Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker provide a description, historical perspective, and analysis of Michelangelo’s Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Michelangelo, Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, fresco, 1508–1512 (Vatican City, Rome)

Figure 1. Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel Ceiling (center only), 1508–12 (Vatican, Rome)

Figure 1. Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel Ceiling (center only), 1508–12 (Vatican, Rome)

Visiting the Chapel

The ceiling scenes run right up to the frescoes on the walls, creating a space where individuals are completely surrounded by religious scenes.

Figure 2. The interior of the Sistine Chapel showing the ceiling in relation to the other frescoes.

To any visitor of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, two features become immediately and undeniably apparent: 1) the ceiling is really high up, and 2) there are a lot of paintings up there.

Because of this, the centuries have handed down to us an image of Michelangelo lying on his back, wiping sweat and plaster from his eyes as he toiled away year after year, suspended hundreds of feet in the air, begrudgingly completing a commission that he never wanted to accept in the first place.

Fortunately for Michelangelo, this is probably not true. But that does nothing to lessen the fact that the frescoes, which take up the entirety of the vault, are among the most important paintings in the world.

For Pope Julius II

Michelangelo began to work on the frescoes for Pope Julius II in 1508, replacing a blue ceiling dotted with stars. Originally, the pope asked Michelangelo to paint the ceiling with a geometric ornament, and place the twelve apostles in spandrels around the decoration.

An engraving which attempts to reconstruct the probable appearance of the interior of the Sistine Chapel before the internal reorganisation, the moving of the screen; and the painting of the ceiling and Last Judgement by Michelangelo.

Figure 3. Reconstruction of the chapel prior Michelangelo’s frescos.

Michelangelo proposed instead to paint the Old Testament scenes now found on the vault, divided by the fictive architecture that he uses to organize the composition.

This diagram names and categorizes all forty-seven frescos completed by Michelangelo. These scenes can be sorted into six general categories: (one) Ancestors of Jesus, (two) the three stories of Noah, (three) the creation and downfall of Adam and Eve, (four) the creation, (five) Prophets, and (six) Sibyls. The ceiling has nine main scenes in its center, and all other scenes create frames around them. These nine central frescos are (one) God divides the light from darkness, (two) God creates the suns and planets, (three) God divides the water from the earth, (four) God creates Adam, (five) God creates Eve, (six) Adam and Eve are tempted and are sent from Eden, (seven) Noah and his family make a sacrifice after the flood, (eight) The Great Flood, and (nine) Noah is drunk and disgraced.

Figure 4. Sistine Chapel ceiling diagram

The Subjects of the Frescoes

The narrative begins at the altar and is divided into three sections. In the first three paintings, Michelangelo tells the story of The Creation of the Heavens and Earth; this is followed by The Creation of Adam and Eve and the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden; finally is the story of Noah and the Great Flood.

Adam relaxed on a green hill reaching his hand to God. God is reclined in the air, supported by angels. He is reaching out to touch Adam's hand.

Figure 5. Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1508-12

Ignudi, or nude youths, sit in fictive architecture around these frescoes, and they are accompanied by prophets and sibyls (ancient seers who, according to tradition, foretold the coming of Christ) in the spandrels. In the four corners of the room, in the pendentives, one finds scenes depicting the Salvation of Israel.

The Deluge

Although the most famous of these frescoes is without a doubt, The Creation of Adam, reproductions of which have become ubiquitous in modern culture for its dramatic positioning of the two monumental figures reaching towards each other, not all of the frescoes are painted in this style. In fact, the first frescoes Michelangelo painted contain multiple figures, much smaller in size, engaged in complex narratives. This can best be exemplified by his painting of The Deluge.

Scene depicting those who will drown in the Great Flood.

Figure 6. Michelangelo, The Deluge, Sistine Chapel ceiling, c. 1508–09

A mother holding her child while another clings to her leg. A young man is holding a young woman on his back. These figures are all standing on the edge of a seeming unending body of water.

Figure 6. Detail of The Deluge

In this fresco, Michelangelo has used the physical space of the water and the sky to separate four distinct parts of the narrative.

  • On the right side of the painting, a cluster of people seeks sanctuary from the rain under a makeshift shelter.
  • On the left, even more people climb up the side of a mountain to escape the rising water.
  • Centrally, a small boat is about to capsize because of the unending downpour.
  • In the background, a team of men work on building the arc—the only hope of salvation.

Up close, this painting confronts the viewer with the desperation of those about to perish in the flood and makes one question God’s justice in wiping out the entire population of the earth, save Noah and his family, because of the sins of the wicked.

Unfortunately, from the floor of the chapel, the use of small, tightly grouped figures undermines the emotional content and makes the story harder to follow.

Photograph of God dividing the light from the darkness, God creating the sun and planets, and God dividing the water from the earth. These scenes are framed by the artificial architecture: columns and pillars between each scene. Prophets and sibyls sit atop the columns.

Figure 7. Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel ceiling, 1508–12, creation scenes.

A Shift in Style

In 1510, Michelangelo took a year long break from painting the Sistine Chapel. The frescoes painted after this break are characteristically different from the ones he painted before it, and are emblematic of what we think of when we envision the Sistine Chapel paintings. These are the paintings, like The Creation of Adam, where the narratives have been paired down to only the essential figures depicted on a monumental scale. Because of these changes, Michelangelo is able to convey a strong sense of emotionality that can be perceived from the floor of the chapel. For example, one feels the shame and despair of Eve who cowers from the angel in The Expulsion from the Garden. Indeed, the imposing figure of God in the three frescoes illustrating the separation of darkness from light and the creation of the heavens and the earth radiates power throughout his body, and his dramatic gesticulations help to tell the story of Genesis without the addition of extraneous detail.

The Sibyls

This new monumentality can also be felt in the figures of the sibyls and prophets in the spandrels surrounding the vault, which some believe are all based on theBelvedere Torso, an ancient sculpture that was then, and remains, in the Vatican’s collection. One of the most celebrated of these figures is the Delphic Sibyl (figure 8a).

The overall circular composition of the body, which echoes the contours of her fictive architectural setting, adds to the sense of the sculptural weight of the figure.

Her arms are powerful, the heft of her body imposing, and both her left elbow and knee come into the viewer’s space. At the same time, Michelangelo imbued the Delphic Sibyl with grace and harmony of proportion, and her watchful expression, as well as the position of the left arm and right hand, is reminiscent of the artist’s David.

A two-part image. In figure a, The Delphic sybil sits on a low stone wall holding an unravelled scroll in one hand. This hand crosses her body, and the scroll unfurls behind her leg. In figure b, The Libyan sibyl sits with her back to us, shoulders bared by her dress. She is lifting a book and turning towards us, so her face is in profile and her feet are turned out away from the table her book was resting on. Her arms are muscular

Figure 8. (a) The Delphic Sibyl; (b) The Libyan Sibyl

The Libyan Sibyl (figure 8b) is also exemplary. Although she is in a contorted position that would be nearly impossible for an actual person to hold, Michelangelo nonetheless executes her with a sprezzatura (a deceptive ease) that will become typical of the Mannerists who closely modeled their work on his.

Detail of Heraclitus, whose features are based on Michelangelo's, and whose complex seated pose is based on the prophets and sibyls from Michelangelo's frescos on the Sistine Chapel ceiling

Figure 9. Raphael, School of Athens, 1509–11, Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican

It is no wonder that Raphael, struck by the genius of the Sistine Chapel, rushed back to his School of Athens in the Vatican Stanze and inserted Michelangelo’s weighty, monumental likeness sitting at the bottom of the steps of the school (see figure 9).


Michelangelo completed the Sistine Chapel in 1512. Its importance in the history of art cannot be overstated. It turned into a veritable academy for young painters, a position that was cemented when Michelangelo returned to the chapel twenty years later to execute the Last Judgment fresco on the altar wall.

The chapel recently underwent a controversial cleaning, which has once again brought to light Michelangelo’s jewel-like palette, his mastery of chiaroscuro, and additional iconological details which continue to captivate modern viewers even five hundred years after the frescoes’ original completion. Not bad for an artist who insisted he was not a painter.