A Manifestation of the Divine: Michelangelo from Drawing to Execution in the Sistine Chapel

One of the most iconic and written about artists in history, Michelangelo (1475-1564) was surprisingly private about his artistic practice.[1] Trying to discern the process behind his famous Sistine Chapel ceiling proves to be a challenge, as he is noted for having his assistants burn his sketches.[2] As a result, much of the ‘evolution’ of the design remains elusive and the painted frescoes appear to the viewer as seemingly spontaneous acts of creation. Fortunately, a small number of sketches remain, or have come to light in the centuries since the Sistine Chapel was painted, illuminating some of Michelangelo’s processes and demonstrating the narrative of continuity and change that led to the creation of the masterpiece.

It is thought that a sketch of the hand of Adam in the British Museum is the earliest consideration for the design.[3] Although it only shows a single spandrel and some vague outlines for the framework of the narrative, it shows an early preoccupation with geometric panels, which would be consistently present and which dominate the final work.[4] There is also an interest in creating a fictive architectural frame, which did not coincide with the physical structure of the Chapel, another factor which would remain until execution.[5] Finally, this initial sketch shows Michelangelo’s early intention to seat the twelve apostles in the spandrels, a highly problematic section due to its concavity as the transitional area between the wall and vault.[6] Despite the difficulty of this surface, some continuity can be seen even from this basic initial sketch, as the frontal view of the figures is maintained through to the reality seen in the Sistine Chapel today.

A second design, in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts, shows some progress for the same area of the ceiling.[7] The lozenge was enlarged and transformed into an octagon: this enlargement in particular demonstrates a strong interest in divided narrative scenes.[8] Such compartmentalisation is now one of the key features seen in the Sistine Chapel, with strong fictive architectural features allowing and encouraging individual contemplation of single scenes. Furthermore, the band of geometric motifs seen in the first design has been moved to the area above the spandrels thus creating a new directional focus for the viewer, spanning the vault.[9] These two initial designs show little interest in precise measurements, which highlights how early in the creative process they were to have been received.[10] Nevertheless, the fact that aspects of these can be seen in the ceiling as Michelangelo painted it, even if these be ideological rather than literal transference, proves the importance in every step of the evolutionary creative process.

A more direct use can be seen in a sketch held by the Cleveland Museum of Art (1511). Its origin was long questioned after it was published in 1938, but Edward J. Olszewski convincingly argues for its authenticity.[11] Many historians argued that it was a copy of the nude above the prophet Daniel, but, as Olszewski indicates, the lighting of the sketch is vastly different from the figure on the ceiling, making the argument of it being a preparatory sketch by Michelangelo much stronger.[12] Alongside the figure are several sketches of feet, indicating its status as a schizzo or pensiero (‘working drawing’): one of these feet sketches can be seen in the painted figure of the final work.[13] Moreover, the unfinished quality of the head in the Cleveland sketch proves interesting. Firstly, this suggests that there was an ongoing process of change in Michelangelo’s mind and even though he obsessively sketched the feet of the figure, he gave less precedence to its face, which one might assume would be an initial consideration.

Furthermore, there is a clear interest in the torso which has been elaborated upon and detailed to a far greater degree than the head. This is an indication of a wider tendency in Michelangelo’s sketches in the preparatory process. Studies for the Libyan Sibyl (1511) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Study for the Nude above the Persian Sibyl (1511) in the collection of the Teylersmuseum of Haarlem both illustrate similar preoccupations with anatomical accuracy, particularly the formulation of musculature. However, as Olszewski indicates, it is also noticeable that many of these secondary figures are not as fully defined or elaborated in the painting of the ceiling itself.[14] This creates an interesting contrast with the aforementioned loose sketches of the ceiling formulation which become more detailed in their execution, again leaving a suggestion about the intricacies of Michelangelo’s artistic practice.

Michelangelo began working on the Sistine Chapel ceiling in January of 1509 after six months of contract negotiations, presumably when he was considering the design.[15] The dates of the early sketches formulating the ceiling design are unknown, indeed their order is due mainly to what is seen as a logical progression.[16] Nevertheless, when art history and, as in this case, the artist, are so concerned with end products, there can be a tendency to forget or ignore the creative process in favour of wonder of the final work, often resulting in a mythos of spontaneous execution. However, with a project as large and as iconic as the Sistine Chapel, it is as important as it is fascinating to examine the evolution of artistic ideas as they move towards the physical finale.



[1] Anthony Hughes and Caroline Elam. "Michelangelo." Grove Art OnlineOxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T057716

[2] Edward J. Olszewski ‘A Design for the Sistine Chapel Ceiling’ The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art vol. 63 no. 1 (Jan. 1976) pp12-26

[3] Charles Seymour Jr. Michelangelo: The Sistine Chapel Ceiling (1972) London: Thames and Hudson

[4] Simona Cohen ‘Some Aspects of Michelangelo’s Creative Process’ Artibus et Historiae vol. 19 no. 37 (1998) p50

[5] ibid p49

[6] ibid p45

[7] ibid p46

[8] ibid

[9] ibid

[10] ibid p48

[11] Olszewski p15

[12] ibid

[13] ibid p17

[14] ibid p20

[15] ibid p21

[16] Cohen p45


Essay by Hannah Green, 4th year History of Art and English MA

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