovations seen in this image.

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Fall of Man Within the Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Michelangelo's painting Fall of Man is on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Vatican (ceiling 130 feet 6 inches x 43 feet 5 inches).
Michelangelo's painting Fall of Man is on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Vatican (ceiling 130 feet 6 inches x 43 feet 5 inches).

In Michelangelo's Fall of Man from the Sistine ceiling (1508-12), a groundbreaking depiction of the temptation and expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the two events are united by an enormous tree whose limbs are partly formed by an enticing Satan on one side and an angry angel of justice on the other. This scene shows the evolution of Michelangelo's style as he worked on the ceiling. For the first time, the figures occupy the entire foreground and display the use of foreshortening, which was to become even more dominant in later scenes.

The next detail is of one of the sibyls, the Cumaean Sibyl, a work in which Michelangelo's growing fondness for large-scale figures is apparent.

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Cumaean Sibyl Within the Sistine Chapel Ceiling

The imposing figure of Michelangelo's Cumaean Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel ceiling (ceiling 130 feet 6 inches x 43 feet) at the Vatican.
The imposing figure of Michelangelo's Cumaean Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel ceiling (ceiling 130 feet 6 inches x 43 feet) at the Vatican.

Michelangelo's Cumaean Sibyl detail within the Sistine ceiling (1508-12) shows how, while working on the latter section of the ceiling, Michelangelo created figures of an ever-expanding scale.

The Cumaean Sibyl, with her hulking anatomy and immensely muscular left arm, is a rock of faith symbolizing the wisdom and strength of the Roman Catholic Church. Her two books are symbolic of the Old and New Testaments. She reads one, her craggy face expressing her intent absorption, while her attendants hold the other.

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Once known for the ethereal beauty of her youth, Cumaea was doomed to appear aged by a spurned Apollo and is seen here, haggard and weatherworn. Her very face takes on the architectural qualities of a once grand but now crumbling structure.

The scene with the Prophet Isaiah by Michelangelo is also an example of the large scale that Michelangelo's individual characters took on later in the project. Learn more on the next page.

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Prophet Isaiah Within the Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Prophet Isaiah by Michelangelo can be seen on the Sistine Chapel ceiling 43 feet 5 inches)
Prophet Isaiah by Michelangelo can be seen on the Sistine Chapel ceiling 43 feet 5 inches)

This detail from the Sistine ceiling (1508-12) by Michelangelo is of the Prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah is the Hebrew prophet most frequently cited by Christians for his predictions of the virgin birth of Christ. In the prophet's right hand is a book, and his head is turned away from the Deluge, as if echoing God's promise to him: "For as I have sworn that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth; so have I sworn that I would not be wroth with thee."

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One of Michelangelo's most finely conceived prophet figures, Isaiah appears to have been startled from a state of intense meditation and study by his attendant putto, who calls attention to the Fall of Man. The prophet parts his soft, rosy lips as if to speak as the unruly locks of his luminous lavender-gray hair create an inspired halo around his head.

Michelangelo based the third and last sibyl included in this article on the study of a male model. Go to the next page to read more about the Libyan Sibyl.

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Libyan Sibyl Within the Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Libyan Sibyl from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings (ceiling 130 feet 6 inches x 43 feet 5 inches) in the Vatican.
Libyan Sibyl from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings (ceiling 130 feet 6 inches x 43 feet 5 inches) in the Vatican.

Michelangelo's Libyan Sibyl can be seen on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508-12). With her regal pose and Hellenic features, she was known for her prophecy of the coming of a king born of a virgin. This figure is one of the finest on the ceiling. This sibyl is suspended in a dramatically twisted pose, or contrapposto, an effect that the artist repeated with equal brilliance in his 1530 sculpture Victory.

Michelangelo's rich and harmonious color palette, enveloping the sibyl in the folds of her sumptuous garments as they flow around her legs and drape across her throne, is especially evident after recent restoration.

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Study for the Libyan Sibyl, red chalk drawing (11-3/8 x 8-1/2 inches), can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum, New York.
Study for the Libyan Sibyl, red chalk drawing (11-3/8 x 8-1/2 inches), can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum, New York.

One of the finest surviving examples of Michelangelo's many drawings for the Sistine ceiling, the study for the Libyan Sibyl demonstrates the artist's careful attention to every detail of the figure. The red chalk drawing, done from a male model, shows a study of the face in the lower left-hand corner, in which the artist transformed the rough male features of his model into the Hellenic ideal of female beauty found in the final painting.

On the next page, learn why Prophet Daniel is a glowing example of Michelangelo's pictorial style.

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Prophet Daniel Within the Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Prophet Daniel, detail from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel paintings (ceiling 130 feet 6 inches x 43 feet 5 inches) by Michelangelo.
Prophet Daniel, detail from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel paintings (ceiling 130 feet 6 inches x 43 feet 5 inches) by Michelangelo.

This Sistine ceiling (1508-12) painting of the Prophet Daniel clearly shows that Michelangelo reached a high point in the evolution of his pictorial style in the works of 1511. Figures such as Daniel assumed gigantic and truly heroic proportions, overflowing their thrones and filling their space entirely. In part, this was done to make the figures easier to see and more powerful when viewed from a distance. The significance of the story of Daniel to Christianity, like that of the other prophets on the ceiling, lies in the belief that his visions and actions foretold the coming of Christ.

The last detail to be studied in this article is one depicting two of the twenty ignudi. Learn more about the ignudi on the next page.

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Ignudi Within the Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Ignudi detail from the Sistine Chapel ceiling (ceiling 130 feet 6 inches x 43 feet 5 inches) by Michelangelo. The painting can be seen at the Vatican.
Ignudi detail from the Sistine Chapel ceiling (ceiling 130 feet 6 inches x 43 feet 5 inches) by Michelangelo. The painting can be seen at the Vatican.

Michelangelo's Ignudi paintings can be found on the Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508-12). These are two of the twenty nude youths, or ignudi, surrounding the ceiling's scenes. Functioning as animated decorative elements, they are similar in purpose to the attendants Michelangelo painted for the sibyls and prophets.

Michelangelo showed these nudes in many poses and expressions, as if reacting to the adjacent scenes. Although many of the poses are drawn from pagan sources, there was also an established tradition supporting nudity in Christian art. All souls were believed to be naked before God and are indeed depicted as such in Michelangelo's Last Judgment.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Lauren Mitchell Ruehring is a freelance writer who has contributed promotional commentary for the works of many artists, including Erté and Thomas McKnight. She has also contributed to publications such as Kerry Hallam: Artistic Visions and Liudmila Kondakova: World of Enchantment. In addition, she has received recognition from the National Society of Arts and Letters.