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Art / Sistine Chapel

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Yes, that's God's creation of Adam casually thrown into this hurricane of art.

"From [the truths of our faith] the human genius has drawn its inspiration, committing itself to portraying them in forms of unparalleled beauty."
Saint John Paul II

The Sistine Chapel is the personal chapel of The Pope in Vatican City, Rome. As such, almost every inch of it is decorated, painted, and sculpted to tell some kind of narrative from The Bible. With work by dozens of artists including Raphael Sanzio, Michelangelo Buonarroti and Sandro Botticelli, the Chapel holds some of the most important works of The Renaissance and art in Europe and the Western world in general, including:

  1. The Ceiling Fresco: Created by Michelangelo over the course of four years, the fresco on the Sistine Chapel's ceiling details nine scenes from the Book of Genesis, from God's creation of the world to the flood that wiped the Earth clean. Most famous for containing “The Creation of Adam”.
  2. The Last Judgment”: The painting above the chapel's altar, which visualizes the Book of Revelation's account of the Second Coming of Christ.
  3. Stories of Moses: A series of frescoes across the chapel's southern walls depicting the most significant events of the life of the prophet Moses, from his exile from Egypt to Last Testament. The final story of Moses (the Discussion over the body of Moses) hangs right above the chapel's entrance, next to the Resurrection of Christ.
  4. Stories of Jesus: A series of frescoes across the chapel's northern walls depicting the most significant events of the life of the messiah Jesus, from his baptism from John to his Last Supper. The final story of Jesus (“The Resurrection of Christ”) hangs right above the chapel's entrance, next to the Discussion over the body of Moses.

For those unable to make a trip to Rome, a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel is available on Vatican City's website.

“The Creation of Adam” provided a famous template for artists to parody for centuries to come; see Sistine Steal for examples.

Various parts of the Sistine Chapel contain examples of:

    open/close all folders 

    Multiple fresco series and the Chapel as a whole 
  • Angelic Beauty:
    • In all the ceiling frescoes, God is not a shown as a disembodied hand or a collection of light, but as a man with all his natural powers, stretching His massive arms as they create souls and flipping his long locks behind Him to see Day and Night be separated from each other. Michelangelo manages to to give God the height of human beauty despite depicting as an old man; he achieves this by giving God a massive grey beard without any wrinkled skin or emaciated limbs.
    • Christ in “The Last Judgement” foregoes the traditional beard and wounds given to Him in traditional art so as to render him a youthful and pristine Apollo-like figure. His muscles are highlighted by a Holy Backlight just as the light contrasts with his wavy brown hair, all there to show the divine perfection of Christ.
  • Big Bad: Contrariwise to his role in “The Bible”, in which he is a minor antagonist, Satan is here depicted as the main driver of any evil happening. Whether he's the beautiful serpent lady from the Ceiling Fresco or a much filthier bat-man from a wall painting, Satan can't help but try and coax people into doing evil so when they get to the altar painting, they'll keep him company as God throws every sinner into Hell for eternity in the Chapel's altar painting.
  • Cherubic Choir: In addition to the Chapel's famous paintings, the church is blessed with a six-hundred year old Latin choir that performs during compositions from the likes of the polyphonic master Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and other artists of the Counter-reformation during the Pontifical masses; stream their hottest tracks on iTunes!
  • Cue the Sun: The altar is in the east end so during the Mass worshippers will face the rising sun, a common symbol of God and Christ due to its association with the Light Is Good and Back from the Dead tropes. While worshippers are facing the altar, they will also be looking upon a fresco of “The Last Judgement” directly above it, showing the ultimate return of Christ in the direction from which the life-giving Sun returns.
  • Four Lines, All Waiting: With about six entirely different series of paintings laid across the entire chapel, first time pilgrims often have trouble taking it in before tour guides inform them that their visit has concluded.
  • God Is Good: The Sistine Chapel is a shrine to worship God, and this is reflected in the artwork, which portrays God as a beautiful, intelligent creator who made creations of incredible detail and beauty.
  • Gold and White Are Divine:
    • While the rest of the field is shrouded in darkness, the victory of the small, but just David over the towering villain Goliath is framed against a white and gold tent. This is in a tradition of associating David's victory with the divine victory of Christ over sin, something Michelangelo knows from his most famous sculpture, “David”.
    • The two keys to the kingdom of Heaven, both in Perugino's “Delivery of the Keys” and Michelangelo's “The Last Judgement”, are respectively gold and silver to represent their power from Heaven and their authority on Earth.
  • Heaven Above:
    • The holiness of the Chapels's creation art is emphasized by its placement on the ceiling, forcing visitors to crane their heads up to the sky in order to see God design the world.
    • How does the Sistine Chapel's altar painting show saints entering into God's love? Well, by being pulled into the sky, where God's throne awaits them.
  • Holy Halo:
    • Every painting of Christ in the Sistine Chapel shows a circle of light behind his head, with the brightest of them all being the full-body halo of “The Last Judgement”.
    • In a rare case for someone who murdered God, Judas gets a halo in the “Delivery of the Keys”, perhaps signifying the delivery took place before Judas abandoned Christ in his heart.
    • Both played straight and inverted in the “Last Supper”. The eleven faithful disciples have shiny gold haloes, and Judas has a dark one.
  • In Case You Forgot Who Wrote It: Although few people know it, the Sistine Chapel was named after the one who ordered it be built, Pope Sixtus IV. Still, he had no real involvement with the artwork which makes the Chapel famous today, so it's not as if we've forgotten a secret genius of Western Art.
  • Messianic Archetype:
    • Since “The Last Judgement” depicts Christ's resurrection, it's only natural for the painting directly above it to depict a figure who foreshadows Christ: the prophet Jonah, who is sitting back as if to large for his portrait.
    • The handsome young man dressed in white in “The Temptations of Christ” is a stand-in for Christ. His interaction with a Moses-looking Jewish priest emphasizes one of the larger themes of the Sistine Chapel's artwork, that the Old Testament and New Testament are continuous with each other.
  • Mythology Gag: The Sistine Chapel, the physical building itself, has the same dimensions (40.9 meters long by 13.4 meters wide) as the Temple of Solomon does in The Bible. This reinforces one of the main theses of the Chapel: to demonstrate that the Christian tradition flows directly from the teachings of the Old Testament.
  • Our Angels Are Different: Angels are different even within the same building, as seen from “The Temptations of Christ”'s wispy, winged minster-angel who lightly instruct Christ and Michelangelo Buonarroti's ultra-muscular trumpeter-angels who beat down sinners into Hell in “The Last Judgement” and “The Creation of Adam”.
  • The Place: All of the artworks are located in a chapel named after a Pope, and that's how the place is known as.
  • Plot Parallel: The point of displaying the Stories of Moses and the Stories of Jesus across from each other is to demonstrate the similarities between the two and the continuity from Moses's teachings to Jesus's.
  • Satan: The Big Bad of Christianity is notably lacking from most of the Chapel's art, even when Hell is depicted alongside a host of demons in “The Last Judgement”. The Chapel only has two depictions of the Devil:
    • The first depiction is in “The Temptations of Christ”, where Satan's evil is visualized with a hideous beard, bat-like wings, and a black cloak that hide his most inhuman figures, hoofed feet and furred body. His hairiness and hooves call to mind the pagan god Pan, subtly demonstrating Satan's role as a deceiver.
    • The second depiction is in the famous ceiling of the Chapel, with the Devil depicted as a beautiful scaled woman with a tail in the place of legs. It's different from most other depictions of Satan as the Serpent of Eden, but it does have much in common with images of Lilith. In any case, the beauty of the woman acts as a reminder of the seductiveness of evil, while her scaled tail, which she hides from Adam and Eve, reveals that the Devil is hideous no matter how appealing he may seem.
  • Sequential Art: There are four storylines entirely made of paintings positioned in chronological order so they narrate together important passages of The Bible.
  • Snakes Are Sinister: In addition to the Serpent from Genesis, a large snake can be seen coiling around Minos in “The Last Judgement” to let the viewer know he's one of the big dogs in Hell.

    The Ceiling Frescoes 
  • Adaptation Deviation: Michelangelo's painting of Haman's death on the ceiling doesn't show him being hanged on his own gallows like in the Book of Esther, but instead shows the genocidal villain being crucified. This may have come about because the Latin Bible which Michelangelo would be familiar with describes the gallows as a "crux," although other parts of the text make it clear he was hanged. Still, Haman's death is described similarly in “The Divine Comedy”, so Michelangelo didn't pull this change out of thin air.
  • Author Avatar: It has been argued that the positioning of Jonah on the Chapel's ceiling, with his back bent and face stating upwards, reflects the position Michelangelo himself would have been in while painting the ceiling. The three-page paper “Michelangelo's Art through Michelangelo's Eyes” makes a point of this.
  • Back to Front: When walking in the entrance, a viewer will first see Michelangelo Buonarroti's fresco of Noah getting wasted after the Flood and last see God separate light from darkness during creation week. Put another way, a worshipper at the chapel will walk in seeing a man humiliated and progressively come closer to the grandiose power of the Creator.
  • Cape Swish: In “The Creation of Adam”, God has sent his robes billowing and expanding to emphasize the force he's putting into Adam's creation. His flowing robes are so huge that they encompass twelve different people who surround God.
  • Climbing Climax: When viewed from the altar to the entrance, the ceiling frescoes culminate with the fallen men who desire only evil scrabbling up mountains as the divine flood-waters rise up to do them justice.
  • Creation Myth: The ceiling frescoes detail how God separated light from darkness, created celestial bodies of the universe, made the lands, seas, and skies distinct, and gave the first man his immortal soul. All is based off the creation narrative lined out in the first chapters of the Book of Genesis.
  • Empty Shell: If you look up at “The Creation of Adam”, you might notice that Adam is pretty uninterested in his own creation from the completely blank look on his face. Not to mention how he reclines like nothing's going on while a being of infinite power is flying around two feet away from him. This unusual lack of expression from Adam gives reason to believe that the moment depicted in the fresco is not exactly when Adam was created, but the moment just before God breathed life into Adam and gave him his immortal, rational soul, allowing him to experience emotion, reason, and awe as an image of God.
  • Full-Contact Magic: Although the Book of Genesis describes God using speech to bring about the creation of the universe, Michelangelo's ceiling frescoes show Him flying around with His robes billowing, stretching His hands in all different directions, and expressing physical exertion on His face in order to give a visual sense for the thought and effort God put into His creation of light, the Sun, the Earth, the Moon, water, land, and man.
  • Grandpa God: Trope Codifier; Michelangelo's elderly, bearded portrait of God on the ceiling emphasizes the Creator's wisdom and has solidified the tradition of representing the Christian God as an old man, as opposed to older depictions as a hand reaching out of the clouds.
  • The Great Flood: The eighth fresco on the ceiling shows people climbing the mountains escape the flood and board arks that are all turned over by the rising water. In the background, Noah's ark is shown floating unperturbed as those left behind desperately attempt to survive the flood.
  • Green Thumb: In the second ceiling fresco, God can be seen pointing his hand at a sprouting tree, showing his creation of all the plants and vegetation in the world.
  • Held Gaze: Beneath God's arm in “The Creation of Adam”, there is a female figure who is looking behind her right into Adam's gaze. The longing the two have for each other gives credence to the idea that this figure is the soul of the first woman, who Man longs for in his very being.
  • Light Is Good: The painting of David's victory over Goliath on the Chapel's Ceiling is highlighted by the bright white tent behind David's raised sword, contrasting against the darkness covering the rest of the soldiers.
  • Magical Gesture: God stretches His finger out to touch the fingertips of the first man as part of his creation. It's evident that God has his eyes laser focused on this finger, as if He's channeling His thought through it and into the first man, who will only now receive the spark of life.
  • Male Frontal Nudity: Adam's ideal physique is on full display in the ceiling paintings, including his penis.
  • My Brain Is Big: Perhaps to communicate God's omnipotence and reason, God's robes in “The Creation of Adam” appear behind him in a way that they resemble a giant brain.
  • Offscreen Inertia: This is what makes “The Creation of Adam” work so well — God is always “just about” to give Adam the Touch of Life.
  • The Patriarch: God is unambiguously male in the ceiling fresco, with his giant beard and exaggerated muscles, while frequently being posed in dynamic positions that emphasize his power over creation. At the same time, he looks at Adam and Eve with a fatherly look in his eye and he talks to Eve with paternal care in the image of her creation, making him a fit for the ideal image of a Patriarch.
  • Please Put Some Clothes On: One of the ceiling frescoes shows Noah's sons looking away from their naked, hungover father as they cover him with a cloak. Strangely, the cloaks the sons are wearing don't cover their own private areas despite their urgent panic to cover up their dad.
  • Snake People: The Serpent from Genesis is visualized as a beautiful woman with a scaled, green tail where her legs should be. This helps to show the temptation she offers Adam and Eve without any verbal explanation.

    The Last Judgement 
  • Bowdlerise: The nude saints had their genitalia painted over with garments after Michelangelo's death, leaving the schmuck who agreed to do it to forever be known as "the breeches maker." He also covered up female saints whose breasts were exposed. After a restoration effort in the twentieth century, the fresco survives mostly decensored.
  • Crucial Cross: The dark, shadowy land of graves, hellfire, and corpses at the bottom of the painting is all beneath a cross with Jesus's corpse yet to be taken down. It is only from moving above the Cross do we see what this suffering has been transformed into: a Fluffy Cloud Heaven where a fully alive Jesus raises all the just dead into glory with his Father, some of whom are even clinging to his cross as they ascend.
  • Everybody Hates Hades:
    • The wise judge of the Greek Underworld, King Minos, sorted all of the dead, either into the blissful Elysium, the plain Fields of Asphodel, or the Fields of Punishment. In “The Last Judgement”, the king stands besides the fire of Hell as the damned are cast into it, while allowing a demonic snake to coil around his body and giving no implication of his role in judging those who enter Paradise.
    • Charon, who carried all the dead to the Greek afterlife, is shown beating a group of people off his boat into a horde of demons, who drag the people into Hell.
  • The Faceless: “The Last Judgement” only depicts God the Father's lower torso and feet. While it's standard practice to avoid showing the full form of God for the viewer's sanity, this is an odd choice since several full-body paintings of God, face and all, lie on the ceiling above “The Last Judgement”.
  • The Ferryman: Charon, who brought the dead to the Underworld in Greek myth, is featured with a boat full of the damned. Not that he's trying to be helpful, as he has raised his oar and held it back to scare them off his boat right into a pile of grabby demons.
  • Fire and Brimstone Hell: All that can be made out of Hell is a massive fire which the damned are being pulled towards.
  • Jacob Marley Apparel: Several saints are seen surrounding the risen Christ while holding objects that were used to kill them for their belief in Christ.
    • Saint Andrew is seen holding an X-shaped cross, which Christian tradition says the Romans used to kill him.
    • Saint Bartholomew pops out because he's seen holding a man's skin while holding a knife in the other hand. This may look like Bartholomew skinned someone, but closer inspection of the skin makes it obvious he's holding “his own flayed skin”.
    • Saint Blaise is holding the iron combs used to rip his flesh apart.
    • Saint Catherine is sitting next to a broken wheel of spikes, which legends says the Roman Emperor tried to use to slowly torture and kill her, only for it to miraculously fall apart as soon as she touched it. Unable to elaborately torture her, the Emperor had her swiftly beheaded.
    • Saint Lawrence holds a ladder, referencing the legend that he died while being burnt over hot coils, only to snark that "It's cooked enough now," before his death.
    • Saint Sebastian holds the arrows he was pierced with before being beaten to death.
  • Judgement of the Dead: Jesus is depicted in the center calling the souls of the just from the grave to ascend to their reward of Heaven with his right hand while condemning the souls of the wicked into the fires of Hell with his left hand.
  • The Last Title: Borrowing from the Biblical concept, the painting above the altar is called “The Last Judgement” and shows the souls of Earth moving to their final positions in the afterlife.
  • Mass Resurrection: Saints rise from their graves to ascend into Heaven, including some that appear to only have their skeletons intact for the moment.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed:
    • Peter is drawn to resemble Pope Pius III, who commissioned the painting. This is in line with the Catholic idea that Peter was the first Pope, making Pope Pius III his direct successor.
    • Minos, the demonic judge of Hell, is based on one of the Pope's officials who vocally complained about Michelangelo's use of nudity in his portraits.
  • Nudity Equals Honesty: In a controversial move, “The Last Judgement” depicts nearly every character in the nude in order to show their equality and demonstrate how Christ's return has exposed them. Notable exceptions include Christ himself and his mother the Virgin Mary, even before retouching.
  • Religious Horror: The right half sees dozens of life-like characters drawn with all of Michelangelo's expertise being dragged into pits of fire by hideous demons, with terror plain on all their faces.
  • Rule of Symbolism: In the context of “The Last Judgement”, it's unclear how those entering Heaven managed to get a hand on Jesus's cross, though that makes it easy to remember who died for whose sins.
  • Second Coming: This fresco shows the final result of Jesus's return from Heaven: a final judgement upon all of humanity, where the saints and martyrs rising to live beside God's throne and the sinners descend into the fiery pits of the Earth to be tortured with the worst of the demons.

    The Life of Moses 
  • Anachronic Order: “The Trials of Moses” literally zig-zags between the life of Moses with everything from his murder of an Egyptian to the Jews' Exodus from Egypt. It moves from right to left, the opposite direction Romance languages are read in, with no clear direction dictating the foreground.
  • Benevolent Architecture: In the middle of the Red Sea, there happens to be a Greek pillar just in place to separate the Egyptians from the Israelites just in time for the Egyptians to be crushed by the ocean. Justified Trope, since God dropped the pillar there to protect his people.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: Moses can be identified amongst the chaos that surrounds him (ranging from storms to an army drowned in blood) by his green and yellow robes, which he wears even in paintings made years apart by different artists.
  • Everything's Better with Rainbows: Calling to mind the Noah story, “The Crossing of the Red Sea” features a rainbow on the left side of the painting parallel to the rains on the right that drown the Pharaoh. The rainbow symbolizes the covenant the Jews will make with God and their newfound freedom.
  • Misplaced Vegetation: One thing Egypt isn't known for is its lush, grass-flooded forests dominating its landscapes, yet four of the six episodes of the Moses narrative are set in this unreal hyper-vegetated Egypt rather than any type of desert or city.
  • Rivers of Blood: “Crossing the Red Sea” sees Moses and the Israelites watch as the faltering Egyptian army covers the entire sea in their muddy red blood.

    The Life of Christ 
  • Artistic License – Geography: Despite taking place in the Jordan River in Galilee, “The Baptism of Christ” includes famous Roman landmarks in its background for symbolic reasons. The Arch of Constantine, the Pantheon and the Coliseum all were significant landmarks dedicated to Jesus as Rome turned to Christianity, just as humanity turned from death to life in Christ beginning with his baptism.
  • Battle Aura: In “The Resurrection of Christ”, the glorified Jesus is surrounded by a huge aura of multi-colored divine light, sending all the guards around his tomb falling to the ground in pure terror. With the battle standard he carries, the aura gives the impression Jesus has returned triumphant from the war against Hell.
  • Dark Is Evil: It's easy to find out which person in the “Last Supper”note  is evil, just look for the shadowy man with the black beard, dark robes, and dark gray halo.
  • Decoy Protagonist: A casual viewer of “The Temptations of Christ” would have you believe the beautiful young man in the center would be, well, Christ. But turns out that viewer's less observant than a blind corpse, because everything surrounding the center of the painting shows Jesus in the background refusing old man Satan and his advances. (The person in the foreground is a healed leper, showing himself to the Jewish High Priest in order to certify the cure.)
  • Devil in Disguise: In order to get “The Temptations of Christ” right, Satan needs a disguise to cover his wild, hideous body. Naturally, he goes for the most innocent thing he can find: a pitch-black cloak. Sure, it leaves his demon-bat wings exposed, but Christ is too polite to make a fuss about that.
  • The Emperor: The “Delivery of the Keys” includes the Arch of Constantine, a monument synonymous with the Christian emperor, to remind the audience that Saint Peter was not just given spiritual authority, but aso earthly authority to make the Papacy a legitimate successor of the Roman Emperor.
  • Evil Wears Black: “The Temptations of Christ” makes it obvious which character is Satan by putting him in a giant black cloak while standing next to a Christ covered in bright primary colors.
  • God Test: Defied Trope. One of “The Temptations of Christ” has Satan point towards the ground from the top of a temple, daring Christ to test God's ability to save him. Christ puts his hand to his chest to object and thus Satan moves to his third and final temptation of Christ.
  • Good Wings, Evil Wings: Botticelli's “The Temptations of Christ” gives the Angels feathered, white wings to indicate their loyalty and holiness while Satan tries and fails to disguise his black bat wings, giving away his identity as a withered and corrupted angel that only wishes to make the heroic Christ as disgusting as him.
  • Humble Hero: Saint Peter is not shown boasting when God tells him he is the foundation of God's new nation; instead, Peter kneels down to the Earth while putting his hand to his heart as if to say, "Really, me?"
  • Meaningful Background Event:
    • While Roselli's “Last Supper” shows the titular dinner in the foreground, the fresco also shows Christ's prayer, arrest, and crucifixion through the windows in the background, which are important to understand why the next of the Stories of Jesus depicts “The Resurrection of Christ”.
    • The foreground of Botticelli's “The Temptation of Christ” doesn't actually contain the temptations of Christ, which are relegated to three different spots in the background. Instead, the foreground contains a leper healed by Jesus talking to a Jewish priest, perhaps to represent the continuity between Mosaic Law and Jesus's teachings.
  • Passion Play: The fresco “The Last Supper” naturally shows the dinner at which Jesus announced that one of his followers would betray him. However, it manages to encompass the entire passion by showing the effects of his follower's betrayal in the room's three windows. The first window has a view of Jesus pleading to an angel in fear of death, the second shows an arrested Jesus order his followers not to violently attempt to free him, and the third window shows Jesus crucified before a crowd with two thieves being executed with him.
  • Staff of Authority: Jesus makes it pretty clear who the King of Kings is in “The Resurrection of Christ” by emerging from His tomb with an imperial rod taller than Him. Just to make it clearer who is in charge, the staff is topped off with a cross, turning a symbol of humiliated criminals into the symbol of the glorified Lord.
  • Symbolic Baptism: “The Baptism of Christ” centers around John the Baptist pouring water over Christ at the beginning of his minsitry. To the left of the baptism is John the Baptist preaching to the crowd and to the right of the baptism is Jesus preaching to a different crowd, marking the transition from the era of the old covenant to the era of Christ's universal covenant.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: In the “Sermon on the Mount”, there are two people chatting away with their backs turned to the Son of God freely giving the truths of the universe away.

Alternative Title(s): Creation Of Adam, Sistine Chapel Ceiling