Genesis Fresco by Michelangelo
Interpretation of Renaissance Ceiling Paintings in Sistine Chapel

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Genesis Fresco by Michelangelo
The Genesis Fresco on the
ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
By Michelangelo. A sublime
work of Christian art, it is
regarded as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

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Genesis Fresco, Sistine Chapel (1508-12)


Ceiling Design
The Genesis Fresco Paintings
Seers: Prophets and Sibyls
Ancestors of Christ
Corner Pendentives
Mixture of Religion and Humanism
Response to the Genesis Fresco


Painting: Genesis Fresco
Date: 1508-12
Artist: Michelangelo (1475-1564)
Medium: Fresco painting
Genre: Religious history painting
Movement: High Renaissance
Location: Sistine Chapel Ceiling.

For other great pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

God Separating the Earth
from the Waters. Another of
the great religious paintings
from the Genesis Fresco.
By Michelangelo.

The Prophet Joel.
Detail from Genesis Fresco.
By Michelangelo.


A masterpiece of Biblical art, and one of the greatest Renaissance paintings of 16th century Rome, the spectacular fresco decoration which covers the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, was commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1508 when he gave the contract to the 33-year old Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). Despite considering himself a sculptor at heart, not a painter, Michelangelo reluctantly accepted the commission, and began the work which would undermine his health but bring him world renown as the greatest artist of the Italian Renaissance. Over the next four years (1508-12), he decorated some 1,000 square-metres of ceiling with a mass of vividly coloured figure painting, illustrating certain episodes of the biblical Book of Genesis, as well as other scenes and figures taken from the Old Testament and Classical mythology. (See also: Best Renaissance Drawings, 1400-1550)

Unhappy with traditional working methods as well as the ability and application of his assistants, Michelangelo decided to paint the whole work virtually by himself. As a result, he spent almost four years working on scaffolding up to 60 feet above the ground in appalling conditions. He spent most of the time leaning backwards in a vain attempt to get a proper picture of what he was doing. In the process, he developed scoliosis, arthritis and muscle cramps, as well as eye infections from paint dripping onto his face. He finally finished the work on 11 October 1512. The fact that the ceiling frescoes have survived in good condition for five centuries, testifies to Michelangelo's extraordinary technique, as well as to the fresco training he received in the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio, one of the great Florentine muralists. Other influences on Michelangelo included the foreshortening of Melozzo da Forli (1438-94), as exemplified in the remaining fragments of the Ascension of Christ fresco (1478-80) which he painted for the dome of the church of the Holy Apostles, in Rome.

Sistine Chapel

An artistic treasure of the Renaissance in Rome, the Sistine Chapel, rebuilt from an older structure around 1480 by Pope Sixtus IV after whom it is named, is a rectangular room within the Vatican that serves as the location for the most sacred ceremonies of the Catholic Church, including the election of popes. The side walls were frescoed during the 1480s by a team of the most accomplished painters of the late 15th century including Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Perugino - see for example Christ Handing the Keys to Saint Peter (1482). Later, a set of tapestries by Raphael were added. The ceiling was painted blue by Piero Matteo d'Amelia, in a similar style to that of the Scrovegni Chapel frescoes in Padua (the site of the celebrated fresco cycle by Giotto) and decorated with gold stars. Michelangelo was to overpaint this starry night sky design with his Old Testament paintings.



Michelangelo's Ceiling Design

Michelangelo used an illusionistic architectural framework for his fresco design, which consists of a number of different features. (1) The shallow barrel vault ceiling is divided into a series of nine alternating large and small panels. These fields contain the main narrative of the ceiling: nine scenes from the Book of Genesis. (2) Each smaller panel is surrounded by four nude youths or male angels - called Ignudi - each pair of which supports a bronze roundel or medallion illustrating a scene from Old Testament books of history, principally Kings and Maccabees. (3) Below these main panels are the the figures of twelve men and women who foretold the birth of Jesus: 7 Old Testament Prophets and 5 Classical Sibyls. (4) Below these prophets, is a series of crescent-shaped lunettes, containing the Ancestors of Christ. (5) In a series of triangular spandrels, another eight sets of figures are shown, some of which have not been matched with specific Biblical characters. (6) The design is completed by four corner pendentives, each depicting a dramatic Biblical story.

The Genesis Fresco Paintings

These are laid out, from the altar towards the main entrance, as follows:

• The Separation of Light and Darkness
• The Creation of the Sun, Moon and Planets
• The Separation of Land and Water
• The Creation of Adam
• The Creation of Eve
• The Temptation of Adam and Eve and Expulsion
• The Sacrifice of Noah
• The Flood
• The Drunkenness of Noah

The Separation of Light and Darkness

In a masterful tour de force, Michelangelo invented a special image for the very first act of Creation. God himself seems to be taking visible shape before us as light itself is being created. It is only this one time that the painter shows us a view from below. His legs cut by the frame, it is as if the whole sky is filled with the Creator. With his arm he pushes back the darkness, and the light rolls in like clouds. Here, appropriately, the first person of the Trinity shares the field with nothing.

The Creation of the Sun, Moon and Planets

If the preceeding scene is calm, this scene is intense. A ferocious God is shown flying towards us, arms upraised, commanding the celestial bodies into being. With one arm he points to the Sun, with the other to the Moon and then he sweeps past us in an orbital swing like the Planets he is creating. As in the Creation of Adam, Michelangelo creates the impression of energetic speed.

The Separation of Land and Water

Although earlier painters had not often chosen to depict the Creation, the importance it was given in the Sistine Chapel frescos, is wholly consonant with Renaissance theology. The preachers in the Papel Chapel frequently praised the wonder of the Creation and the splendour of the physical world. This scene comes closest to representing the second day of creation, even though it lacks the fishes and other creatures that were part of that day's work. Michelangelo shows God moving towards us, his vast gesture reaching across nearly the whole panel. As in the preceeding Creation of Adam, he is enveloped in a swirling mantel and accompanied by angels. Below, there is nothing but quiescent water.

The Creation of Adam

Michelangelo invented a new iconography for this painting. In previous pictures, God had stood on the ground as he does in the Creation of Eve. Here the forces of lethargic Adam and energizing Creator approach one another. The fresco centres on the meeting of hands - the symbolic highpoint of High Renaissance painting and one of the most powerful gestures in the history of art. Adam, created in God's image, is the perfect human body, lacking only the spark of life. The fingers of Adam's outstretched hand drape languidly. God sweeps in, his hair and robe swept back by the rush of wind, and gracefully extends his life-giving hand.

The Creation of Eve

According to the Bible, Adam needed a companion, so God made him fall into a deep sleep. He took one of Adam's ribs and fashioned Eve out of it. All this is depicted by Michelangelo, with Eve emerging from Adam's side. The iconography here follows the tradition of showing God standing on the Earth alongside his creatures, but the artist nicely exploits the format of the small field by showing God's head bumping up against the frame. The Sistine Chapel was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Since Mary is regarded as the second Eve, who erased the original sin of that first woman, it is logical that the scene representing the Creation of Eve should be placed in the exact centre of the ceiling.

The Temptation of Adam and Eve and the Expulsion

The Temptation prefigures the Crucifixion. As one of the early Christian commentators said: "Death through the tree, Life through the Cross." So Michelangelo composed the tree so that it resembles the Cross. In the section on the Expulsion, Adam and Eve, having been deprived of God's grace are humbled and awkward. Their clumsy strides are out of pace with one another. Eve's beauty and sensuousness have become anxiety and awkwardness. As a painter, Michelangelo hit his stride after his initial uncertainity with the Noah sequence. Whereas he divided each of the Noah scenes into about thirty giornate, indicating that he was moving slowly, he executed the Temptation and Expulsion in only thirteen.



The Sacrifice of Noah

Noah stands behind an altar making burnt offerings in thanks to God. Sacrificial rams and a bullock are being prepared. But this is not Noah's thanksgiving for his salvation from the Flood, rather an indication of Noah's habitual duty towards the Lord.

The Flood

The Flood was the first of the Genesis scenes that Michelangelo executed. In the picture the Ark is, of course, an allegory of the Church in which the righteous will be saved. Michelangelo worked slowly and labouriously on this scene: there are twenty-nine giornate (patches of plaster), some apparently executed by his assistants. In the middle of the sky, there is a large patch that has been replaced, and the loss continues into the Ignudo above. This is one of the very few losses which the ceiling has sustained. The excellent condition of the frescos today is a tribute to Michelangelo's technique, so it is interesting that this mural painting - the first he worked on - was the weakest. The 16th century artist and Mannerist biographer Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) reported that shortly after the artist began painting he discovered mould growing on the plaster indicating that it was not drying properly. He was then advised that for the Roman climate he needed to add more sand to his plaster - which he did, after which he had no further problems.

The Drunkenness of Noah

At first glance and on the literal level, what is represented is the discovery of the effect of overindulging in wine. Noah planted a vineyard, then sampled his vintage, got drunk and fell asleep, to the embarrassment of is son Ham and his two brothers. The story brings us face to face with Man's sinful nature and the need for redemption. The real significance however, lies in the analogical meaning of wine and the Eucharist.

THE IGNUDI (and Medallions)

The male nudes placed at each corner of the small Genesis scenes are clearer in function than in meaning. They hold up bronze medallions on silken ribbons or they support garlands of oakleaves laden with acorns - clear referances to the emblems of the della Rovere family. (Note: Francesco della Rovere [1414-84] became Pope Sixtus IV in 1471; Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere [1453-1513] was elected Pope Julius II in 1503, and commissioned the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes). In formal terms, the Ignudi play a crucial role in animating the design of the vault and encouraging the viewers progress from bay to bay. Take them away and the design becomes static and too defined by the architectural compartments that frame each part. As to their meaning, it is reasonable to suppose that the Ignudi represent angels: the ever-present attendants and messengers of God.

Biblical stories featured on the Medallions include:

• The Sacrifice of Isaac
• The Ascent of Elijah to Heaven
• The Death of King David's son Absalom
• Destruction of the Statue of Baal by Iehu
• The Punishment of Heliodorus
• The Slaughter of Abner by Joab
• The Fall of Joram from his Chariot
• The Death of Nicanor


In the position where the twelve Apostles were to be enthroned in the original project, Michelangelo arranged twelve figures who prophesied or represented some aspect of the Coming of Christ: seven Old Testament male prophets (four so-called Major Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel; three Minor Prophets, Joel, Zechariah and Jonah), and five female Sibyls of the classical world (Erythraean, Delphic, Cumaean, Libyan and Persian). How the particular Seers were chosen remains unclear although some choices such as Jonah and Isaiah were obvious. These powerful figures are the largest on the ceiling. There was already a tradition in Renaissance art in favour of including the Sibyls with the Prophets. Texts of Sibylline oracles, probably composed in the early Middle Ages, were widely known. There was also a booklet of the Sibyls and their prophecies by Filippo Barbieri - dedicated to Pope Sixtus IV, published in 1481 - that was used as a source of pictorial illustrations in Renaissance cycles. Most notable and nearest at hand were the frescoes in the Borgia Apartment, painted by Pinturicchio in the early 1490s. What made the Sibyls so popular was that their utternances were understood to have predicted the coming of a Messiah and thus reinforced the Renaissance humanist conviction that Christian truth was revealed in some measure to the Gentiles. With the generosity characteristic of the age, the Sibyls were included as part of the conciliation of Pagan and Christian cultures.


The Lunettes on the sidewalls above the windows, and the severies above them, are filled with the Ancestors of Christ, named in the first chapter of Matthew. Thus, their figures link the Old Testament and the New Testament, Abraham and Jesus Christ. They are identified by the names on the plaques at the centre of each Lunette. Interpretations of The Ancestors differ. There is agreement that they are sombre and appear to be idle or passing the time. The iconographic program of the cycle suggests that they are waiting for the Messiah.


In all four corners of the chapel is a triangular-shaped pendentive occupying the space between the walls and the arch of the vault. Here, Michelangelo has painted four scenes illustrating Bible stories associated with the salvation of Israel, and featuring the four great male and female heroes in Jewish history: Moses, Esther, David and Judith. (See also Jewish Art).

• The Brazen Serpent
• The Execution of Haman
• David and Goliath
• Judith and Holofernes

Mixture of Religion and Humanism

As the leading representative of the cinquecento Italian Renaissance, Michelangelo had a difficult task in reconciling the ideas of Renaissance Humanism with the theology of 16th century Christianity. This was because the Church emphasized Man as essentially sinful and flawed, while Humanism focused on Man's beauty and nobility. Unfortunately, these two views are intrinsically irreconcilable, both visually (witness the controversy over Michelangelo's male and female nudes) and philosophically. Indeed, they can only co-exist provided Humanists accept that Man needs the Church as the agent of God.

Response to the Genesis Fresco

Michelangelo's fresco decorations on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel had a profound effect on other painters, even before they were completed. Vasari, in his Life of Raphael, reveals that the High Renaissance architect Donato Bramante, who kept keys to the chapel, allowed Raphael to view the paintings when Michelangelo was away. When he saw Michelangelo's prophets, Raphael returned to his painting of the Prophet Isaiah that he was working on in the Church of Sant'Agostino and erased it before repainting it in a much more Michelangeo-type style.

Almost every single element of Michelangelo's design was later imitated: including the illusionist architecture, the muscular human anatomy, the foreshortening, the dynamic sense of motion, the bright radiant colour scheme and the expressiveness of the figure drawing, as well as the ubiquitous positioning of the Ignudi putti. Artists whose work was especially influenced by that of Michelangelo included Pontormo, Tintoretto, Annibale Carracci, Paolo Veronese, El Greco, and Correggio - noted for his extraordinary fresco painting of the Assumption of the Virgin (Parma Cathedral) (1526-30). Two decades later, Michelangelo himself took his painterly and design methods to new levels in his Last Judgment fresco on the altar wall of the chapel.

When it was unveiled in October 1512, the Sistine Chapel Genesis fresco was instantly acclaimed as one of the great works in the history of art. From that moment on, Michelangelo was universally perceived as the greatest living artist - Il Divino - despite his relatively young age (37): greater even than Leonardo and Raphael.


Further Resources

For more information on Renaissance religious art, try these resources:

High Renaissance Artists (active c.1490-1530)
Renaissance in Florence (1400-1500)
Renaissance in Venice

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