The Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

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The Sistine Chapel was built between 1475 and 1483 and named after the Pope who had it built, Sixtus IV. It has the exact dimensions of the Temple of Solomon, as detailed in Christianity's Old Testament: 40 feet wide by 130 feet long.

The Chapel is most famous for its ceiling, painted by Michelangelo; but the Chapel also has paintings on the walls by such famous artists as Botticelli.

Pope Julius II requested that Michelangelo repaint the ceiling in 1508. (Three years earlier, the artist had been summoned to design the pope's tomb.) The ceiling originally had a blue sky with golden stars. The artist agreed and spent most of the next four years creating one of the world's artistic masterpieces. The pope wanted to see paintings of the 12 Christian Apostles; the result was more than 3,000 figures.

The paintings depict nine stories from the Christian Bible's Book of Genesis, including the most famous image, the Creation of Adam (right). Taken together, the paintings are considered one of the world's greatest art masterpieces. Their realistic and extremely detailed depictions of some of Judaism's and Christianity's most famous moments are a wonder to all who see them.

The ceiling is nearly 68 feet off the ground. How could Michelangelo paint on the ceiling? He needed something to support him for hours on end. An important man in town offered to build a special scaffold that would hang from the ceiling by heavy ropes. Michelangelo didn't like that idea because he didn't want to leave any holes in the ceiling. Instead, the artist built his own scaffold, which was held high in place by brackets that connected to the walls.

It took several years, even with the help of several assistants. Michelangelo also succeeded in throwing out the pope's original design idea and creating something entirely new and different.

Another obstacle Michelangelo overcame in painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling was mold. It might not sound like much of a drawback, but mold could undo even the most magnificent painting simply by making the plaster wet and crumbly. The artist's most trusted assistant, Jacopo l'Indaco, invented a new method of making plaster that would stay dry. In effect, they outwitted mold.

The painting of the ceiling was not without its more intense obstacles either. For one thing, the pope wasn't all that good about paying. As an artist in that time period, Michelangelo made his money by doing projects, like the Sistine Chapel ceiling. But because the ceiling project took so much of his time, he had very little time to do other artwork. Thus, if the pope didn't pay him, he didn't get any money at all. And he was also having to support other members of his family at this time, putting him further in debt and close to poverty. Although he was creating what he knew was a masterpiece, he certainly was not master of his own fate.

The pope was also particular about seeing the ceiling as it was being created. Many times, he would climb up to the scaffold and demand to see the masterpiece up close and personal.

Still, on November 1, 1512, the ceiling was revealed to the world. Pope Julius II was pleased, and other assembled audience members were thrilled and awed. It was an astounding, intimidating, huge piece of work.

For a year after the ceiling was completed, Michelangelo had to have other people read to him because his vision had deteriorated so much. The experience also nearly permanently altered his eating habits and made him habitually tired.

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David White