May 10, 1508 – Rome, Italy: Michelangelo Buonarroti reluctantly signed the contract. Two year earlier, when he had first been approached by Pope Julius II to tackle the project, he fled Rome rather than commit to the Pope’s request. He was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task and he didn’t think he was the right person for the job.
Michelangelo was a sculptor, not a painter, and this wasn’t just any project. The Pope wanted him to paint a series of murals in the Sistine Chapel, on the chapel ceiling, no less. However, the Pope was adamant that Michelangelo – and no one else – was the right man for the job. Michelangelo felt he had no choice but to accept the assignment.
Michelangelo was born March 6, 1475, in Caprese, Italy. His mother died when he was six and he went to live with the family of a stonecutter who worked in his father’s marble quarry. The young lad was a natural with a chisel and hammer. Michelangelo was not a stonecutter; he was a sculptor, a prodigy with that rarest of abilities to see the angel within the marble. Among his early works was the Pieta, which was commissioned by the Vatican.
Michelangelo was thirty-three years old in July of 1508 when he began work on the Sistine Chapel. His only experience as a painter had occurred years before when he was a student. The Pope wanted a depiction of biblical scenes from the New Testament but Michelangelo convinced him to use the Book of Genesis as the subject matter.
The daunting mission was to paint over 300 life size figures on the curved ceiling, beginning with the creation of Adam and culminating with the flood of Noah. The immense ceiling spanned 130 feet long and 43 feet wide, a total of over 5,600 square feet.
Because the Pope was unwilling to suspend weekly mass, Michelangelo’s first challenge was to design a unique scaffold that could hinge off the walls beneath the 65-foot ceiling. Through arduous trial and error, he learned the art of buon fresco painting – the technique of painting on a moist, plaster surface with colors ground up in limewater. In the early stages of the project, while Michelangelo was working on one of largest multi-figure composites, mold grew in the plaster and the painting had to be removed and redone.
The torturous project required Michelangelo to stand on a scaffold, painting awkwardly above his head. In many locations, he painted with his neck and back bent for long periods of time. His arms burned and ached from hours of holding the brush above his head. His face and eyes provided a human canvas for the paint droppings. Michelangelo’s initial fears became a reality; the task was overwhelming. He dreaded the days when the impetuous Pope climbed up on the scaffold to chastise him about his slow progress.
Doubt and discouragement crept in and Michelangelo wondered why he’d agreed to this project. He felt he had been too ambitious to think he could do this work, and in his journal he wrote, “I am not in the right place – I am not a painter.” But assisted by a team that mixed his paints and plaster and carried it up to the scaffold, Michelangelo painted on day after day. With his vision permanently affected from the strain and splatter, he made the final brush stroke in October of 1512, over four years after he had begun.
Five hundred years later, Michelangelo’s magnificent painting of nine scenes from Genesis is perhaps the crowning masterpiece of the European Renaissance. His fresco of the Creation of Adam is second in popularity only to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. His perseverance is proudly on display from the ceiling above the Pope’s masses and the conclaves to select new popes. Five million visitors tour the Sistine Chapel each year and stand in awe at Michelangelo’s brilliant creation. Pope Julius II was right. Michelangelo was the right man for the mission.
“Many believe, and I believe, that I have been designated for this work by God. In spite of my old age I do not want to give it up; I work out of love for God and I put all my hope in him. Lord, grant me that I may always desire more that I can accomplish.” Michelangelo Buonarroti