Michelangelo’s Isaiah is one of the iconic prophets from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Known during his lifetime as the Divine One, Michelangelo Buonarroti, was a High Renaissance Italian artist whose career spanned 70 years,
The history of the Sistine Chapel is a long and complicated one that has resulted in a depository for some of the greatest works of the High Italian Renaissance. Michelangelo’s part in the Sistine’s history was marked by contentious fighting with Julius II, and petty dramas with other artists. You can read more of the backstory of the Sistine Chapel here.
Additionally, I’ve written a post that explains the messaging of Michelangelo’s famous ceiling as a whole. You can read that here.
Michelangelo thought of himself as a sculptor, but when forced to take on the monumental task of painting the Sistine Ceiling his contemporaries were astounded by his skills as a colorist. Able to transfer the dramatic lines of his sculptures to the flat surface of a painting, his abilities have astounded viewers for over 500 years.
Michelangelo’s Isaiah exudes both strength and elegance with a demanding presence. His envisioning of the great prophet is one of a prematurely grey, contemplative man. The poet’s face paired with the strong muscular body gives us an image of both restless energy and quiet strength. I find both match well with my imaging of the prophet.
Situated in the Sistine Chapel, which is in the Vatican Palace, Michelangelo’s fresco measures over 12 feet tall, and 12 feet wide. Isaiah is one of 7 Old Testament prophets that circle the ceiling in the great chapel. Isaiah is painted inside of a spandrel formed by the curves made to unite the arched window with the vaulted ceiling. This presented Michelangelo with several challenges. The spandrels are strongly curved surfaces that required careful foreshortening of the figures to keep their proper perspective, and they would be viewed from the ground, some 65 feet away.
Artists spend years learning to properly foreshorten their paintings, but it seems Michelangelo’s sculpting eye was able to quickly and efficiently make the necessary adjustments.
The painting is a fresco. The term means fresh. Frescos are painted, with powdered pigments, into fresh plaster. As the wall dries the pigments are absorbed and become, physically, part of the wall. This explains their durability, and how the Sistine Ceiling has survived, largely intact, for over half a millennia.
Who Were The Prophets?
Although we often connect the word prophet with prophecy, foretelling the future was not the primary role of an Old Testament Prophet. The men and women we know as prophets came to warn, and rebuke nations and leaders. During Israel’s history, in periods where they were worshipping idols, neglecting the poor, or rejecting God’s ways, prophets would appear to call them to repent and return to God. Most commonly these words of warning were for Israel, but they were also spoken to other nations, like when Jonah was sent to Nineveh.
The words of judgment were sometimes read as prophetic because when Israel did not repent, they were conquered. As time passed, and Christianity developed, theologians looked back on the words of the prophets, and they saw Jesus in the prophets’ words. Isaiah, for instance, describes a suffering servant, one who will be wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, and with his stripes, we will be healed. It is easy to see how Christians saw Christ’s crucifixion in Isaiah’s words.
Who was the Prophet Isaiah?
Isaiah lived in Jerusalem in the second half of the 8th century BCE. At that time Jerusalem was the capital of the kingdom of Judea. His ministry as a prophet began under the reign of King Uzziah, who, according to Judaic tradition, was his cousin. Well educated and known for his brilliant imagery, Isaiah was known as the “evangelical prophet; by early church fathers. They believed his words described not just Christ and his work on the cross, but also the work of the church. Isaiah is particularly well known for his prophetic utterings about the virgin birth and Christ’s passion.
Traditionally, in Christian art, Isaiah is pictured as an old man with a flowing beard and long grey hair. Often a book or scroll is included with the text that tells of the virgin giving birth to a son. Another key verse that Isaiah wrote is that a flowering branch will spring from the root of Jesse. Jesse was King David’s father, and those verses were taken to mean the messiah would come through David’s line.
Another famous story recorded in Isaiah is that the prophet lamented, “Woe is me, for I am ruined because I am a man of unclean lips.” Later in that passage, we learn a seraph flies to Isaiah with a burning coal from the altar that he touches to his lips. The seraph tells Isaiah, that his sin is atoned for. So many artists use tongs and hot coals to signify that a particular figure is Isaiah.
But perhaps my favorite iconography of Isaiah, and the story about him, comes from a non-biblical tradition that says Isaiah’s death came about because he was sawed in half, and so a saw is used to identify the prophet, However, being sawn in half is not the interesting part of the story. According to rabbinic literature, Isaiah was the maternal grandfather of King Manasseh of Judah. Manasseh desired his grandfather’s death, but the reasons vary. And while being pursued, Isaiah uttered Yahweh, and a cedar tree opened and Isaiah disappeared into it. And so, King Manasseh had the cedar sawn down, thus killing Isaiah.
Michelangelo’s Isaiah differs from these expected portrayals. His prophet is relatively young, beardless, and only has his book of prophecy with him. Conveniently, Michelangelo has labeled the painting as Isaiah, but the prophet in the work gives us no real cues to his identity.
The Painterly Details
Fresco comes from the Italian word “fresh” because they are painted onto fresh plaster. Each day the area that will be painted is prepared with fresh plaster and the artist must work quickly to apply pigments to the surface so that they can be imbibed into the plaster. While many refer to all painted walls as frescoes only those painted onto wet plaster are technically frescoes. Painting on dried plaster is secco. Often the two techniques are used in the same painting. If pigments or minerals like gold are to be used, artists will add the more expensive elements after the plaster is dry to minimize the cost. While secco can beautify a painting, it is not as durable as a true fresco, which can survive thousands of years, or as long as the wall is intact.
Each day an artist would decide how much of an area they would be able to finish, and fresh plaster would be applied to the undercoat. This was called giornata, or a day’s work. If the artist didn’t accomplish all he had planned, that area would have to be chipped away as it dried and resurfaced to start again. We can see the giornata in Michelangelo’s Isaiah around the top of his head in what appears to be a faint halo and around his hand.
The details of Michelangelo’s Isaiah are stunning. The prophet’s tanned face appears deeply troubled with the furrowed brow, downcast eyes, and serious mouth. Michelangelo mastered the use of chiaroscuro in the ceiling. We can see that clearly in the face. Chiaroscuro is a technique perfected during the Italian Renaissance to give paintings realistic three-dimensional shapes.
In Italian chiaro means light, and scuro means dark, so chiaroscuro is playing with light and dark. Look closely at Isaiah’s chin or nose and you will see the artist’s skill. We are used to photographs and the works of the Impressionists, so perhaps Michelangelo’s mastery of chiaroscuro doesn’t strike us the same, but these skills are a significant part of how striking these paintings are in person.
We must keep in mind the great distance at which these paintings were viewed. The Pope and his entourage could not come up close to the paintings to admire the details as we do in these photos. Instead, they were awed viewing them from over 60 feet away.
Let’s go back to the face. Here Michelangelo has used light and dark, shades of brown and cream to give Isaiah’s face its form. There are no distinct lines here, just the shading. Contrast that to the somewhat wild grey curls on his head. Here Michelangelo has gone bold, painting in black, the curving lines that define the Prophet’s hair. Again, if we look closely we can see the faint circle in the plaster above Michelangelo’s head. This might appear as a very faint halo, but here we can see where the artist stopped his work for the day.
The colors of Michelangelo’s Isaiah were striking when first revealed. His ability as a colorist, while initially doubted, proved to be revolutionary. The use of contrasting colors, the jewel-like palette, and the surprising unnatural shades pushed other artists to explore and inspired the Mannerist movement. In Mannerism, artists freed themselves from the strict colors that would be used to mimic nature, and instead used color freely, often to elicit an emotional reaction. If you look at some of El Grecco’s works you will see where this trend ended up.
Let’s look closely at the sleeves in this work. Here we can see the genius in the color choices. While the sleeves shouldn’t make sense, they come together in a pleasing whole that doesn’t strike as being “off.” But look closely. The sleeves don’t match, The left has some yellow, but the details given are done in lavender. This creates a marvelous play of light, making the tones appear to shimmer. The fact that we have a harmonized picture from such a wide variety of colors, and again it’s worth noting, viewed from a distance is remarkable.
The cool colors of the cloak seem to swirl with the lime green behind the putto’s head trailing off into the distance. The bright green lining of the cloak is given the greatest space, with just a slash of blue to tell us the cloak is blue. We see that blue again on the opposite side of the painting in the cover of the book, a uniting element.
In much the same way the orange clothing of the putto in the background provides just a touch of rich color that emphasizes the billowing of Isaiah’s cloak. The orange gold is echoed on the opposite side in the pages of the book, and more subtly in the glowing orange in the underskirt by Isaiah’s feet.
The echoing of colors provides balance to the work as our eye easily moves from one element to the other pleased with the overall impression of beauty and grace.
As we’ve noted, Michelangelo was first and foremost a sculptor. When we compare Michelangelo’s famous Pieta to this image of Isaiah, we can see how the artist has transferred his skills from stone to paint. The gorgeous folds of the robe give a clear indication of the body beneath. the solid sense of muscle and body and how the robe is caught between his calves, all of these remind me of his statues. Just the feet demonstrate Michelangelo’s deep understanding of the human body.
The Context in the rest of the ceiling
As we look at Michelangelo’s Isaiah we need to recognize it is painted within a larger work. The prophet is just one element of the entire Sistine ceiling. Seven Old Testament prophets alternate with 5 ancient Sybils as dominant visual elements. These figures were chosen because each was believed to foretell the coming of Jesus.
It appears that Isaiah has been holding his head up and is caught in the act of dropping his left hand. His other hand rests on the book with one finger holding his place. But what is he thinking about? What is he turning his head away from or toward?
The putto next to Isaiah, which he appears to be listening to, is pointing toward the panel about the fall of man and his expulsion from paradise. Whenever an artist is so bold as to have a figure pointing at something, we should pay attention. The expulsion from the garden is a vivid portrayal of the broken relationship between God and his creation. Isaiah’s prophecies are about how God will reconcile and restore this brokenness.
It has also been suggested that Isaiah is turning his head away from the Deluge panel that shows God’s judgement on the earth. Again we have the connection between judgement and restoration.
Vasari, an art critic who was a contemporary of Michelangelo commented on Isaiah saying, “Anyone who studies this figure, copied so faithfully from nature, the true mother of the art of painting, will find a beautifully composed work capable of teaching in full measure all the precepts to be followed by a good painter.” And Vasari was correct. For the next 500 years, artists from around the world have traveled to the Vatican to study and view the Sistine Ceiling and be inspired by the works they find there. I’ll use just two examples to demonstrate the lasting influence of this work, one from Michelangelo’s time, and one from the 20th century.
While Michelangelo toiled on the Sistine Ceiling, down the hall Raphael was working on other commissions for the Pope. While the two artists were rivals, there was mutual respect. We can see Michelangelo’s influence when, a few years after the ceiling was finished, Raphael painted his work of Isaiah. The colors are less bright, and Michelangelo’s Isaiah appears more fluid, but the strong musculature and sculptural feel are apparent.
When the patron who commissioned Raphael’s work complained about the price, Michelangelo defended Raphael saying just the knee was worth what had been paid.
In more recent memory we find Norman Rockwell, a huge fan of art history, also drew inspiration from Michelangelo’s Isaiah. During World War II he used the figure as the basis for a Saturday Evening Post cover, changing the prophet into his version of Rosie the Riveter.
More of Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling Is On The Way
Over the next few months I will be writing more blog posts on the Sistine Chapel so please subscribe here and on my Youtube channel if you want to be updated when those posts are published.
Additionally, this coming Christmas Season I’ll be publishing a devotional entitled, The Artist as Prophet: Re-envisioning Advent. Inverting power structures, redefining cultural norms. What art has to teach us about living into the incarnation. This work of Isaiah will be included in the devotional. Again, subscribe to stay updated.
E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. (New York, Phaidon Press, 2016)
Hugh Honour and John Fleming, The Visual Arts: A History (Laurence King Publishing 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: Artist & Genius Full Documentary
https://scholarcommons.scu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1002&context=a_ah paper on the ancestor cycle of the sistine chapel ceiling