The Sistine Chapel (Cappella Sistina) is a chapel in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Pope, in the Vatican City. Its fame rests on its architecture, which evokes the Temple of the Old Testament, and its decoration, frescoed throughout by the greatest Renaissance artists, including Michelangelo, whose ceiling is legendary. The Sistine Chapel is considered to be the greatest artistic creation in the history of mankind. Michelangelo could possibly be the greatest artist who has ever lived. His paintings in Sistine Chapel, the triumph of Renaissance humanist ideal, have changed the meaning of art forever.
Seven prophets from the Old Testament were depicted on the ceiling, with Zechariah on the entrance end, Jonah on the chapel end, Joel, Ezechiel and Jeremiah on one of the long sides; and Isaiah and Daniel on the other. The four major prophets Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel and Isaiah are diagonally opposite each other in that order from the chapel end towards the entrance, while the other three are seen as minor prophets.
- Sistine Chapel, Seven Prophets, Isaiah (1509)
- Sistine Chapel, Seven Prophets, Isaiah (Detail) (1509)
- Sistine Chapel, Seven Prophets, Joel (1509)
- Sistine Chapel, Seven Prophets, Joel (Detail) (1509)
- Sistine Chapel, Seven Prophets, Zechariah (1509)
- Sistine Chapel, Seven Prophets, Zechariah (Detail) (1509)
- Sistine Chapel, Seven Prophets, Ezekiel (1510)
- Sistine Chapel, Seven Prophets, Ezekiel (Detail) (1510)
- Sistine Chapel, Seven Prophets, Ezekiel (Detail 2) (1510)
- Sistine Chapel, Seven Prophets, Daniel (1511)
- Sistine Chapel, Seven Prophets, Daniel (Detail) (1511)
- Sistine Chapel, Seven Prophets, Jeremiah (1511)
- Sistine Chapel, Seven Prophets, Jeremiah (Detail) (1511)
- Sistine Chapel, Seven Prophets, Jonah (1511)
Sistine Chapel, Seven Prophets, Isaiah (1509)
Isaiah is altogether different in character. He seems to listen intently. His forehead may express bewilderment yet he is clad in the green cloak of hope. As he listens, his genii point excitedly into the distance whence the great voice addresses him. The powerful left arm is raised as though commanding stillness or silence. He has an intimation of the mystery of the Son. The naked feet are crossed, and the entire figure expresses veneration, expectation and readiness. What is the significance of the half closed book which he marks with his inserted finger? Surely, that the book is nothing; books may fail, the voice alone is infallible. Note how the contours of the figure form a circle from which only the head and one hand emerge. The left arm, the left hand, and the head together with the genii, describe an oval superimposed on the circle. The face, with lips parted in expectation, bears an expression of rapt attention; the hair of indeterminate colour, and the vigorously drawn neck emerging from light-toned draperies in blue, green and red, symbolizing faith, hope and charity, indicate that this exalted figure is poised on the threshold of two worlds; it is intent of hearing, it is rapt in attention, and its genius points at Noah's offering.
Above the Prophet to the left we see an ignudo with a jubilant expression. He and the blithe youth to the right above Daniel prove that Michelangelo - was he not the contemporary of the happy saint Filippo Neri? - was not altogether a stranger to joy.
Sistine Chapel, Seven Prophets, Isaiah (Detail) (1509)
A prophet of the Passion, Isaiah has interrupted his reading of the book, which he keeps open with his right hand. As if his attention were being attracted by the boy behind him, he turns his face to the left with an anguished expresseion. However, his eyes are not focused on anything; the vision that disturbs him is an interior one, and his tension is expressed by the way he contorts his limbs, which is reflected in his head, shoulders, arms, and crossed feet. This movement is stressed by the arc of the blue mantle lined with green and the folds of the grayish-white robe and rose tunic.
Sistine Chapel, Seven Prophets, Joel (1509)
In Joel the state of inspiration, expressed by the light scrolls unfurled like a pennon and the flaming hair, has taken the place of acquired knowledge. The book is under the Prophet's feet, half hidden by the steep folds of his garment. The genii flanking the magnificent head re-enact the process: while one of them closes his book and raptly gazes across the Prophet's shoulder, the other brings his folio and acts as the devil's advocate and the spokesman of mere intellectual learning. Joel's shock is emphasized by a shifting of his body axis to the left. We find this grandiose diagonal movement again in the other giants: in Ezekiel, Daniel, and even more pronounced in Jonah. Joel in particular foresaw the coming of the Holy Ghost, and it is as though he shrank back before the consuming flame by which he none the less longs to be devoured. The lineal treatment of the Roman head - giving it the air of the mighty poet whom the High Renaissance failed to produce - carries to new heights the art form used by Signorelli.
Sistine Chapel, Seven Prophets, Joel (Detail) (1509)
Wearing an ash-blue tunic with pink reflections and a red mantle, Joel - the herald of terrible calamities on the earth and the darkening of the sun and the moon in the sky - is portrayed frontally, as he sits unwinding and reading a scroll. His intent face, framed by locks of white hair, and the pose of his body express energy, together with a degree of tension.
Sistine Chapel, Seven Prophets, Zechariah (1509)
On entering the Chapel (generally through the east door, for contrary to prevalent custom the altar with the 'Last Judgement' occupies the west wall), one can see the Prophet Zechariah enthroned above. In ecclesiastical tradition Zechariah is young, but Michelangelo painted him as a man hoary with age, with a long beard and an ample green cloak, perhaps indicative of the unfathomable depth of his prophecies. This may be the earliest figure; it is extremely powerful but still somewhat clumsy, hardly suggesting a being who has received illumination. The old man is reading from his book, perhaps reciting the passages on the reconstruction of the temple, which he advocated.
Some scholars thought that Julius II and his counselors took it as a reference to the rebuilding of Saint Peter's. Zechariah prophesied the coming of a king riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, that is, Palm Sunday; and the Descent of the Holy Ghost, the Pentecost - both of which played a prominent part in the Church ritual of the Vatican. A crest with the oak of the della Rovere is placed on the console of Zechariah. Twin genii peer over the shoulder of the Prophet with the book.
Zechariah was one of the twelve 'lesser' prophets. Michelangelo chose two more, Joel and Jonah, from among them, in addition to the four major prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. The remaining thrones are occupied by five of the twelve traditional Sibyls.
Sistine Chapel, Seven Prophets, Zechariah (Detail) (1509)
Sistine Chapel, Seven Prophets, Ezekiel (1510)
Ezekiel, the Prophet of the Merkabah, the divine throne and chariot of fire, the heavenly hierarchy and the four cherubim, is shown contorted by his vision. His expressive Hebrew profile faces Zechariah to the left. There is surely some meaning in the fact that this Prophet's head is wrapped in a white turban; holy dread is written on his countenance - the brightness of the vision might have blinded him. The other Prophets are bareheaded, while the Sibyls, like the young Delphica and the old Persica, closer to earth, are veiled or shrouded so as to protect them from an excess of light. The movement of the Prophet's right hand indicates three things: surprise, self surrender, and the imparting of his vision. Michelangelo thus succeeded by sheer, direct simplicity, in endowing a simple gesture with manifold meaning. The contrast of Ezekiel's sombre, heavy garment painted in brown and lilac makes his rapture all the more poignant. The wind of the spirit brushes the fringes on his shoulder. The earth-sprite behind the old man looks terrified, while the beautiful and angelic boy beside him points heavenward with a gesture reminding us of Leonardo's 'John the Baptist' and his 'Bacchus'; late works which Michelangelo may not have seen. But great men who are ahead of their time often express some new idea simultaneously.
Sistine Chapel, Seven Prophets, Ezekiel (Detail) (1510)
The vigorous figure of the prophet stands out clearly against the light background. It is painted with clear brushstrokes, strong contrasts of light and shade, and colour accords between the bright red of the tunic and the colder tones of both the cloth wrapped around his head and shoulders, and the mantle. The profile of the head is depicted in detail, accentuating its expressiveness, while that of the youth he appears to be addressing is rendered with soft glazes of colour. The plasticity of the figure is magnificently represented by the sculptural modeling, as well as by the neck and head, hands, and feet.
Sistine Chapel, Seven Prophets, Ezekiel (Detail 2) (1510)
Sistine Chapel, Seven Prophets, Daniel (1511)
If Ezekiel saw the beginning and the origin of creation, the first emanation of the Godhead, the youthful Titan Daniel knows of ultimate things and of the Judgement which Michelangelo was to paint much later above the altar of the Sistine Chapel. Assisted by his genius half hidden in his lilac mantle, the man who lived unharmed in a lion's den silently sets down in the Book of Life what he has seen. The seer's hand with the foreshortened arm expresses quiet dedication to his task. And it should be said here that Michelangelo's vaunted foreshortening perspectives were never feats of artistic bravado, as was the case with his countless imitators, but always met a psychological necessity or expressed some truth; they are therefore aesthetically satisfying, never grotesque as so often in Baroque art.
Sistine Chapel, Seven Prophets, Daniel (Detail) (1511)
The figure of the prophet Daniel, engrossed in reading and writing, but with the signs of deep interior anxiety, was seriously damaged by water seepage and subsequent heavy retouching. The recent restoration has revived the delicate colour accords of the clothes.
Sistine Chapel, Seven Prophets, Jeremiah (1511)
The melancholy, abstracted Jeremiah, more than any other figure, is a deeply moving moral self portrait. Sorrowful unto death, he rests from his spiritual vision, to reflect on the hardship and frustration of earthly existence. We share the artist's pity for this noble being, prematurely aged and steeped in the anguish of the universe who, alone among the Prophets, must carry the weight of earthly existence. His hand grasps his beard with a saturnine gesture that seems to be second nature to him. The genii of Jeremiah are the strangest of the whole series. The one to the left is feminine and, as it were, an image of the Prophet's afflicted soul, painfully conscious of the absence of pure goodness and beauty on the earthly plane, unless it be in art; and even that was all too often suspect to the zealous among Christian and Jewish communities where iconoclasm was forever lurking in the dark recesses of the mind. In short, the genius is a symbol of Platonism defeated in Michelangelo's youth by Savonarola. Platonism itself found expression in the most sublime among the ignudi on the Prophet's left. The shaping of the limbs the perfect torso and magnificent, calmly musing profile surpass, if that be possible, the Greek ideal of beauty. The monkish, hooded figure on the Prophet's right is an unmistakable allusion to Savonarola; to the summons of duty and conscience, to the injunction not to linger unduly in the realms of Greek art. That is why the ignudo above resembles a bent Atlas straining under the weight of his cornucopia, bearing a world that casts a shadow upon his shoulders.
Sistine Chapel, Seven Prophets, Jeremiah (Detail) (1511)
Deep in sorrowful meditation and oppressed by the terrible anguish of his ominous predictions, Jeremiah leans forward, resting his bowed head on his hand and his elbows on his spread knees. The expression of the attendant on the left is also woeful, while the one on the right was repainted in the past, together with part of the prophet's hair, following serious damage caused by seepage of water.
Sistine Chapel, Seven Prophets, Jonah (1511)
God allows the youthful Jonah, the seer of Nineveh whom he rescued from the belly of the whale within three days - the time between Christ's death and his resurrection, - to challenge him in his bold nakedness, The figure mocks every law of composition and perspective. Michelangelo conceived Jonah as an Old Testament Prometheus touched by grace and presents us with a solution to the riddle of good and evil. An artist, himself a rebellious Titan, proffers a solution that spells deliverance in what may be the grandest piece of dialectical theology ever stated in terms of art. The rebellious Prophet, whom God would not have otherwise, looks up directly at his self begetting and affirming Maker. In his expression, scorn and rebellion are giving place to joy, delight, love and filial response, and the ecstatic contemplation of God. The monster of the sea, the calabash tree of the texts, and the turbulent genii form an animated background, unusually bucolic and idyllic for Michelangelo.
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Sistine Chapel. High Renaissance Masterpiece.
Sistine Chapel. Book of Genesis.
Sistine Chapel. The Ignudi.
Sistine Chapel. Seven Prophets.
Sistine Chapel. Five Sibyls.
Sistine Chapel. Lunettes.
Sistine Chapel. Pendentives.
Sistine Chapel. The Ancestors of Christ.
Sistine Chapel. The Last Judgement.
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