Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling, The Backstory

Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling

Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling is considered one of the greatest art cycles to ever be created. Ironically, the backstory to the Sistine ceiling reveals that the commission was meant to tarnish, if not ruin, Michelangelo’s reputation. His rivals did not foresee that Michelangelo’s genius and pride would push him to create a work that gained him even more acclaim, and the nickname, ‘The Divine One’.

If you want to read about the theological themes and uniting images I’ve written a post on that here.

Let’s meet the key players in this drama.


Michelangelo was given the commission to paint the Sistine Ceiling in 1506. By this point in his career, Michelangelo was considered the greatest sculptor in Italy, perhaps all of Europe. He had already created his Pieta and David, both of which had astounded his countrymen and cemented his position as the most sought-after sculptor in Europe.

A man of deep contradictions Michelangelo was deeply loyal to those he loved, yet easily offended and spurred to anger with those who criticized him. He held to a strong medieval Catholic theology while simultaneously embracing the secular humanism of the Renaissance. He created works of such beauty he was deemed ‘divine’ while seldom bathing or tending to his own appearance. His complex, driven personality was often difficult for those who knew him to deal with. This combined with his unparalleled genius and success led to a great deal of jealousy.

Perhaps this story best illustrates Michelangelo’s place within the artistic community of the High Renaissance.  Michelangelo and Raphael had a long-running rivalry and according to Gian Paolo Lomazzo one day the two artists met on the street and traded barbs. Michelangelo, who walked alone, ran into Raphael who was surrounded by friends. Michelangelo commented that he thought he was coming upon the chief of police since Raphael needed such an assemblage.  Raphael responded he thought he was approaching an executioner, as they were wont to walk alone.

Solitary by nature, driven by deep insecurities and a pugnacious attitude Michelangelo’s every success encouraged others to seek his downfall. One of his greatest rivals was Bramante, the architect to Pope Julius II.

BramanteDonato Bramante

Donato Bramante was an Italian architect and painter and in 1503 was commissioned by Pope Julius II to construct what would become St. Peter’s Basilica.

According to Michelangelo, Bramante was guilty of a variety of crimes and slights. Michelangelo’s account of the events was written late in his life to ‘correct’ information in biographies that were written about him. The veracity of the original claims and Michelangelo’s account are a tangled web of 16th-century intrigue and gossip that I am not going to attempt to untangle here.

Take the following with a bit of skepticism.

Michelangelo claims (via his biographer and apprentice, Condivi) that Bramante was jealous and afraid of Michelangelo because he knew that he was scamming his clients by making his buildings of poor materials, decreasing the strength in the walls, all so that he could pocket the extra money. Michelangelo claimed, that with malice in his heart, Bramante sought to turn the Pope and others in Rome against him, all so that his own misdeeds would not be revealed.

One of Bramante’s keys to bringing down Michelangelo was the promotion of the artist Raphael, one of Michelangelo’s chief rivals, and a relative and close friend of Bramante.

Julius II

Pope Julius II painted by RaphaelThe other key player in the drama is, of course, the Pope, who can to make or break the careers of artists as he controls the purse strings of the best commissions.  Pope Julius II, rather than choosing his papal name based on a previous religious figure, chose his name to honor Julius Caesar. This gives us our first hint as to who this man was. Our next clue comes when we learn that his nicknames were the Warrior Pope and the Fearsome Pope.  Finally, Machiavelli described Pope Julius II as an ideal prince. Ambitious and cunning, Julius sought to use all the means at his disposal to establish and expand the Papal state, and then sanctify it through the use of the arts. Taking his cues from Julius Caesar, he used art as propaganda to establish and glorify his power.

In Julius’ defense, many believe he saved the papacy after the corruption of the Borgias. He lived during a particularly tumultuous period in Italy and is considered the best in an exceptionally bad line of popes.

History may debate the motives and character of Pope Julius, but none can deny his legacy.  He was responsible for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica, and for establishing the Vatican Museums. His patronage of Bramante, Raphael, and Michelangelo has greatly enriched the world of Western Art.

The Plot

As the story begins, Michelangelo is in Florence engaged in an historic competition against Leonardo de Vinci. The city’s rulers pitted the two famous artists against one another going head to head as they paint opposing walls with murals in the Palazzo Vecchio. In the midst of this competition, the Pope demands that Michelangelo come to Rome, and when he arrives the pope presents him with the commission to design his tomb.

For Michelangelo, this was a dream commission that would allow him to sculpt magnificent statues to adorn the tomb. It was a project that Michelangelo relished and had eagerly begun work on. Michelangelo always considered himself a sculptor and believed painting was the lesser of the arts. (This reveals the heart of his ongoing feud with Leonardo da Vinci, who held painting was superior and had disparaged sculpting.)  However, the Pope and Michelangelo continued to wrangle, and the artist left Rome for a period to do a project in Bologna.

During his absence, Bramante sought to pull the Pope’s attention away from Michelangelo. The first part of this plan was to dissuade the Pope from continuing with the construction of the tomb. He did this by convincing the Pope that continuing the work was inviting his own death.  He then suggested that Michelangelo should instead paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Bramante’s plan, on the surface, couldn’t fail. If Michelangelo refused (which he initially does) he would so displease the Pope that he would no longer be a favored artist. And, if he accepted the commission Michelangelo would be leaving sculpting, a skill he had mastered, and would have to paint frescoes, a medium he had little experience with.  Additionally, Bramante and Michelangelo’s rivals hoped that he would give up on the ceiling part way through, or would mess up so badly, that the Pope would replace Michelangelo with Raphael, who would then show his superiority, making Michelangelo’s defeat complete.

The Plot Thickens

When first offered the commission for the Sistine Ceiling, Michelangelo did refuse and  suggested the Pope use Raphael instead. The Pope persisted. It is said that Michelangelo finally agreed, leaving his audience with the Pope weeping.

The rumor continues that Bramante, after pushing the Pope to hire Michelangelo, then publicly claimed that Michelangelo was probably not skilled enough to do such a large project. Perhaps it was this disparaging of his artistic skills that led to Michelangelo giving in.

One must credit Michelangelo with incredible audacity for the next events. Once he gave in and knew he would be dedicating the next years to the Sistine Chapel, instead of doing the bare minimum and completing the work as quickly as possible, he extended the Pope’s vision and created a complex theological narrative that would prove, without a doubt, that he was a master in both sculpture and painting.

The pope had conceived a scheme that would include portraits of the 12 apostles. Michelangelo pressed for an expanded theme and was finally given permission, according to his autobiography, to “do as he liked.” While there is some debate if the entire ceiling plan was original to Michelangelo, the artist certainly had the intellect and theological knowledge to have conceived of the ceiling himself.

And so, Bramante has pushed Michelangelo into painting the ceiling, and Michelangelo has pushed himself into creating a more complex, detailed work than Bramante could have imagined.

original art of the Sistine Chapel
Ceiling as it may have appeared before Michelangelo began painting the Sistine Ceiling.

The Challenges for Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling Just Kept Coming

The Sistine Chapel was built between 1473 and 1481 and takes its name from Pope Sixtus IV. The chapel’s dimensions are the same as Solomon’s Temple, and the chapel was built like a fortress, complete with windows for archers.

The original ceiling was painted by Pier Matteo d’Amelia and was a blue background with gold stars. In 1504 a diagonal crack appeared in the ceiling, and the chapel was deemed unusable until repairs could be made.  Once the damaged ceiling was repaired and the original painting removed, the ceiling needed to be redone.

65 feet high, the ceiling required extensive scaffolding. Additionally the walls of the chapel, which were already painted, needed to be protected from falling debris and paint. Contrary to popular belief, Michelangelo did not lay on his back as he painted, but stood, with his head tilted backward, arms overhead.

Given the distance from which the paintings of the ceiling would be viewed, Michelangelo had to account for distance and perspective. The ceiling was done in two sections, and we can observe Michelangelo’s developing skills when comparing the earlier, then later work. In the ceiling,

The physical strain on the artist during this process cannot be overstated. Michelangelo’s strength, both physically and emotionally, was critical in his completing the task. Working, largely alone, we can only marvel at Michelangelo’s fortitude.

Detail from Michelangelo's Sistine CeilingFictive Architecture Was A Real Thing

One of the key elements of Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling was creating an elaborate web of Fictive Architecture. Except for the areas surrounding the windows, all of the architectural elements of the Sistine Ceiling are paint. Michelangelo conceived a design that required extensive architectural details to create connected but separate spaces for the 300 figures that make up the ceiling.

The walls and ceilings meet on strong curves with the window areas creating spandrels. These spandrels and curves had to be taken into account and incorporated into the design scheme. The space itself, and how the ceiling was constructed, placed constraints and challenges upon Michelangelo.

Each of these curved areas varied how Michelangelo could foreshorten his figures so that they appeared accurate when viewed from 65 feet below. Each of the arches, pillars, and other fictive architecture required careful consideration. Figures on the curves are foreshortened, while the paintings on the ceilings are not.

I believe Michelangelo’s stunning ability to create these realistic spaces was in large part made possible by his skills as a sculptor. For instance, his David has oversized hands and head, which can be jarring when seen in its current space. However, were the David placed outside on the top of the dome, which was the original intent, everything would have looked perfect. The skills needed to place sculptures in a variety of physical sites on buildings gave Michelangelo a keen eye for those types of accommodations.

Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling and Fungus?

The winter of 1508  was particularly wet and cold. Moisture came through the bricks and mortar and a fungus appeared on the frescoes that Michelangelo had finished. Mildew and crystalized salt now obscured his work and Michelangelo tried to convince the Pope that this proved he shouldn’t continue with the project, but return to sculpting. The Pope was not easily dissuaded and brought in another experienced fresco painter to help Michelangelo chip away the ruined portions and then teach him how to achieve the correct consistency of plaster to continue with the work.

Lack Of Funds Nearly Derailed Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling

Battling fatigue, frustration, and muscle cramps, Michelangelo was forced, 2 years into the project, to lay down his brushes due to the Pope’s lack of funds. Pope Julius had been fighting a war in Bologna and had completely depleted his cash supply.  Michelangelo, who never wished to participate in the project, now found the work delayed by a full year.  This break seriously annoyed Michelangelo, but the time off resulted in changes to Michelangelo’s approach that proved beneficial to the whole project.

While we can appreciate just how irritated Michelangelo was, we can also appreciate that the time away improved the final product.  Michelangelo refined and modified his painting as he gained experience and this pause was a crucial step in the masterpiece we now have. Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling offers a truly unique opportunity to view the evolution of Michelangelo, the painter.

After the enforced pause, Michelangelo came back with a vengeance. He completed the remaining portion of the ceiling with both speed and increased clarity. While the first scenes he painted were crowded with figures, the later scenes are severely edited. This editing creates much more dramatic images.

Just look at the scene of the deluge from the story of Noah, which was painted early and is crowded with figures. Imagine trying to view this complicated scene from 68 feet away. Then look at the scene of God creating the sun, moon, and stars. The power and emotion elicited in the second image are breathtaking.

The Deluge from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel

Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Planets on Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel

Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling’s Theological Messages

I hope you have come to appreciate at least a few of the challenges presented to Michelangelo as he began the process of painting the Sistine Ceiling. Those challenges and the vast amount of space that had to be taken into account are staggering. In the next installment of this series, I will explore how each of the figures and scenes fits into the larger narrative that is being told in the chapel as a whole.

After that, I hope to continue my exploration of this amazing work by examining a few of the individual paintings. This work was deemed a masterpiece when it was first unveiled, and its influence continues 500 years later. Artists from around the world have been inspired by and learned from the incredible artistry that was Michelangelo.

Michelangelo’s rendering of the Prophet Isaiah will be featured in my upcoming Advent Devotional, so if you would like to dive more deeply into the art of Michelangelo, and the theological ramifications of that art, please subscribe so you can be updated when the Devotional is available.

This article will also be going live on my Youtube Channel soon. You can head over there now to view other great works of art in a more visual format.


E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. (New York, Phaidon Press, 2016)

Hugh Honour and John Fleming, The Visual Arts: A History (Laurence King Pulishing Ltd., London, England 2018)

Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, How to Look at and Understand Great Art, Lecture series, Great Courses

Professor William Koss, History of European Art  Lecture series, Great Courses

Sister Wendy Beckett, The Story of Painting (London, Dorsey Kindersley, 2000)

Marilyn Stokstad, Art History. (New Jersey, Pearson Education, 2005)

National Gallery of Art website  www.nga.gov

Metropolitan Museum of Art website  www.metmuseum.org

The Getty Center www.getty.edu

Old Testament Figures in Art, Edited by Stefano Zuffi. (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles 2003

The Library of Great Masters: Michelangelo Scala/ Riverside 1989

And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.

Michelangelo Matter and Spirit

Michelangelo: The story of a Sculptor

Michelangelo: Artist & Genius Full Documentary




Subscribe to KellyBagdanov

Join a generous group of people who help me continue to serve teachers and lovers of art. Click the button below and become a patron!

Top Posts

Affiliate Disclosure

Disclosure: Some of the links on this site are affiliate links, meaning, at no cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

Download Your Free Curriculum

The Grand Tour Art History Curriculum

Compare 4 works of art from the Italian Renaissance with 4 works from the Byzantine era to begin building the framework we will build on in future lessons. This download will introduce you to the overview portion of the Grand Tour Art History Curriculum and will add your email to our subscription list.

More Articles

We Light Amsterdam

Festival of Lights in Amsterdam During the long, cold winter months of December and January a magical Festival of Lights takes place in Amsterdam. Lighting the city with enchanting art installations, the city twinkles and glows, giving light and warmth to both citizens and visitors, during the darkest months of the year.  20 to 30

Read More »

Rogier Van Der Weyden’s The Visitation

Rogier Van Der Weyden’s, The Visitation Roger Van Der Weyden’s, The Visitation, explores the story of Mary’s visit with her cousin Elizabeth. Today we will be focusing on a small panel painting of the Visitation, and then taking a look at a Nativity by Van Der Weyden’s workshop which has another version of the Visitation.

Read More »

Peter Paul Rubens’ Descent from the Cross Triptych

Peter Paul Rubens’ Descent From the Cross Triptych is a stunning Flemish Baroque work that thematically explores what it means to “bear Christ.” While the center panel shows Christ being removed from the cross, the frontispiece, and side panels both play an integral part in the narrative that Ruben’s is exploring. Descent from the Cross

Read More »