This Day in World History: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling first opens to public

On November 1, All Saint’s Day, Pope Julius II celebrated a mass in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City for the first time in at least four years. Those who attended were the first people to see one of the most celebrated works of Western art—the magnificent frescoes painted by Michelangelo Buonarroti on the chapel’s ceiling.

Asked to paint the twelve apostles, Michelangelo undertook a more ambitious project that depicted nine stories from Genesis (including his famous rendition of the creation of Adam), several Old Testament prophets, and many decorative figures. For four years he labored, lying on his back, cramped in the small space between a high scaffold and the looming ceiling, paint splattering his face. The work took a physical toll: he complained afterwards that the work had aged him so much, friends did not recognize him. Adding to his travail was the fact that he and Julius argued often, the pope driving him to finish quickly and the artist insisting on realizing his vision. Finally, under the threat of being thrown from his scaffold if he did not finish, Michelangelo completed his task and ordered the scaffold taken down.

The earliest witnesses marveled at the ceiling as much as people today do. Giorgio Vasari, artist and biographer of artists, wrote nearly forty years later that “When the work was thrown open, the whole world could be heard running up to see it, and, indeed, it was such as to make everyone astonished and dumb.”

More than twenty years later, Pope Paul III summoned Michelangelo to paint another fresco behind the chapel’s altar. This work, The Last Judgment, is another masterpiece. Both the ceiling and The Last Judgment were restored in the 1980s and 1990s to reveal far more brilliant colors than had been evident after centuries of dirt and smoke. Though some have criticized the techniques used in this restoration, the magnificence of Michelangelo’s vision and execution have never been doubted.


Oxford University Press