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The World’s Greatest Painting

Johann von Goethe said it best: “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”

You have to go see the ceiling to fully understand what Goethe said. No photos or videos match the experience of standing in the chapel and looking up at Michelangelo’s amazing creation.

Getting there takes some patience, though. First you have to get to Rome. Once you’re finally in the Vatican Museum, it takes forever to find the chapel. Signs keep pointing left and right and hinting that it’s just around the corner, but you have to walk down the quarter-mile Long March filled with paintings, tapestries, and sculptures; past the section on Antiquities; and through the small crowded rooms of the pope’s apartments, painted by Raphael.

Finally, down a long, bare, narrow hallway, there’s a small door. Step through it and at last you’ll find yourself at one end of the Sistine Chapel, looking up at that breathtaking painting on the ceiling.

Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Ceiling

You’ll quickly find the famous scene of the Creation of Adam, the finger of Man reaching out for the touch of life. Even high overhead, the colors are brighter and richer than they are in any photograph. Then there’s the rest of the massive painting all around it — a riot of color and people and activity and scenes — and it’s clear that the Sistine Chapel is a place like none other in the world.

Beauty and greatness lie in the eyes of the beholder, of course. But many would argue that there are three things about the ceiling that make it not just a unique painting, but the greatest painting in the world.

1. It was brutally hard to paint.

The expanse of the ceiling is huge in comparison to other great paintings. It’s roughly 12,000 square feet, which is twice the size of the end zone of an American football field or nearly twice the size of the penalty box on a soccer pitch. Most of that space had to be painted with an arm lifted above the head, making it one of the most physically demanding paintings ever completed. (In fact, Michelangelo spent so much time looking up that from then on he could only read when he lifted books above his head; his eyes had lost the ability to focus on words when he looked downward.)

2. It was artistically hard to paint.

The ceiling is painted in buon fresco (i.e., fresh plaster) — a difficult medium to perfect, and nowhere near as straightforward as brushing oil paint onto a piece of canvas. To paint a fresco is to win a race against time. There’s only one chance to paint it right, in a matter of hours, because the paint is applied to wet plaster, which has to be the exact right moisture and texture. As the plaster dries it absorbs the pigments of color, essentially mixing the paint into the wall. If the painter doesn’t work quickly enough, the colors come out uneven and the work doesn’t last. Mistakes had to be chiseled off the wall and repainted, at great expense to a patron’s bank account and the painter’s reputation.

That’s not all. The chapel ceiling is a flattened barrel vault, curving downward and chopped into pieces by the spandrels above the high windows. Because of the varied shapes and design, Michelangelo needed great technical skill to account for perspective shifts not usually found on most walls or canvases (and viewed from 60 feet below). He also needed a great deal of imagination to create a scheme that pulled all of the pieces of the ceiling together into a whole work.

The Sistine Chapel ceiling before Michelangelo

The Sistine Chapel ceiling before Michelangelo

3. Michelangelo wasn’t a seasoned painter.

To paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling Michelangelo also needed more guts than most people can summon in a lifetime. Because perhaps the most amazing thing about this huge, challenging fresco is that it was not only Michelangelo’s first major painting commission in any medium, it was the first time — yes, the first — that he painted a fresco. In his first work, in a notoriously difficult medium, he created a masterpiece that still, 500 years later, inspires awe in anyone who sees it. Not bad for a rookie.

As I learned more about Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel ceiling I realized there’s one more thing that makes it great. There’s a puzzle in this painting, something that has gone unsolved for the past 500 years: the puzzle of what it means, to us and to the man who created it.

Part III: The Sistine Ceiling Begins

The Call to Rome (1)
Trouble in the Sistine Chapel (1)
Genesis (1)
God’s Dream (1)
Prophets and Sibyls (1)

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