Thursday, March 6, 2014

40 Days of Paintings - Sistine Chapel Frescoes (Michelangelo Buonarroti)

Michelangelo had more paintings than I realized, but the Sistine Chapel frescoes are arguably his best, and certainly his most celebrated. 
As today is Michelangelo's 539th birthday, I thought I would write in tribute to him today.  He was commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1508 to "decorate" the ceiling of the chapel, which Michelangelo reluctantly obliged.  Since he wasn't a painter, I can just imagine the frustration of this commission getting in the way of the "real work" he was called to do as a sculptor.  But work is work, and the Pope's wishes are the artist's command.  As it turns out, this wasn't simply a commission from a Pope to paint a chapel.  This became one of Michelangelo's highest callings from God.  Can you imagine if Michelangelo had refused outright to paint the ceiling?  And later on to paint the Last Judgement altarpiece?  Generations upon generations would have never known or seen the depths of this one artist's abilities.  It goes to show what can happen when we say "yes" to the things we don't necessarily want to do, either because it's inconvenient or because we doubt ourselves.  But when God's hand is in it, the result can be something astonishing and miraculous like these frescoes. 
It is true that Michelangelo relied on some assistants for part of the logistical work, but both the ceiling and the altarpiece were largely the work of his own hand alone.  Even in the process of painting the ceiling, Michelangelo was grumbling about the work and the seemingly impossible expectations of the Pope.  He kept at the task, but not without venting his frustrations in writing.  He penned a short poem on the work:
I've got myself a goitre from this strain....
My beard toward Heaven, I feel the back of my brain
Upon my neck, I grow the breast of a Harpy;
My brush, above my face continually,
Makes it a splendid floor by dripping down....
Pointless the unseeing steps I go.
In front of me, my skin is being stretched
While it folds up behind and forms a knot,
And I am bending like a Syrian bow.
 Along with it, he drew a small caricature of himself straining and reaching toward the ceiling to paint a figure.  We all have that job we don't want to do for whatever reason.  But hopefully we can look at Michelangelo's example as a reason to go through with it, knowing that the strain and struggle of the task could bring out the best of us.

Sistine Chapel Ceiling
The Last Judgement

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