Christian and Platonic Symbolism in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Ceiling

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The Sistine Chapel ceiling reveals a clear attempt on Michelangelo's part to reconcile Christian values with Platonic belief.

In 1508, as part of his whole-scale 'restoration' of Rome, Julius II ordained that the traditional star-spangled ceiling of the Sistine Chapel would be re-painted as a demonstration of his own divine majesty, glory and opulence. This ostentatious gesture would require the skills of a great artist, and on the 10th of May of that year Michelangelo signed the contract for the decoration of the Chapel, reluctantly committing himself to the momentous task. His artistic virtuosity and deeply pious nature made him an ideal choice, despite the fact that he considered himself a sculptor rather than a painter.

Situated in the Vatican, the heart of Catholicism, the Sistine Chapel is the Pope's personal place of worship, and the works of art with which Michelangelo illuminated the vast expanse of its ceiling necessarily embrace the essence of Christian belief. Yet the scale of the ceiling is matched by the scale of his ingenuity, and it is impossible that such a talented, but proud, figure could complete the task without imparting something of his own beliefs and convictions to the result.

Aside from his catholic piety, Michelangelo was also a devotee of Plato, and his search for ideal form, his fixation with using it to articulate the concerns that were central to his art, is reminiscent of the theories of the Athenian philosopher. The Sistine Chapel ceiling unites these disparate elements of thought and sculpts them into a cohesive unit - the so called Humanism that prevailed during the Renaissance and which was itself a synthesis of classical philosophy and Christianity - with all the resplendancy of the cosmology it depicts. It is a record of the personal reconciliation of classical culture and Christian belief, which Michelangelo must have undertaken within himself.

Standing at the altar end one would see a series of nine history paintings which represent three stories from the book of Genesis: the Creation, the story of Adam and the Deluge. A progression is observed from God separating light from dark to the drunkenness of Noah, which symbolises the degradation of the human soul1 and necessitates the arrival of a Messiah who will lead humanity on the path of salvation. In fact, salvation is the central theme of the series, and the subject matter has been selected as the best way to illustrate this concept. Thus Michelangelo has subordinated his subject matter, which was originally supposed to be the twelve Apostles, in favour of the over-riding theme. As a practising Catholic Michelangelo must have been concerned that his salvation could never occur as long as he held the pagan sympathies with which his classical interests were associated by many contemporaries. It is for this reason that the ceiling of the Chapel is his first comprehensive attempt to reconcile his Neo-Platonic philosophy with his Christian beliefs2: the work is an attempt at salvation, and therefore salvation becomes its subject.

The Deluge

The Messiah's birth has been predicted by the prophets, who have alternate positions between the triangular sections on the curve of the vault, the others occupied by Sibyls. The prophets have been extracted from the Bible; they are icons of Biblical legend whom Michelangelo has arranged here to testify to the imminent arrival of the Messiah. To link their prophecies to the birth of Jesus, and thereby connect the Biblical and Christian beliefs, the prophets are arranged so that they culminate in Jonah. His story has a unifying effect on the others, and identifies the Messiah as Jesus himself, since he prefigures the Resurrection: just as Jonah was swallowed by the whale and later emerged from its jaws, so Christ was entombed but re-emerged in his Resurrection.3 This is also the purpose of the figures painted in the vaultings, who represent the ancestors of Christ. Thus Michelangelo draws parallels between Christianity and Biblical legend in a way similar to the walls of the Chapel - on which parallel narratives from the Old and New Testaments have been painted by Perugino, Botticelli, Ghirlandio and Rosselli - though it remains to be seen how he links these to classical culture.

Due to the structure of the building, the painting of Jonah is on a different plane to either the ceiling - with its representation of the Creation - or the altar wall, on which Michelangelo later painted The Last Judgement, and which depicts Christ. Therefore, Jonah, the epitome of human folly and the beneficiary of God's forgiveness, seems poised between Biblical and Christian belief. He is the chief conduit of Michelangelo's salvation: for a congregation seated in the Chapel, his jarring position between two perpendicular planes makes him the focal point of the room, an effect that is enhanced by the complexity of his pose and the masterful foreshortening that has been used. He is the reconciliation of the Biblical and the Christian at its most pronounced, and the rest of the scenes radiate from him.

In the same way that the prophets and Christ's ancestors allude to Christian sensibilities, the Sibyls are distinctly pagan, but by alternating between them and the prophets, who are on the same level, Michelangelo encourages us to see in their function as oracles a parallel with the prophets themselves. Thus a connection is established between classical mythology and Old Testament wisdom, implying the two are united in their anticipation of the Messiah's birth. He draws this superficial parallel in an attempt to unite the classical allusions of the Sibyls and his painting style, with the Biblical scenes and their Christian implications.

The Libyan Sybil

As has already been stated, Michelangelo was a follower of Plato, the philosopher who believed that material reality, the world of the senses, was distinct from the world of ideas, which cannot be perceived with the senses, but of which material reality is merely a pale reflection. He attested that everything in the material world is transient, doomed to death and decay, and only a material manifestation of the idea, or perfect form, which is eternal and immutable. Plato's concept of the idea was fundamental to Renaissance theory, partly due to the influence of the Medici, and was seen to correspond to Christianity.4 Michelangelo was one of many people who felt it was consistent to be both a Christian and a Platonist. The concept of an idea, an abstract form existing beyond time and space, perhaps in the mind of God, was easily reconcilable with Christian values (of an eternal soul and the centrality of God etc.). In addition, as an artist, the concept must have appealed to Michelangelo, since he believed that in completing a sculpture he was liberating the concetto, the image or concept, from the stone. Michelangelo's concetto is then analogous to Plato's idea, since it has already existed in the artist's mind. Michelangelo, in giving his heroic vision life in the material world thus sees himself as the creator.

For verification of this extravagant self-image we need look no further than The Creation of Adam, the most famous image in the Sistine Chapel. Here the Creator is poised to bestow life upon Adam through the union of their fingertips. Adam reclines on a region of vague brushstrokes in organic colours, suggestive of the material world. His elegant, sculptural figure is evidence of Michelangelo's aversion to painting and his preference for sculpture. In this he agreed with Plato: they both thought sculpture possessed a greater purity and virility than painting. Ready to receive the spark of life, Adam's body is as yet inert, devoid of energy - signified by his listless pose, the arm draped across his knee. Before him is the Creator, who is at once the image of God, and of the artist as God, about to impart life to his creation.5

The Creation of Adam

Behind the Creator is a series of figures, enclosed within his cloak. These have been identified as Jesus, St. Michael, and in the case of the figure under God's arm as Eve, the idea of her, the human soul, the Virgin, and Dante's Beatrice.6 Irrespective of their identities, the message given by their congregating inside God's cloak is clear: the whole of spiritual creation has existed before the material7, which is still in the process of being created. This is a clear attempt on Michelangelo's part to reconcile Christian values with Platonic belief: the biblical figures in the Creator's cloak are shown to correspond to Plato's world of ideas - the perfect forms that are eternal and immutable - and have been infused with Christian values by the inclusion of Jesus and St. Michael.

Another testimony to Michelangelo's affinity with classical culture is given by the pageant of Ignudi who are draped about the ceiling on a level just above the prophets and Sibyls. At first glance they may appear to have been included solely for aesthetic quality: classical nudes arranged to enhance the ceiling's beauty. They are boldly delineated to separate them from the history paintings with which they overlap. The purely decorative interpretation of their presence is reinforced by their positions on the architectural framework that Michelangelo has used to unite the disparate images of the whole ceiling. But as Linda Murray has stated, it is unlikely that Julius II would have allowed Michelangelo to use the Sistine Chapel to indulge his obsession with the male nude if their inclusion was gratuitous8, though Hadrian VI later described the work as 'a bathroom of nudes'.9

One of the Ignudi

On closer inspection they seem to have been intended for a more specific purpose. They can be read as another attempt to bring together the classical and the Christian. First of all, one notices their resemblance to the nude figures of Adam and Eve, emphasised by the contact that almost exists between one Ignudo and the figure of Adam in the scene of his creation. The invited comparison leads us to see the Ignudi as part of Plato's world of ideas and Adam, representing the human race, as a material representation of this. It has been suggested that they represent the concept of Ideal man, part of Neo-Platonic theory. The Ignudi are then the eternal, perfect forms and Adam is a transient impression of their abstract beauty.

At the same time, Michelangelo believed that a beautiful body was the outward manifestation of a beautiful soul. In his depiction of it, physical beauty has originated in divine beauty and witnessing it leads the soul back to God. Realisation of this fact helps us to understand Michelangelo's intentions when he composed the various Ignudi. Each resides on its architectural plinth in a different, elaborately crafted pose. Their bodies have each been used as an avatar of a different condition of the human soul, and therefore, while they represent the eternal forms of Plato's theory they also represent the human soul - a concept that features in Christian values. Their presence then, crouching around the biblical scenes as they unfold and multiply, is a brilliantly evocative unification of classical (specifically Platonic) thought and the essential principles of Christianity. Entreating the biblical sequence with its theme of salvation, the Ignudi infuse it with a Christian system of values.

A final interpretation of these enigmatic figures is that they represent the pagan world - in the same way that the Ignudi who compose the background of the Doni' Tondo had done. In both works, their attention is focussed on themselves and each other. They are unconcerned with the biblical scenes that are enacted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and with the Holy Family in the Doni' Tondo. But, as in both cases precedence is given to the sacred elements of the scene (the Ignudi merely adorn the environs), it is implied that the pagan figures will soon come to realise the significance of the events they witness. In this way Michelangelo has commented on the relevance of Christian values to a pagan world that will soon understand them, just as the Sibyls predicted the coming of Christ to the pagans.

The Sistine Chapel ceiling succeeds in reconciling the Christian values demanded by its patron with the classical culture that so inspired Michelangelo, accomplishing this in a variety of ways. Readily apparent is the fact that, rather than being directly illustrated, the Christian element is implied through the subject matter: the creation of the world and its inhabitants leads to the degeneration of man and necessitates the arrival of a Messiah; Sibyls and prophets are united in predicting the birth of Christ and the complete effect is one of an optimistic anticipation of divine salvation. This, combined with the inevitable process of analysis which viewers subject the ceiling to before making the revelation of its Christian implications, seems in itself almost a religious experience particularly appropriate to the location.

The Prophet Daniel

The dominant feature of the ceiling is the biblical series that covers most of its area and contains its most striking images. But it is clear that Michelangelo has used the biblical scenes to link the classical and the Christian together, to mediate between them. This is particularly evident in The Creation of Adam, where a depiction of a biblical event alludes to both Neo-Platonic theory and Christianity at once.

But for all its attempts at reconciling the two, this is not its only intention. If Michelangelo had been concerned only with this problem, he would have chosen to depict specifically Christian events, such as the originally intended Apostles, and combine these directly with the intimations of classicism like the Sibyls and Ignudi. His actual choice of subject matter is passionately attentive to the aesthetic possibilities offered by the ceiling. To exploit its vast scale to the full he selects some of the most audacious, evocative scenes imaginable in a deliberate, ostentatious display of his own talent, but also of the glory of God. In projecting his own fixations with Platonism and classical culture on to the ceiling, to complement and combine with the supreme majesty of the biblical events, he seeks to lay the foundation of his own salvation, both as a testament to his piety, and for the edification of the crowds that flocked to see it.

Adam and Eve expelled from the garden


Camesasca, Ettore The Complete Paintings of Michelangelo (First published in 1969 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson Ltd, Hampshire)

Elliot, Sara Italian Renaissance Painting (First published in 1976 by Phaidon Press, London. Second edition 1993)

Gaarder, Jostein, Sophie's World (London. First published in Great Britain by Phoenix House in 1995. This edition published by Phoenix, 1996. Translation by Paulette Moller, 1994)

Gombrich, E.H. The Story of Art (First published in 1950 by Phaidon Press, London. Sixteenth edition 1995)

Murray, Linda The High Renaissance and Mannerism (First published in 1967 by Thames and Hudsen Ltd, London. This edition 1977)

Néret, Gilles Michelangelo (First published in 1998 by Bendikt Taschen Verlag GmbH, Köln.)

Wadley, Nicholas Michelangelo (First published in 1969 by The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited, London.)


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