How did Michelangelo do it?
And how did he do it in just four years?
Recently, a restoration team spent nine years repairing and cleaning the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
It took Michelangelo less time to paint it in the first place: just four years.
How did Michelangelo create such an amazing (and amazingly large) masterpiece in such a short period of time?
The secret is revealed in the premiere broadcast of Museum Secrets: Inside the Vatican Museums.
How Michelangelo Did It
There is not a single answer and in fact... Michelangelo had two additional challenges: First: When the pope gave Michelangelo the commission the artist was more experienced as a sculptor than a painter. Second: The ceiling is not flat like a canvas, but a complex set of curves created by the structural elements of the roof.
Even with these extra challenges, Michelangelo painted figures that look "right" when seen from below – so right that visitors often ask Vatican curators if the paintings are three dimensional reliefs. They are not. The ceiling is one enormous "fresco" – a painting created by applying pigments to fresh plaster.
To discover more about this technique we invite you to watch this Web Exclusive Video: Fresco Technique.
Some historians believe that Michelangelo's expertise as a sculptor explains his mastery of the figurative fresco. To create a sculpture of the human form, one must pre-visualize in three dimensions. Michelangelo clearly brought this ability to bear when he created the enormous figures that adorn the ceiling. To correct for the ceiling's curves Michelangelo needed to draw figures that would have seemed "wrong" if he had painted them on a flat surface.
To discover exactly what he was up against, we invite you to Flatten the Master's Art and Warp a Painting in the Interactive Feature we call The Art of the Sistine Chapel.
Mastery of three dimensions goes some way towards explaining Michelangelo's achievement but the original question remains: How did he paint such an enormous ceiling in just four years? We'll gladly share the answer... but not here. To discover the answer we invite to watch the broadcast episode Museum Secrets: Inside the Vatican Museums.
Sistine Chapel Footage
If you wish to stop thinking about visual mechanics, and want to bask in the spiritual glory of a work of genius, we invite you to watch our wordless Web Exclusive Video: Walking the Chapel.
Believe It Or Not
Two John Hopkins neurosurgeons looked closely at a portion of the Sistine Chapel ceiling known as "Separation of Light From Darkness" and noticed that the neck of God appears to contain the human brainstem. Did they just see something they wanted to see? Or did the artist really plant a hidden message? Before you make up your mind we invite to read a full article about this "discovery" at CNN Health.
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