This art history lesson is very close to my heart. In my late 20′s, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend almost two years in Italy. At one point I lived in an apartment located directly across the street from the Vatican Museums, of which the Sistine Chapel is a part. The exquisite dome of St. Peter’s Basilica was in view from my living room window. It was a dream come true. I also had the good fortune, through my job, to attend lectures by Dr. Walter Persegati, the former curator of the Vatican Museums who orchestrated the cleaning of Michelangelo’s remarkable frescoes. His slide presentation, accompanied by personal insider stories, was fascinating. While in Rome, I must have visited the Sistine Chapel at least 30 times and it never ceased to take my breath away. It is my hope that this virtual visit will give you and your children a glimpse of the beauty and majesty that live inside those walls.
Note: This blog features artwork which includes the nude figure. Michelangelo portrays the human person as a beautiful, dignified creation and in my opinion, it is healthy for children to see the human body in such a light.
Featured Artwork: The Creation Story
Who created it: Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475 – 1564)
Where you can see it: The Sistine Chapel, Vatican City (Rome), Italy
To get the most out of this post, print out the flash cards here. Cut along the lines and have your child answer the questions on the back.
“I’m a sculptor not a painter!”
Has anyone ever asked you to do something you’re not an expert at? Say you’re an excellent offensive soccer player and the coach asks you to play goalie. Or you prefer ballet but your teacher picks you for a tap number in the recital. Reluctantly, you say yes—and then happily discover you’re better at the activity than you thought you’d be.
This once happened to an artist named Michelangelo Buonarroti. In the year 1508 Michelangelo, at the age of 33, was already a very famous sculptor. He lived in Italy, an important place for art in any age, and with great industry he spent his days crafting remarkable figures out of marble. The sculpture below, the Pietá, is one of his most famous works of art, indeed one of the greatest masterpieces of sculpture in all the world. You can see it today in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City (Rome), Italy. Can you believe Michelangelo created it at the young age of 24? What talent!
In 1508, Michelangelo was working on a prestigious commission, the tomb of Pope Julius II. Pope Julius II was at that time the leader of the Catholic Church and he loved great art. A tomb is a monument intended to honor the person whose remains it contains and a commission is an agreement to purchase a work of art that the artist has not yet created.
The commission presented Michelangelo with a great challenge and was for sure a dream job. Sort of like if you love acting and are assigned the leading role in the play at school. The pope’s tomb would be an elaborate structure composed of 40 different sculptures to be placed in the center of St. Peter’s Basilica, which was one of the largest churches in the entire world. Michelangelo was no doubt delighted.
Shortly after he began work on the tomb, however, Pope Julius suddenly changed his mind. He asked Michelangelo to stop sculpting and start painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which is very close to St. Peter’s Basilica. Alas, Michelangelo had received little training as a painter and fresco was a difficult technique to master. Fresco is a way of painting directly onto the wall and ceiling with plaster. The artist resisted at first, but eventually agreed to the pope’s wishes and exchanged his chisel for a paintbrush. Little did he know that his painted ceiling would become one of the most celebrated works of art ever.
The Genesis of a Great Idea
Have you ever heard the word Renaissance? The Renaissance was a cultural movement which began in Northern Italy and spread throughout all of Europe. It is a French word meaning “rebirth.” The Renaissance spanned from the 15th to the 16th centuries and was a time of great intellectual and creative activity. During this period, there was a return to humanism in which artists were looking back to classical antiquity. They studied masterpieces from ancient Greece and began to portray more realism in their art. Also, during the Renaissance, the artist was elevated to the status of genius. Prior to the Renaissance, during the middle ages, artists were known as craftsmen and often remained anonymous, not taking credit for their work. The Renaissance consisted of two periods: the Early Renaissance and the later High Renaissance.
When Michelangelo first stepped into the Sistine Chapel, it was already decorated with Early Renaissance masterpieces including the fresco paintings below.
These frescoes are part of two cycles that line the chapel walls. One cycle depicts the life of Moses and the other, the life of Jesus. Hmmm… Michelangelo thought to himself. What subject can I paint on the ceiling? What story is missing from the chapel?
Have you ever heard the story of how the world was created in seven days? The story comes from the first book of the Bible, Genesis, which in French means “beginning.” The Bible is a book that people of Judeo-Christian faiths believe relates many stories about God. Genesis is the story Michelangelo decided to portray on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – the story of the beginning of the world.
It’s a Dirty Job
Do you enjoy visiting the art supply store with your parents? 500 years ago, stores filled with canvases, brushes and paints didn’t exist. What do you think artists used to paint? They found their paint in nature – they even used dirt! When painting the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo had assistants grind up different colored minerals and heat them, rendering the colored minerals into vibrant powers. He then mixed the dust-like substances with water and used a paintbrush to apply the pasty mixtures to fresh plaster (fresh plaster is sort of like toothpaste). This technique of painting is called fresco painting. Fresco means “fresh” in Italian. Fresco painting is extremely challenging because the artist must work quickly, applying the paint before the plaster dries. If he makes a mistake he must scrape off the plaster and start all over again. Ugh!
Below is a recent image of the chapel. As you can see, every inch of it is decorated. Look at the ceiling. Can you point to the architectural elements which frame each painting? They look like stone carvings but in fact were painted by Michelangelo to visually divide the different scenes of the creation story.
Here is what you see from the chapel floor looking up. Can you find the nine panels in the center which tell the story of the creation of the world? Today, we’re going to look closely at four of those scenes.
Prior to the Renaissance, God the Father had rarely been depicted in art. At most, the artist might only include the hand of God. Look closely at the 9th century Byzantine mosaic below which shows Jesus flanked by six people, three on each side. Can you find the hand of God? During the Middle Ages, the sizes of figures rendered in art were expressions of their holiness. For example, below we see that the largest figure is Jesus, the son of God. He is flanked on either side by various saints which are people who have died and gone to heaven. Notice that they are a good bit smaller than Jesus. Also, the people appear to be flat, almost as if there is no body underneath. The scene lacks a sense of shadow and dimension which is typical of medieval art.
Now let’s observe Michelangelo’s Renaissance God, which Michelangelo created roughly 600 years after the mosaic which we have just observed. In the painting below we see the creator hard at work on the first day. What is happening here? Notice God’s forceful body twisting upwards as God separates light from darkness. The figure seems to glow from within. The massive muscles bulge underneath the beautifully rendered clothing. Look closely at the clouds of light which Michelangelo “sculpted” out of paint. This fresco was completed in a single day. Astonishing!
What is God doing in the painting below? He is bringing into existence the sun, moon and planets. When you are doing something that takes a lot of effort, what facial expression do you make? Notice God’s powerful expression of intense concentration. His eyebrows come together, focusing on the task at hand. This might be what you look like when doing math homework! Also, Michelangelo painted God twice in this scene. Why do you think he did this? He wanted to show how quickly God can work – God comes and goes at lightning speed. Also, perhaps Michelangelo was illustrating God’s omnipresence which means that God is everywhere at the same time.
Here we see God suspended above us separating the sea from the heavens. His body is foreshortened which means that we are viewing it in perspective. Hold your arm out in front of you. Notice from this vantage point that your arm looks shorter than it is in reality. You are seeing a foreshortened view of it. And who are those little people floating behind the Creator? Do you think they might be angels? Now point to the four nude figures framing the main painting. These are called Ignudi and they could represent Michelangelo’s concept of the human potential for perfection.
What is happening in this scene? Do you know the name of the first man? According to the biblical account his name is Adam. God is floating in the heavens, reaching out toward Adam, who is lying on the mound of earth from which he came. The focal point of the painting is the two hands, about to touch. How is the hand of God different from that of Adam? Adam’s hand is relaxed and limp in contrast to the energetic, powerful hand of his creator. This is because Michelangelo captured the exact moment before God instills a spirit into Adam. Also, God and Adam are roughly the same size, which displays the Christian belief that man is created in God’s likeness and image. In Renaissance art we see human and spiritual beings rendered similarly, which is different from earlier Byzantine art where spiritual hierarchy is shown through physical size.
And who is God encircling with his left arm? Many art historians think that it is Eve, the first woman, surrounded by her future children. What do you suppose she might be thinking as she gazes down upon the man she is to marry?
Look closely at the shape of the drapery which encloses God and the other figures. Does the shape resemble a model you’ve seen in science class? It is, in fact, in the shape of the human brain. What do you think Michelangelo was trying to communicate through this clever rendering? Do you think maybe he was expressing the genius of God?
After four years of anticipation, Michelangelo’s frescoes were unveiled to the public on October 31, 1512. All of Rome lined up to enter the small door of the Sistine Chapel to have their breath taken away by the absolute genius of Michelangelo’s paintings above them. Today, five million people visit the Sistine Chapel every year and Michelangelo’s creation is just as beautiful as ever.
So, the next time your parent, teacher or coach asks you to do something that’s not your strength, think about Michelangelo and give it a try.
- Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling while standing on wooden scaffolding, not while lying down, as many think. Can you believe that he worked for four years with his neck craned upward, paintbrush in hand? It was extremely uncomfortable. As a result, his throat muscles developed so much that, when looking forward, he looked like a bullfrog!
- Can you find the acorns in the image below? Pope Julius II’s family name was Rovere, which means “oak” in Italian. Acorns grow on oak trees so Michelangelo was acknowledging his patron by including them in the paintings.
- The Sistine Chapel is a popular tourist destination, but it has another important function. When the pope dies or retires, a special meeting called a conclave convenes inside its fresco-covered walls. During the conclave, the College of Cardinals vote on who will be the new pope, the future leader of the Catholic Church. After every vote, smoke is released from a chimney to alert the public: white smoke if they have a new pope, black smoke if they don’t. Do you know when was the last time this happened?
- When it came to painting and sculpture, Michelangelo could render the human body with exceptional skill. He understood the anatomy of the body well because he was allowed to study human cadavers (dead bodies) in the hospital in Florence, which is where Michelangelo grew up. I don’t think I would like to do that, how about you?
- During the past 500 years, The Sistine Chapel has been exposed to lots of smoky incense, burning candles and people. You can imagine that after several centuries, the ceiling was very dirty. For a long time people assumed Michelangelo was not into colors because the frescoes had become so dark and dull. In the 1980s the Vatican decided to have it restored. Everyone was pleasantly surprised at the beautiful colors! You can see the difference here:
What have you learned?
Questions for preschoolers:
- What colors and shapes do you see in the painting below?
- What parts of the body can you name that are displayed in this image?
- Can you point to the sun and the moon?
Questions for elementary school-aged children:
- What did God do on the first day on the job?
- In the painting above we see God creating the sun, the moon and the planets. Can you name any of the planets that make up the solar system? What planet do we live on?
- Why was Michelangelo reluctant to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling?
- What did Michelangelo use to make his paints? What does the word “fresco” mean in Italian?
- What is the meaning of the word Renaissance?
Questions for children ages 12 and above, requiring further exploration:
- When did the Renaissance occur and in what city did it begin?
- Name the nine major planets in the solar system.
- Name three characteristics of Byzantine art. How is it different than Renaissance art?
- What major event occurs in the Sistine Chapel?
- Describe the fresco technique of painting.
You can actually take a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel. Isn’t technology amazing?
I’ll be posting a Sistine Chapel art project next week, but in the meantime, have your kids paint on the ceiling with Small Potatoes.
Also, a few homeschooling moms have requested booklets of my lessons which they can download and print. I can start offering this option for a small fee if I have enough interest. Please let me know if this would interest you by posting a comment or emailing me at email@example.com. I’m always open to new ideas on how I can improve Art History Mom.
COMING SOON: Art History Snacks! These will be mini art history lessons for moms on the go. More details to come!
All images of artwork in this blogpost are attributed to Wikipedia.