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Detail of Sistine Chapel Ceiling by Michelangelo

Detail of the Sistine Chapel ceiling showing God creating the sun and moon and stars, Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), 1508x1512. From Wikipedia Commons.

Okay, okay, I hope that title doesn’t upset anyone. I’m not trying to be disrespectful to the Pope or the Church, I’m just wanting to show everyone some interesting things that Michelangelo included on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. A little back history before I go into the explanations about the pictures here.

Michelangelo was a sculptor by trade and preference. He did notl ike to paint, and before the Sistine Chapel, he had never done fresco work. When the Pope arranged for him to be the one to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he was truly upset. He ended up spending four years standing on a scaffolding, tilting his head back (contrary to popular belief, he didn’t paint lying down) to see what he was working on overhead. He had neck, back, and vision problems the rest of his life after he finished the ceiling.

To top it all off, Michelangelo despised Pope Julius II. This particular pope was the nephew of the previous pope who had rebuilt the Cappella Magna, Sixtus IV. The Cappella Magna became known instead as the Cappella Sistina – ‘Sixus’ Chapel’ or Sistine Chapel. Sixtus IV also had a long standing feud with the Florentine rulers – specifically Lorenzo de’Medici, known to history as ‘Lorenzo the Magnificent’. Sixtus had been in on an attempt to assassinate Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano, which resulted in Giuliano’s death. (Read more about that incident – the Pazzi Conspiracy- on Wikipedia.)

Michelangelo was a Florentine. Lorenzo the Magnificent had virtually adopted the sculptor as a son when Michelangelo was in his early teens. Michelangelo studied with the same tutors that Lorenzo’s children did. He was extremely loyal to the de’Medici family. The de’Medici’s never forgave Pope Sixtus IV for his role in the conspiracy. And now, in 1508, Pope Sixtus’ nephew, Pope Julius II, was insisting (in a way Michelangelo could not turn down) that Michelangelo fresco the whole ceiling (all 1200 square feet of it) of the chapel built by Pope Sixtus! Needless to say, Michelangelo was not happy.

And now to our picture above:  By the time Michelangelo got to this section of the ceiling, he’d been up on that ceiling for nearly 4 years. He had painted the frescoes in backwards order – they depict events from Genesis, including the acts of Creation and Noah and the flood. He started on the end opposite the altar (the ‘back’ of the chapel) and worked towards the altar. So, he did Noah first. By the time he got to the fresco of God creating the sun and moon and stars, he was nearly over the altar area, and had been up on the ceiling for almost 4 years.

The prophet Zacharias from the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo

Fresco of the Prophet Zacharias, with the face of Pope Julius II, from the Sisting Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo (1475-1564), 1508x1512. From Wikipedia Commons.

So when he painted God the Father (whom he depicted in typical Renaissance fashion as an old man in flowing robes) creating the moon, he positioned God so he was facing away from the viewer. He then painted God’s robes to cling to His behind – thus giving the image of God ‘mooning’ the viewer while creating the moon! (Look closely at the left side of the image above – it’s quite clear!) Of course, the specific viewer he had in mind was Pope Julius II, who would be saying Mass nearly under this fresco!

 But this is not the only insult Michelangelo inserted into the frescoes on the ceiling! Right over the door that Pope Julius II would enter in the back of the chapel when he entered to say Mass, he painted one of the seven prophets of the ceilings scheme – the prophet Zacharias. This prophet was a favorite of Pope Julius, and it appears that Michelangelo was flattering him because he painted Zacharias face as that of Pope Julius!

But he left a subtle insult, pretty much invisible from the floor and thus missed by the Pope when he viewed the fresco. But silently, Michelangelo made his true feelings about this ‘frescoing the ceiling’ thing. Behind the prophet-with-the-pope’s-face are two putti, those little fat angel children you see in lots of Renaissance paintings and frescoes. One has his arm resting on the shoulder of the other. Look closely at his hand – he has it closed into a fist with his thumb inserted between his index finger and his middle finger, and peeking out slightly. This gesture was a very very rude one in Italy at the time Michelangelo lived. It is the Renaissance equivalent of giving someone ‘the finger’. So here, quietly, Michelangelo, through his fresco, is giving Pope Julius II ‘the finger’!

Cumaean Sibyl from the Sistene Chapel ceiling
Cumaean Sibyl, from the Sistene Chapel ceiling frescoes, by Michelangelo (1475-1564), 1508×1512.

Amazingly, Michelangelo did not just give Pope Julius ‘the finger’ in his frescoes once, but twice. This last image is of the Cumaean Sibyl, the ancient oracle that was associated with the city of Rome. Since to Michelangelo, Rome equaled the papacy and his unwanted labors on the ceiling of the chapel, here he has putti again. And again, one has his arm around the other and the hand on the shoulder of the other putti is making the thumb between the fingers gesture. You have to look closely at the image here to see it, but it’s there.

This particular fresco looks down on the spot in the middle of the chapel where the pope would kneel on his way to the altar in the front to say Mass.
I hope I didn’t offend anyone. I simply wanted to amuse you, and point out that in art – especially Renaissance art – there are often subtle messages. Artists were not expected or allowed to sign their works (one of the reasons who painted what is sometimes hotly debated), so they often put self portraits into their paintings or other subtle symbols to ‘sign’ their works. Sometimes they would include symbolic insults, especially if they were unhappy with their patron or the work (as seen above).
On a side note – Michelangelo only signed one of his works – his famous Pieta.In order to sign it, he broke into the Papal Palace one night, and hastily chiseled his name into the sash the Virgin has over her robes. He only did this – and got in trouble for it too! – because people were talking about the wonderful sculpture but insisting it was by a Roman sculptor. Michelangelo was a proud Florentine sculptor, so he broke in and chiseled the message that ‘Michelangelo, a Florentine, made this’ on the Virgin’s sash!
Click on any of the image to see them full sized.
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